12:00 AM, December 02, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:12 PM, December 01, 2013

Bangladesh's remarkable progress and political violence

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Abdul Matin

ACCORDING to the 2013 Legatum Prosperity Index (The Daily Star, November 4), Bangladesh is ahead of India in overall prosperity. In a ranking of 142 countries, based on a variety of factors including wealth, economic growth, personal wellbeing and quality of life, Bangladesh's position is 103 while that of India is 106. Pakistan, by the way, occupies the 132nd position. Even though Bangladesh's per capita income is about half of that of India, Bangladesh has a higher longevity rate, a lower infant mortality rate, lower undernourishment and better access to sanitation than India.
Some economists forecast that Bangladesh's economy might overtake the western countries by 2050 (The Guardian, December 18, 2012). The Guardian's list of new-wave economies includes eleven countries. Even though some of the countries were once dismissed as basket cases, they are expected to “dominate the top 20” of the growth forecast for 2013.
“In most of the social indicators Bangladesh has gone ahead of India,” Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen said to Al Jazeera. According to Indian Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, “Bangladesh demonstrates that it is possible to have superior social outcomes at lower per capita incomes and lower rates of economic growth. There is more to social development than just Gross Development Product (GDP).” An IMF report released in January found Bangladesh “on track to meet all eight of its Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the target year of 2015.”
Thanks to the hard working and innovative farmers of Bangladesh, the country now produces more food than it needs. It is the second largest exporter of garments and knitwear and the sixth highest remittance earner in the world. It is interesting to note that Bangladesh has been moving ahead in spite of being a victim of frequent natural calamities, global recession, climate change, occasional labour unrest and corruption. The dynamic resilience of Bangladesh to prosper against all odds has no comparison.
Can Bangladesh sustain this development? This question is worrying economists and well-wishers at home and abroad. Frequent hartals accompanied by widespread violence and sabotage appear to be the major obstacle to our growth rate. The International Monetary Fund predicts that our economic growth is likely “to slow to less than 6% in the year to June 2014 from 6% the previous year because of unrest and political uncertainties in the run-up to elections.”
Available information shows that the average number of days of hartal per year, which was 3 during 1947-70, 7 during 1971-82 and 17 during 1973-90, increased to 46 during 1991-2013 (Source: ASK and CPD). In addition, hartal has become more violent in terms of human casualties and damages to public and private properties. In the recent 71-hour blockade alone, 22 people were killed and more than 3 thousand wounded due to violence.
The majority of the victims of violence are ordinary people who are not even remotely connected to politics. All political activities are expected to be directed to the welfare of the people. Politics becomes counterproductive if ordinary people become the victims or targets of any political activity.
Continuous hartal disrupts exports, imports, transportation, industrial production and supplies of essential commodities. Export oriented industries like garments are badly affected. They are counting huge losses without being able to maintain the schedules of deliveries,
Estimates of economic losses for one day's hartal vary widely. According to DCCI, the daily losses are Tk.1,600 crore while FBCCI estimates the losses at Tk.10,000 crore. Hartal retards local and foreign investments, reduces employment opportunities and creates obstacles to future growth of the economy.
Inflation is common during hartal. Prolonged hartals or blockades result in shortage of essential commodities in the retail markets. Naturally, the prices increase, often beyond the purchasing power of the common people. The day labourers are the worst sufferers. Without employment, they are unable to buy their daily necessities including food.
Education suffers badly during hartal. It creates session jams and disrupts examination schedules. Examinations are often taken without completing the courses, thus compromising with the quality of education. A nation is bound to degenerate if the quality of education cannot be maintained.
The uncertainty about the next general election and the accompanying political violence are real obstacles to our rate of growth. The future looks too bleak. Violence breeds more violence. The present trend is likely to continue even after the general election, no matter which political party comes to power. Our dream of prosperity is, therefore, likely to go down the drain if our politicians fail to resolve their differences peacefully, come to an agreement to hold a free, fair and credible election and follow civilised and truly democratic political norms both during and after the election.
The economy and the future of democracy are now at stake in Bangladesh. History will never forgive us if the remarkable progress in economic and social fields cannot be sustained due to the greed for power of our political leaders, whose number is too small compared to the vast majority of the population striving for progress and prosperity. Should the hopes and aspirations of so many people be jeopardised by so few?

The writer is a former chief engineer of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission.

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