The pace and atmosphere of the village was different. That was the first thing we noticed when we came back to Bhaimara after more than 30 years. At the end of the1970s, Bhaimara was a quiet small village, 60 km west of the capital, Dhaka. Most people rarely moved far away from the village and when they travelled they took rickshaw, bullock cart or most often on foot. During the monsoon, when only the houses were above the large inundated rice fields, the small country boats were the only means of transport. The travels were slow and quiet.
Back in Bhaimara in March and April of 2010: The former narrow earth roads are paved and wide enough for cars. The landscape has changed. The new roads have been built through beautiful green rice fields. There are small industries and factories being established where there were paddy fields before. Grey smoke rises from a 30-metre high chimney of a brickfield established in a neighbouring village. There is a factory that produces concrete poles. The market, which previously was small and sleepy, is now a bustling gathering place. The sons of the wealthy families in the village have their own corner of the market, where they have their shops and show-off their newly acquired motorcycles.
There is great technological development in agriculture. No oxen plough the soil anymore. Small tractors do the job faster, cheaper and far more effectively. All land is covered by mechanised irrigation and produce high yielding variety of rice. In the dry season, shallow/deep tube-wells, run by electricity, continuously lifting underground water. All available land, a large part of which used to remain brown and barren, is now covered with green paddy.
What has happened in Bhaimara during the last 30 years? Before we describe the current situation, let us say a little about what characterised the village as we saw it.
We knew Bhaimara well during the late 1970s. During 1976-1980, we participated in a large rural poverty study carried out by the Bangladesh Institute for Development Studies in different villages. Bhaimara was "our" village. For weeks and months at a time we lived with other researchers in the homes of the peasants in the village. We collected quantitative and qualitative information on the socio-economic conditions of the people in the area.
A fairly typical example of the situation for the poor was represented by our neighbour Mosum Ali and his family. He had inherited two bighas of land from his father, which he gradually had to sell in order to buy food. He was about to mortgage out his small, elevated homestead plot as he did not have any agricultural land left. The fruit trees of the homestead plot were already mortgaged to his rich neighbour, who was collecting the mango, jackfruit and coconuts in lieu of the money he lent. In 1980, we were confident that the next stop for Mosum Ali and his family would be the slums of Dhaka.
Another person we feared might suffer the same fate was Geddy, a young, separated woman with two small children living in others' house. She was a helping hand to some households with or without payment. Both she and her children became malnourished as they had to starve quite often.
For many years, we were keen to learn about what had happened to the people we knew in Bhaimara. In March 2010, we went back to begin a new field-work. We spent one month in Bhaimara and lived in the same place in the village and among the same families as we did in the late 1970's. It became quickly clear to us that it was just not the tractors, scooters, taxis and motorbikes that characterised the changes in the village, we saw no more houses with straw on the roofs. All the houses have corrugated iron sheets on the roofs, the walls are of corrugated iron sheets or constructed with bricks. The best houses are built on a solid and elevated concrete foundation. Almost all the 100 families living in the village are provided with electricity. Our surveys show that 40 of the 100 families now have their own television.
Geddy informed us proudly about the resources she has now. She owns a shallow tube-well and a rice husking machine. She receives a share of crops for supplying irrigation-water to land owners and a cash income for husking rice for others. She is concerned about irregular supply of electricity and fertilizer. She is living in a nice house of an absentee neighbour with her son, grand children and daughter in law. Her daughter has two beautiful children attending school and they have got a private tutor.
Positive news about Mosum Ali: He and his family had managed to cling on to their homestead plot in the village and had improved their economic situation considerably. One of his sons is working in the Middle East and the eldest son in a national NGO in Dhaka. The latter comes home every weekend. "Look," he says, pointing to a piece of land next to his house, "now we have bought back the land my father was forced to sell. In addition, both I and my brother have each built new houses. Our wives are members of Brac and Grameen Bank and all our children go to school."
Other visible improvements apply to water, toilets and sanitation. Many families have their own water pumps in the courtyard and sanitary latrine on concrete floor. The primary school, which is located very close to where we used to live, has been refurbished.
What are the factors responsible for these obvious and conspicuous material changes?
* Starting from the early 1980s, many workers from Bangladesh migrated to the Middle East. The workers were largely unskilled and wages were low. Nevertheless, many managed to send one to two hundred dollars a month directly to their families in Bangladesh. In 1985, about $1 billion were sent as remittances to Bangladesh. In 2009, the amount had increased to $10 billion. Bangladesh now has, at any given time, 6-7 million migrant workers in the Middle East, various countries in Southeast Asia, Europe and US. Our survey in 2010 showed that 30 of the 100 families in Bhaimara have or have had family members working abroad for some years.
* It was also around 1980 when the export-oriented garments industry started to expand. Today, there are more than two million workers in the garments industries, most of them are young girls/women from poor and destitute families in rural areas. The garments industry has also contributed to creation of new industries and companies that serve the garment industry. During the last 20 years, millions of people have been employed in these related industries. In 2010, there were 12 families in Bhaimara that had members with earnings from the garments and associated industries.
* Agriculture has become much more mechanised and modernised. Crops production has more than double since 1980s, and Bangladesh has become self-sufficient in rice. At the end of the 1970s, Bangladesh used to receive 2-3 million tons of cereals each year from abroad. The population of Bangladesh increased from 90 to 160 million during 1980 to 2010.
* NGOs play an important role in the development of Bangladesh. Grameen Bank has 7.5 million members and Brac has about the same number. In Bhaimara, there are now 52 active women members of Grameen Bank and 40 of Brac. Microcredit and different types of training give women the opportunity for earning income and thus becoming more independent and confident.
* There has been great development in education. About 97% of the children start the five-year primary school and most of them complete. Especially among girls there has been great change. Many girls get scholarships and enter into higher education.
* Infrastructure in general, and in "our" village in particular, has improved visibly. At the end of the 1970s, only a handful people in Bhaimara had visited Dhaka. The district HQ, Manikganj, 6 km away, was a place that only few people visited during a year. With asphalt roads and bridges, a trip to Manikganj town takes15 minutes by scooter or 20-25 minutes by rickshaw. About 30-40 people from the village work in the handicraft and small industries in and around Manikganj. With so many families working outside the village it means that there is a lot of mobility, both socially and economically, in Bhaimara.
* The health situation has also improved substantially. Both maternal and child mortality has decreased in Bangladesh. We met a vaccination team from Manikganj town in the village. All children in the village are now being vaccinated as infants and each child receives his/her own vaccination registration book. Health assistants informed that about 80% of married couples in Bhaimara and the neighbouring villages are now using various forms of family planning methods.
* What role has aid played to promote development in the villages? There is little doubt about the role aid has helped in the field of education, health, agriculture and infrastructure development. However, the amount of aid has greatly reduced in recent decades. In the mid-1980s, Bangladesh received approximately $2.5 billion in aid each year. In recent years, the amount has been reduced to about $1 billion per year.
Is the above report only a sunshine story from Bhaimara? In the1970s, more than 80% of the population in Bangladesh lived below the poverty line. Today, only a third of the population is living below the poverty line. This means that there has been a considerable reduction in poverty, both in percentage and in actual numbers. Some problems still remain. Corruption continues to persist. Transparency International shows that Bangladesh is among the most corrupt countries in the world. Although the state apparatus is characterised by corruption, there is no doubt that the authorities have managed to pave the way for growth by providing room for the large NGOs and the private sector, and by creating conditions for the millions of migrant labourers to go and work abroad.
The founder of Grameen Bank, Dr. Mohammed Yunus, is optimistic about the future of Bangladesh. He has said that Bangladesh will be one of the few countries that will manage to achieve the Millennium Development Goal by halving the poverty in the country by 2015. Professor Rehman Sobhan is of the same opinion.
One thing clear about Bhaimara is that none among the people in the village carries nostalgic memories of the quiet, slow, but poor life of more than 30 years ago. The son of Mosum Ali is not in doubt: "In the future my children will be even better off than we are now."