Of hopes and disappointments
As I look back at the last 43 years, I am filled with both hopes and disappointments. For a nation, the time-span may not be long, but is not too short either. The distance we have traversed is good enough to give an insight into the successes and failures in our efforts to transform our dream of 'Sonar Bangla' into a reality.
In his intensely personal memoir 'The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh, Archer Blood (US Consul General in 1970-71)' described his moving experience of the birth pangs of Bangladesh. His stay in then-East Pakistan enabled him to feel and comprehend the hopes and aspirations of the people of this part of the country and made him deeply sympathetic to their cause. In a candid manner he chronicled the events, which he himself witnessed, leading to the fateful night of March 25. He saw with his own eyes the die being cast and forces of terror and evil being unleashed. His host of wireless messages to Washington, depicting the reality and pleading for intervention, fell, on deaf ears. In his 'White House years', Henry Kissinger (then National Security Advisor) himself said, "Our Consul General in Dacca was sending cables to Washington urging a public American stand against Pakistani repression.... The cables were given a low classification ... Our Ambassador in New Delhi, Keneth Keating, reported to Washington that he was 'deeply shocked at the massacre' and was 'greatly concerned at the United States' vulnerability to damaging association with a reign of military terror'.... He urged that the United States promptly, publicly and prominently deplore this brutality... Nixon ordered our Consul General transferred from Dacca and he ridiculed Keating for having been 'taken over by the Indians'.
The raison de'tre of our liberation war could not be fully understood initially by many nations until full facts were known. People like Archer Blood who lived here and knew this land and its people could comprehend it. They were stunned when the military terror was let loose.
We gained our liberation at a heavy cost. The human toll and sufferings were enormous. Millions of people were killed and brutalised -- lakhs of women raped-millions of homesteads looted, burnt or vandalised. Dhaka University was made a special target of operation -- students and teachers were shot or mowed down in cold blood. Nearly 10million people moved across the border into neighbouring India to save their lives. Those remained inside the country had to live from day to day in constant fear.
The price of freedom was indeed heavy. This should cause us to be conscious of our immeasurable debt to those who made their supreme sacrifices to liberate this land and of our avowed obligation to requite our debt we owe to them -- to achieve their and our dream -- the dream of a society 'in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens'. The question that stares us in the fall is -- what gains have we made so far in our journey of 43 years towards our cherished goal?
It did not obviously please us when we used to hear Bangladesh being labelled as 'a bottomless basket' or 'an international basket' or 'an international basket case' -- a denigrating term used by Henry Kissinger. There was widespread scepticism in the donor community about any silver lining in the Bangladesh economy. In 1976 two noted foreign economists, Faalland (Norway) and Parkinson (Britain), in their article 'Bangladesh: The Test Case for Development', expressed serious misgivings about any possible economic rejuvenation for Bangladesh. They made no secret of their view that the Bangladesh economy was in doldrums and beyond redemption. They observed, "If development could be made successful in Bangladesh, there can be little doubt that it could be made to succeed anywhere else". It is interesting that the same economists have revised their view and marvelled at the appreciable changes that have occurred in the economy. In their new article "Bangladesh: The Test Case for Development Revisited” (2007), they said, "At this point with three decades and more of experience of limited and chequered progress, sustained development in Bangladesh appears to be within reach, thought far from assured." In 1972 The World Bank viewed the Bangladesh situation as desperate, observing that "even under the best of circumstances, Bangladesh constitutes a critical and complex development problem. The population is poor (per capita income of $50 to $70, a figure which has not risen over the past 20 years), overcrowding (population density is nearly 1,400 per square mile) and becoming more so (population is growing at 3 per cent per annum) and largely illiterate (under 20 per cent literacy rate)." It is the World Bank again which has, in its report of 2014, (carried by the Press recently) termed Bangladesh's current socio-economic progress as remarkable and beyond expectation. They have observed that this progress has been due to a combination of a variety of factors -- accelerated GDP growth, increase in agricultural productivity, rise in remittances from expatriates, rise in exports, improvements in health services, rise in literacy rate, women development, interventions by BRAC, Grameen Bank and various other NGOs and micro-credit organisations. Bangladesh appears to be poised to become a middle income country by 2021.
It was heartening to read a news story on another report of the World Bank that came out last month (Prothom Alo of 4.11.14). The report showed the position of Bangladesh vis-a-vis India under some important social indicators in a comparative chart of 1971 and 2011. The statistics show that Bangladesh appears to be ahead of India in life expectancy (Bangladesh 69, India 66), child mortality rate (Bangladesh 37, India 44 per thousand), birth rate (Bangladesh 2.2%, India 2.5%), women education (Bangladesh 80%, India 74%), vaccination (Bangladesh 96%, India 72%). It would be more satisfying if you look at these indicators against the position of each in 1971. In 1971, life expectancy, child mortality, birth rate, women education and vaccination in Bangladesh were 39, 150, 6.9%, 27% and 1% respectively. The difference is indeed heart-warming.
We should not fail to notice significant increase in agricultural productivity and food production despite continuing shrinkage of agricultural land and chronic natural calamities.
Research, innovation and extension are being given increased fillip to help agriculture compete successfully with the growing population. Noticeable changes in the scenario of education are also particularly stimulating. The rate of literacy for both male and female has gone up dramatically in recent years to 77% and 80% against 44% and 27% respectively in 1971. To our delight, a number of innovative and corrective, measures have been taken by the government in this sector to remove the ills in the existing system. They include free distribution of text books for primary and secondary students, holding of classes and examinations in due time, introduction of creative questions for examinations, publication of results at the scheduled time etc.
It lifts our heart when we see these positive aspects of Bangladesh. But our heart sinks when the picture loses colour and straits darkening. I would like to touch briefly on three areas which disconcert many people.
Good governance is a since qua non for any good government, more so for a democratic polity. People aspire for a government which is responsible, judicious and non-discriminating -- which looks upon all citizens equally and has their welfare at heart. Their hopes is for that kind of government whom they can approach without reservation for redress of their grievances, for delivery of services or for dispensation of justice. To ensure good governance it is important to see that the divisiveness in the society is done away with, the rule of law is finally, established, the institutions like police, judiciary, Anti-Corruption Commission etc. are strengthened and their functioning without outside influence or interference is ensured. The imperative of placement of right people in right places in the administration needs to be recognised to cure the country of the present predicament.
There is serious concern in all circles about the ever expanding paws of corruption. It appears to have become almost all-pervasive, infiltrating into even such areas where it was almost unknown. We shudder at the extent to which corruption is reported by TIB and the press to have spread and started eating into the vitals of the country. Corruption is no longer confined to bribery alone, but beyond -- into gross abuse of entrusted power for private gains and distribution of political patronage. The administrative machinery has sadly become controversial -- being seen not as neutral, but as subservient to political interests. According to TIB, people in general, think that the administration is riddled with corruption and that its accountability is more to the political party is power than to the government. There is a widespread impression that bribe and political influence are the two key means for acquisition of any profitable work including tender and for pecuniary benefits. 'Politicisation' of corruption is making the situation worse, making corruption more difficult to control. It is alarming to see quite a few disquieting reports in the press on unexplained acquisition of wealth by a number of political leaders. The wide gap in the assets shown in the affidavits submitted by a number of candidates for parliamentary elections in 2008 and 2014 has been very startling. The advantage of control over public resources for a party in power is also making free and fair elections difficult. Victory in elections is being perceived regrettably as an opportunity to gain control over public resources and a handle to distribute political patronage among party supporters through tender or lucrative work. In the interest of ten country and for a better tomorrow it is time for all political parties to sink their differences on this vital issue and put up a United Front against corruption. The civil society should also come forward to mobilise strong public opinion against this menace. In combating corruption ideas like strengthening ACC, upgrading it to a constitutional body with full independent character, appointing Ombudsman under Article 77 of the Constitution merit serious consideration.
The most serious concern of our people and our development partners is in the area of politics, democracy and election. They had expected pursuit of healthy politics, responsible conduct of political parties, successful operation of democracy, practice of democratic norms and values and meaningful elections. Our experience, on the whole has not been happy. For the most part of our history democracy has not taken wings, democratic practices have not taken root, elections barring a few have remained questionable and healthy electoral culture elusive. It is in our interest to see that the democratic institutions in our country are strengthened and public confidence is restored in the electoral and political process.
The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner.