Our development and the middle-class dilemma

Slow response from the government left the general public suffering—some waiting on the road for transport for hours, some forced to pay exorbitant amounts to make it to their destinations, while others walking to where they needed to be—as buses and trucks stayed off the roads protesting the fuel price hike last week. Photo: Star

The planning minister recently used an onomatope—a word that imitates the things signified. He referred to the economic growth of the country with the sound image of "shonoi, shonoi," which can be literally translated to "by and by." The expression has caught on, and social media is rife with the mobility metaphor. While the honourable minister uses it in the context of growth, the respondents feel that they are failing to catch up as their income trajectory has remained rather static. The educated middle class, in particular, has a lot to say about the big blow caused by the price hikes, factored into such economic growth.

Then again, their responses are mostly controlled and measured, as if they are afraid to give voices to their frustrations and anger. As the tug of war between the rhetoric and the reality continues, an increasing sense of entrapment persists among the netizens. For some, the minister's rhetoric has allowed them to negotiate their reality with a touch of humour. After all, there is something peculiar about the sound: "show no, show no."

I was recently surfing through comments by the members of a traffic alert group. The commuters faced an ordeal last week when the transport operators enforced a strike, protesting the sudden rise in the prices of diesel and kerosene by 23 percent—from Tk 65 to Tk 80. If you ride a CNG or octane-driven vehicle, you would assume that this hike was simply going to affect the lives of "the most disadvantaged segment of society." Sure enough, your oven no longer uses kerosene; for diesel, there is a different dispenser at the fuelling station that you do not visit. Bad things always happen to other people, right? The announcement came on November 3, and an indefinite transport strike was called on November 5. The cerebral middle class thought over the weekend that there would be a "show no show no" understanding between the government and the private owners of the transport system. It did not.

It was soon obvious that the price hike had affected the supply chain of agricultural goods, export items, and water transport. It was more than a few bus owners taking the time off to hide their CNG labels and cylinders to take full advantage of the diesel jackpot. Several container ships went away without being loaded as covered vans and trucks were not available. The financial loss is estimated at millions of dollars, and the reputational loss is measured in red flags. Admission seekers missed their examinations as no public transports were available; there was even one story in which a father rode to Dhaka on his motorbike all the way from Bogra to ensure that his child did not miss the university test. These examples show that there was a serious lack of planning and coordination before the announcement of a price hike was made. Or it could be the other way round. The entire thing was orchestrated and coordinated to benefit a certain group. It is up to the government to clarify the "show no, show no" doubts and suspicions.

Why weren't there any transport services dedicated for export? How responsible is it to look away from the misery of the daily commuters who were asked to pay double for the alternative modes of transport? The comments on Facebook demonstrate the seemingly paradoxical attitudes of the middle class towards democracy, social stability, and reform. The demographic of the group that I am a member of can be characterised as the educated middle class with some exceptions, who from time to time display their knowledge of high-end luxury cars. But by observing the group behaviour, I was intrigued by their concurrent display of high levels of support for democratic principles and low levels of participation in real-life socio-political events. These members of the middle class respond to real-life situations to show that they are aware of what "should be," what "could be," and what "is." They are, however, reluctant to go beyond their comfort zone to bring reforms, giving their socio-political attitudes a paradoxical appearance while encouraging the government to be indifferent.

While the development myth has some concrete basis that we see in the shape of pillars of Dhaka Metro Rail or the Padma Bridge, its perceptual basis also needs to be taken into account. I am guided by an interesting 1995 article on relativism that uses two metaphors of "furniture" and "death" to describe different aspects of reality. Furniture (tables, rocks, stones, etc) represents the reality that cannot be denied, whereas death (misery, genocide, poverty, etc) represents the reality that should not be denied. The bricks, metals, and mortars signify one aspect of our economic growth. The living standard of the middle class is going down.

Last month, one of my administrative officers tendered her resignation. During her exit meeting, she conceded that she was spending Tk 500 a day for CNG-run autorickshaw fare as the public buses would require her to be on the road in a traffic jam for six hours. As her mother-in-law had died, she would now require to hire a helping hand to attend to her daughter. With 40 hours in the office, her actual take-home salary would have been less than Tk 5,000. The death logic, thus, upsets the furniture reality.

You hear a garment worker saying that the increased bus fare will cost her an extra Tk 10 each way. She cries out: "Where will this extra Tk 600 a month come from?" The buses that should have been scrapped 25 years ago are still plying on the roads to add to the misery of the commuters. The owners, encouraged by the "show no, show no" rhetoric, will tell you that they cannot help it as the government must adjust the fuel price as per the international market. If you do not increase the fuel price, the diesel will be smuggled out of the country through the porous borders. So, what are we paying the uniformed men for? Running schools, colleges, hospitals, city corporations, government agencies in the cities? A comparative statement showed that we have the highest bus tariffs in the region, despite the subsidised fuel prices. We have the highest expenses in the construction of roads and bridges. The taxes that we pay are not proportionate to the services that we receive.

The rhetoric of progress needs to correspond with the reality of progress. We cannot expect our middle class to remain in a vegetative state forever, when the prices of winter vegetables rise because the trucks that were supposed to carry the produce from the rural areas to the cities have raised their fares; the added cost of fuel for shallow engines for irrigation or the tractors has helped the price of vegetables to go up even during the season. The snowball effect of the diesel price hike is fast becoming apparent in a wide range of sectors. And the middle class are transformed into onlookers who are seeing the "show no, show no" growth like a kite being flown from the rooftop of a neighbour. I guess, a kite in hand is worth two in the neighbour's roof.


Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).


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