It was a day of besiege (aborodh) blocking all entries to Dhaka the capital city of Bangladesh imposed by the 18-party alliance. Bishwajit Das, owner of a tailoring shop in old part of Dhaka, was being chopped to death by a gang of goons, unfortunately called students. This was vividly brought to our eyes by the electronic media. Before that ugly occurrence, innocent Bishwajit was chased in broad day light in front of the law enforcing agencies who allowed the rampage go unabated. Apparently the law enforcing people unlawfully stood away from dealing with the devils. We reckon that this is a sheer disregard to their normal duties and hence they need to be brought to book. People were at that moment panicked and selfishly ran for a shelter. Of all the people around at that time, a poor rickshaw puller dared to take the victim to hospital. By doing that, and hats off to him, he has shown that humanity these days has no place in the hearts of the so-called solvents.
However, as revealed by the media, Bishwajit Das came to Dhaka from Betagi of Borguna district in search of a bare minimum living. Parents pinned hopes on him for a regular remittance that would keep them on an even keel. He could have stayed at Betagi to earn a living from nearby fields or factories but possibly drove to dazzling Dhaka to make life more comfortable. Bishwajit wasnt aware that, particularly in Dhaka, people like him propose and the devils dispose.
Bishwajits brutal murder reminds me of a childhood recollection by Nobel Laureate Amaratya Sen. While
playing one afternoon in the garden in front of his house in Dhaka, a man came through the gate screaming pitifully and bleeding profusely; he had been knifed in the back. Those were the days of communal riots ... The knifed man , called Kader Mia, was a Muslim day laborer who had come for work in a neighboring house - for a tiny reward and had been knifed on the street by some communal thugs in our largely Hindu area ... Kader Mia went on telling us that his wife had told him not to go into a hostile area in such troubled times, But Kader Mia had to go out in search of work and a bit of earning because his family had nothing to eat. The penalty of his economic unfreedom turned out to be death, which occurred later in the hospital. Development isnt a rise in per capita gross national product (GNP), more industrialization or improvement in some socio-economic indicators, provision of a bundle of goods and services. In fact, its more than that to include freedom to choose, work, do whatever one reasons to value. Further, as Sen has said, economic unfreedom can breed social unfreedom, just as social or political unfreedom can also foster economic unfreedom.
Do we see a difference between the aforementioned two deaths? Kader Mia died of stabbing in a communal riot and Bishwajit died of stabbing in a condition akin to a ‘political riot’. What emerges from the present political culture in Bangladesh is conformational politics where one party seems to eliminate the other party by hook or by crook, in government or out of government. It is a kind of political riot where tolerance, freedom, coexistence etc., are gone with the wind. Bangladesh falls within the lowest 15% of politically instable countries in the world. It’s a kind of “harikiri” (suicide) dashing the dream of a Sonar Bangla to the ground.
There is no denying the fact that Bangladesh can rightly boast of a number of successes so far. She has meantime proved all pessimist forecasts wrong, moved out of the basket case syndrome and stands as a role model. In the realm of reduction of population growth rate, child and maternity mortality rates, raising life expectancy, Bangladesh’s shining successes reportedly outshine even India. Growth of remittance and readymade garments (RMG) industry has helped her ease foreign exchange constraint. The success of micro-credit programmes has earned for us fame worldwide. The economic growth rate posited at an average of 6% per annum. is a no mean outcome when pitted against poor performance in other parts of the world in the face of global economic recession. Over the last four decades, both income and non-income poverty has gone down appreciably and Bangladesh is almost on the brink of a food autarky. The receipt of prize from UNO by the Prime Minister in the attainment of MDG goals is possibly a pat on Bangladesh’s back for exhilarating performance.
The list of successes can indeed be longer. But on the political front, the performance continues to be not only poor but also perilous. It’s true that power has been transferred from a military dictatorship to a Parliament elected by the people, and added to that a consensus was built around holding general election under a caretaker government. But that was in the lip, not in the heart. The result of every general election since then was termed fair by the party in power but foul by the opponent. The opposition party, whoever it is, continues to boycott the Parliament in different pretexts turning the Parliament a paralyzed one. A large number of parliament members are reported to be engaged in the accumulation of ill-gotten wealth for self persuasion at the cost of serving the common man. Hartal and besiege (aborodh) programmes have replaced the debate on national issues in the parliament. Hartal and ‘aborodh’ is the source of economic unfreedom as the programmes are imposed on people with force and ferocity. At the fag end of the tenure of a government, tensions mount over voter list, Election Commission and to be or not to be with caretaker government. Most of the bodies that are supposed to be headed by elected people, are being run by unelected people. Local level institutions are deprived of the autonomy they should be showered on them.
The list of failures may extend further. But Bishwajit’s killing pinpoints to the perilous state of democracy and development in the country. Every party has the right to call hartal or ‘aborodh’ but people in general have the right to go by that or not. Burning passengers by setting buses on fire, picketing pedestrians to stop from going at work place, creating a panic among people etc., can’t be called a part of democracy nor a semblance of constitutional rights. Likewise, using state machinery to thwart hartal or ‘aborodh’, making mass arrest (gono greftar) or using party men to counter the opposition can’t be called the part of democracy nor a part of the duty of the government. In the name of protecting property, what a government does amounts to an attempt to eliminate the other side.
So, from Kader Mia to Bishwajit, a span of about 80 years, freedom of people is still being forfeited in a regime of economic unfreedom imposed upon by the government, on one side, and opposition, on the other. And the victims of the vindictive and vermin acts are mostly the poor people for whom tears always roll down their cheeks. Surely, sustainable economic development in Bangladesh is threatened by political instability and the lack of democracy. We are told that the great Athenian Statesman, Pericles, used to boast that Athens didn’t have to learn anything about governance from the rest of the world while others had a lot to learn from her. Were Pricles alive today, he would have said that Bangladesh had to learn about governance from the rest of the world while others have nothing to learn from her.
Bangladesh’s main problem now is the lack of good governance. Allow me to paraphrase the growth-governance nexus from Akbar Ali Khan. The governance-development nexus as propounded by Pritchett demonstrates a kinked relationship between governance and economic development. At low levels of economic development, bad governance may not be a constraint rather promote growth but in the very short-run. In the long run, and to reach a higher growth trajectory, bad governance becomes a binding constraint. It shows that past experience of development with bad governance may not repeat itself. Good governance is itself growth per se from growth’s qualitative point of view. In the absence of good governance, the benefits of growth are misappropriated by the rich and politically powerful. This is evidenced by the report that $14.1 billion has been siphoned off from Bangladesh since 2001, and of which two-thirds are accounted by over- and under-invoicing of imports and exports. Also revealed by the sad news that Bangladesh topped the list of countries in terms of corruption and she continues to be a corruption-ridden country.
Bangladesh needs to generate “governance surplus” with a view to reaping home the visions of 2021. Perhaps, the current economic growth rate is better than the “could be growth rate” but definitely its much lower than the “should be growth rate” as envisaged in the light of the growth rate in other similar countries as well as in the face of growing demand from people. And to do that, the on- going confrontational politics has to be abandoned to pave ways for a regime of positive politics where the weapon of language would replace the language of weapon; where economic and political unfreedom would wither to reach freedom — the destination of development, and where the parliament would be the pinnacle of political debates.
Acute frustrations should never gripe us either. The people of Bangladesh have never yielded to the yoke of injustice. The problem lies with politicians who haven’t unfortunately learned the lesson that the on-going politics is a zero-sum game or a lose-lose situation. For the sake of a sustainable development in the country, the opposition should leave streets and join parliament, The government on the other hand should make all arrangements so that dialogue becomes a substitute of hartals and gheraos. We hope that political parties would draw upon the dialogic heritage of both India and of the region as a whole. In the past, many crises could be overcome through dialogue among major political parties. There is basis for some hope for the future in the lines identified by that remarkable observer of the sub-continent Octavio Paz in his book In Light of India, and as cited in The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen:
Of course, it is impossible to foresee the future turn of events. In politics and history, perhaps in everything, that unknown power the ancients called Fate is always at work. Without forgetting this, I must add that, in politics as well as in private life, the surest method of resolving conflicts, however slowly, is dialogue.
The writer is Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. e-mail: email@example.com