Will Bangladesh ever have a future?

Tags: Opinion

The nation, with its already antique modernity, illuminates South Asia’s troubled present and past

Will Bangladesh ever have a future?
SAD STATE: A survivor of Rana Plaza garment factory building collapse in April, marches during a demonstration near Dhaka on November 24, demanding compensation and punishment for factory owners
To an Indian who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, the sights of Dhaka, seem to belong to a past that Indian metropolises have mostly outgrown: exuberantly battered buses, unpainted buildings, pavement book vendors with faded posters of Rabindranath Tagore and Karl Marx as well as The Rolling Stones, and pitch darkness on the unlit streets and squares where rural migrants congregate in the evenings. The countryside still feels closer here than in Kolkata or Mumbai.

In recent years, Bang­ladeshis have suffered the brutality of security forces and massive environmental destruction. For months now, the news from the wor­ld’s seventh-most-populous country has been dominated by the fractiousness of the country’s main leaders, the trial of men suspected of war crimes during Ban­gladesh’s war of liberation in 1971, and the slavery-like conditions of the country’s garment industry.

I arrived in Dhaka during one of the many recent strikes called by the opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, against the ruling Awami League. The shutdowns, imposed thro­ugh force, seemed economically ruinous, damaging sm­all businesses the most; they resolved nothing. At first glance, Bangladesh seemed, like many countries in its neighbourhood, to be struggling to find a way forward.

Irreconcilable differences

Shackled by clashing differences between political personalities, the country offers yet another instance of a fledgling democracy undermined by an undemocratic winner-takes-all attitude am­ong its leaders. Ban­gladesh does have its innovators, such as Muhammed Yunus, the pioneer of microcredit. The banking system seems more responsive to the poor majority than in it does India. Bangladesh also does better than its much richer neighbour in almost all indicators of the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

But the benefits of trade liberalisation — and, in general, Bangladesh’s integration into the global economy — have been more limited than previously expected. Certainly, the country’s economic modernisation, wh­ich seems necessary to pull tens of millions out of destitution, seems to be proceeding much too slowly.

India is building a security fence on its border with Ba­ngladesh, ostensibly to keep out Bangladeshi immigrants whose presence provides fo­dder to Indian demago­gues. Meanwhile, a weakened state has ceded, often opportunistically, its responsibility to mitigate poverty and improve social infrastructure to such nonstate actors as aid organisations, corporations and various domestic and international ongovernmental organisations. Ban­gl­a­desh is one of the most NGO-ised countries in the world.

What happens next? Can Bangladesh join the modern world with its weakened governance, dysfunctional political system and uneven economic growth? A new book, Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progress on the Bangladesh-India Border, seeks some answers in Ban­gladesh’s earliest attempt at modernisation.

The author, a Ban­gl­adesh-born social anthropologist named Delwar Hussain, describes the strange aftermath of the Khonighat Limestone Mining Project. Situated near the Bangladeshi district of Sylhet and the Indian state of Meghalaya, Khonighat was one of the spectacular projects of national modernisation that every postcolonial country once boasted of. India, for instance, had the Soviet-built Bhilai township — designed, as one early resident, the poet and essayist Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, wrote, “by a pencil stub and a six-inch plastic ruler.” The grids were no accident. They spoke of the rationalisation and bureaucratisation that were supposed to weaken the hold of religion and custom.

Main patron

Many of the new citizens of Pakistan, and then Ban­gladesh after 1971, eagerly participated in these public works, largely because employees were offered, as Hussain writes, “progress, status and prestige” through a range of welfare provisions: skills training, set wages, fixed working hours, health and safety regulations, pensions. The state, in turn, enjoyed its greatest legitimacy as the main patron of economic development.

But state-led projects such as Khonighat mostly helped people who were within its ambit; the majority of the country’s population remained trapped in poverty. Khonighat was closed down in 1993 after it became cheaper to import limestone from an economically liberalised India, and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund put pressure on Bangladesh to shut down its state-owned enterprises.

Khonighat is now a ruin, while the adjacent village of Borapani, which has become the centre of an unorganised and semi-illicit coal mining industry, showcases the new forms of progress in many globalised economies.

Feeding the demands of Bangladesh’s coal-fired factories, the cashiered labourers of Khonighat have transformed themselves into tr­aders. This impromptu and unusual elite is made more diverse by people previously relegated to the margins by Khonighat’s top-down modernisation project, such as women and transgender hijras, who have achieved prominence by fulfilling local needs, economic as well as sexual.

Subsidiary professions

Religious practices suppressed by the secular ethos of Khonighat have also em­erged. The coal business has generated some semi-illegal subsidiary professions, such as the trade in SIM cards in an area where both Indian and Bangladeshi governments have banned the use of mobile phones. Many of the older beneficiaries of the welfare and developmental state wallow in nostalgia for the good times of state-backed modernisation and lament the new culture of greed and selfishness, while entrepreneurs who walk a fine line between criminality and legality flourish.

Here, Hussain’s answers are disconcertingly tentative. NGOs have not managed to reduce poverty; they may even have helped the middle class more than the poor and the marginalised. There are other, less tangible losses in this brave new world: Garment workers in Dhaka ple­ading for better work conditions after an April factory collapse killed more than 1,000 people are asking for things that the employees of Khonighat possessed.

Hussain’s mood is not all bleak. He points to “creative potentialities and possibilities” in the assertion of formerly excluded communities. But he seems aware, too, of simmering frustrations among the “floating mass” of workers in unregulated zo­nes. Much of today’s social and religious violence in India, for instance, is caused by the disempowering and degradation of men employed, if at all, in the vast “informal sector.”

Above all, millions of South Asians suffer from a general loss of national direction in an age when every man seems to be out for himself. In Bangladesh, as in India and Pakistan, the collapse of old nation-building projects of modernisation has deprived most citizens of the stories and images through which they imagined themselves to be part of a larger whole.

For them, the disenchantment of the world feared by Max Weber has happened even while they await, seemingly forever, the next step into consoling prosperity and leisure. Meanwhile, ethnic and religious sectarians sta­nd ready to channel their rage over being cheated. In that sense, Bangladesh, with its already antique modernity, illuminates South Asia’s troubled present as vividly as it does its past.


(Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

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