Saturday, February 02, 2008

As I see Bangladesh!


WHEN THE 75 million people of East Pakistan, minus the vast majority of its non-Bengali populace, were fighting the armed forces of West Pakistan with the help of India in 1971, I was a young man. I saw many events that manifested themselves before my eyes. I saw how the Pakistani military men killed innocent Muslims and Hindus and dumped their dead bodies in the ponds. I saw how the Indian Air force planes circled in the sky of Chittagong and bombed Pakistani ships moored in its port.

I also saw many non-Bengalis and Bengalis fighting and killing each other, when the battle between the freedom fighters of East Pakistan and the West Pakistani army was taking place. I also heard many non-Bengalis supporting the Freedom Fighters, thanks to my proximity to them. And I also saw the beaming faces and the sprinkling eyes of the Bengalis, when the Pakistan army surrendered to the Indian army in Dhaka.

A few years after the birth of Bangladesh, I saw how many people of this country had become concerned with their future. This was the year 1974, when Bangladesh was about to face one of its toughest crisis – the food crisis – that was destined to change the political life of the country for many, many decades to come.

When I recall the events that had taken place before and after the independence of Bangladesh and the situation that obtains in this country today, I feel tempted to ask myself if there are something inherently wrong with the land of Bangladesh and the people that live on it that could be held responsible for the problems this country has been facing since its inception in 1971. An honest and critical soul-searching led me to the conclusion that Bangladesh is a paradoxical country where contradictions abound, but they are not recognized by its people due to their own deficiencies and cognitive dissonance. Perhaps, an example is necessary to clear this point.

I believe that Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s decision to impose Urdu on the Bengali speaking people of East Pakistan was what had laid the ground for the creation of Bangladesh. The language movement, under the leadership of Awami League, was the first nail in the coffin of the united Pakistan.

But the irony was that, though, Awami League stood behind the language movement and wanted Bengali to be the national language of Bangladesh after it was founded, it continued to patronize foreign languages in Bangladesh by continuing to call itself [Awami League]. It is evident from the fact that the words [Awami League] are not Bengali words; rather this name consists of the words, which have been borrowed from two foreign languages: the word [Awami] from Persian and [League] from English.

Imagine a political party fighting for the Bengali language, while calling itself by a name that is composed with foreign words!

Having said that, let us now turn to some statistical facts of Bangladesh.

Population and the landmass of Bangladesh:
In 1971, East Pakistan had a population of 75 million, while West Pakistan’s population stood at 55 million. Today, the erstwhile West Pakistan’s population exceeds 164 million, but Bangladesh’s population is just a little over 140 million! Does it mean that the birth rate in Bangladesh had remained lower, while Pakistan’s exploded, or the Census Board of Bangladesh made a blunder, while trying to complete its enumeration task in a week’s time? (See

Let us assume that the Census Board of Bangladesh was right and the country’s population really stands at about 140 million today, but can this assumption override an important question: On what size of a land does this huge number of people live?

The total size of Bangladesh is 144,000 sq. km. Out of this, 10,090 sq. km. are occupied by water, thus leaving 133,910 sq. km. of land for its people’s use. Take out the land that is occupied by its forest, hills and roads etc., and what do we find?

Bangladesh has only approximately 115,000 sq. km. of land for its 140 million people to live on and to cultivate food for their sustenance and also to set up mills and factories to produce goods for their own consumption and export.

Above data should make it clear that Bangladesh is not only one of the densely populated countries of the world, it is also going to see a day soon, when its people would not have enough land to live on, and to engage themselves in most of the essential activities of their lives. But, unfortunately, the leadership of the country has not been able to grasp this enormous problem that this country is going to face in the days to come, hence its failure to come up with corrective measures that would help Bangladesh avert its impending ruination, which is likely to be triggered, among others, by the further explosion of its population.

But will the leadership of Bangladesh be able to take measures to curtail the further growth of its population, even if it were to realize the danger Bangladesh is likely to face in the near future?

It can, provided:
-it is willing, and becomes courageous enough, to prohibit those parents, who already have more than two children from having more, and restrict newly-wed couples to having not more than two children in their lifetime;
-it is committed to developing a monitoring system to see whether or not people are conforming to the birth control requirements, and,
-it is also prepared to penalize those people, who violate the ban and reward those, who comply with it.

Agricultural and Natural Resources:
There was a time when East Pakistan prided itself in its agricultural product – Jute - taunting it as the [Golden Fibre] of the East. It had tremendous demand both at home and abroad. The jute and hessian bags and carpet backing its Jute Mills produced brought a huge amount of foreign exchange to East Pakistan and then to Bangladesh.

But with the passage of time, the demand of Jute diminished and with it, many Jute Mills in Bangladesh closed down. Its export also came to a grinding halt, as the western world invented an alternate material to meet their needs. Consequently, farmers in Bangladesh almost totally stopped cultivating jute in their land.

There is no other agricultural product that Bangladesh can now export to earn all of its much needed foreign exchange, though it has been earning a small amount of it through export of shrimp, fish and some vegetables to some selected overseas markets. But the production of these items has also begun dwindling and this can be observed in the grocery stores of Los Angeles and other parts of America. Most of the frozen fish sold in these stores now come from Myanmar and Thailand.

In the early 1980s, some farsighted Bangladeshis began looking into the possibility of producing garments for export. In a short time, their effort caught the attention of other Bangladeshis and today, ready-made garment is the largest exportable item of the country.

But are the so-called garment [industries] the largest earners of foreign exchange of the country? To understand the issue, we will have to dig deeper into it.

Bangladesh was once almost entirely dependent on import of the items that its garment industries then needed to produce, say, a shirt or a pant. Now, some of them are being produced locally, thus saving some foreign currency for the country. Some fabrics are now also being produced in Bangladesh; its extent, according to one source, being just under 25 percent of the country’s total export requirement.

The stated scenario would help us compute the amount of foreign currency Bangladesh earns through the export of garments. To do so, let us assume:
-a garment factory in Bangladesh receives an order of 1,000 dollars for export of shirts;
-since all the materials for the production of the shirt are not available in Bangladesh, the factory opens a back-to-back letter of credit on China, Hong Kong or elsewhere and imports those items, which it cannot procure locally. Say, hypothetically, that if the factory spends 60 percent of the total order of 1,000 dollars on import, it would mean that the factory retains only 400 dollars within Bangladesh, and the remaining 600 dollars it sends out to the country on which the factory had opened the letter of credit for import of the raw materials.

Based on the above hypothesis, it can be safely said that if Bangladesh exports 4 billion dollars worth of garments in a year, it retains only 40 percent or 1.6 billion of it, and the rest it sends out to the countries from which its garment factories imported their raw materials. This should lead us to ask: Which is then the largest sector in Bangladesh that earns for it the largest amount of foreign currency?

The answer to the question is: The man-power sector. It is a sector that has become the back-bone of Bangladesh’s Foreign Exchange Reserve. How?

Bangladeshis working in foreign countries remitted nearly $6 billion dollars, a record in the country’s history, in fiscal 2006-07, and not a single cent out of it left Bangladesh for any reason other than for meeting its import and debt-servicing needs. This makes the export of man-power the most important sector that earns the largest amount of foreign currency for the country, yet the workers, who had been toiling day and night under extremely harsh conditions in foreign countries to keep Bangladesh economically alive, are the most neglected people in the whole of the country.

The way they are treated at the airports of Bangladesh will break anyone’s heart. The way they are cheated by man-power agencies will put any self-respecting nation to shame. The way they are treated by their foreign employers defies all human norms and behaviors. But they remain undaunted and keep on working for themselves and their country.

It is their money that pays for the officials, who roam around the world in tailor-made suits in search of what they call the opportunities for those Bangladeshis whom they cannot provide employments in their own country. These officials, and for that matter, the entire nation of the Bangladeshis, prove that they are nothing, but a bunch of ungrateful people, who not only fail to show their gratitude to the very people, who have been contributing to their wellbeing, but also to mitigate the sufferings they are made to endure both on their own soil and on the soils of their foreign employers.

On the other hand, the same officials, who are charged with the responsibility to run the country, lavish all of their praises on the exporters of garments and accord them all kinds support and cooperation they need to facilitate their exports. In fact, the organization of the Garment Exporters is one of the most powerful trade bodies of Bangladesh. Its leaders, as well as its members, enjoy tremendous power, a fact that is discernable from what has been happening in the political and social arenas of the country. This leads one to ask: By recognizing the garment sector of the country beyond and over what it is, has the government of Bangladesh been doing justice to the earners of the largest amount of foreign currency for the country? If not, why?

I hope readers themselves will find answers to the questions and share them with me by posting them on this site. In the meantime, I will concentrate on other issues that are important for Bangladesh and its future. #

Mohammad Ashgar, a Bangladesh born Muslim scholar. He regularly contributes to and could reached: