Monday, December 02, 2013
Will Bangladesh Ever Have a Future?
To an Indian who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, the sights of Dhaka, Bangladesh, seem to belong to a past that Indian metropolises have mostly outgrown: exuberantly battered buses, unpainted buildings, pavement book vendors with faded posters of 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 of men suspected of war crimes during
war of liberation in 1971, and the slavery-like conditions of the country’s
garment industry. Bangladesh
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,
seemed, like many countries in its neighborhood, to be struggling to find a way
Shackled by irreconcilable 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.
does have its
innovators, such as , the
pioneer of microcredit. The banking system seems more responsive to the poor
majority than in it does Bangladesh .
also does better than its much richer neighbor in almost all indicators of the
United Nations’ . Bangladesh
But the benefits of trade liberalization -- and, in general,
’s integration into the
global economy -- have been more limited than previously expected. Certainly,
the country’s economic modernization, which seems necessary to pull tens of
millions out of destitution, seems to be proceeding much too slowly. Bangladesh
What happens next? Can
the modern world with its weakened governance, and uneven economic growth? An
absorbing new book, “Boundaries Undermined: The Ruins of Progress on the
Bangladesh-India Border,” seeks some answers in Bangladesh ’s earliest attempt at
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 modernization that every postcolonial country once boasted of.
, 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.” India
The grids were no accident. They spoke of the rationalization and bureaucratization -- two crucial aspects of modernity -- that were supposed to weaken the hold of religion and custom. The worship of older authorities was to be discarded in a projected future full of plentiful modern goods and pleasures. In the postcolonial imagination of progress, projects such as big dams, factories and roads were expected to bring the backward masses out of the rural hinterlands and propel them into first-world prosperity.
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 liberalized
India, and the
World Bank and International Monetary Fund put greater pressure on to
shut down its state-owned enterprises. Bangladesh
With its rusting machinery, unused cranes and half-torn railway tracks, Khonighat is now a ruin -- of the kind that, in Walter Benjamin’s vision, piles up as the storm of progress blows through the world. Meanwhile, the adjacent
which has become the center of an unorganized and semi-illicit coal mining
industry, showcases the new forms of progress in many globalized economies. village of Borapani
Feeding the demands of
coal-fired factories, the cashiered laborers 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
modernization project, such as women and transgender hijras, who have achieved
prominence by fulfilling local needs, economic as well as sexual: The on “Boundaries Undermined,” of a hand
with brightly painted nails and a steel bracelet engraved with the word “Nike”
grasping a coal sack, hints at the new ideas of work and pleasure that have
emerged in the era of liberalization. Bangladesh
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 are now in retreat; they wallow in nostalgia for the good times of state-backed modernization and lament the new culture of greed and selfishness, while entrepreneurs who walk a fine line between criminality and legality flourish.
What does the creation of a new unsupervised social order with its multiple actors portend for
Here, Hussain’s answers are disconcertingly tentative. NGOs have not managed to
reduce ; they may even have helped the middle class
more than the poor and the marginalized. Short-term microfinancing by local and
international NGOs has replaced long-term issues of infrastructure. According
to Hussain, “there are no public health facilities, sanitation or even
electricity” in Borapani. Residents who once had running water and even baths
in the old quarters of Khonighat have to make do with rainwater in its
abandoned limestone quarries. Bangladesh
There are other, less tangible losses in this brave new world: Garment workers in
pleading for better work conditions after an killed more than 1,000 people are
asking for things that the employees of Khonighat effortlessly possessed.
Hussain’s mood is not all bleak. He points to “creative potentialities and possibilities” in the assertion of formerly excluded communities. Noting their record of religious tolerance, he hails the “disorganized cosmopolitanism” of Borapani. 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
instance, is caused by the disempowering and degradation of men employed, if at
all, in the vast “informal sector.” India
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 modernization 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,
with its already antique modernity, illuminates South Asia’s
troubled present as vividly as it does its past.
is the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia” and a Bloomberg View columnist. For comments: firstname.lastname@example.org