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Bangladesh: Challenge remains along palpitation

Bangladesh: Challenge remains along palpitation

Sirajul Islam writes for Blitz

Bangladeshis are less happy, but building democracy within a Muslim majority country in South Asia, home of 70 million or so poor remains a long palpitation. Bangladeshis are a bit keener on democracy, more optimistic about the economy to grow and they dislike corrupts and the Mullahs in equal measure. Those are some of the conclusions suggested by a friend at a tea party. The picture that emerges from opinions expressed by different people is one that is modestly encouraging for democracy to grow despite of the fact that the politicians are not at all respectful of the democratic culture in Bangladesh, and creating situations to kill it, or to suppress it to the extent they can.

With an economic growth averaging around 6 percent and an overabundance of interest in elections by the politicians over the past 4 years, as it was apparent by the preparations made by both the ruling and opposition parties to rig/de-rig the polls, have provided a real democracy surplus. Overall, a vast number of people are either a farmer living in the village or an urban-dwelling rickshaw driver, or a vegetable-selling vendor to an educationist, bureaucrat, businessperson or simply a vagabond the writer of this report talked with agreed that democracy was the best system of government but either BNP or Awami League is killing it. The informal discussions generated an interesting light on the recent development in Bangladesh both in the political and economic front. Over the past 16 years, after the autocratic rule of military despot Gen. Ershad ended followed by a mass upsurge, there has been a rise in satisfaction with democracy in Bangladesh despite of the ¡misrule of both parties¢, as my respondents coined. None of them I found don’t know politics, and some of them even were analysts! However, though everybody complaining that price hike of essentials hit them hard, but I didn’t find most of them out of supply, or lacking buying capacity of essentials they need exactly. It was my case in point, and I probed this more than once by employing various means to know the exact situation of my respondents. We had three terms of democratic journey, and in each of those terms, incumbents or parties in power didn’t win. But there have been big falls over the past decade in satisfaction or trust with elections or with the election commission or with the caretaker governments or even with the presidency.

People I¢ve talked with more or less clearly stated that the two sets of issues topmost in their minds were low-income and poverty on the one hand that made them struggling with the changed scenario of price escalation, and what would they expect the new government to do, and corruption, crime and public security issues on the other that push them off the platform to operate in a level playing field. In north or south of the country, in fact, flatly to say, the western part of the country, unemployment or underemployment, poverty and crime came top of the list. So it did too in the poverty pockets of the riverside char lands and the haor, baor areas etc. Elsewhere, economic worries prevailed. That is part of the explanation for the shift to the extreme left or to the Islamist militancy over the past few years. But that shift is still humble and not everywhere. While most of the bordering areas with India, for example, have moved to the Islamist militancy, some southern and northern districts become the breeding ground for extreme left-wing parties. There is no reason to believe that voters are taking the 2007 elections as a referendum on Khaleda Zia or on Shiekh Hasina. It is a matter of fact that both the ladies just found not so popular or charismatic while professor Yunus is. But the most important finding I have is that two-third of the people I talked with think that the elections in their areas were always been fraudulent by this or that means, and the coming one would not make any difference either. Perception reflects broader worries about a lack of fairness in the political system. Most of my respondents thought that their country had never been governed for the benefit of all, rather than that of a few powerful groups, or families. Yet so, an overwhelming percent of respondents (37 out of 50) said they voted in the most recent elections, and most of them said that voting was the most effective way to change things, against only 7 who favoured participating in protest movements.

Bangladeshis seem to be more optimistic about the economy than at any time since the revival of democracy in 1991. Overall, while more than half of the respondents said that their country's economic situation was good despite of the ¡rampant corruption¢ and ¡looting of public resources¢, meanwhile, some of them said their own economic situation was good too, up from a low in 2003. One farmer living in a remote village in Nachole told me something remarkable while I was visiting their village on July 14th this year and asked him as to why people didn’t go for movement when there is a huge price hike of essentials. His reply was: everybody has some cash, you know? Even the poorest in our village can go to the samity and can have some loan. That helps to explain why the swing to the extreme left or Islamist militancy was moderate, and mass upsurges were few-to-none (except some power crisis and livelihood insecurity related incidents that happened in Kansat, Sonir Akhra or Phulbari).

Not only the privatised public services are slowly becoming less unpopular, some telecom companies simply outsmart the monopoly Telephone and Telegraph Board phone services or the private banks or MFIs win the hearts of the millions, rural and urban for their financial services needs. But Bangladeshis have reservations about the role of private enterprise or foreign companies in the extraction of natural resources. Only a few think the private sector should play a big role in mining, or extracting natural gas. Bangladeshis are however disapprovingly critical of many of their institutions, a little more so than in the past. They still place most trust in their armed forces, and on RAB, a law-enforcing group members of which are mainly extracted from the armed forces but widely criticised by many for their role in ¡crossfire¢ (extra-judicious killing). This year, they gave more credence to television. But trust in the bureaucracy, political parties, legislatures and the judiciary remains worryingly low. Strangely, most of them claim to be satisfied with the education to which their children have access, even though their schools, or colleges or universities lag badly in international tests. Regarding the health-care services, reversely, most of them are dissatisfied with the present system in place, or the services available, and about the ¡behaviour¢ of the health-care officials at public facilities.

A final word: If they were as generous to their politicians as they are to the schools or colleges/universities their children are attending, the entire exercise might look rather different. Overall, the result of the non-paying hard personal work of nearly six months suggests that Bangladesh's democracy will certainly be recovered from the public disheartenment prompted by corruption and misrule by a section of inept and corrupt politician, and her people will survive the economic restiveness and manipulation whatever one calls it together with containing their democracy in exchange of their hard labour.


Sirajul Islam is a social science researcher and consultant, presently working as consultant with INAFI, a global network of microfinance practitioners registered in The Hague, and headquartered in Dakar, Senegal. He prepared this write-up based on 50 face-to-face interviews with people of divergent age, sex, economic, social, and educational background and professions, both rural and urban, between July and December 2006.
Posted on 13 Dec 2006 by Root

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