Rasheeda Bhagat

The rise and rise of Bangladesh

Rasheeda Bhagat | Updated on March 29, 2021

Historic visit: PM Narendra Modi with Sheikh Hasina   -  @narendramodi

The country has made rapid progress both on the economic and social front in the last couple of decades

I first visited Dhaka and several surrounding villages in 1998. Even for an Indian, the crowded capital, the chaos and noise was overwhelming, and yet the city wove a magic spell over me. In undivided Bengal, Dhaka had a special place, specially Dhaka University, which turned 100 this January. The university is justifiably proud of having provided “the intellect behind the birth of a new nation.”

I loved Dhaka by association too. I had gone there to interview Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus, and over a two-hour session, during which he took me around the Grameen headquarters, I was impressed by his simplicity, earnestness to help his country’s poor women, his intellect and charm. His room was not air-conditioned; “look at the design, it’s so airy; I don’t need an AC,” he smiled. Offering me green tea, he said, “Avoiding milk saves us a lot of money.”

Grameen’s success

Over a week I interviewed many people associated with Grameen-related organisations, such as Grameen housing, and power. Before heading off to some villages to meet the Grameen ‘mobile phone women’, who were earning good incomes by ensuring telephone access to the parents of overseas workers, I was crestfallen, unable to wish my little son on his birthday as the phone lines in my Dhaka hotel were down. Guess what? In the first village itself, the Grameen phone lady connected me to my home in Chennai, and at a fraction of the hotel charge!

Of course, the sad part was the busting of my belief that the Bangladeshis would love Indians because after all it was India led by Indira Gandhi that had got it its independence in 1971. But like most of India’s neighbours, Bangladeshis also showed scant love for us.

On my second visit to the country in 2006 to again interview Yunus, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize, I could already see a transformation in the confidence levels of people. It was still a poor country, and Dhaka continued to be crowded and chaotic. But the indomitable Bengali spirit, not to mention the sparkling Bengali intellect, was much more evident.

Sparkling at 50

Well, as Bangladesh celebrates its golden jubilee, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has always strived to improve relations with the country, visiting it, rave reviews are coming in on the way the country has battled adversities, particularly famine and natural disasters in the first two decades of its liberation.

Well, things have been turning around for the country, which was once near the bottom of the development pile. Since the 1990s, the economic and other development indicators have steadily improved thanks to the growth of its manufacturing sector, exports of garments, and microfinance. In the last three decades, progressive and dynamic NGOs such Grameen Bank and Fazle Hasan Abid’s BRAC, which have put money for micro enterprises into the hands of women, have worked wonders with social, educational and economic development of the poorest of families.

Growth surge

Called a “bottomless basket” by Henry Kissinger in 1974, Bangladesh has shown unexpected economic development. Its GDP growth rate surpassed Pakistan’s in 2006, and while many dismissed it as a “one-off fluke”, Bangladesh has outpaced Pakistan every year since then, and — astonishingly — is now one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.

Its GDP per capita now closely rivals India’s and significantly exceeds that of Pakistan. The country is a leading global exporter of readymade garments, and other sectors are taking off, too, writes former World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu.

Add to this the fact that Bangladesh is also among the world’s top 10 remittance-receiving countries. Even though these come from mostly low-wage labour, the country received over $18 billion in remittances last year, a huge help during the pandemic.

Credit goes to the Sheikh Hasina government for keeping a firm control on the growth of religious ultras for the last several years, and focus on economic and other development parameters.

A new-found confidence in the nation can be gauged from a recent comment in a Dhaka daily, which while comparing Bangladesh to West Bengal, proudly said: “Unlike in Bangladesh, hardly any major capitalists in West Bengal are Bengalis, and their loyalty lies to north and west India, from where they come.”

That the ‘termite’ slur still rankles, can be seen from a senior Dhaka economist’s comment to commemorate Bangladesh’s golden jubilee: “The IMF’s recent per capita GDP projections for South Asian countries show that the alleged ‘termite factory’ is shining and beginning to march ahead on the economic front.”

Published on March 29, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor