The giant strides of Bangladesh's economy

  • With a vibrant and rising economy, it has left Pakistan far behind and is raring to take its rightful place in the comity of nations
Published November 17, 2022
Bangladeshi women work at a garment factory in Gazipur on the outskirts of Dhaka. Photo: AFP
Bangladeshi women work at a garment factory in Gazipur on the outskirts of Dhaka. Photo: AFP

My Bengal of Gold,

I love you,

Forever your skies,

Your air set my heart in tune,

As if it were a flute.

The above lines are from a 1905 song Amar Shonar Bangla written and composed by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. The first ten lines of it were adopted in 1972 as the Bangladesh national anthem. The word shonar literally means 'made of gold', but in the song shonar Bangla may be interpreted to either express the preciousness of Bengal or a reference to the colour of paddy fields before harvest.

Bangladesh today has come a long way from the struggling economy of its initial years, when it was labeled as a "basket case" by Henry Kissinger, the US secretary of state in 1972. Although Bengalis were the forerunners of the Pakistan movement, they got disenchanted by the west Pakistanis’ attitude and broke away in 1971.

Pakistan’s two wings were united by religion but their peoples were separated by culture, physical features, and 1,000 miles of Indian territory. What is now called Bangladesh is part of the historic region of Bengal, the northeast portion of the Indian subcontinent.

Bangladesh consists primarily of East Bengal plus the Sylhet district of the Indian state of Assam. The earliest reference to the region was to a kingdom called Vanga, or Banga (c. 1000 B.C.). Buddhists ruled for centuries, but by the 10th century Bengal was primarily Hindu.

In 1576, Bengal became part of the Mogul Empire, and the majority of East Bengalis converted to Islam. Bengal was ruled by British India from 1757 until Britain withdrew in 1947, and Pakistan was founded out of the two predominantly Muslim regions of the Indian subcontinent.

Strife and turmoil have been the destiny of Bangladeshi history. Its founding president Sheikh Mujibur was assassinated in 1975, as was the next president, Zia ur-Rahman.

On March 24, 1982, General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, chief of army staff, took control in a bloodless coup but was forced to resign on December 6, 1990, amid violent protests and numerous allegations of corruption.

A succession of prime ministers governed in the 1990s, including Khaleda Zia, wife of assassinated president Zia ur-Rahman, and Sheikh Hasina Wajid, the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina completed her five-year term as prime minister in July 2000—the first leader to do so.

In October 2006 violence erupted when Zia's term ended and President Ahmed took over as the head of a caretaker administration. After a two-year period, despite the country having been inflicted by cyclones and torrential rains, elections were held and Sheikh Hasina Wajid was elected as the Prime Minister in January 2009.

In 2014, she was re-elected for a third term in an election that was boycotted by the BHP and criticised by international observers. She won her fourth term in 2018. She is the longest serving prime minister in the history of Bangladesh, having served for a combined total of over 18 years. As of 15 November 2022, she is the world's longest-serving female Head of government in history.

Despite serious problems related to a dysfunctional political system, weak governance, and pervasive corruption, Bangladesh remains one of the few democracies in the Muslim world.

Bangladeshis regard democracy as an important legacy of their bloody war for independence, and they vote in large numbers. Bangladesh is generally a force for moderation in international forums, and it is also a long-time leader in international peacekeeping operations.

Its activities in international organisations, with other governments, and with its regional partners to promote human rights, democracy, and free markets are coordinated and high-profile.

Bangladesh became a member of the UN Human Rights Council in May 2006, and began a second term in 2009. However, an explicit goal of its foreign policy has been to strengthen relations with Islamic states, leading to actions such as voting against a December 2009 UN resolution to improve human rights conditions in Iran.

Bangladesh lies at the strategic crossroads of South and Southeast Asia. Potential terrorist movements and activities in or through Bangladesh pose a potentially serious threat to India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Burma, as well as Bangladesh itself. Consequently, the Bangladesh government has banned a number of extremist groups in recent years.

Although once one of the world's poorest and most densely populated countries, Bangladesh has made major strides to meet the food needs of its increasing population, through increased domestic production augmented by imports.

The land is devoted mainly to rice and jute cultivation, although wheat production has increased in recent years; the country is largely self-sufficient in rice production.

Fortunately for Bangladesh, many new jobs – 1.8 million, mostly for women – have been created by the country's dynamic private ready-made garment industry, which grew at double-digit rates through most of the 1990s. The labour-intensive process of ship-breaking for scrap has developed to the point where it now meets most of Bangladesh's domestic steel needs. Other industries include sugar, tea, leather goods, newsprint, pharmaceutical, and fertiliser production.

The land is interspersed by a network of rivers, which has a tourist attraction. The people of Bengal enjoy a rich culture, which they inherited from their Hindu forefathers; dance, music and poetry form a major part of this cultural heritage. Arts and craft, painting, literature add to the colorful palette of Bangladeshi mosaics.

Nature, however, wreaks havoc at times since its location near the Bay of Bengal; makes the land prone to cyclones, floods and storms, claiming huge tolls of human life and property.

Pakistan and Bangladesh enjoy relatively close relations; points of difference being the alleged genocide and rape of Bengalis in 1971, which has been constantly refuted by Pakistan. The other bone of contention is the plight of Biharis or those Urdu speaking Pakistanis who migrated from India and settled in then East Pakistan.

In 1971, Biharis sided with the Pakistan Army causing them to be dubbed as traitors by the Bengalis. After the fall of Dhaka, the Biharis were moved to a camp near Dhaka, where they live in squalor. Their predicament needs international attention.

GDP in Bangladesh reached 460.75 billion international dollars in 2022. This is an increase of about 287 billion U.S. dollars since 2014, and this growth is projected to reach 738.575 US Dollars by 2027, according to Trading Economics global macro models and analysts’ expectations.

Bangladesh has experienced rapid social and economic progress. The country’s GDP grew by over 6% for a decade despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and its overall GDP and GDP per capita has more than tripled, now higher than that of India and Pakistan. Exports grew by over 80% largely catapulted by its ready-made garment industry.

Women have been empowered with an increased share in the workforce while the debt-GDP ratio has remained below 40%. Poverty and infant mortality have reduced while literacy, life expectancy and food production has increased. According to Abul Kashem, in his opinion ‘UN adopts resolution on Bangladesh’s LDC graduation’ published in The Business Standard, in 2021, the UNGA approved Bangladesh's graduation from a LDC to a lower-middle income developing country. Bangladesh's social and economic indicators are amongst the best in South Asia.

Thus, Bangladesh, with a vibrant and rising economy, has left Pakistan far behind and is raring to take its rightful place in the comity of nations. Its spirited and lively media ensures it gets its due respect in the world.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

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S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst

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Mukhles Rahman Nov 18, 2022 04:15pm
Before British East India Company usurped young Nawab Sirajaudaula and got him killed, Bengal was the richest region of India (When Shonar Bangla was coined). Glad to see the progress and development, especially a HUGE contribution by the women of Bangladesh!!! :) :) :)
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Dabeer Razvi Nov 19, 2022 11:19am
Well done, Bangladesh. Keep it up.
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