This time around, they will change Bangladesh
I met Abdul Kader Mridha in Joyshara. It was early April. He was sitting on a makeshift bamboo bench, facing the only convenience store of the village, looking up at the early morning sun with his eyes closed. The thick, dark stick gripped firmly in his hand resembled that of an African medicine-man’s than the walking stick of a Bangladeshi village octogenarian. It could have been any Bangladeshi village, but this is how I saw it back then: ‘Joyshara is a typical village. It’s what the Roads and Highways Department lexicon would term ‘remote’. The motorbike taking me had to stop twice, as the resurrected feeder road to the village was having new soil and crushed brick spread over it. The diggers — both men and women with bare rippling muscles — were mostly from in and around the village. The dust rising from the constant thumping of shovels wafted the warm, dry air with a grainy taste, lingering on at the roof of my mouth. Despite all the work on the road which snaked through several villages, and the dust, Joyshara and everything for miles and miles on both sides of the rail track, on which the local train from Shantahar had brought me to Atrai Sadar station in the morning, was stroked with a gentle green. The paddy fields were gestating for their final gradient shift in colour: from green to gold.’
I – the urban, impressionable, twenty-something journalist – was trying to discover the ‘real’ village. With a stereotype sketched in my head, as soon as I saw him, I knew Mridha was going to be my centre-piece. But betraying all my preparatory research on micro credit, hybrid crops, female literacy, with uneasy pauses between phrases and sentences, Mridha told me what he felt was wrong with Bangladesh. It was simple: few had most, while most had few. Without even knowing of me, he spared little subtlety in intuitively pointing out that I was a member of those ‘few’ – education at the best places, enjoying priviledges of a capital where everything is centralized, handed opportunities of a young nation that never really materialized for those others who are members of the ‘most’. While his exact words have slipped my memory, I remember how coiled he made me feel that April morning. Today I have come to understand, and believe, what Abdul Kader Mridha was trying to say. And, in many ways, I speak for him.
To look out into Bangladesh’s horizon, or to conjure up a vision for the future, if one might call it so, first just look at the shoreline of nearly four decades. I see a nation that has failed its majority. Yes, Bangladesh has seen many gains. I see that economic growth has been handsome over a decade, breeding more and more inequality. I have been told by many a ‘realist’ economist, invariably citing their favourite academic icing on the cake – the Kuznet’s curve, that since the country is developing fast there will be economic inequality but after a ‘critical average income’ is reached it will come down. I have read so many reports, and reported on so many studies, which show how social indicators have picked up in Bangladesh much better than most other South Asian countries. I can probably effortlessly recite a long list in my head of the many development ‘interventions’ that have promised, and partially delivered, their ‘prescribed’ goals of uplifting the masses. But looking into the future, into a decade that will see Bangladesh no longer remaining a ‘young’ nation anymore, Bangladesh is showcasing a troubling reality. Each of us might have our own detailed vision for Bangladesh. For me – a chronicler and purveyor of the lives of others – it’s a rather simple, and maybe grand, one: an egalitarian Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is yet to exhibit an equitable system of social, economic and political justice. Evidently, Bangladesh is yet to ensure that its silent majority have real political say, where political power is virtually not held hostage by a class that increasingly resembles an island in the sea of people, and a system where the people are not told upon as to what is the correct way to govern them. A Bangladesh where the economic opportunities created on the hard work of the majority will be enjoyed by the few is counter-intuitive. The possibility that Mridha’s grandsons might not get the chance of the best education that the country has to offer just because they live beside the paddy fields of Joyshara goes against what the common man would expect of their country. And frankly, I would not like to carry the burden that my viral flu will be treated by a specialist taking a fee equivalent to several days income of a labourer, while a young mother helplessly watches her child die in the balcony of a remote Thana Health Complex. The list is too long, and too emotive. While these, and other painful questions, need to be addressed, first and foremost, every Bangladeshi should be shown the simplest of human dignities, which a rickshawpuller is not shown on the streets of Dhaka. He cannot be slapped around by a traffic constable because he pulled into a VIP road. No matter how fast the engines of Bangladesh’s economy grow, or how many ‘good’ laws it makes, I should not have to look into his eyes again and see the bewildered look of not knowing whether we are fellow men of a nation or citizens of two very different states.
But I have seen more than just the misery and bewilderment my cynic lines would suggest. Remember Joyshara? From surrounding fields, men and young boys had gathered around Mridha and me as news spread of a curious ‘city folk’. They had bright stories to tell, and probing questions to ask. They were aware of the state they were in, and the many reasons behind it. And yet, they had plans. Some knew what they were going to do there, while others were looking beyond the fields of the village. Yes, their daughters and sisters were going to school, their sons were learning of the dangers of excessive pesticide and re-learning about local crop varieties, and they were seemingly more confident and self-reliant than I would have perceived. This sense of resilience exudes from everywhere in our tiny land of many. Surprisingly, while the diminishing middle-class, and a few at the top, have many complaints on the state of the state, or its successive governments, recent events have overwhelmingly shown that these supposedly over-arching entities have taken a backseat in the lives of the masses. Brushing aside the helplessness that lingers, they have taken primary charge of their fate. A more confident majority is emerging in Bangladesh. This will, no doubt, bring her into a new decade of prosperity. But to me, looking back from 2020, the most important of Bangladesh’s gains would be to have ensured that unlike the several waves of wealth concentrations that have taken place since 1971, this time it is more equitable.
Nature’s many wraths, the intimidations of the powerful few, the cruel workings of market forces – nothing seems to be restraining them anytime soon. Nowhere is this indomitable spirit more evident than the underbelly of the cities, especially the capital. Many million men, women and children, are making the pilgrimage of fate from villages like Joyshara to the urban centres of our country. It is a tide that’s now irreversible. We are becoming an urban nation. There, behind the super-size billboards screaming of the gloss and grandeur of the unaccounted-for-disposable-income-fuelled-very-urban-consumer-economy, they are setting up home in Dhaka’s answer to the Dharavi slum. And they are thriving – not by taking bribes as they have no power to exercise, not through ‘recycled’ donour-funded projects, rather despite governments which try to get rid of them as they are an eyesore to the ‘image’ of the city, or against the tide of a system that subjects them to the exact opposite treatment as their more affluent city-counterparts. Just like they have survived on the soil over the centuries of adaptation and hard work, these newcomers to the cities of Bangladesh are adapting fast. Their most potent weapon of choice: enterprise. A state that does not try to give them employment, and let’s economic opportunity stay hostage to the few, also tries to take away their ingenious ways of livelihood. They work in homes, garment factories, they clean the floors of they city’s glass facades, they guard the doors of the powerful. They set up roadside shops, sell books that they never had the chance to learn to read, they serve food priced half of their month’s pay. They are evicted, beaten, jailed, humiliated, slapped, and reminded again and again that they are not worthy of the gains of their own nation. But do they just pack their bags and leave? No. They persevere. Such undercurrents suggest that there will be change, or simply change will be forced from below. Even if governments cannot assist them in all their needs, it needs to stop being irreverent to this majority. Bangladesh’s political camps would eventually have to face a growing reality: the majority is learning to rule by their ballot. And this silent majority increasingly brings their agenda to the booth. If governments fail them, it seems the majority will show, again and again, what real agenda needs to be. Having experienced so many variations of ‘democracy’, Bangladesh is exhibiting that democracy bred from the necessity of the many is probably the best form.
Bangladesh’s great economic migration is actually not just to the cities; it’s crossing borders, en masse. Almost like re-enactments from the pages of history of the many economic migrations of the world, hundreds and thousands of men, and even women, equipped with as little as their bare hands and a heart filled with hope are making the unknown voyage to foreign lands in search of the livelihood that their own country could not give. Just the other day, I could not but notice the central bank’s annual projection of something in the range of ten billion dollars in remittance. Almost like honey bees, these faithful citizens send back their hard-earned cash to the queen. And yet these same workers are also subjected to apathy from our own missions abroad when, in most cases, all they seek is guidance. As a nation, Bangladesh would need to start respecting her real ambassadors abroad.
There are too many strands to lay out when it comes to the inequalities between Bangladesh’s intertwined classes. Scribing them all is unnecessary, and rather futile. As a journalist I lay witness, from a peculiar vantage, to the dizzying changes that are blurring the many lines defining the country. Bangladesh has seen such variations as presidential to parliamentary forms of democracy, peppered with prolonged spates of martial interventions. As a nation that has evolved to see the hope of political plurality regularly usurped by the few, a cynic wouldn’t feel that much optimistic that in a decade or so things would change radically and its citizens would be treated differently. But there should be little doubt that the enterprise of many will not be that easy to overturn this time. Maybe my father thought like me during the glory days of the 60s, and look where Bangladesh is now! While Bangladesh as an egalitarian state might be my utopia, I have a hunch: those who were mere witnesses of their fate and fortune till now will not wait for things to change at the top. This time around, Abdul Kader Mirdha’s grandsons, my rickshawpuller, the garment worker, the Bangladeshi building the world’s tallest skyscraper in the deserts of Dubai will change their Bangladesh. This time around, they –the people – will change Bangladesh.