The lecture titled "Bangabandhu centenary lecture" looks at the journey through the lens of Bangabandhu's vision for an independent Bangladesh which he promised would evolve into a just society. I will explore how far we, as a nation and people, have so far moved to realise Bangabandhu's promise and what parts of his promise remain to be kept in the days ahead.
Bangabandhu epitomised his vision for Bangladesh before the people of Bangladesh at the conclusion of his epic declaration of 7 March 1971,
Ebarer Sangram Amader Muktir Sangram
Ebarer Sangram Shadinater Sangram
Many people have pondered on the distinction between the struggle for independence (shadinata) and the struggle for liberation (mukti). Bangabandhu was perhaps clearer in his mind about the distinction. He visualised the struggle for independence as a struggle for the establishment of a sovereign nation-state.
But his call for liberation extended the struggle beyond the realisation of independence toward the more transformative mission of liberating the people from not just the unjust bondage of Pakistani rule but from the injustices inflicted on the common people of Bangladesh over centuries. Years of subordination denied the people not just their democratic rights but held them captive within an unjust social order.
Bangabandhu's commitment and struggle for self-rule was ultimately realised through the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. Bangladesh survived the trauma of our bloodstained birth and moved forward over the next half-century to significantly elevate its economic fortunes, experience a remarkable social transformation and reconfigure its place in a more globalised world order.
Little of this would have been possible had we not managed to resurrect ourselves as a people from the ashes of the liberation war to construct a nation-state, build its institutions and establish our presence in the committee of nations.
In the course of building a nation-state Bangabandhu projected his vision for realising amader muktir sangram through the four foundational pillars incorporated in the Bangladesh constitution, presented to the nation within a year of our national liberation; Democracy, Nationalism, Secularism, Socialism.
Bangabandhu's lifelong struggle for self-rule, followed by his heroic endeavour to transform his movement into a functioning nation-state, did not go in vain. Within his short life span, he had created the structure of a fully functional nation-state. But all his achievements remained a work in progress.
After liberation, Bangladesh was well behind Pakistan in most areas of the macro-economy, we had experienced levels of poverty and lower levels of human development in areas like education and healthcare. In the next fifty years, Bangladesh has moved well ahead. Higher rates of growth have moved Bangladesh's per capita income, which was 61% below that of Pakistan in 1972, to exceed Pakistan's PCI in 2020 by 62%.
Such rapid rates of growth have been realised through Bangladesh's higher rates of savings and investment as well as its higher level of exports which were all well behind those of Pakistan's in 1972. As a result, today, Bangladesh's foreign exchange reserves are more than double those of Pakistan while our external debt/GDP ratio is half. We are no longer an aid-dependent country. Our aid/GDP ratio is now around 2% whereas Pakistan has required periodic bailouts from the international community. Bangladesh's infrastructure development has also moved ahead in areas like power generation where our capacity, which rapidly expanded in the last 10 years, is nearly double that of Pakistan.
In the area of human development, Bangladesh's human development indicators (HDI) were below those of Pakistan in 1990 but are now well ahead. Bangladesh has managed to lower its population growth rate so that today our population levels are lower than that of Pakistan. At the same time, due to better health provisioning, Bangladesh's life expectancy which was well below Pakistan in 1972 is now 5 years above them. Similarly, in the area of education, specifically in terms of years of schooling and literacy rate, we have now moved ahead.
As a result, Bangladesh's levels of multi-dimensional poverty, which was once higher than that of Pakistan, is now below it. Perhaps the most dramatic advances have been registered by the women of Bangladesh whose gender development index has not only moved well ahead of Pakistan but also India.
All these indicators of progress have served to validate Bangabandhu's vision of an independent Bangladesh, in full command of its own destiny, would be able to move ahead more rapidly than under the dominance of Pakistan.
Bangladesh's progress is not merely measurable in statistical terms but is manifested in the major structural changes in the economy and social transformation which have taken place as a result of our liberation. Bangladesh has transformed itself from a largely agrarian society, exclusively dependent on growing paddy for subsistence and jute as a cash crop, where agriculture was the principal source of both GDP and household income.
Today the GDP contribution of industry exceeds that of agriculture, more than 50% of household income derives from non-farm sources. Our exports, now largely dependent on manufactures of RMG, have grown exponentially while remittance from overseas migrants has emerged as our largest foreign exchange earner which has strengthened our balance of payments.
These remarkable changes in our economy have been driven by the emergence of a dynamic entrepreneurial class which is represented not just by the RMG entrepreneurs and corporate business houses but extends across a much broader social spectrum.
This, inter alia, includes medium, small and micro-entrepreneurs, women from poor rural families who have participated in the micro-finance revolution or have travelled to the urban areas to contribute their services to fuel the rapid growth of the RMG sector, the NGO's who have promoted more inclusive growth, the migrants who have taken great risks to travel across the world in the service of their families and a new generation of IT entrepreneurs.
Promises to keep
While Bangabandhu's expectations from shadinata may have been realised, his expectations from amader muktir sangram, which would take us towards his vision of a just society, remain part of the promises that we, as a nation, need to honour in his memory.
Bangladesh's economy has registered impressive growth and poverty has been reduced but income inequalities and social disparities have widened. This represents an unjust distribution of the gains from our development and an inadequate recognition, in terms of policies and public support, of the larger constituency of social forces which have also driven our progress.
This widening of social disparities owes not just to policy and allocative deficiencies but to unjust governance in various spheres, where laws already enacted are not decisively acted upon, policies are not fully implemented and regulations are weakly enforced.
These deficiencies in governance originate both in the incapacity of the government to discharge its commitments and in the emerging political economy where an increasingly powerful business elite, patronised by the state, is empowered to influence policies and public action.
In consequence, public policies, in the way of fiscal policies and subsidies, along with public expenditure priorities tend to favour the business elite at the expense of less privileged social groups.
Economic and social injustice, originating in state actions, are compounded by the depreciation in the quality of our democracy, manifested in the weakening credibility of our electoral process, the erosion in the freedom of the media, unfair access to public services and inequitable protection under the rule of law as well as from law enforcement.
The capture of our electoral institutions by the business elite, the dominance of money and force in our electoral contestation have further moved us away from Bangabandhu's vision of a just democratic order where the voices of the less privileged members of society could be clearly heard in our institutions of governance.
In conclusion, I suggest that much can be done towards bringing greater justice to the governance process if the ruling regime remains committed to realising Bangabandhu's vision of a just society. Ensuring the rule of law for all, implementing policies and enforcing regulations, remain within the domain of a well-intentioned government and do not require revolutionary upheavals.
The move to realise more substantive advances towards a just society may need structural changes which require new legislation, even constitutional amendments, supported by changes in the balance of power which accommodates the needs, rewards the contribution and gives voice to the less privileged segments of society.
This is an abridged version of Rehman Sobhan's "Bangabandhu centenary" lecture presented at the inaugural session of a four day international virtual conference on 50 years of Bangladesh.