Bangabandhu's thoughts on inclusive development

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Published on March 19, 2019
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Dr. Atiur Rahman:

Seventeenth March 1920 was a blessed day for Bengalis. Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was born on this auspicious day in a remote village of Tungipara in the then Gopalganj Sub-Division, as it used to be known. There was no transport system to easily connect this remote village with urban areas.

Yet, thanks to his enlightened father's strong support for his education and as well as political engagements even at an early age, he received the BA degree from the Islamia College, under Calcutta University.

Simultaneously, he mobilized fellow students for various political and anti-riot activities under the leadership of Suhrawardy. He was baptized for political and economic freedom of the common mass by him. He returned to East Pakistan after partition and got himself admitted into the Law Department in January 1948.

He and his fellow political activists were totally frustrated with the socio-economic conditions of the ordinary people in East Pakistan as there were a food crisis, poverty, lack of access to education, all-pervasive hunger and political alienation.

They were convinced that the people of East Bengal were politically 'bluffed' by the Pakistani elites in the name of Pakistan with a religious overtone. So he spared no moment in reorganizing the students under the banner of East Pakistan Muslim Student League. He was also deeply involved in the movement of the fourth class employees of the Dhaka University for which he was expelled from the university in 1949.

In between, he was also in the initial phase of the Language Movement when the legitimate demand for the recognition of Bangla as a state language was denied by the Pakistani state. He was arrested on March 1948 while he was protesting against the Muslim League Government for conspiring against Bangla, the mother tongue of the majority portion of the people of Pakistan.

And from then on he emerged even deeper into the student and larger political movements for which he was arrested off and on. The latest secret documents of the Pakistani intelligence outfit and, of course, his own 'Unfinished Autobiography' speaks a volume about his commitment for the emancipation of the people of Eastern Wing of Pakistan.

His leadership for gaining the due recognition of Bangla as a state language, often from the jail, was so consistent and uncompromising that he could easily emerge as a mainstream Political Leader with a huge following among the youths and teeming millions.

He could, therefore, easily graduate as a mainstream front-ranking leader of the newly formed Awami Muslim League which later was transformed into secular Awami League. Initially, a Joint General Secretary, energetic Sheikh Mujib with inspiring leadership qualities could easily become the General Secretary of the Party.

From then on he never had to look back and became the spokesperson of the downtrodden. Crossing different hurdles including the formation of the United Front he was instrumental in snatching the landslide victory for the opposition in 1954 Election. Unfortunately, that popular government could not sustain for a longer period due to deeper conspiracies of the Pakistani elites. He was the only Minister of that Government who was arrested as he revealed so much his strong commitment for the justice towards Bengalis.

The subsequent history of his emergence as the principal protagonist for the emancipation of the Bengalis is well known to the readers. The brightest spot of his political career was certainly his poetic utterances of freedom on March 7, 1971. He, in fact, gave a roadmap of the impending guerilla warfare which he could rightly predict due to his acute sense of political wisdom and prepared the nation for a heroic war of liberation.

The nation was officially born on the early hours of 26 March 1971 when he declared independence of Bangladesh. Although he was immediately arrested by the Pakistan Army the people's war continued throughout 1971 and the able leadership of his co-leaders. The whole-hearted support of the Indian Government led by Mrs Indira Gandhi and other peace-loving people and governments of the world for the just struggle for our liberation deserves to be noted here.

Pakistan succumbed to death under the heavy pressure of millions of dead bodies of freedom-loving people of Bangladesh and a victorious new nation emerged in the global landscape on 16 December 1971. Bangabandhu was subsequently released from Pakistani captivity and touched the soil of his dreamland Bangladesh on 10 December 1972 via London and Delhi. He was literally impatient to reach his liberated homeland and shared his mind to the journalists in Delhi Palam Airport in no uncertain terms.

He pledged to transform newly independent Bangladesh into a land of peace, progress and prosperity. He reached Dhaka in the later part of the Day and became emotional at the sight of the hundreds of thousands of people welcoming him. Then he rushed to the Race Course Maiden, where he gave a clarion call of freedom on 7 March 1971, and spoke to the gathering in tears.

Two days later, Bangabandhu assumed the responsibility of the Government of Bangladesh and dedicated himself entirely to the task of reconstructing the war-devastated country to the last day of his life. He kept on emphasizing that people and the administration work hard to rebuild Bangladesh.

Of course, he knew that the country was in a dire situation after the liberation war, but he also could comprehend the potential of the people to overcome all the hurdles and turn the tide. He rightly believed in uniting the people and leading them towards the desired direction of inclusive development.

His dream for a prosperous and yet inclusive Bangladesh was rightly reflected in the 1972 Constitution of the Republic. He was fully committed to lead the country in this direction and was well on his way. Within only a few years after independence, he succeeded in materializing the growth potential of Bangladesh to a significant extent.

We must keep in mind that he inherited an economy of only eight billion US dollars in 1972. There was not even a dollar in our foreign exchange reserve. But thanks to his committed leadership the economy started moving forward despite many insurmountable challenges including war-ravaged physical and social infrastructures and virtually no regulatory institutions. There was an acute shortage of food grains following national and international natural shocks.

One should not forget the pressure of rising inflation following the global oil crisis and as well as acute food shortage which he had to cope with so little resources in his hands. But Bangabandhu led from the front in rebuilding this devastated economy with meagre domestic resources and some international humanitarian support. Thanks to his strong and inspiring leadership, people of the country started believing in their own power as well.

But destiny had other things in store. On the black night of 15 August 1975, Bangabandhu was murdered (along with many other family members), and our journey towards inclusive development got halted. The country started moving in the opposite direction denying the mass aspirations for equality which grew out of our war of liberation.

Of course, his daughter, our honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is now following his footsteps and has been able to establish successfully Bangladesh as a role model of sustainable and inclusive development for the rest of the world. But still, we wonder how it would have been if we had not lost our beloved Bangabandhu, who was the main lighthouse of a fighting nation. It is nearly 44 years since we lost him.

However, he remains with his daughters and us in spirit during our amazing journey of inclusive development. Surely the ugly face of income inequality has been visible these days but the consumption inequality still remains subdued. People at large are having minimum calorie intake regularly as there have been spectacular gains in our fight for the reduction of poverty.

Agricultural development, a focused area of attention of Bangabandhu, has, of course, been playing its strategic role in reducing poverty during his daughter's regime. Over the years Bangladesh has also been growing faster than its South Asian peers and is on its way towards making the well-deserved formal graduation from LDC to become a developing country in a foreseeable timeframe.

Its performance as a fast-moving exporter of apparels and textiles apart from other emerging products like ceramics and pharmaceuticals makes its development journey even more attractive. And given its demographic and density dividends this journey will continue for a few more decades, hopefully. It is in this context, I would like to shed some light on his thoughts on inclusive development focusing mainly on industrialization.

Aspiration fueled by Past Glory

The phrase 'Sonar Bangla' (meaning Golden Bengal) was very common in speeches and writings of Bangabandhu well before the independence of Bangladesh. He was always thinking about reestablishing 'Sonar Bangla'. But this was not mere political rhetoric for him.

This aspiration was based on Bangabandhu's consciousness about the past glory of this land. He knew that only a few centuries back Bangladesh was really a land of wealth and prosperity. This country was famous for its agricultural production (fueled by favourable climate conditions, fertile land, riverine geography etc.). It was also famous for its exports like muslin, silk, cotton, spices and even shipbuilding. Bengal was a real trade hub during that era.

The British East India Company chose to build a base here in Bengal mainly because of these attractions. In the 18th century, the living standards of Bengal were comparable to that of Great Britain. Bangabandhu was aware of this glorious past and strongly believed that the past glory could be revived through a proper struggle for economic emancipation of the people.

And he began this struggle well before the independence of Bangladesh. In fact, he laid the foundation for that struggle during the early years of Pakistan era which tried to make East Bengal (today's Bangladesh) a virtual `neo-colony' of West Pakistan. He saw this process of exploitation from very close quarters, both as a people's leader and also as a Minister in the Provincial Cabinet, even though only for a short period of time.

Struggle for Equality: Proposition of 'Two Economies'

Since the beginning of Pakistan, the one-eyed government never treated Bangladesh (then East Bengal/Pakistan) equally. Bangabandhu was aware of this discrimination. He realized that along with social and political dimensions this inequality had economic dimensions as well.

He, therefore, strongly condemned the 'Federal Control of Industries Act' which virtually gave full control of the industrial sector to the central government bypassing the provincial authorities. In between 1953 to 1956, the central government allocated 35 crore taka for 150 large industrial units in West Pakistan, and only 2 crores for 47 such units in East Pakistan (i.e. Bangladesh).

While East Pakistan had better agricultural growth potential, the then central government was spending more on agricultural development in West Pakistan (198 crore taka was allocated for agricultural development of West Pakistan).

The farmers of Eastern Province of Pakistan produced excellent quality jute and yet more than ninety per cent of the foreign exchange earned through export of jute and jute goods went to West Pakistan to pay their import bill. Even large industrial units in East Pakistan (e.g. Karnaphuli Paper Mill, Platinum Jubilee Jute Mill etc.) were handed out to West Pakistan owners. Pakistan was then an oligarchy (only 22 families getting all the business) and industrialization and development of Eastern Province of Pakistan were the last thing in their mind.

Bangabandhu was determined to bring about positive change in favour of people of East Pakistan (i.e. today's Bangladesh). Hence, when he oversaw the Provincial Ministry of Industry he focused on industrial growth of East Pakistan. He bargained with the central government for a fair share of the economic benefits to the entrepreneurs and people of the then East Pakistan. Bangabandhu's propositions as the provincial Minister of Industry could be summarized as below:

* Import licenses to be issued by the provincial government

* Industries such as Jute, Cotton and Garment will be controlled by the provincial government

* An office of the Import-Export Chief Controller will be established in East Pakistan

* A separate office of Supply and Development Department Director-General to be placed in East Pakistan

* 50 per cent of the foreign exchange will be going to East Pakistan (previously only 10 per cent was going to East Pakistan).

According to Bangabandhu's proposals, East Pakistan was to gain full control of its industry and trade from January 1957. He even asked for constituting an Economic Commission to identify the sources of disparity. The central government responded positively to his proposal and an Economic Commission was constituted where economists led by Professor Nurul Islam from East Pakistan echoed his views. This Commission Report was soon sent to the cold storage and never saw the light of the day.

The Pakistan Central Government did not keep their words. And eventually, Bangabandhu had to begin a prolonged political movement, particularly around his historic Six-Points, to address these inequalities. He was put to jail off and on. Yet, he remained steadfast and uncompromising. Because of this movement led by Bangabandhu, the Ayub Khan regime eventually collapsed. Bangabandhu was a politician, not an economist.

Yet he was the first one to propose two separate economies for East and West Pakistan. He claimed, "East and West Pakistan were 15 hundred miles apart is a geographic truth. Hence, there is no alternative to developing separate economies for these two". Bangabandhu's aspiration for economic autonomy and Pakistan (essentially led by West Pakistanis) regimes denying his claims is one of the core reasons behind the initiation of the war of liberation in 1971 and eventually the independence of Bangladesh.

The New Country: Industrialization and Development for All

After the liberation, as already indicated at the beginning of this piece, Bangabandhu got a war-ravaged country with infrastructural backbone broken, the economy in shambles, millions of hungry people, and challenges arising out very difficult geopolitics as the US opposed directly our struggle for freedom.

Yet he did not lose hope. On the first anniversary of independence, he uttered- "We will turn this war-ravaged country into a golden one. In the Bengal of future- mothers will smile, and children will play. It will be a society free of exploitation. Start the movement of development in the fields and farms and in the factories. We can surely rebuild the country through hard work. Let us work together so that the Golden Bengal shines again."

As evident here, Bangabandhu rightly prioritized agriculture and industrialization as the forces to rely on. Indeed, he wanted to walk on two legs. He understood that agriculture will not only provide food to feed the people, but also will remain as the main source of income for the majority of the people for many years to come. In addition, two fast reductions of poverty, vibrant agriculture can also ensure the supply of raw materials for a burgeoning industrial sector. Immediately after the independence of the country, Bangabandhu, therefore, took some prudent initiatives to ensure agricultural growth.

Some of these initiatives were: rebuilding the war-ravaged agricultural infrastructure, ensuring supply of agricultural equipment on emergency basis free of cost or at concessional rates, ensuring adequate supply of seed, cancelling 1 million certificate cases for loan default against farmers filed during the Pakistan period, fixing minimum fair prices for agro-products, ration facilities for poor and marginal farmers etc.

The Bangabandhu government took these steps during the early days of his rule. He took these steps as he believed that agricultural development was then the most important prerequisite for sustainable and inclusive development of the country.

Bangabandhu was also conscious of the complementarity between the agricultural and industrial sectors. For example, fertilizers are critically important agricultural inputs and so Bangabandhu prioritized establishment and operationalizing fertilizer factories across the country.

Bangabandhu knew there was no alternative to industrialization. Industrial expansion was needed on the one hand, for producing goods to consume internally and to export; on the other hand, industrialization would ensure employment for a growing population. However, just after the independence, with no foreign reserve, no foreign investment, very little backward and forward linkages, and above all, very few people with entrepreneurial experience- industrialization perhaps was the biggest challenge that Bangabandhu had to face.

Entrepreneur-friendly Bangabandhu was always for facilitating businesses to grow. Even when he was the Provincial Minister for Industry, he proposed initiatives that would reduce the cost of doing business (by saving time and overcoming red tape). During that time, he encouraged entrepreneurs from home and abroad to invest in East Pakistan and committed full support for them from the provincial government. But in the post-liberation era, the situation was entirely different.

Due to the reasons mentioned above, there was little to no scope for the private sector to grow. In the newly liberated country, Bangabandhu rightly chose to go for state-led industrial growth. He nationalized major banks and insurance companies, all jute mills, sugar mills and textile mills as all the Pakistani owners and managers left these enterprises often taking away with them all the money and inputs.

Even the cars were shipped to Pakistan when they could anticipate that Bangladesh was emerging. Moreover, it was prudent of Bangabandhu that these enterprises were given to public ownership as he was deeply committed to social justice.

And the early results were rewarding. In the first year since independence- the jute mills were producing at 56 per cent of their capacities. The same ratio for textile mills, paper mills and fertilizer factories were 60 per cent, 69 per cent, and 62 per cent respectively. All these factories were doing better than they were during the Pakistan period.

While Bangabandhu chose to expand the industrial sector through nationalization at the beginning (due to obvious conditions), his medium to a long-term plan was to create an enabling environment for the private sector. These are visible in the first five-year plan and budget proposals of the government of the newly independent country.

For example- in the budget for FY 1974-75, the upper limit for private investment was shifted from 25 lac ( 2.5 million) taka to 3 crores ( 30 million) taka, and there was provision for developing new industries by the private sector. Apart from these, 133 abandoned industrial unit was handed over to the private sector during this government. So it is evident that the process of deregulation actually began during Bangabandhu's time.

He was a pragmatic leader and would have done more in liberalizing the economy and at the same time, keeping the issue of social justice on top of his mind.

Back on Track

There is no doubt that Bangabandhu was leading the country along the path of inclusive development based on prudent agricultural and industrial policies. But evil forces took him away and left us off track. After a long time and after a lot of sacrifices we are again back on that prudent growth path under the leadership of his daughter, honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She is now setting the tone from above.

The challenge for her second-tier leadership and as well as supporting administration to break those mega directions into implementable small steps and execute them. We must do our very best to ensure this journey continues. For that to happen we must remain focused on completing the mega-projects initiated by the present government in time including Padma Bridge, Special Economic Zones, major Power Plants, Deep Sea Port, Metro rails, up-gradation of Rail and Water Ways and, of course, developing digital infrastructures to promote e-commerce and f-commerce.

We must also remain mindful of promoting skills and digital entrepreneurship to address the burgeoning challenge of unemployment among educated youths. We should continue to support mechanization of all shades of agriculture, particularly in promoting mechanized combined harvesting and user-friendly mulching of cows. Finally, we must remain focused on developing sources of renewable energies including solar and wind energies to achieve our SDGs in time.

We must also encourage the private sector and non-state non-profit sectors for joining the government for a collaborative mission of achieving SDGs. We, of course, will also continue to welcome foreign direct investment by taking the opportunities of the foreign entrepreneurs shifting out of China given their rising cost and a looming trade war with the US. We must complete our mission of ease of doing business by reducing duplicity and bureaucratic hassles.

It is like 'love at first sight. 'We will not have second chance to welcome foreign entrepreneurs in our international airports. Despite some heavy challenges like high poverty, lack of diversification of exports and low skill capabilities of our human resources, surely, we will be able to overcome the same and celebrate the platinum jubilee of Bangabandhu's birth centenary anniversary in a fast moving Bangladesh.

Based on this strong foundation, we will certainly be able to celebrate befittingly the golden jubilee of independence of Bangladesh and as well as complete our mission of transforming Bangladesh into an upper-middle economy in2031 and a developed economy by 2041 as aspired by our Honorable Prime Minister within the greater context of Delta Plan 2100. For this, we must also remain focused on socio-political and financial stability at any cost. Only inclusive development can help us realize this grand vision.

Writer: Economist and a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank

Source: Daily Asian Age