Face that reflects Bangladesh
Sheikh Hasina, the eldest daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, ended her term of office of Prime Minister on July 15, 2001, after successfully completing her mandate. This was the first time in the history of Bangladesh (born in 1971) that a constitutional government, duly elected under free and fair elections, conducted by a neutral caretaker government, peacefully transferred power to a successor caretaker government, a rare feat indeed in any third world country. Between 1996 and July 2001, Sheikh Hasina led Bangladesh from the front, with a hands-on style of dynamic governance. She restored political, economic and social stability; institutionalized the forces of democracy, peace and freedom and through prudent macroeconomic and sectoral policies, initiated sustained economic growth with equity and social justice. Bangladesh posted an average of 5.5 per cent GDP growth per annum for the entire duration of her term of office, with low inflation, averaging 1.5 per cent per annum. This was perhaps the most remarkable achievement of her government in the economic sector. Sheikh Hasina introduced the financial sector reforms, set up the parliamentarians training institute, the law reforms commission. She created a massive social security net for the poor and vulnerable segment of the population with targeted poverty alleviation programmes/projects covering health, housing, food, welfare and security of the poor citizens in general, and women and children in particular. The shelter and livelihood project called Asrayan provide shelter, credit, training and education to more than 33,000 extremely poor families of the country, spread all over Bangladesh. Micro credit and training programmes under the aegis of 14 different agencies and ministries of the government helped directly in alleviating poverty. She introduced many direct programmes for the upliftment of women and children and supervised them directly. Bangladesh set a rare example of astute and near perfect disaster management in 1998 when the country was devastated by the worst floods of the century which engulfed more than two thirds of the country for a period lasting three months. Many pundits and media had predicted that at least 20 million people would die in these floods. But, through Sheikh Hasina's exceptional and extraordinary handling, not a single person perished and Bangladesh survived this unprecedented natural disaster. More than 4 million families were given food stamps (under the vulnerable group feeding programme) for nine months to help them cope with the losses sustained due to the floods. Adequate management of post flood problems resulted in bumper winter crops.
When she became prime minister in June 1996, Bangladesh was a food deficit country. The average cereal deficit was of the order of 4 million tons per annum. When she left office, Bangladesh had a surplus of 2.5 million tons of food grains, for the first time in its history. Appropriate policies, programmes and inputs for the food and agriculture sector and their timely implementation had enabled this, i.e., the transformation of the country from a food deficit to a food surplus one. In recognition of her success in the food, nutrition and agriculture sector, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) awarded her the prestigious Ceres Award (1999).
Two other crowning achievements of Sheikh Hasina are the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty with India and the Peace Accord with the tribal dissidents of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. These were outstanding sores of decades and had bled Bangladesh politically, socially and economically. Through her bold, imaginative and innovative leadership she solved them within the first two years of her tenure, without help and/or mediation from any third party. This was another unique feature of her achievements. For more than two decades the areas comprising the Chittagong Hill Tracts were disturbed with low level insurgency. The state spent millions in keeping a semblance of order in the area. There were deaths and diseases affecting the people and the security forces. The Peace Accord of 1997 ended that all and the area is now fully integrated into the mainstream of life in Bangladesh. Massive development efforts have been undertaken for its economic development.
The Ganges Water Sharing treaty has helped the south western districts of Bangladesh in having adequate water during the lean season of April/May and brought about significant improvements in Bangladesh's bilateral relations with India with which it shares a border of more than 4,000 miles. In recognition of her initiatives in bringing peace in the Chittagong Hills and signing of the water treaty Sheikh Hasina was awarded the UNESCO peace prize (Felix Houphouet-Boighy prize) in 1998. For her leading role in promoting peace at home and abroad she was the only head of government to be invited to address the Hague Appeal for Peace Conference. When both India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices and became nuclear powers, Sheikh Hasina took a major initiative in defusing tension in the region by visiting both the countries and counseling to lerance and restraint to their leader Sheikh Hasina had won the elections in 1996 on the basis of her manifesto in which she had promised to return people's right to vote and food. One recalls with horror and dismay the voterless elections of February 15, 1996, in which the people of Bangladesh were effectively disenfranchised. Sheikh Hasina's movement for the restoration of people's right to vote got its flywheel from this sham of an election conducted by the discredited BNP government.
After winning elections in 1996, Sheikh Hasina initiated all the necessary moves to consolidate democracy and give it a firm root. She made parliament the focal point of all discussions on major policies, introduced and enacted scores of bills for reforms and made all actions of her government accountable and transparent. She introduced the Prime Minister's question time for the first time and took questions every Tuesday whenever the parliament was in session. She reformed the parliamentary committee system by making MPs rather than ministers, their chairpersons. The system worked with remarkable success and for the first time in the history of Bangladesh, the committees became effective and lively forum of debates and recommendations on major national and international issues. Through this process, she returned the government to the people of Bangladesh.
Former US President Bill Clinton visited Bangladesh in March 2000—the first official visit by a US president to our country. The impressive record of Bangladesh in poverty alleviation, stable macroeconomic growth, infrastructure development, gender equity and overall socio-economic advancement were the main reasons for enthusing a US president to visit Bangladesh. He was much impressed by what he saw during his brief stay—the poverty alleviation efforts in particular. He met with the beneficiaries of the special shelter and livelihood project called the Asryan, Sheikh Hasina’s brainchild, and was moved to tears by his interaction with the beneficiaries. He mentioned in no uncertain terms that Bangladesh is a country with immense potentialities and the most wonderful human resources. Sheikh Hasina’s government has done very well in harnessing these resources. He had pledged all support for the economic development of Bangladesh during his bilateral discussions with prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
In recognising her pioneering role in poverty alleviation in particular the G-8 summit organisers invited her to attend the last summit in Italy. This was a unique event in as much as no other Asian leader had ever been invited to any G-8 outreach event before. The exclusivity of this rich men’s club is well known. But that notwithstanding, Sheikh Hasina was singled out for an exceptional honour. When the Italian prime minister, the chair of the summit, was told by our foreign office that Sheikh Hasina’s term of office would end before the summit, he (the Italian prime minister) changed the invitation to a personal one to enable Sheikh Hasina to participate and make her own contributions in this major event. Sheikh Hasina’s persuasive intervention made poverty alleviation a major agenda item of the summits to be held in future. G-8 is the grouping of the richest nations of the world and they control more than two thirds of global industrial output. Their concern is with growth and stability. Poverty is something quite alien to their line of thinking, and yet they realised the importance of this overarching theme in a total global perspective—thanks to Sheikh Hasina’s exceptional articulation of the main issues in her address to the outreach event on poverty alleviation.
The commitment of Sheikh Hasina to democracy, pluralism, freedom, peace, liberty, tolerance and universalism are now well known and as a result she has emerged as an outstanding global personality. She has improved the image and standing of Bangladesh in the comity of nations, like no one could ever imagine. From the so called international basket case a la Henry Kissinger, Bangladesh under her bold, charismatic and dynamic leadership has emerged as a nation with pride and high prospects few were willing to attribute to her before 23 June, 1996. This is her most outstanding accomplishment in a short period of five years. It has taken similarly situated nations 20/30 years to come anywhere near such a feat.