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Bangladesh: at a glance

Analysis
Bangladesh
Children at Dhal Char in Bhola. MAJORITY WORLD/CHANDAN ROBERT

In the capital, Dhaka, flyovers, metro rails and high rises are being rapidly constructed above the heads of the poor. A show of new infrastructure, often poorly planned, seems to be the only way in which Bangladesh tries to evade its image as one of the most exploited countries in the world.

‘Paddy piled up high, sheds full of cows, ponds brimming with fish’ – this classic image of a golden Bengal can now only be found in grandmothers’ tales or government propaganda. Instead, special economic zones are being set up in paddy fields and cows are being infused with antibiotics, while rivers and canals connected to ponds are being polluted by industries and grabbed by people with political power.

Students in Sylhet demonstrate against an alleged gang rape, part of nationwide protests about violence against women during 2020. RAFAYAT KHAN/Majority World

At the 50th anniversary of its independence from Pakistan, Bangladesh’s economy now largely relies on the life and labour of garment workers at home and migrant workers abroad. However, a growing economy does not translate into a better life for workers who barely survive on minimum wages. The eight-per-cent GDP growth rate coincides with Bangladesh topping the list of countries with the fastest-growing number of Ultra High Net Worth individuals, who are either politicians or politically backed businesspeople. The economic indicators may statistically equalize a female domestic worker living in a shantytown in Dhaka and her employer living a lavish lifestyle in the wealthy neighbourhood of Gulshan, but inequality abounds.

The fertile land, with hundreds of rivers flowing like veins all over the country, offered an opportunity for a vibrant and diversified agrarian economy. But an exclusive focus on road-based transportation, unsustainable infrastructure and privatized, unregulated industrialization has caused widespread and irrecoverable environmental damage. Access to fresh water, food and air is becoming increasingly difficult.

A farmer in a paddy field in Darpanagar, Noakhali. KHALED HASAN/Majority World

Bengal was once a major trading hub and one of the richest regions in the world before Britain’s East India Company seized control in 1757. Over the following two centuries, exploitative British policies led to famines that cost millions of lives. The partition of India in 1947 effectively left the newly formed East Pakistan as a colony of West Pakistan. After years of economic and cultural oppression, people from all walks of life, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and other nationalist leaders, launched an armed revolution against genocidal Pakistani forces to create Bangladesh in 1971. But coups d’état, military rule and political polarization have since robbed peasants and workers of their dreams of a land built on economic and social justice.

The Awami League government led by Sheikh Hasina has been in power for three consecutive terms. Once flag bearers for democracy (in a mass uprising against the military regime in 1990), they have turned into dictatorial rulers. For example, in 2018 the government brutally crushed two popular movements and introduced the Digital Security Act, under which scores have been arrested for writing, making art or speaking out on social media in ways considered to be critical of the regime. At least 14 protesters, including madrasa students, were recently killed by government forces during protests against the Indian leader Modi on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence.

The twin narratives in the Awami League’s propaganda have always been harking back to the liberation war while vaunting the development of ‘digital’ Bangladesh. But the coronavirus pandemic has exposed cracks in the façade, with ruling party members exposed as having stolen relief aimed at the poor. Anti-dissent laws do not quell popular dissatisfaction as deprived and deceived citizens continue to dream of a new political future for Bangladesh.

The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BR AC) broadcasting a song to raise awareness of Covid-19 in the streets of Sylhet. RAFAYAT KHAN/Majority World

Fact file

Leader Sheikh Hasina, prime minister since 2009.
Economy GNI per capita $1,940 (Pakistan $1,410, UK $42,220)
Monetary unit Taka
Main exports garments, leather footwear. The garment industry makes up over 80% of exports. Foreign-exchange reserves are increasing as a result of the growth in garment exports, which do not appear to have been adversely affected by critical reports about factory safety conditions. Bangladeshis living and working overseas also contribute around $15 billion annually.
People 163 million. Population annual growth rate 1.0%. People per sq km 1,240 (UK 275) – Bangladesh is the world’s most densely populated large country.
Health Infant mortality rate 26 per 1,000 live births (Pakistan 56, UK 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 250 (UK 1 in 8,400). Fatalities from Covid-19 reached 10,781 in April 2021. With millions of people already lacking access to proper healthcare, expensive Covid-19 tests and treatment remain beyond the reach of low-income families deprived of a vaccine and afflicted by lockdown measures. Some 16 million people have newly been pushed into poverty during the pandemic.
Environment According to the World Air Quality Report 2020, Bangladesh is the world’s most polluted country, with Dhaka the world’s second-most-polluted city. Mega-development projects disregarding environmental concerns, waste produced through unregulated rapid industrialization, and lack of government initiative to ensure environmental justice are all contributing factors. The country is one of the worst sufferers from climate chaos.
Religion Muslim 89%, Hindu 10%, other 1%.
Language Bangla (official) 99%, other 1%.
Human Development Index 0.632, 133rd of 189 countries (Pakistan 0.557, UK 0.932).

Country ratings in detail

Income distribution ★✩✩✩✩ 20.5% of the population is currently living in extreme poverty despite Bangladesh emerging as the fastest-growing economy in South Asia – and is expected to rise to 29% due to the coronavirus fallout.
Literacy ★★★✩✩ 74% - with male literacy at 77% and female at 71%. The secondary education drop-out rate is 38% but is increasing alarmingly as families are pushed into poverty.
Life expectancy ★★★★✩ 72 years (Pakistan 67, UK 81).
Freedom ★✩✩✩✩ The Digital Security Act (DSA) is being used to harass activists, journalists, teachers, students, artists and political opponents. Protests erupted all over the country after writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in a high-security prison and his fellow prisoner, cartoonist Ahmed Kishore, was tortured in custody: both were arrested under the DSA.
Position of women ★★★✩✩ In the Global Gender Gap Report 2020, Bangladesh ranked 50th out of 153 countries. The increased rate of sexual assaults and violence against women resulted in countrywide anti-rape protests in 2020, leading the government to approve the death penalty for non-consensual sexual penetration.
Sexual minorities ★★✩✩✩ Homosexuality is criminalized under the obsolete Section 377 of the penal code. In 2016, the editor of the country’s first LGBTQI+ magazine, Xulhaz Mannan, and rights defender Mahbub Tonoy were hacked to death by members of a banned Islamist organization. Since then, fear has forced all kinds of community activities underground. However, years after the government’s recognition of the ‘third gender’, the transgender community is thriving with ever-increasing social support.
New Internationalist assessment Extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and abduction have become normalized events under the Awami League government. Sheikh Hasina has employed all the state apparatuses to silence her critics. By corrupting all the democratic institutions of the state, the government has introduced a vicious political culture with catastrophic consequences. With most members of parliament businesspeople whose children are raised abroad, the interests of the poor receive scant consideration.

New Internationalist issue 532 magazine cover This article is from the July-August 2021 issue of New Internationalist.
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