The late George Harrison was moved to rhyme Bangladesh with ‘distress’, concluding in song ‘it sure looks a mess’. Ex-US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was more succinct, describing the country as a ‘basket case’.
Bangladesh has long been synonymous in the western imagination with general natural disaster. Indeed, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth predicts its entire disappearance underwater if we carry on abusing our planet as we are. Now political instability can be added to its list of associations, with the country now taking the dubious honour of joining the Foreign Office’s list of countries advised against travel to by UK nationals. Having recently returned from a visit there myself, the news struck a chord with me.
With a population of 150 million, Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest democracies. However, its young democracy is at a crossroads. January’s state of emergency was declared after not all parties were in agreement about holding elections on January 22.
There are some 40 parties – so 19-party alliances (such as that of the Awami League) are not unheard of. Although eastern countries are seen as backward on the subject of women’s rights, two women run the major two mainstream parties – Sheikh Hasina of the centre-left Awami League and Begum Khaleda Zia. Into this volatile mix comes the added ingredient of Islam. The founding principles of secularism, that were enshrined in the original constitution, were erased under the military ruler General Ershad’s presidency from 1982 to 1990. In short, Bangladesh has had a turbulent lifetime since coming into being following a bloody war of independence in 1971. Now it could follow various paths. Elsewhere in the subcontinent, its nearest neighbour India’s economic growth has continued apace in recent years, while Pakistan is best known as a hard-line Islamist state.
Progress in some areas in painfully slow: official figures now put literacy levels climbing to nearly 80 per cent, but many of these are people who know only how to write their name. The true level is more likely to be around half of inhabitants. About the same proportion live on the poverty line – surviving on under a dollar a day.
On the environment, however, positive changes are discernible. Under the government of the Bangladesh National Party, which ended in October, some commendable environmental measures were introduced, including the banning of polythene carrier bags. Shops now issue more sustainable paper and jute alternatives. In an attempt to combat chronic pollution, public transport has been converted to run on compressed natural gas as opposed to petrol; indeed, motorised three-wheeler rickshaws are known as CNGs in common parlance. There are still regular power-cuts though: one hour each evening in the capital Dhaka.
Ordinarily, Bangladesh features little in the UK media. The end of last year saw something of a reversal of this, with the Nobel Peace Prize being won by the Bangla economics professor, Mohmmed Yunus, for his credit unions based on micro-finance loans provided to women. Bangladesh also registered in the UK consciousness for the scandal of poorly paid workers in the garment industry, highlighted by War on Want. The real price of a pair of Primark or Tesco £4 jeans, the charity concluded, are the exploitative costs involved: 5 pence an hour, paid frequently to women in non-unionised conditions.
My own limited research on this shows that, with 140 taka equal to one of our pounds, the national minimum wage of 1660 taka a month taken home by sewing machine operators in companies where this is adhered to amounts to £12. Given that the working day is 8am-8pm, with one hour’s lunch break, this amounts to an hourly rate of 5p. Purchasing power is not comparable with what our pounds buy, as everything is much cheaper, but presumably Bangladesh keeps the minimum wage that low in order not to be undercut by China.
Where Bangladesh goes next remains to be seen: we really are now in uncharted waters. Either way, its unique mixture of Islam and – now hopefully reformed – democracy will continue to make it a fascinating country for witnessing the effects of 21st century globalisation in years to come. If it doesn’t disappear under sea level, that is.
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