Physically and socially, Bangladesh must rank right up there with the fastest changing countries in the world. I lived in Dhaka 25 years ago, and I have returned often since then.
But each time I return, I could swear this mega-city’s population has doubled, half the buildings I knew have been knocked down (and are being replaced by modern transparent ones made mostly of glass), and traffic has increased in intensity despite new flyovers that take you over large swaths of the city at high speeds.
Casual empiricism, that is just watching the people in the streets, leads one to believe that the citizens of Dhaka are not only more numerous than the last visit but better fed, healthier, and certainly no less industrious.
This is particularly striking for those of us who have been coming to Bangladesh for over two decades. I remember when the Gulshan, Banani, and Baridhara sections were on the edge of the city, and contained mostly two-storey villas with a sprinkling of embassies and a few shops. The traffic was normal (meaning that it moved along, and rarely did one stand in one spot for more than a minute or two).
Now, only a few of those villas are left. Most of them have been knocked down and replaced by five or six-storey apartment houses. These areas now hum with business offices, retail outlets, and boutique and larger hotels. They are really the centre of Dhaka life, at least for the upper echelons of society. And the traffic is impossible. My car sat in several spots, not able to move for over 15 minutes each this evening.
It took more than an hour to go to the hotel to which I could have walked in 15 minutes. I remember when there were about a half dozen restaurants, outside the two major international hotels, that were up to international standards.
Now it appears that there are hundreds of good restaurants of an almost infinite variety of cuisine, some very expensive, in these sections of the city. And though I have not tried them all (I would have to stay a year to do so), most seem to be flourishing.
This leads me to the social change I mentioned above. Dhaka, and probably Bangladesh as a whole, is testament to the benefits of steady economic growth that comes from good economic policies (that, for the most part, allow the private sector to lead the economic growth), and an increasing focus on facilitating that growth with improved and modern infrastructure. Add to this the improving educational levels (better education numbers than most South Asian countries), an industrious work force that includes a high proportion of women, and importantly, an open mind regarding globalisation.
Bangladesh’s steady economic growth of around 5% to 6% over two decades has spawned a vastly expanded elite (which one can see almost every night in the restaurants and hotels, when not caught in the traffic jams in their Mercedes and BMWs and other high-end transport).
And this long period of steady growth has also seen a very large rise in the middle class. There are as many ways to measure the middle class as there are countries with a middle class. I am not going to get into comparisons across countries. It is too complicated for this article. Nonetheless, a reputable Dhaka think tank recently released a study that put the Bangladesh middle class in 2010 at 20% of the population, having grown from 9% in 1992.
With this growth rate, the study says that by 2025, as much as 25% of the population will be in the middle class. And by 2030, the percentage will rise to 33%. Having said this, I should point out that the study’s methodology also reveals that Bangladesh in 2010 remained below the South Asian average of around 25% of the population in the middle class.
However, the relevant point here is that the increasing middle class has fueled the consumption boom that is one of the drivers of the steady upward growth rate. Also, at its present rate of growth, the Bangladeshi middle class may well exceed the South Asian average by 2030.
It is my memory of the past that has brought me to think of how civil society may have been affected by the expansion of the economic elite and the middle class. I arrived in Dhaka in 1990, just as the movement to expel the dictator General Ershad was coming together. The two major parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, had finally agreed on something — an agenda of action to push Ershad out.
The main point was to stick together and not let him divide them as he had in the past. The other two points were to then settle the issues between them by a free and fair election and to have a neutral interim government conduct that election.
The support for such an agreement from major parts of civil society helped push the two parties into each other’s arms (holding their noses I suspect) and then, coming together behind the two parties made the movement successful. (Ershad had some supporters and sympathisers, so it wasn’t unanimous.)
But that conception of a civil society in which the great majority sees its interests alike seems now to be dated and very naive. Some of the parvenu in this greatly expanded economic elite must surely see their interests in the status quo, that is the one-party government that occupies the catbird seat these days. This would be especially true if the government were to devote all its energies to facilitating economic growth.
And the more numerous, if still less well-off, middle class must also see the steady economic growth rate and the steady increase of remittances from their kin in the middle east (which go disproportionately to the middle class and is vital in the increase of their prosperity) as related to the status quo.
Polls continue to record that a great majority of Bangladeshis think that the country is going in the right direction. Some of this majority may be motivated to say this from fear of a government that doesn’t take criticism well. (Many Bangladeshi readers will take this as the understatement of the week.) The opposition explains the polls that way.
But it seems unlikely that the polls would show such large margins if fear was the main factor.
But not everything in Bangladesh changes as fast as the physical infrastructure and the social structure. In politics, much remains the same. The dog-eat-dog, zero-sum-game nature of politics not only remains the norm, many critics say it is being carried to new heights.
The BNP is in dire straits, and seemingly has a suicide complex. Its actions have only increased its vulnerability as a viable opposition party. Without a complete overhaul, I believe its future is bleak.
The governing party is, of course, primarily to blame for locking up many BNP leaders and for many other repressive actions against it, but the BNP leadership resists every opportunity to recover its standing with the public. The government is also bearing down hard on any other voices of opposition, and trying hard to muzzle some very courageous media voices.
A campaign which everybody understands is inspired by the government against two prominent editors, piling up court cases against them, is by now well known in the region and in the West.
Theory and history say this kind of government behaviour will change with the rise of the middle class, but Bangladesh has resisted both theory and history so far.