Forty-four years of independence — transformation of Bangladesh

Our Victory Day on December 16 marked the 44th anniversary of the success of the freedom-loving people of Bangladesh in their quest for an independent homeland where the Bangalee nation could flourish within the paradigm of their unique culture, language, traditions and also promote their socio-economic welfare. This date marks for all of us our tryst with destiny and also persuades me to analyse how we have transformed ourselves.
The torch that was snuffed out on August 15, 1975 re-surfaced through the coming to power of the Bangladesh Awami League in 1996 under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. The next five years witnessed important initiatives related to agriculture, resolution of the conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in 1997 and creation of important alternatives in the electronic and broadcast media as well as in the use of mobile phone connectivity. This was reflected in the granting of licence, for the first time, to a private Television channel,  ‘Ekushey TV,’ so that the viewers could see in real time reports on activities within the country which might be different from what was being aired by the government television (BTV) channel. This created healthy competition and assisted in promoting good governance. The other important initiative was the granting of licence to Norwegian mobile phone operator, Telenor, to start their cell phone operations as Grameen Phone. This Norwegian company has continued to grow since then and today has more than 50 million subscribers in this country. Other international mobile phone operators have also joined in – Robi, Bangla Link and Airtel. The total number of cell phone users in Bangladesh has grown from over 52 million subscribers/ users (when Sheikh Hasina returned to power in January, 2009) to over 130 million. They provide effective connectivity between the rural and urban areas and also between expatriate Bangladeshis working abroad and their family members they have left behind in Bangladesh. It also acts as the platform for those interested in accessing digital technology (internet) and social media. It has also facilitated the growth of trade and commerce, educational activities, economic opportunities, mobile banking and e-commerce.
This process of opening doors to healthy competition has continued in the broadcasting sector. It has resulted in the granting of licences to nearly 30 private Television companies and several private FM radio stations. Community radio stations have also sprouted all over the country along with several digital news portals.
This process of transformation towards a more transparent and accountable governance – i.e. good governance – was taken forward through the adoption of the Right to Information Act on March 29, 2009. It became effective from July 01, 2009. The Information Commission constituted to monitor the effective functioning of the entire process of accessing to information has had to overcome several challenges, including bureaucratic mind-set, but the full backing of Prime Minister Hasina has enabled the responsible authorities to implement wider application of this Act and also to take quasi-judicial steps in cases of contravention.
Bangladesh has made significant progress in alleviating poverty and attaining food security.  From subsistence agriculture, it has now become a mechanised, process-oriented and diversified one. Technology, diversity and innovation are now the hallmarks of our present-day agricultural matrix.
Education, health and sanitation, gender mainstreaming, creation of social safety nets and ensuring of basic human rights have helped our gradual economic transformation. This has been acknowledged abroad and we are now widely recognised as a ‘role model’ for development.
Since 2009, our GDP (Gross Domestic Product) has been growing, at an average, over 6.0 per cent annually, export earnings have reached US$ 32 billion, remittances have doubled to US$ nearly 15 billion and the foreign currency reserve has crossed US$ 27 billion. This has taken place at a time when the world has been suffering a financial recession. Bangladesh now ranks as the 37th largest economy in the world in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP).
We have also experienced one of the fastest poverty reduction rates in the world with a modest resource base. We have brought down poverty from 56.7 per cent in 1991 to 22.4 per cent today. Bangladesh has graduated from the UNDP’s low human development category to medium, and also the World Bank’s lower income-country status to lower middle-income category. This trend has resulted in Goldman Sachs including Bangladesh in the list of “Next Eleven” and JP Morgan in its list of the “Emerging Five”. This is a far-cry from Henry Kissinger’s aspersion of Bangladesh being an “international basket case”.
Realising that investing in human capital is important, our large young population is being targeted and it is beginning to pay dividends. The National Education Policy has now shifted its focus from quantity to building quality and reducing the process of drop-outs.  More than 13 million students (of which 75 per cent are girls) from poor families have received stipends in 2015. Free education is being made available for girls up to the 12th Grade in the higher secondary level. In the beginning of 2015, over 330 million free text books were distributed by the Ministry of Education to school students. Since 2010, nearly 1.59 billion text books have been distributed. It is probably the biggest such initiative ever undertaken in the world. Madrasa education has also been upgraded with the introduction of teaching of science and technology. This has helped to raise the national functional literacy rate to 65 per cent.
In keeping with the effort to enhance rights of women, a policy has been initiated whereby women receive collateral-free loans to help them set up small and medium enterprises. There has also been an upward trend in women getting more involved in politics, civil service, judiciary, armed forces and in the industrial sector. This involvement has had the beneficial effect of delayed marriages and better family planning.
To facilitate better health care in the rural areas, certain innovative steps have been taken. The rural population receives over 200 services from over 5,275 Digital Centres and also has access to health care services from over 16,500 IT-connected Health Complexes. These steps are ensuring that no one is left behind in our shared aspiration to build a resilient, peaceful and prosperous society.
In the international arena, we have committed ourselves through the United Nations to the upholding of peace, ‘rule of law’ and the ending of any ‘culture of impunity’. In this context we are playing a responsible and contributory role in the international community. This approach has encouraged us to attach utmost importance to the preservation of religious harmony and tolerance that have nurtured our social fabric through the ages.
We can justifiably take pride that in the last seven years we have been able to enhance our engagement with our neighbours. There has been a palpable dynamism characterised by well-integrated domestic and international priorities for preserving and promoting our national interests.
Bangladesh has remained engaged multilaterally for promoting peace, development, climate justice, enhanced market access as much as in setting global standards in the trade regime and also the parameters of human rights and disarmament. UN peacekeeping, peace building and the successful completion of the Doha Development Round have also remained high in Bangladesh’s foreign policy priorities. Bangladesh has established the internationally acclaimed Institute for Peace Support Operations and Training (BIPSOT) for training peacekeepers, particularly women peacekeepers.
Bilaterally Bangladesh has sought to further expand co-operative relations. This has included broadening of inter-action with countries and regions with which it has not had direct links in the past. Several new missions and sub-missions have been opened to enhance our outreach, especially in Africa and Latin America. This has been done in the pursuit of political goodwill and market access for our expanding and diversified exports, sustained flow of FDI (foreign direct investment), newer and diversified openings for our workforce in the global marketplace, and technical cooperation for our development goals.
The government has taken measures to build on its relations with its immediate neighbours to expedite the implementation of regional connectivity linking Nepal, Bhutan, India and Bangladesh, and further beyond through Myanmar, with South-East and China. These steps have taken into consideration questions related to power-grid interconnectivity, river basin management and upgradation of ports to enable the country to emerge as a regional hub. This process has been taken forward with the successful completion of the demarcation of Bangladesh’s maritime boundaries with Myanmar and India and also through the landmark conclusion of the Land Boundary Agreement and final resolution of the long-standing exchange of enclaves issue between India and Bangladesh. Political will acted as the necessary facilitator.
Considerable progress has been achieved in the process of establishing the BCIM Economic Corridor proposed by the BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar) Forum. It will bolster cooperation between Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar. In addition to the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) context, emphasis is also being given by our government to strengthening the nexus between Bangladesh and South-East Asia. This is being done through the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) and is expected to usher in comprehensive co-operation. Consistent with this natural expansion of ties, Bangladesh has also been attaching especial importance to trade, investment and security-related issues within the paradigm of partnership as envisaged under the Indian Ocean initiative of IOR-ARC (Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation).
There has been a new thrust in Bangladesh’s relations with Western Asia and Central Asia. This has been initiated through VVIP visits to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE and Turkey. This has helped to increase economic cooperation and promote investment in Bangladesh.
Pro-active measures have helped to bolster trade and economic engagement with the European Union, United States and Canada. These steps have helped to identify areas whereby existing deficiencies within the Bangladesh framework can be removed and challenges overcome. Institutional approaches are also assisting in making common efforts to fight terrorism more effectively.
All these measures have assisted in our image-building as a progressive country at the international level.
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.