Bangladesh's remarkable progress in socio-economic indicators over the past half-century has failed to benefit all segments of society due to escalating inequality, rooted in a lack of overall democratic accountability and good governance, economists and experts have said.
They emphasise that this inequality has been exacerbated by the insufficient allocation of resources to priority sectors, poor policy and project implementation, and inconsistencies between policy formulation and development planning.
In recent years, the nation has witnessed the rise of an oligarchic society, characterised by a substantial concentration of wealth and political influence, as discussed during a dialogue titled "Bangladesh's Development Narrative and the Parallel Realities" organised by the Citizen's Platform for SDGs in the capital yesterday.
Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, convener of the platform, highlighted stark income disparities, with only 1.31% of total income reaching the poorest 10%, while the richest 10% received 41%. He noted a 9% increase in inequality from 2010 to 2022.
In the last 10-15 years, there has been a massive rise in oligarch society, he said, adding that capitalism arises under the patronage of the state. Later, corporate crony capitalism was introduced through the indulgence of the private sector.
The number of individuals in this category has grown substantially compared to the past.
A field visit-based report identified several reasons behind income and expenditure inequality, including inefficiencies in government institutions, corruption, and a lack of accountability, leading to a voiceless population unable to assert their rights, said Debapriya.
He noted that private sector investment has been at 23% of the GDP for several years, which is much lower than the average of 30% in lower middle income countries.
The higher growth achieved in the last couple of years came mainly from the public investment which excluded a large number of people from benefits, said.
Furthermore, he criticised the allocation of less than 2% of GDP to education and 1% to healthcare as inadequate for a developing nation.
Roughly 2.52% GDP for Social Safety Net is significantly lower than the requirement, he said adding the actual allocation for the poor will reduce if the allocation for pension is excluded.
Identifying issues like unemployment, regional disparities, violence against women, environmental hazards, governmental inefficiencies, erosion of values, and widespread corruption, Dr Debapriya called for democratic restoration as a solution to ensure balanced and inclusive development. He warned that persistent inequality weakens social structures and poses challenges for the government.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), underscored the need to consider individual-level inequalities beyond average statistics.
He said, "We have done very well in many socio-economic indicators in term of average. However, many forms of inequality and injustice exist below the average at the individual level."
Mustafizur Rahman also said the richest 5% people in the country earned about 30 times more than the poorest 5% in 2010. The latest survey of the BBS found 80 times higher income by the richest 5% compared with the poorest 5% people.
He said Bangladesh scored 0.66 points out of 1 in the Human Development Index which will drop to 0.50 if the calculation is made addressing inequality.
He marked inequality as a major obstacle on the way to sustainable development and said inequality may reduce the aggregate demand which hampers investment, industrialisation, employment and further income.
Syed Nasim Manzur, another core group member of the citizen's platform and managing director at Apex Footwear, urged ensuring quality of education rather than the number of graduates.
He said the standard of education is directly linked with the employment and creation of decent jobs at a satisfactory level is not possible without a change in the education system.
"Full focus of our education system is on degrees and certificatse. There are more examinees in the exam hall than the number of students in the classroom. Along with education, skills should also be declared as a right."
Justice M Abdul Matin, retired justice of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, said the number of people holding wealth over Tk1 crore reached 98 in 1980 from 5 in 1972. The number crossed one lakh in 2021.
After the movement and struggle against the 20 families, now there are thousands of millionaires, he said and stressed over separate plan for them.
Civil rights activist Advocate Sultana Kamal said she is suffering due to various reasons including ongoing discrimination, rise of oligarchs and reduced opportunities to speak.
"Political wills will help to reduce such problems but it is reality that the political leaders and public representatives are not easily available."
Drawing from her own experience, Sultana Kamal said Dhaka South Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh threatened to dip her in Dholaikhal water as the raised voices to conserve the environment.
Sultana Kamal believes that the culture of threats is not unique to Taposh and that it exists among many other leaders.
She further mentioned that such words have been heard in many other places and questioned if one has to face violent threats for speaking, which politician should one actually go to.
Regarding recent statements from Farid Uddin Ahmed, vice-chancellor of Shahjalal University of Science and Technology (SUST) in Sylhet, Sultanah Kamal said that he has proven his credentials as a soldier of Bangabandhu. "But how does he believe in the 'Talibani culture'?"
She believes that those who claim to uphold the ideals of the liberation war must prove it.
She added wrongdoers become much more powerful when good people remain silent.
Theatre and cultural personality Mamunur Rashid said, "We have been fighting and struggling for a long time, trying to make the country livable, while money launderers are trying to make America, England, Malaysia livable by taking money from this country."