In search of Bangabandhu’s inclusive ‘Sonar Bangla’
Despite many challenges, Bangabandhu pursued his pledge of providing economic freedom through an inclusive development strategy
Along with the observance of a robust homecoming day of the Father of the Nation on January 10, a countdown to the day of his birth centenary will also be formally launched on March 17.
The whole nation is set to celebrate the auspicious birth centenary programmes, alongside a number of global dignitaries. Non-resident Bangladeshis also eagerly await their opportunity to pay homage to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
On January 10, 1972, he started his journey from "darkness to light" and promised a prosperous Bangladesh by capitalising on human resources – epitomised by the youths who joined the Liberation War and demonstrated highest levels of sacrifice and an indomitable fighting spirit.
True to his words, Bangabandhu quickly put the war-ravaged country on to the rails of development by reconstructing the physical and social infrastructures as quickly as possible.
Additionally, he had to rehabilitate millions of refugees and other internally displaced people who were mortally afraid of the genocide unleashed by the occupying inhuman armed forces of Pakistan and their collaborators.
Despite many challenges, both natural and man-made, he kept his cool and reorganised the economy and the society. Bangabandhu started pursuing his own pledge of providing freedom, particularly the economic one, through an inclusive development strategy so that people at large could come out of the overwhelming poverty and hunger that had gripped the nation.
The size of the economy was only about $8 billion at that time, where more than 80 percent people were below the poverty line and had a life expectancy of around 48 years. The only reason he could immediately ignite the aspirations for a golden Bangladesh, despite insurmountable challenges, was because of his inspirational charismatic leadership.
Bangladeshis, ready to look past the agonies of a post-war Bangladesh and share his dream of a prosperous nation, put all their entrepreneurial energies both in the agricultural fields and the industries. The hard-working people of Bangladesh actually believed that the promise of "Golden Bengal" was not a mere political rhetoric of Bangabandhu. He was deeply conscious about the past glory of this land which emerged as an independent country for the first time in the history under his farsighted leadership.
But that potential Bangladesh could not bloom due to exploitation, first by the British colonial rulers and then by another round of neo-colonial exploitation by Pakistan. Within days of creation of this country bound by artificial borders, Bangabandhu realised the danger of Pakistani exploitation of the eastern province and started mobilising students and the youth to challenge the authoritarian regime.
He called for implementing the pledge of winding up the zamindary system without compensation and meeting the challenges of the crises brewing up in the fields of food, clothing, education, accommodation and health. He also joined the Language Movement early in 1948, which had deeper connotations to the educated youths and ordinary people of East Bengal who were highly sensitive about the cultural content of it.
And he had to go to jail in March 1948 for leading the Language Movement, which was just the beginning of a regular affair for him in the days to come. In the process, he emerged as the major spokesperson for the autonomy of East Bengal and got the people's support in the 1954 provincial election to become the youngest minister of the cabinet.
This, of course, did not last long in the face of conspiracy by the Pakistani elites, and he ended up in jail as he was thought to be the most potential challenger to the Pakistani rulers from the East. In and out of jail, he continued his steadfast leadership for a free and fair economy and society, which subsequently yielded huge dividends for his political career.
Bangabandhu identified the economic dimensions of inequality imposed on the people of East Bengal in the 1950s and strongly condemned the Federal Control of Industries Act that gave full control of the sector to the central government. He was, therefore, keen on ensuring a fair share of the gains for Bangladesh (then East Pakistan).
That the industrial growth was focused on West Pakistan was clear from the allocation of Rs 35 crore for its 150 large industrial units from the budget during 1953-56, against only Rs 2 crore for 47 units in East Pakistan. Most large industrial units in Pakistan were also owned by West Pakistani entrepreneurs. The agrarian East Pakistan was discriminated against as most of the canals and dams for flood control were constructed in West Pakistan.
Moreover, Pakistan became an oligarchy with 22 families enjoying the benefits of development at the cost of hard earned foreign exchange through the export of jute and jute products from the East. Bangabandhu asked for recognition of two economies for two parts of Pakistan separated by more than a thousand miles. And subsequently, the historic Six-point Movement was built up on this line of thought, for which Bangabandhu spent most of his political life in jail. Bangabandhu's aspirations for economic autonomy based on his Six-point Program and the West Pakistani elites denying his claims was at the core of the Liberation War led by him.
Immediately after stepping foot on the land of independent Bangladesh, Bangabandhu vowed to lift the country to prosperity from the ashes.
"We will turn this war-ravaged country into a golden one. In the Bengal of the future, mothers will smile and children will play. It will be a society free of exploitation. Start the movement in the fields and farms and the factories. We can rebuild the country through hard work. Let us work together so that the Golden Bengal shines again," he addressed the people of Bangladesh.
And he kept his promise. He started focusing on agricultural development right from day one as it provides raw material for the industry and food for all. It was also the biggest source of employment and income for many.
He waived the debts of one million farmers and ensured adequate supply of seeds and agricultural equipment at a concessional price and introduced minimum fair prices and ration facilities for farmers. The state had to take the charge of running the industrial units as these were left abandoned by the Pakistani owners. He also went for the first five-year plan to put the development into a medium-term strategy. He also lifted the limit of private investment from Tk25 lakh to Tk 3 crore in the fiscal year 1974-75. In addition, 133 abandoned factories were handed over to the private sector. In other words, he was in favour of deregulation to bolster the private sector investment despite his life-long commitment to equality.
Unfortunately, Bangabandhu's well-planned journey towards inclusive development was cut short by the forces of evil in August 1975. After many years of struggle for democracy and good governance led by her able daughter, the country is finally back on track. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been trying hard to make Bangladesh a role model of inclusive development as dreamt by Bangabandhu. And she has already made significant progress by expanding the economy to a robust $300-billion one, with a per capita income of about $1909.
The poverty rate has declined to nearly 20 percent and life expectancy has gone up to 73 years. The women empowerment index in Bangladesh is the best in the region. And the country is now growing by 8 percent per year, making it one of the fastest growing economies of the world.
Yet, we have many hurdles to overcome. We still need to create 1.6 million jobs annually, go for huge uplift of renewable energy in the face of climate change challenges, diversify our export base, and continue to enhance our agricultural and manufacturing productivity, further promote digital economy, address growing urbanisation and ensure financial stability at any cost. Indeed, the future will be all digitisation and e-commerce.
The growth must also be adaptive to climate change with a dominant private sector and a focus on technology enabled small and medium enterprises. Furthermore, we must take advantage of the on-going socio-political stability facilitated by continuity of the government and a focus on good governance and creating a corruption-free society.
I am sure, we will all be paying our deepest respects to Bangabandhu throughout his birth centenary – irrespective of caste, class and religion – by focusing on the kind of governance and development strategy he dreamt of. And back to back, we will be celebrating the golden jubilee of our Independence next year when Bangabandhu will still be at the centre of all of our jubilations.
In an online survey that we ran on 880 young respondents, 73 percent of them said they remember Bangabandhu for his historic March 7 speech. More than 75 percent of them would like to remember him as an architect of Bangladesh by providing self-less leadership for his people. Over 76 percent will remember him for his Six-point Programme.
These are only a few reflections of his charismatic leadership for which he will be remembered for ages. Long live Bangladesh. Long live Bangabandhu.
Professor Atiur Rahman is the Bangabandhu Chair Professor at University of Dhaka and former Bangladesh Bank governor