There is so much that Bangladesh has been naturally blessed with.
For example: Flat, arable land with greenery all over, a multitude of rivers, a tropical climate that Western holiday-seekers would pay a premium for, access to the ocean. Take a step back, rewind in your mind to a time before all this so-called development took place in this country, and what you get is a Goldilocks-style "just right" location of staggering natural beauty.
If the distribution of wealth were spread equitably around the world, if all countries had similar types of government with the same rights and responsibilities for all citizens, and the same levels of environmental pollution, and I were asked by a genie popping out from a lamp where in God's green earth I wished to live, without reservation I would say Bangladesh. You can keep the permafrost of the Nordic countries kissing the Arctic Circle, and the never-ending winter chills of Canada. You can keep the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of Japan, or the breathtaking yet ruggedly treacherous terrains of New Zealand or Australia. I am perfectly happy to put my roots down right here, near the banks of the Buriganga, I would tell this genie. Bangladesh is my home, and I am not moving.
There will, no doubt, on the occasion of Bangladesh's 51st Independence Day, be a deluge of newspaper pieces – op-ed pieces and feature stories and flag-waving editorials – that celebrate the "development journey" of Bangladesh, praising us for how far we have come.
They will be correct on some points: It is true, for example, that for a country with a history of famine, we have made remarkable strides in food production, and while we are still a long way from realistically banishing the hunger problem, the food crisis is not as dire as it has been in the past. Big business has boomed, and a quick look around our capital city makes it clear that there are people in this country with plenty of money to burn, and this wealth flows down into the hands of employees who are now able to have a standard of life – filled with imported consumer goods and frequent foreign vacations (pandemic notwithstanding) – that could not have been dreamt of by previous generations. These gains I will gladly acknowledge.
And yet, the reality is, the vast majority of us would not tell the genie from the lamp that we are happy with Bangladesh as is, because the grim truth is that we have wreaked havoc on this land throughout the five decades since independence, and all the things that once made Bangladesh a geographical jackpot have been all but ruined.
Our rivers are so polluted they are increasingly hostile to marine life. Report after report has shown the air of our cities to be some of the worst air in the world – this is no mere opinion, but scientific fact: Our AQI is consistently abysmal. To say our big cities are overpopulated would be a grave understatement – our jaw-droppingly bad traffic situation defies all description. Indeed, the traffic problem in Dhaka can only be comprehended by residents of this city who deal with this traffic on a regular basis; explaining it to an outside party is a nearly impossible task.
So to the genie from the lamp, this genie making his best sales pitch, highlighting how our land, climate, location, and topography make us the top prize of not just Asia but the world, most of us, given the reality of the year 2022, would probably say "no thanks." Even many of those who wax patriotic in op-ed columns cheering on Bangladesh's progress actually live abroad, or secretly pour their energies into trying to leave the country, and emigrate the first chance they get. Do not get them wrong, please. They still love Bangladesh with all their hearts. They just prefer to do it from a distance, is all.
Yours truly is not one such NRB. Bangladesh is my home, and I, like millions of other ordinary citizens, deal with its realities day in and day out. We were given a good thing once upon a time, but five decades of political short-sightedness, greed, bad planning, and broken political institutions that have failed to hold polluters accountable have turned Bangladesh into a nearly unlivable place. That is our reality. That is the truth we feel in our bones.
I leave it to the economists to sing praises of our GDP numbers. As I said, their assessment isn't exactly wrong. But ultimately, a country's value is about how it makes us feel, how much it allows us to live a healthy, fulfilling life, a life free of constant stressors and anxieties, a life with social and political freedoms that allow us to reach for our potential, and to pursue happiness.
My dream for this nation for the next half-decade is that we will focus on those things which truly matter, so that bright young people of future generations, from the heart, choose to live in Bangladesh and build their lives and careers here, instead of dreaming of something better in foreign shores.
Abak Hussain is a journalist.