Three storylines have dominated my newsfeed of late: 203 Covid-19 deaths in a single day, 164 Bangladeshis rescued in the Mediterranean Sea and 52 workers burnt to death in the juice factory.
Economists, I hear, like numbers. Meanwhile, political corruption and media censorship form the backdrop that looms over these statistics.
While these devastating stories of death and despair swirl in my mind, I hear pundits report with pride that Bangladesh is a lower-middle-income country and boasting about its economic progress on the occasion of its 50th birthday.
What they may overlook is that these deaths have become collateral damage to Bangladesh's national economic development. These are the 'costs of doing business'.
What is this unquestioned infatuation with economic progress but a 'natok' or a façade? While tragedy and a triumphant narrative of the supposed underdog may make for a compelling story, these narratives have real-world consequences costing the lives of many. These duelling realities of progress and death remind me of a song I heard in 2015 by the National Garment Workers Federation musical group.
One line from the song asked if 'shadhinota' or freedom had reached the 'rickshawala'. The song framed freedom from the perspective of a hardworking group in our society who embody the poor.
Poetic and poignant: the song lyric stayed with me as a benchmark for measuring progress. It counters the prevailing numbers-driven view of progress, and presents us with questions we should always ask when evaluating economic growth: do all members of our society benefit from and do each of us equally shoulder the costs of progress?
Economic progress is not limited to abstract data and statistics, conveniently hiding human suffering. It also impacts the lives of the individuals earnestly pedalling the rickshaws to earn a living.
Bangladesh's economic prosperity has been built on the backs of its poor population, yet they are not the true beneficiaries of such prosperity. The accumulation of wealth of the richest 10% has increased, while that of the poorest has declined.
Amid this 'progress', economic inequality grew. Rapid industrialisation, a growing urban population and increased foreign investment has led to the destruction of rural livelihoods and the natural environment. The biggest drivers of Bangladesh's economic progress have been the garment industry and remittance sent by our migrant workers.
Bangladesh is the eighth largest remittance earner this year. When factories burn, workers jump off the building to save themselves, this is the cost of our progress.
When poor Bangladeshis make the dangerous decision to crowd on a boat to seek a better life in Europe and drown in the Mediterranean Sea, their lives are the cost of our progress. However, these human costs are not factored into the assessments of the growth of the economy.
Even proponents of the narrative of Bangladesh's economic growth admit that the benefits have not reached all segments of society.
While pundits ponder on how to distribute the country's economic prosperity equally, they forget that this economic growth was founded on inequality.
The economic policies applied by Bangladesh are doing precisely what they are supposed to. Bangladesh attracts foreign investors by promulgating its cheap workforce. Simultaneously, the government brokers labour arrangements for its migrants to work abroad but fails to secure safe and respectable working conditions for them in the many countries they are shipped off to.
If we are genuinely interested in economic development policies where all segments of our population benefit, then we need to critically examine and radically change our economic policies and laws. We cannot expect inequality to be solved by policies that generate and reinforce inequality.
One place to start is to examine and overhaul our rural development programmes, especially in sustainable and ecological agriculture. Just as the government promotes export-oriented industries to attract foreign investments, the government should also invest in the national agricultural economy to ensure food security.
However, the focus should be on sustainable agriculture, because agro-business has exacerbated the impacts of climate change on food production.
A whole host of factors, including rapid industrialisation, climate change and better work opportunities compel rural people to migrate to urban areas and seek work overseas which impact food security and agricultural development in rural areas.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has made it quite clear that humans, especially those who live in urban areas, rely on the food produced by farmers to survive.
I am reminded of a picture that went viral recently, which showed the back of a farmer's shirt, containing a poignant message in Bangla that read, "If we do not farm, what will you eat?". We can do away with that extra Eid dress, but we need access to fresh and healthy food to survive and thrive. We need food that is not contaminated by chemicals that pose health issues. We need food that is sustainably produced that does not destroy our environment in the process.
This means, for example, re-evaluating the establishment of industrial shrimp farms that destroy our coastal areas. Bringing our attention back to Bangladesh's land and agricultural policy will improve and secure the livelihoods of the people in rural areas.
Reviving rural livelihoods may diminish the pressures on workers gambling their lives to reach the shores of Greece and Italy for a chance to work as economic migrants that are often mistreated. While this solution is not a cure-all, it can be a good starting point to ameliorate some of the issues that put the poor in vulnerable positions.
Only when economic progress reaches the most vulnerable and unfortunate in our society, can we say we have made true progress.
The author is an associate professor of law at CUNY School of Law in New York.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.