A mechanical engineer, who graduated from a private university a few years ago, recently got a job. His salary, Tk16,000 per month. Over the past decade, his family spent a good amount of money to pay for his education. After his father recently got paralyzed following a heart attack triggered by Covid-related complications, he became the only earning member of his family. He is now anxious about supporting a family of five in Dhaka city, where even mid-level professionals with higher salaries struggle to make ends meet.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), per capita income in Bangladesh rose by 10 percent, from $2,024 in the 2019-20 fiscal year to $2,227 in 2020-21. Bangladesh's GDP per capita is projected to be around $1,750 in 2022 and $1,850 in 2023. The growth certainly seems impressive.
If the GDP – a widely used marker that indicates the economic output of a nation per person – is on the rise, and if that means development, then it naturally follows that people should be able to afford a better life, receive quality education, enjoy upgraded health services and better social security.
Also, there should be sufficient opportunities for decent jobs for all employable citizens. But there is an apparent contrast between the picture of growth on paper, and wage earners' economic health in the real world.
This reminds us of a famous quote from Charles Dickens' 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, …it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair".
If the country is prospering, why does an engineering graduate need to look for a job for one or two years, only to find one that pays Tk16,000 a month?
On one hand, recent reports shockingly reveal that Bangladeshi nationals have invested about Tk288 crore in Dubai and created another 'Begum Para' just within the last two years, during the pandemic.
In a similar report, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) found that approximately $3.1 billion gets laundered out of Bangladesh every year. Looking back, $ 61.6 billion was drained out of Bangladesh between 2005 and 2014, and about $5.9 billion was siphoned out of the country in 2015, according to the Global Financial Institute (GFI).
On the other hand, the average income of people decreased 30 percent in cities and 12 percent in villages during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIDS) and Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). In addition to the income loss, the value of money decreased with inflation reaching 6.2 percent in November 2021, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
Moreover, the rate of unemployment was 5.3 percent in 2020, which was expected to reach 6.00 percent by the end of 2021, according to Trading Economics.
Sadly, the unemployment rate is higher among university graduates. According to the latest labour force survey of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), 66 percent of National University graduates are unemployed. If the economy is growing so successfully, why should most graduates remain unemployed and underpaid year after year?
Large numbers of migrant workers cross borders, legally and illegally, every year, risking their lives, often facing inhumane treatment, and almost invariably failing to get decent jobs. While migrant workers added nearly $22 billion to our economy in 2020, a group of people siphoned off billions of dollars out of the country illegally.
According to the World Inequality Report 2022, 16.3 percent of Bangladesh's total national income in 2021 went to 1 percent of the population, while the share of the bottom 50 percent was 17.1 percent. This, of course, means that only a tiny minority, 1 percent of the population, amasses as much money as the income of the bottom 50 percent put together. The top 10 percent shared 44 percent of the total national income. The level of prevailing inequality is simply alarming.
Instead of addressing extreme inequality, the quality of life of the majority of the population, corruption, and illegal money flow, our national leaders frequently brag about the growing GDP and per capita income.
As the per capita income is only a number that does not ensure our well-being but aids only political gains, we cannot afford to be complacent about our so-called development. If the policymakers do not prioritize the fundamental aspects of development like investing more in education, health and social security, and if they fail to keep corruption in check, the country will never attract sufficient foreign and local investments.
Consequently, we will never be able to improve the unemployment and underemployment situation. And ordinary people will never enjoy the advantages of GDP growth.
The picture these data draw is that of a stark contrast. The society is now clearly divided into two classes – one that can be justifiably called the ultra-rich, whose members have links to the state power, enjoy all kinds of privileges and earn billions legally and illegally. And the other class consists of the general public, which struggles to live a decent life and support their families.
History teaches us that this kind of extreme inequality ignites disaster, revolutions and wars. Development means bringing about social changes that allow people to achieve their potential, which must include the overall well-being of all citizens, not only prosperity for a select few.
Md Kawsar Uddin is an assistant professor of English at the International University of Business Agriculture & Technology (IUBAT)