Interview: Akbar Ali Khan
'We are advancing, but not always at the same pace'
At the outset of the New Year, historian, economist and former caretaker government advisor Akbar Ali Khan speaks in an interview to Prothom Alo about Bangladesh's achievements over the past 50 years since its independence and also of its failures. He says Bangladesh is no longer where it stood in 1971 during the war of independence. The country has shown extraordinary success in food production and other economic indicators. However, there is no scope for complacency over this progress. The shortcomings in good governance must be overcome for the sake of sustainable development. Disparity must be lessened and the democratic system must be consolidated.
It has been 50 years since Bangladesh achieved its independence. How do you want to see 2022?
I must first of all say that I am optimistic about Bangladesh. If we compare Bangladesh now to what it was in 1971, we have made huge advancements. I could not imagine we would advance so far. Secondly, technical and technological advancement has empowered people significantly. In many countries it is still inconceivable to carry out business transactions in the manner that even our illiterate people do over the mobile phone. Even a person like Bill Gates has expressed his awe at Bangladesh's development. We are going ahead. We have, admittedly, not been able to progress equally in all areas. There are areas where we have slipped back too.
What are the areas where we have fallen behind?
We have fallen behind in governance and also in democracy. There is a lack of good governance. One of the main commitments of independence was secularism. We have fallen back there too. It is no use to dream of secularism in a country where democracy is not durable. A proper democratic rule is essential for secularism.
Another aim had been socialism, though there are various debates about its definition. But the bottom line of socialism is to decrease disparity. In Bangladesh, disparity has increased rather than decreased. The average disparity in the country in 1971 was the same as in 30 per cent of the countries of the world, with 70 per cent having higher disparity. Now only 30 per cent of the countries have more disparity than in Bangladesh. If disparity rises in this manner, this may lead to social disorder. I am apprehensive about this.
At a seminar recently, you expressed certain apprehensions about the country's advancement and development.
I am apprehensive because we have failed to establish our development on a strong foundation. We produce 10 times more food than we did in 1971. At the same time, our population has increased. However, food intake per person has increased. In 1971 we did not face the onset of arsenic. Salinity has increased in the southern regions of the country. That is why most people there are deprived of clean drinking water. The supply of food and clean water must both be ensured for sustainable development.
Where do we stand in the human resource development index?
We sometimes go ahead in the human resource development index and sometimes fall behind. In the hunger index we still lag behind 70 or 80 countries. We are ahead of India and Pakistan, but that is not the benchmark. The benchmark should be whether we have been able to emerge from the hunger index.
It is not only that we are lagging behind in these indicators. There are weaknesses in many other areas of the economy. If we pat ourselves on the back in complacence instead of remaining alert about these areas, there could be serious danger ahead.
The readymade garment industry and overseas remittance are the two driving forces of Bangladesh's economy. Are there any fears about the future of these two sectors?
We rank second in the world when it comes to the readymade garment sector. But this industry is changing. Computerisation is bringing about changes in the manufacturing process of clothing. We remain behind in many areas. Then again, computerisation has pushed costs up and calls for a much larger initial investment. If that can be done, it will be much cheaper to produce than what is done by unskilled workers. That means the demand for workers will fall. Even the World Bank president in a speech said this garment sector will remain for just another 10 to 20 years and so we need to be prepared.
And foreign remittance depends on two factors. One is the financial condition of the countries where the people go to work. If the financial condition is bad, then they will take less people. The second factor is, most of our remittance comes from unskilled labour, doing work which people from other countries are unwilling to do. So there is no possibility of this increasing. On the contrary, this may shrink.
There are allegations that we did not pay adequate attention to education after independence. Do you agree?
There is need for much change in education. However, I will not agree that education has deteriorated. Even in the past, 10 per cent of the students in the country were excellent and 90 per cent were mediocre or bad. The number of students has increased now, but the ratio remains the same. It will take time to bring about changes. Reforms cannot be carried out overnight. A 10-year plan has to be taken up at the least. It is unfortunate that the 10 per cent meritorious students that we have, all go abroad. The attraction that lies there is absent here. We have to reach the level of China. Students no longer leave China to study abroad. Students from outside are now going to China to study.
In your book 'Abak Bangladesh: Bichitra Chhalanajale Rajneeti', you highlight certain problems regarding democracy, elections and the election commission, which no other researcher has done in the past. But wherein lies the solution?
I feel if the things I have highlighted in the book are actually implemented, a lot of the problems will be resolved. If the irregularities during the election are 100 per cent now, these will reduce by perhaps 40 to 50 per cent. That must be gradually reduced further. I mentioned quite a few methods. If these are taken up, there may be an improvement in things. For instance, I spoke about proper use of computers in Bangladesh's elections. That does not simply mean electronic ballots. Electronic ballots are rigged even in America and will be in Bangladesh too. When a vote is cast, its result can be analysed by computer before the result is declared. You enter information in the computer in advance, say that there are 3000 voters in that centre and so 2400 votes may be cast. Now if 2600 or 2800 votes are cast, the computer will mark it. Then the election commission will see if there is need to carry out a re-vote. The results will be counted in every centre. It is not possible here to count the votes later, as in India. So the existing election system will remain in place, the commission will declare the results and will observe the areas where the performance has been poor, whether the election has to be held again in any area.
There is still controversy about the elections, even 50 years after independence. We have failed to emerge from this. Who will you blame?
The politicians. They created this problem and have been nurturing it. Not a single political party in Bangladesh believes in genuine democracy.
You wrote the book in 2017. Then there was an election in 2018. How would you evaluate that election? And how do you expect the 2023 election to be?
I had written the book with that election in mind, just in case the election commission or the others took it up. But it was not taken up at that level and so had no impact. The 2018 election was legitimate in the legal sense, but was not democratically held. It is difficult to say how the 2023 election will be. I hope that if all concerned grasp the questions which have arisen over the election, then 2018 will not be repeated.
You have placed importance on political consensus to resolve the election problems.
If there is no political consensus, who will carry out this task? It is for the politicians to change the system. If everyone gives due thought to the matter, a political consensus can be reached.
There is another way. If the majority of the people in the country are of the same opinion, then even if those in power do not agree, a consensus can be established by means of a mass movement. This is a completely political matter. The matter cannot be resolved without politicians.
Is incompetence or corruption the main problem in running the government?
Both. And when both of these come together, the results are even more disastrous. When the people see things can’t run this way any longer, things will gradually change. Digitalisation may even help in this regard. If the people’s demands can be met and changes are made to ensure a democratic system and rule of law, a significant change will come about in the administration too.
The civil society has a role to play in any democratic state. How do you view the role of the civil society in our country?
Civil society has a role to play in all countries, but will not rule the country. If they are seen as an alternative to politicians or as fit to rule the country, then they are no longer civil society. They become politicians too. Many within the civil society cannot speak out due to political pressure. Then again, there are many that speak under political patronage. Civil society doesn’t mean only those who are part of any organisation. It includes teachers, physicians, journalists, lawyers, people from all professions. As a student of Dhaka University, I saw groupings among teachers, but the teachers’ association remained united when it came to public interests. But now you will not find a single association where the opposing factions can reach any sort of consensus. I see unity nowhere.
It is said that democracy is essential for sustainable development. But China and many other countries are seeing development without democracy.
China may be developing without democracy, but they are conscious about good governance. Again, the present state of China may not remain the same forever. Without democracy, problems will crop up within China too. The Chinese government has so far been able to quash all uprisings that have cropped up, but that may not be possible in the future. If democracy and development go hand-in-hand, that will be sustainable. If not, it may collapse.
You were closely involved in the emergence of Bangladesh. How will you evaluate Bangladesh as it stands today?
I am optimistic. I believe independence is a huge matter and we achieved that. Now we have to make sacrifices to uphold and enhance it. That might not happen in five years or ten years, but in the long run Bangladesh will surely be established as a country of respect and honour. The sad part is that we could have achieved this earlier. But rather than lamenting over this, we must endeavour to go forward. We still have many dreams to fulfill.