As the rich get richer and the poor remain stuck in the poverty rut, there is a propensity among certain ‘patriots’ to blithely point out, “You won’t find people walking around barefoot anymore, nor will you find poor women wearing saris without blouses. We’ve come a long way!”
We sure have come a long way, with our GDP creeping up to eight and beyond, our food production boosted by one bumper crop after the other, life expectancy going up and infant mortality going down. Wealth indexes are swelling fast and development is topping the charts. Statistics and figures are being happily tossed around and Bangladesh seems to be hurtling down the highway towards progress and prosperity. It is. For some.
But blouses and shoes are not indicators of wealth. The woman who wears her blouse with her colourful cotton sari, goes home after a long day’s work at a construction site, only to be met by her waiting children, undernourished, uneducated and insecure. The rickshaw-puller is no longer barefoot, but when he pedals under the hot sun with his sandal-shod feet, the sweat that trickles down his back does not wash away the pangs of poverty. The smug smile of those happy with the sight of blouses and slippers is nothing but a mockery of the plight of the poor.
It is not that Bangladesh hasn’t made genuine strides in development. No one is actually dying of famine. Polio and a number of other diseases have been eradicated. School enrolment rates are impressive, and yes, you don’t see people without footwear and women without blouses. But is that enough? Can we sit back in complacence as the dark window of a BMW rolls down and a manicured hand emerges to offer a ten taka note to the thin dishevelled flower girl, hardly six or seven years old, who happily hands over a fragrant garland of ‘beli’?
Not all the statistics being churned out by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, nor all the rhetoric emerging from the mouths of the ministers and their band of loyal followers, can conceal the sufferings, the grief and the pitiful predicament of the poor. Our pitfalls are many, and almost every sector demands attention.
Employment, education and youth
Can we be complacent when we hear of our brothers sinking at sea, fleeing from the homeland in the hope of higher earnings? Can we smile smugly when our sisters return home from the Middle East, battered and bruised in body and mind, their dreams for a better life smashed mercilessly? Can we feel satisfied with the numbers of graduates emerging from universities every year, only to end up jobless and frustrated? How disappointing is it when our big business houses are forced to hire experts from abroad at exorbitant costs simply because our education system hasn’t equipped our youth with skills that the market demands? What does this indicate but a paucity in addressing the needs of our youth, our youth demographic of which we are so proud and vocal.
The fall out of the inadequate education system is grim. With advances in automation and cyber-technology, mere university certificates are not enough. Even mere manpower is not enough, as is evident in the diminishing demand for our unskilled labour in Malaysian and Middle Eastern markets. We are failing our youth.
Unemployed and frustrated, too many of these young people are turning to crime, or drugs, or both. Quick fixes that only fire the frustrations further.
Frustration in the fields
Much has been said about the poor plight of our farmers, but little done. We are biting the hand that feeds the mouth. They are growing bumper crop after bumper crop, year after year, and Bangladesh has proudly achieved food autarky. Yet another feather in the cap of the food ministry and the powers that be. But the farmers who grow the crop, toiling in the fields, going through backbreaking labour from planting the seedlings to harvesting the rice, are plunged into dire loss. Production costs are way above the paltry sum they receive. Instead of procuring the rice directly from them as promised, the government’s food department buys the food grain from the rice mill owners who pay the growers a pittance for their produce.
Ironically, too, rice is being imported through both private and government channels, despite the surplus we have in food grains. Why? One minister came up with the flimsy excuse that the richer people and the five-star hotels only consume fine fragrant imported rice. Shades of ‘let them eat cake’?
Letting our mothers die
Numbers show that infant mortality has fallen. That is certainly good news. The sad news is that the authorities have been hiding the facts and figures that show an increase in maternal mortality. But the truth has emerged. In 2010, the maternal mortality rate was 194, that is, 194 mothers died per every 100,000 births every year. Now 196 mothers die per every 100,000 births a year, according to the National Institute of Population and Training (NIPORT). Sadly, this is easily avoidable. The majority of these deaths occur due to excessive bleeding and convulsions. The inexpensive and readily available drugs Oxytocin and magnesium sulphate are all that is needed to treat these two problems. However, most of the public healthcare centres and maternity centres around the country do not have an adequate supply of these drugs, if at all. And so these hapless mothers die, needlessly. This may not be murder, but we are killing these mothers with callous neglect.
And yet we are a proud and wealthy nation where a slight twinge in the chest sends our ministers and big shots flying off to Bangkok or Singapore, only to be diagnosed with indigestion. Overeating and overindulgence tends to have that unpleasant consequence.
The menace of malnutrition
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), rates of malnutrition are among the highest in the world. Over 54 per cent of pre-school age children, that is more than 9.5 million children, have stunted growth and 56 per cent are underweight.
Malnutrition affects a child’s growth, both physical and mental. What head start are we giving these children for the future ahead of them? Surely they deserve more. Food, shelter and clothing are their fundamental rights. Inadequate nutrition is a blatant violation of this right. Who will stand by these little ones, who will stand up for their rights?
Constructive criticism, not sly sycophancy
There are so many sectors where we are excelling, but far too many where we sadly lagging behind. It is easy to highlight the ups and that is being done in abundance. But who will point out the downs? Is it unpatriotic to point out these flaws and shortcomings? Are we traitors if we criticise the government and expose its lapses? Surely not.
Surely the traitors are those sly and shameless sycophants who conceal the truth from those at the helm of power, simply showering them with flowery praise, rather than telling them the hard facts.
The essence of democracy is freedom of expression, not to damage or destroy the government, but to open its eyes to the areas that need attention. Above all is political will. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And where there is political will, the sky is the limit. Let’s reach for the sky.