'The essence of democracy is participation, freedom of expression'

Sohrab Hassan | Update:

Dr Selim Jahan. Photo: Prothom AloFormer director of the UNDP Human Development Report Office and one of the main authors of the human development report, Dr Selim Jahan had been a professor of economics at Dhaka University. He joined UNDP in 1992. He has also served as consultant to ILO, UNESCO and the World Bank. He was a guest professor at Maryland University in the US. In a recent interview with Prothom Alo, Selim Jahan talked about Bangladesh’s socioeconomic situation, the impact of globalisation, human relations and more.

Prothom Alo: At a recent seminar you commented that human relations had become businesslike in recent times. What prompted this remark?

Selim Jahan: There are two aspects to human relations. One is very human, from the inside. The other is financial. In today’s Bangladesh, the financial aspect has come to the forefront and the human aspect has faded. Finance, self-interests and wealth controls everything.

When we grew up in the sixties and seventies, money was not the yardstick, but now that is everything. This is a matter of serious social discordance, but people seem oblivious. They take this as very normal.

Prothom Alo: Is this the result of aggressive capitalism?

Selim Jahan: That is not unnatural. When capitalism accumulates wealth, then financial interests take priority. Then again, maybe there has been a shift in social thinking. Everyone is pursuing wealth and glamour, in competition with each other. This certainly is a manifestation of capitalism.

Prothom Alo: How can these economic relations be made more human?
Selim Jahan: Those who run the state always place importance on financial growth. But growth and development are not synonymous. It must be seen whether the growth is bringing about equality or widening the disparity, whether it improving people’s living standard or the opposite. It must be observed whether growth is harming the environment or protecting it.

The Nobel award winning economist Amartya Sen has stressed on the importance of increasing the competence of individuals, to ensure that every individual is competent, that we can move ahead together. In that sense, development expands a person’s independence. Then again, one person’s independence must not hamper that of another.

There will be differences of opinion in a society, but the question is how we address those differences. Do we discuss and debate or simply resort to force? In the past it was the communities that would move forward even before the state in time of natural calamities. They would extend their assistance to the victims of the disaster. That unity has broken down. People have become self-centred. Along with capitalism, it is also globalisation and urbanisation that has led to this situation.

Prothom Alo: But surely the state must come forward too in ensuring the sort of humanitarian society of which you you speak?

Selim Jahan: The state must monitor whether the benefits of development actually reach the people. The state must have certain social thinking, ensuring that no one is left behind. Everyone’s security must be ensured.

The incidence of rape, against women and children, has increased horrifically in Bangladesh. This is a result of social degeneration. Even a three-year-old child is not spared. Some blame this on drugs, but then again, money is behind drugs. Drugs involve business of billions of taka. Simply catching the dealers will not halt the drug trade.

There is also a growing culture of lawlessness. We must emerge from this. When it comes to justice, a person’s party affiliation should make no difference. If the state can take care of all these matters, then things will improve.

Prothom Alo: What about the human indicators going down while the development indicators go up?

Selim Jahan: One can hardly expect humanity amidst the all-pervasive power, wealth and arms. There was a time when Bengalis were seen as a tolerant nation. They discussed and debated, but with tolerance. That tolerance is diminishing. Dhaka is now rife with injustice, oppression and wrongdoing. People’s intolerance is growing all over and there seems to be no resolution.

Prothom Alo: When the state become excessively authoritarian, can a solution be expected?

Selim Jahan: A representative government cannot simply comply with the wishes of wealthy and powerful and overlook the views of the weak and marginalised people. Truthfully speaking, it is not just the state. The political parties, various institutions, society as a whole, and even individuals, have all become intolerant. That is why we place emphasis on human development, on harmony.

Prothom Alo: You have long been working with human resources. How do you view Bangladesh’s development trends?

Selim Jahan: It is rather disturbing. There has been development to an extent. Growth has gone up, people’s life expectancy and income have increased. Infant mortality has decreased. But there has been no development in humanity. Unrest has increased in society. There is a rat race to become rich. Intolerance has increased. No one has tolerance for different views. They just want to use force to silence divergent voices.

Prothom Alo: Is this due to the lack of democracy?

Selim Jahan: I see democracy in a broad sense. Elections are just a component of democracy. The essence of democracy is participation, freedom of expression. It is about difference of opinion and the right to get organised. If all this is repressed, the democratic structure grows weak.

An alliance has grown between political power and economic power. This has reaped benefits for a small group. The aspirations of the greater majority have been ignored.

Prothom Alo: Authoritarianism is on the rise all over the world. Isn’t this harming humanity further?

Selim Jahan: It is not just authoritarianism that is on the rise. There is a sharp rise of the right too. In the US there is the rise of white supremacy. The British want to break away from Europe. Hindutva has increased in India. Such extreme right trends curb people’s rights and creativity. But this will not be permanent. People won’t accept this for long. The sixties and seventies saw the rise of liberalism and democracy. Liberalism will return.

Prothom Alo: How would you explain the Bangladesh situation? The right hasn’t risen here in that sense, but authoritarianism has gripped the country.

Selim Jahan: Many people are talking about the authoritarian role of the state. I live far away so perhaps I don’t get the whole picture.

Prothom Alo: But there is no protest. Is this out of fear or favour?

Selim Jahan: Perhaps both. The role of the intellectuals is being questioned. The people of Bangladesh would always look towards the intellectuals. They would value their recommendations. But things have changed. People have lost their confidence in the intellectuals. Many within the intellectual community have been bought over by various incentives. But I don’t want to lose hope. There are many people whom I respect, who are vocal against communalism and injustice.

Prothom Alo: Employment opportunities are not increasing in proportion to economic growth.

Selim Jahan: This is not just in Bangladesh alone, but in many countries around the world. Agricultural growth has gone down in Bangladesh, but 65 percent of the people are still employed in this sector. Automation and technology is pushing down the demand for human labour in the industrial sector, leading towards zero employment growth. If employment is to be increased, more investment must be made in the labour intensive sectors such as the garments industry, transport and service sectors.

Prothom Alo: What is the main problem of Bangladesh at present?

Selim Jahan: Intolerance and deteriorating human relations. Economic problems can be fixed with the help of others, but it is difficult to prevent a social breakdown. The other problem is corruption. There was corruption before too, but not as all-pervasive as it is now.

Prothom Alo: Are you hopeful about the new generation?

Selim Jahan: I certainly am. The young generation of today are taking up all sorts of initiatives. Before meritorious students would go abroad to study but would not return. Now they are returning as it is getting harder to stay back in the western countries. Opportunities are shrinking. But opportunities are opening up back home. There is a lot of creative work in Bangladesh. If all this could be spread in the society, Bangladesh will change.

Prothom Alo: What about the state of education in Bangladesh? Bangladesh ranks nowhere in the Times Higher Education Ranking of the world’s top 1000 universities.

Selim Jahan: If you ask me where reforms are needed the most, I would say in education, education and education. Our education is in a bad state. The number of students has increased, but we are not bothered about the quality of education they are receiving. I have never heard of any city in the world with so many universities. Then again there is the question of quality when it comes to the teachers. You just can’t make compromises when it comes to education.

Prothom Alo: Yu talk about human values in education. Let me remind you about how certain changes were made in school textbooks a few years ago due to pressure from a certain strong lobby.

Selim Jahan: I see no logic in the changes made in the textbooks. This was reprehensible. It is not as if the writers who were dropped from the book were all leftists, or all Hindus. There was the poem ‘Prarthona’ (Prayer) by the poet Golam Mostafa too that was dropped. There were travel stories. Textbooks are keys to building a nation’s psyche. You can’t just drop texts at the whims of certain lobbies.
Prothom Alo: Why is education is such a poor state? If we are to survive the competition, what is the way ahead?

Selim Jahan: One reason behind the state of education is that we do not look outside of the textbooks. Back in the day when we were students, we learnt so much from outside of the books. Now it is all about how much you score in the exams, not how much knowledge you have accumulated. Having said that, I will have to admit that those who are in the top ten rank today have more knowledge that the top ten of our times. When these boys and girls go abroad, they live up to the competition. Today the Oxford University debate forum is headed by a girl from Bangladesh. But the average standard of education in our country is extremely low. That is a matter of concern.

Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Selim Jahan: Thank you too.

* This interview appeared in the print education of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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