'We want to see a just, more egalitarian, society'


CPD chairman and economist Rehman Sobhan. Photo: Collected

Professor Rehman Sobhan is the chairman of the research institute Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), member of Bangladesh’s first planning commission and advisor of a former caretaker government. In an interview on the occasion of the new year, he spoke to Prothom Alo at length about Bangladesh’s socioeconomic condition and the state of democracy in the country. Sohrab Hassan

Prothom Alo: Recently you said in a seminar that “a democratic order, which is responsive to the needs of our people over the next half century, would need to ensure that it would be truly representative of all the people”. Is our politics or leadership is ready to do that?

Rehman Sobhan: It would be difficult to categorise the last two elections as competitive ones, where the opposition could contest on a level playing field. Electoral legitimacy demands that a party has contested and defeated all comers through a free and fair election. Such was the tradition of the Awami League (AL) and the legacy of its leader, Bangabandhu. The founding of the AL and its two decades of struggle were built around the idea of establishing democracy so that they could capture power through free and fair elections. This indeed was also the primary mission of its present leader, Sheikh Hasina from the time she assumed leadership in 1981 to the time she was first elected to office in 1996. It was never in the tradition of the AL to come to power in any other way than through a free and contested election.
My hope, as a lifelong supporter of this party, would be that the leadership would commit itself to remain in office through a free and contested election where no one can challenge the fairness of the electoral process. Since we will be celebrating the centenary year of Bangabandhu in a few days we should give particular importance to honouring his lifelong struggle for constructing a just democracy.

Prothom Alo: In our country, 65 per cent of the population comprises youth. According to Prothom Alo’s survey, every four out of five educated youth are living in extreme uncertainty. How we can overcome this?

Rehman Sobhan: We need to make employment generation into a specific development target on the same lines as accelerating GDP growth and reducing poverty. Such a policy should be especially targeted to youth who must from their school days be given assurance that employment is a fundamental right and shall be guaranteed when they enter the job market. Further measures for promoting youth employment should include:

• Access to public employment and upward mobility for youth through fair and transparent procedures where neither political identity nor payment of money is called for.
• The education system must be revolutionised so that the quality of education available to lower income youth should be substantially improved and is related to the present and emerging needs of the job market.

Prothom Alo: You are also talking about elections free of muscle and black money, which can ensure the people’s representation. But our election system is nearly a dying process. What is your opinion?

Rehman Sobhan: Political parties have to decide that they will nominate credible, honest candidates who have a record of service to the people.

• An important route to selecting credible candidates would be through democratising the functioning of political parties so that workers at the grassroots level can identity candidates for competing in elections, based on their record of public service.

• Nominating wealthy people, with hoards of black money to buy their way to nomination should be discouraged. Such a system has, over the years, here and in neighbouring countries, led to the capture of the democratic process by the rich. They use public office to further enhance their wealth and perpetuate their hold on power. In such a system, neither Bangabandhu nor Tajuddin, could have expected to get nominations, let alone contest elections.

• Elections should be financed by the national exchequer on a transparent basis, under clearly defined rules which are administered by an independent election commission. For this we need a genuinely independent election commission made up of members selected on a politically consensual basis and composed of people of recognised integrity.

Prothom Alo: When our politicians are in opposition they always speak in favour of free media. When they are in power, they curb media freedom through black laws and bullying. What is your observation?

Rehman Sobhan: A free and independent media which is positioned to investigate all issues and bring this before the people is a no less essential pillar of democracy than free elections. A free media is possibly the greatest asset of a government which is truly committed to good governance and effective development. As things have evolved, the governance in our country has traditionally functioned through public officials who from the bottom up to the top, tend to conceal their wrongdoings and development deficiencies from the policymakers. As a result, even well intentioned policymakers rarely have a clear idea of what is going on in their ministerial or administrative domain.

In a well-functioning system:

• The finance minister and all ministers should demand full transparency from their officials about what is going on in their respective areas of responsibility and should hold them accountable for their misdeeds.

• The prime minister and finance minister should put much of the information on the decision making process and on government expenditures online and make it accessible to the media and public.

Prothom Alo: As an economist, you always fight for equality, emancipation and a just society. In the Pakistan period you brought out two famous economic theories, but after 48 years of independence our society is divided into two. A handful is rich and the majority are poor.

Rehman Sobhan: Economic growth in Bangladesh has been impressive by developing country standards, particularly in the last two decades, while poverty has also been reduced. These are positive achievements. But, by all evidence, social and economic disparities have widened and continue to widen. Again, as we approach Bangabandhu’s centenary year, we have to remind ourselves that his life’s political struggle was not just limited to realising democracy and self-rule for the Bengalis but to establish a just, more egalitarian, society.

In the Bangladesh of Bangabandhu’s dreams exploitation of the working people would be minimised and income disparities would have been narrowed.

We have witnessed, over the years, that successive governments have patronised the growth of an elite class through extensive fiscal concessions, large scale and unregulated flow of credit where repayment has been massively and continuously defaulted. These large scale defaults and rescheduling of loans amount to a state sponsored form of resource transfer, drawing on the deposits of millions of ordinary people, to enrich a narrow elite and is one of the most important factors in the widening of economic inequality in the country.

Prothom Alo: In a democratic society anywhere in the world, civil society plays a vital role to ensure the rule of law. But in our country civil society is divided along political lines. Why?

Rehman Sobhan: Division within civil society is not unique to Bangladesh. Similar tendencies are apparent in our neighbour India and even in the more advanced countries, including the USA and Europe. In Bangladesh, the political polarisation within civil society appears sharper to us because it parallels the increasingly confrontational nature of national politics. However it should be kept in mind that not all divisions within civil society originate in national political divisions. There are important sections of civil society which are not politically loyal to any party but speak and report on public affairs with an independent voice, which is intended to serve the public interest. Such independent civil society voices perform a public service not just to the people but to the ruling regime by pointing out wrongdoings, areas of misgovernance and in many cases offer constructive suggestions on how to improve performance. Sadly, such friendly criticism and advice from an independent civil society is rarely appreciated by a ruling regime which prefers to abuse their critics and unjustifiably treat them as political adversaries.

Prothom Alo: We have many achievements including human resources, women’s empowerment and economic development. On the other hand, corruption and misuse of state properties is so high. Even the present government seems concerned about this. They launched anti-corruption operations. Is it an eye wash or a sincere measure? In the past all governments took such measures but finally proved futile.

Rehman Sobhan: We do indeed have many positive achievements to record, including improvements in education, healthcare, advancement in gender empowerment, and considerable expansion in the area of infrastructure. However, much more could be achieved in this area, through improved and more honest governance. Poor governance in the area of education, for example, has led to poor quality of education which makes it difficult for high school and even college graduates to compete in the job market.

Our impressive development of public infrastructure could have been achieved at lower cost and with better quality of work. Many such projects face both time and cost overruns which add to the cost. Over successive regimes the government has tended to patronise those who are politically close to them who may not necessarily be the most competitive candidates to do the work. This leads to inefficiency in project implementation as well as escalation in costs.

The recent trend, initiated by the prime minister, to launch an anti-corruption drive is commendable and consistent with our commitment to honour the mission and dreams of Bangabandhu as we enter the centenary year of his birth. In order for such a commitment to be more effective it is suggested that all public expenditures, at least above a certain level, be made more transparent by regularly posting project reports and expenditure statements on line. It is further suggested that the commitment of the present government to expose the financial circumstances of the ministers, MPs and even senior officials to public scrutiny be honoured and such information should be posted online on a yearly basis. It is further suggested that one of the central aspects of good governance, the avoidance of conflict of interest, be urgently addressed by the government.

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