The ‘India vs. Bangladesh’ syndrome
Economist Amartya Sen has often drawn comparisons among the South Asian countries, where Bangladesh is well ahead of both India and Pakistan in almost all human development indicators. That is apparently good news. But actually this ‘India vs. Bangladesh’ syndrome is harmful. We seem to have taken India as the ultimate standard of development. It is as if Bangladesh is in a good place simply because it is ahead of India in all indicators. But the fact remains that though Bangladesh may seem to be in a satisfactory position in comparison with the poverty-stricken India or the fundamentalist-infested military controlled state of Pakistan, its feeble and fragile condition prevails, albeit tucked behind the curtains. Then there is the war-torn Sri Lanka where almost all the human development indicators are ahead of Bangladesh, yet there is no talk about Sri Lanka. We just look at the poverty-ridden India and Pakistan as the benchmarks of education, health, sanitation, nutrition and other sectors, totally ignoring the indicators of Sri Lanka which remain far ahead of us.
Questionable development indicators
The three criteria to be a ‘developing’ country are per capital income, human resource development and reducing economic vulnerability. The per capita income factor always remains unclear. According to such criteria, then, the ill-gotten wealth of those involved in the financial scams of Sonali Bank, Janata Bank, Farmers Bank, Bismillah Group, Hall-Mark or the share market, can all be used in calculating the per capita income of the society as a whole. Hawkers, rickshawpullers, garment industrialists can all be placed in the middle class slot, thus concealing the inflated wealth of the looters.
Even when India’s GDP has exceeded 8 per cent, it remains at the top of the list of the world’s hungriest people, with almost 800 million living below the poverty line, 190 million suffering from malnutrition and 41 farmers committing suicide on average per day.
A study of CPD points out that over the last six years while Bangladesh’s GDP growth went up, the income of 5 per cent of the country’s wealthy went up by Tk 320 billion and that of 5 per cent of the poorest went down by Tk 1058. In other words, the per capita income indicator does not indicate the actual state of development, rule of law, people’s well-being or their plight.
The other indicators are confusing too. For example, an indicator says that girls’ enrollment in secondary school has increased. But Bangladesh education statistics 2017 says that 41 per cent of the girls who are admitted to class 6, drop out before they reach class 10. And UNICEF says that while the incidence of child marriage has fallen globally, in Bangladesh it has increased – fourth position in the world!
Over the past few decades, child mortality has reduced in Bangladesh. But there has been an alarming increase in stunted growth and autism with the growth of 36 per cent of the country’s children being stunted and 51 per cent suffering from anaemia. Bangladesh ranks among the countries with the highest malnutrition. In other words, the children who survive are not getting adequate nutrition. They are growing up stunted, in hunger, with insufficient food, malnutrition. So the indicators only give a partial glimpse of the whole picture.
Rule of law, sexual harassment and life security in the days of development
Bangladesh is at the top of South Asian countries when it comes to the misuse of government power. And when it comes to the rule of law, Bangladesh ranks 102 among 113 countries. Bangladesh is Number One among development countries concerning default loans. Default loans have increased by three and a half times in a matter of nine years. As for justice? The state of justice in this country of development is there for all to see in the daily disheartening news.
How are girls faring amidst all this development? Over the past four years, 17 thousand women and children were raped. International surveys mark Dhaka as the seventh most dangerous country in the world. Dhaka stands fourth in sexual violence. And there has been no punishment in 97per cent of the cases of rape, gang rape and killing after rape which took place from 2002 to 2016. The World Justice Project points to a shameful score for Bangladesh when it comes to proper investigations, speedy investigation and a fair legal process.
Bangladesh ranks 102 among 113 countries regarding citizens’ safety. Every year on average around 20 thousand people are killed in road accidents. Hundreds of workers die out of sheer negligence in the readymade garment industry, the construction industry, hill excavation and ship breaking. Workers are killed by electric shocks, poisonous gas emissions, lack of fire exists in risky buildings, faulty boilers bursting, falling from heights and so on. On average per year, 700 workers die in such a manner and 1300 are injured. Does anyone care?
Environment and rivers in the days of development
The UN economic indicators do not tell the tale of the environment. They do not tell the stories of how the rivers, the lifeline of the farmers, are drying up and dying one after the other. But there are other international studies which point to the precarious state of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh is ranked 179 among 180 countries regarding environmental protection. Bangladesh is at the bottom when it comes to indicators concerning water, air, sanitation and public health. Dhaka stands second in harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide or carbon monoxide. Arsenic, cadmium and lead poisoning of rivers around Dhaka have reached an alarming level. World Bank studies show 600 thousand people in Dhaka (mostly children) are victims of lead poisoning and 12.7 million persons in the country have abnormal cell growth. Dhaka over the past few years has also been ranked among the world’s most unlivable countries. Literally speaking, everything is breaking down. Yet the roads are teeming with rallies celebrating development! Indeed, development with a difference!
* Maha Mirza is a researcher on international political economy. This column, originally published online in Prothom Alo.