Aspiration versus desperation: Jobs, quota and conflict in Bangladesh

Aspiration versus desperation: Jobs, quota and conflict in Bangladesh

Afsan Chowdhury,

Just as students of Dhaka university were parading and protesting the quota system in government jobs and facing attacks from both police and party activists, a group of masked men entered the residence of the Vice Chancellor and vandalized and torched part of it. It transpired the next day that while all attention was focused on the DU campus, a group stole into the Arts and Crafts college and destroyed all the figures and props made for the procession of Bangla New year celebration to be held on April 14. Its an uneasy good-bye and inaugural of a new year.

 A crisis of employment not politics 

The situation is symptomatic of a larger unease that is rooted in both structural and immediate causes. It appears that while economic growth is high – even if not as high as claimed by the Government — but equitable distribution is certainly low. The policies and decisions have benefitted those close to the government and decisions have been more privileged connection than market economy friendly.

 The result has been an alliance of convenience between the economic and the administrative class. Since the recruitment is done through exams which upholds up to 54% quota, there is a growing resentment that the best jobs are going to the quota holders who are benefitting from an affirmative hiring policy and not merit.

Some of the anger is directed towards the children and grandchildren of Freedom Fighters who hold 30% of the quota. One cause of course is the feeling that many of the benefit claimers are not descendants of actual FFs but have slipped into the list using a variety of means.

Other quota holders are women, disabled, indigenous people etc. But the perception is that many of the FF quota holders are connection users who leverage themselves into the most lucrative gravy train in the employment sector.

The options for quality employment is very limited as bulge unemployment has risen with a very high percentage of graduates are unemployed. Plus, external unemployment is declining and with wealth concentration high, disparity has sharply risen. This has caused both anxiety and aspiration. Decent jobs are few while the government jobs offer a lifetime of security, prosperity and no accountability for performance. Thus, such is the push to hold GOB jobs that in certain cases, bribes to get an appointment letter can run into a million or more Takas.

A rush to be loyal?

The Government has of course turned the administration into a loyal apparatus which is not a problem for the job aspirants. They have no problem with becoming loyal as in reality, a long term serving government employee, loyalty translates into economic and other benefits. The problem is that the Government can only hire so many would be loyalists and those wishing to be hired are many many more.

 Its an odd problem for the Government. They need loyal bureaucrats and If they hire they do get loyal servants. But they need a thriving job driven economy to hire so many potential loyalists but the economic pattern is based on a jobless growth strategy.  Hence job supply far outstrips demand.

Since anyone with any connection to any opposition political party is ‘unhireable’, no job seeker wants to be remotely linked to opposition activism. While that has basically cut down supply to any potential anti-government activism, it has now become too much of a good thing. Too many people want the right to be pro-government.  

Meanwhile, the Dhaka University quota protesters have split into a protesting and anti-protesting factions which was expected. In the meantime, signals were clear that protesting would not be tolerated. A phonebook video went viral which showed armed people moving towards the Dhaka university which scared many. And job seekers are not into politics but employment.

Middle class groups in conflict?

Meanwhile, the government is back in charge of the situation but the situation itself is restive. The vandalizing of the New Years procession props by possibly Islamic groups while all this was on shows how different agenda are at work, often taking advantage of the situation. The “Mongol’ (Holy) procession of the Bangla New year was bitterly criticized by the Islamists led by the Hefazot-e-Islam last year which interestingly happens to be the ally of the Awami League government. There were problems last year though the attackers this year have not been identified. Nor have the attackers of University VC’s residence.

However, BNP, has said that the attackers of the VC’s party were government people or supporters. It’s true that two attacks coming at the same time has aroused suspicion in some quarters which think that two attacks in a single night of such a scale and audacity can’t be isolated incidents. But its common speculation in Dhaka to find shadows. The government has promised to identify the culprits and punish them.

While Hefazot was vocal last year, it isn’t as yet this year so the attack on the Bohela Boisakh procession props seem a bit off. Again, conspiracy theory buffs are finding shadows of Government’s hands but no evidence has yet been forthcoming including that of Hefazot’s involvement.

The Bangla procession activists who belong to the arts and culture crowd have vowed to go ahead but the Government can only go so far. The Hefazot who represent a significant section of the rural middle class has become a positive ally of the ruling party and are against the traditional “Bengali” middle class of a more syncretistic stream rooted mostly in the urban culture. In gaining Hefazot’s alliance, job gaining potential also played a critical part. By officially accepting their seminary degrees, this stream of madrassa students are now more ready to be mainstreamed into better paying jobs. Hence the link to their support is also in employment.

Given this scenario, several streams are aspiring and often in conflict. The Government needs support and loyalty and the people need jobs. The equation seemingly works for everyone but the problem is that the supply of jobs is limited. Hence the unease, unrest and possible conflict.

As the government declares its various economic achievement data and milestone, the impact vary. While it shows progress is happening, that needs to be accessible to all. Whether such perceptions have extra value in 2018, an election year, or the party in power can reach the victory podium no matter what the middle class feels is another. But for the moment, the urban middle class looks a bit flogged and under strain.