Bangladesh at a crossroads?

Published : 18 Feb 2012, 03:41 PM
Updated : 18 Feb 2012, 03:41 PM

Recently, I spent more than three months in Bangladesh. At the risk of sounding boastful, I had in mind the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville's travelogue Democracy in America (appearing in two volumes in 1835 and 1840) as a prop to observe and understand the country. Tocqueville went to America in 1831 at the behest of the French government and wrote about its society and polity with great insight. While in Bangladesh, I had neither Tocqueville's rigour, nor his methodological consistency. I was simply motivated by the idea of travel as a form of learning.

I did not travel all over the country. Going around by road in Bangladesh seems daunting these days, as stories of daily road accidents abound. I could only manage to visit Dhaka and its surrounding areas, Gazipur, Rajendrapur, Narayanganj, Mymensingh, and Chittagong, as well as some of its neighbouring towns, including Patiya and Raujan. While in these places, I interacted with people of various vocations and economic classes, visited public and private offices, saw places, walked around, and observed a number of changes in the fabric of the Bangladeshi society—some of which are quite radical, and some, subtle. I couldn't help but compare the Bangladesh of the 1980s and 1990s with the one before me. From the limited perspective of my travels, the country seemed to be at a crossroads.

The coming war
One of the most dramatic changes that I noticed is the new perception of land as gold. Owning a piece of land in Dhaka and its vicinity means sitting on loads of cash, or being financially secure for life. This holds true for Chittagong and other urban centres of the country, with various thicknesses of the cash bundle. The country's urban population is growing rapidly, as people from rural areas gravitate to cities en masse, in search of opportunities. (The country is predicted to be urban majority by 2030.) Mushrooming housing estates in surrounding wetlands choke the city. Industrial corridors blur the traditional boundaries between urban and rural areas. Demand for land is skyrocketing.

The wealthy are buying up acres of suburban agricultural lands and forests to create resorts. I checked out Toukir Ahmed and Bipasha Hayat's Rajendrapur resort, a manicured utopia in the woods, creating a comfortable retreat for the rich. Along the road to Mymensingh from Dhaka,I saw signpost after signpost proclaiming land ownership for the creation of gas stations, roadside motels, and factories. In rural Chittagong, I was both shocked and amazed to see cement factories, unsightly dairy farms, and rural industries producing sanitary latrines routinely punctuating pristine green paddy fields.

One day, I drove from Airport Road toward Dhaka's eastern fringe via Khlikhet. After crossing the massive housing estate called Lake City Concord, I witnessed what would be no less than an environmental "genocide." A vast prairie of kash bon, low-lying agricultural lands, swamps, and rivulets had become a post-modern geography of housing-estate signposts — Jamuna Group, Ashian Homes Limited, Empire Holdings Limited, and many others — sometimes rising from the water, or from plots filled in for American-style suburbs. I heard stories from the local people that if a landowner did not agree to sell his property to a power-wielding real estate company, then his life could be at risk. I also saw armed guards patrolling walled-up areas, demarcated for housing. It appears that the coming war in Bangladesh is going be the land war, between people and corporations, between corporations and corporations, between corporations and the state.

Post-partisan politics
In late December 2011, two colleagues and I had a chance to exchange views with the newly elected Mayor of Narayanganj City Corporation, Ms. Selina Hayat Ivy. The Mayor seemed more eager to improve the conditions of Narayanganj and guide her city to a brighter future than merely following party dictates from Dhaka. During a conversation that lasted more than an hour, she sounded entirely convincing that party loyalty and the desire to improve the lot of all people under her jurisdiction were not necessarily conflicted goals. I sensed in her a forceful crystallisation of what could be called post-partisan politics.

Post-partisan politics is no longer a subterranean affair. It is increasingly part and parcel of the everyday fabric of Bangladeshi society. For example, an Awami League MP, Tarana Halim, has taken up the issue of road safety, seemingly against the wishes of powerful ministers in her own party.

When I went to see the effects of an under-construction flyover from the roof of a 7-story hotel in Bahaddarhat, Chittagong, the hotel manager made an impassioned plea to my journalist colleague and me to write about a Bangladesh freed from the clutches of partisan politics. Bangladesh could fulfil its promise to be shonar Bangla, he reasoned, when the country cleansed itself of the vitriol of party-based politics.

This manager seemed to represent an increasingly louder chorus of political reform in the country. The brain-teasing topic of a "third force" in the national politics is hotly debated across public and private settings, from roadside tea stalls to TV talk shows. Whether the "third force" will emerge from the defiant programs of party renegades or entirely from new sources remains unclear.

During the month of December, I experienced a new type of patriotism, if fuzzy, among the urban young generation that takes pride in red and green without any fixed allegiance to a particular party or a figure. At the Bengal Gallery in Dhanmondi, I came across youths who flocked there to see paintings that celebrated the history and experience of 1971. Before December 16th, clothing stores were swarming with people of all age groups who were purchasing red and green, presumably, as a visual demonstration of their loyalty to the idea of the Bengali nation, rather than as a particular narrative of its birth.

The geography of mobile phones
In Bangladesh, I saw how mobile phones radically transformed a society in the span of a single generation. Mobile phones have engendered a variety of social conditions. One is an illusion of egalitarianism; that is, because all economic classes have easy access to the service, mobile phones seemed to have flattened social hierarchies and reorganised social relationships by bringing people into new patterns of connectivity. Launched in 2009, BBC's World Service Trust has turned Bangladeshi mobile phones into low-cost educational tools, offering3-minute English audio-lessons for beginners. Anybody in Bangladesh can access these lessons, simply by dialling 3000. Whether the service has improved the nation's collective command of English is debatable. However, mobile phones have certainly created a tech-savvy nation. Flexiload services are available in rural convenience stores. Mass text messages have become a common method to round up people for social and political events.

Mobile phones have also catalysed a new perception of the physical space. Once, before flying from Dhaka to Chittagong, I saw passenger after passenger at the airport perform myriad tasks with their mobile phones, from striking a business deal to comforting a worried wife to instructing the driver when to come to the airport. In rural areas, I have seen how mothers of men who work in the Middle East view the mobile phone as an essential tool for maintaining the family's cohesion.

These ever-present communication devices have also created a talkative nation (nearly half of Bangladesh's 160 million people now use mobile phones), sometimes with tragic consequences. In the infamous road accident in Mirsarai last year, the driver of the truck that sent 43 young boys to their muddy death was talking on his phone. Muggers pinpoint the location of their victims by using mobile phones. Though uncorroborated, friends have told me many stories of corrupt bank employees, such as those who inform muggers of potential targets: customers with large withdrawals who are exiting the bank.

With all kinds of positive/negative effects, mobile phones have become a social force to be reckoned with.

A materialist culture
A rampant culture of materialism has pervaded all rungs of the social ladder. Bourgeois excesses seem to have gone main stream, giving the impression that Bangladesh has entered a gilded age. However, the imam of a local mosque in rural Chittagong told me that his monthly salary was only Tk 2400.

The latest mobile phone is not the only sign of social mobility. In 2010 alone, 30,000 reconditioned cars were imported into Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh Reconditioned Vehicles Importers and Dealers Association's 2011 report, there are 338 car dealers in Dhaka alone. A visit to any urban shopping arcade shows how a consumerist culture has gripped the nation.

Another example is the astounding amount of money that rich guardians spend on their children's wedding ceremonies. These celebrations are seldom about the eternal happiness of the newlyweds, but rather opportunities to advertise the status of the family. Under the pretence of a researcher, I once spoke to the wealthy parent of a bride at an ostentatious Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel ceremony. After much polite haggling, he divulged that the total cost of the wedding, including the reception at Sonargaon, was Tk 4 crore, or half a million dollars!

Rural households hardly lag behind in the social mobility scene, belying the common misconception that rural societies remain tucked away in unchanging agrarian traditions. In a village near Bhaluka, about 45 kilometres from Dhaka, I came across a typical rural family that had benefited from micro-credit. They had built a two-story house to assert their middle-class aspirations. There is only one tiny access to the upper floor, meaning that it was built for symbolic, rather than practical, purposes. The height of the structure gave the family prestige.

I frequently came across rural families in which a member who works abroad sends home not only money, but also hopeful glimpses into global capitalism and the consumerist culture it fosters. Inside the brick-walled and tin-roofed house of a family in rural Chittagong, I noticed Colgate toothpaste, body-building equipment, and a giant poster of the hit film Titanic (1997).

A Harvard historian named Sacvan Bercovitch once said something crucial about the formation of the American character: The first American immigrants, coming face to face with the vast continent, had assumed that it was their God-mandated duty to harness the abundant resources of the New World. This led them to believe that there was no inherent conflict between religion and materialism.

I thought about Bercovitch's analysis in Bangladesh's different socioeconomic context one Friday, during juma prayer, at a mosque in Dhaka. Overflowing with more than 2,000people of all economic classes, the mosque appeared to be a microcosm of a pious nation. I wondered whether this pious nation felt conflicted about the practice of faith and the accumulation of wealth going hand in hand so blatantly these days in Bangladesh. I shivered at the thought that some of the people attending that mosque might not experience any remorse in accepting a bribe in exchange for an illegal favour.

* * *
A staggering coexistence of affluence and poverty in urban areas makes one feel that in Bangladesh, there are two societies, gliding by, colliding occasionally, and feeding off each other. During my travels, I saw greed, corruption, honesty, patriotism, goodness, and anxiety among the people. I witnessed a new culture of entrepreneurship, one that is heroically nonchalant about the country's political divisiveness, yet often hobbled by a lack of management skills. I witnessed a country where print and electronic media, for better or worse, play a robust role in the public life. I participated in TV talk shows and realised how glibly talkative the nation has become. I was shocked to see the rising angst among urban teenagers, the Facebook generation that sometimes finds itself wandering in the wilderness between English-language schools and yaba, between generational conflicts and identity crisis. Bangladesh has become a chameleon. The policy mindset must recalibrate to accommodate the new realities.

Adnan Morshed teaches in Washington, DC.