Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Lies and distortions in Indian subcontinent’s history

Egregious claims and blatant manipulation of historical facts were political armoury of Indian administrations from post-medieval period right up to the present time. The name India is used here to represent the whole of the Indian sub-continent covering the present-day Indian State, Bangladesh as well as Pakistan.

Indian subcontinent

The British Imperialism, while India was under British rule, used to segregate and differentiate cultural and emotional narrative of Indian people, which comprise primarily Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists to pursue its objectives. The Secretary of State, Wood in a letter to Lord Elgin (Governor General of Canada (1847 – 54) and India (1862 – 63) mentioned, “We have maintained our power in India by playing off one part against the other and we must continue to do so, Do all you can, therefore to prevent all having a common feeling.”

George Francis Hamilton, Secretary of State of India wrote to Lord Curzon on 26 March 1886, “I think the real danger to our rule, not now, but say 50 years hence is the gradual adoption and extension of Western ideas of agitation organisation and if we could break educated Indians into two sections holding widely different views, we should, by such a division, strengthen our position against the subtle and continuous attack which the spread of education must make upon our system of government. We should so plan educational text-books that the differences between community and community are further strengthened.”

Secretary Cross sent a message to Governor General Dufferin that “This division of religious feeling is greatly to our advantage and I look for some good as a result of your Committee of Inquiry on Indian Education and on teaching material”.

These were the policy objectives of the British Imperialism. Persistent use of these egregious objectives formed the underlying base that there were no common factors in social, political or economic lives of Indian people. This distortion paved the way for communal segregation in India and the emergence of Two Nation Theory (TNT) spearheaded by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. 

It is quite disturbing to note that nearly all governments in India from post-colonial era right up to the present time pursued the same objective violation of historical facts and information as an effective administrative tool.

The legacy of British colonial policy of establishing objective disunity among the Indian people was firmly adopted by the independent Indian State whereby the Indian history text-books were so falsified and distorted as to give an impression that the medieval period of Indian history was full of atrocities committed by Muslim rulers on their Hindu subject and the Hindus had to suffer terrible indignities under the Islamic rule.

One concrete example of deliberate distortion and lies in Indian text books was cited by Dr B N Pande, ex-Governor of the Indian State of Orissa, in his book, “History in the Service of Imperialism”, that a history text book for high schools cited that 3,000 Brahmins committed suicide as ‘Tipu Sultan wanted to convert them forcibly into the fold of Islam’. Dr Pande wrote to the author of the text book, Dr Har Prashad Shastri to give him the source material of such information. After many reminders, a reply from Dr Shastri came saying that he had taken the information from the Mysore Gazetteer. When Dr Pande tried to contact Mysore Gazetteer, there was no response and eventually Prof. Srinatia of Mysore University informed Dr Pande that the suicide of 3,000 Brahmins was nowhere in the Mysore Gazetteer and he was certain no such incident did ever take place.

The said history text book was originally prescribed in Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Orissa, U.P., M.P., and Rajasthan. Dr Pande wrote to Ashutosh Mukherjee, the then Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, with all the evidence of falsification in the text book by Dr Shastri. The book was proscribed in all states except U.P., which was utterly shocking to Dr Pande.

It was not only the British Imperialism or the State of India that distort facts or disseminate historical misinformation to serve their perverse political purpose; Pakistan and Bangladesh are equally  also guilty of falsification, exaggeration and manipulation of historical records to serve their selfish ends.

During the nine months of liberation war (from 26 March 1971 to 16 December 1971) in Bangladesh, admittedly a large number of people, mostly civilians, had been killed. The estimates of death toll produced by various individuals or organisations vary between 50,000 to 500,000. In the book called Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, Sarmila Bose stated that between 50,000 and 100,000 may have been killed. The figure was strongly disputed by the writer Naeem Mohajemen as being flawed. A 2008 British Medical Journal study estimated that up to 269,000 civilians may have died as a result of the conflict; this figure is far higher than the previous estimate of 58,000 from Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. A study published by the Cholera Hospital in Dhaka in 1976 in a prestigious journal called ‘Population Studies’ stated that about 500,000 “excess death” may have occurred because of the war. The US CIA carried out its own estimate and came to the conclusion that 200,000 had died during the war.

But Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, stated that 3 million (3,000,000) people had died as a result of the liberation war. He did not provide any details or breakdown of the death figure, just the sum total of death figure, which was about ten times higher than the consensus figure.

It came out subsequently in the political circles in Bangladesh that when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Bangladesh via London from the Pakistani prison in 1972, he was given a death figure of three lakh (300,000) by his trusted young political leader, Abdur Razzaq. But when Mujibur Rahman gave a press conference to the international journalists shortly after that, he translated three lakh (300,000) to three million (3,000,000) death toll. That mistake of 10 times exaggeration was never admitted or amended by the government. The presumption was that if the country could get away with higher death toll, all the more preferable.  

Pakistan does not fall behind at all in its bid of mendacious claims. Pakistani textbooks tried to ignore or omit country’s non-existence prior to 1947 and the territory’s shared history with India over the centuries – its multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious past. Pakistan’s history began, as it is claimed, with the conquest of Sind by the Umayyad Caliphate, led by the young General Mohammad bin Qasim in 711 AD. In one text book, it was claimed that Pakistan had suffered politically and militarily over the last thirteen centuries! This sort of history book only helps to create misinformed and blockheaded adults out of the younger generation. Pakistan’s gung-ho approach in dealing with India was not very helpful either to its national perspective. In the 1965 war with India, Pakistan’s history books claimed that Pakistan’s Army conquered large areas of India, and when India was on the verge of defeat, she asked for cease-fire through the UN! That was a blatant lie. With that mindset of super power status, Pakistan approached the 1971 crack-down of East Pakistan, which in fact resulted in the breakup of the country and the birth of Bangladesh. That war could even destroy the very existence of Pakistan. 

Such egregious distortion of facts by independent States of the sub-continent only helps to sow the seeds of dishonesty and corruption in the minds of younger people. If the State thinks that by lying and making exaggerated claims of its power and authority it can get away with falsehood and at the same time take misplaced credit, then the individuals of these States would be tempted to think why can’t they make similar bids of unfounded claims and reap the benefits?

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Racism in America: Police chokehold is not the issue (Part II)

(Following the previous post which constituted the initial section of the article, the present post is the concluding section of the article).

According to the Sentencing Project’s Report to the UN in 2018, Blacks are three times more likely to be searched, twice as likely to be arrested, and receive longer prison sentences for committing the same crime. Thirty-five percent of all executions in the US have been Black; they constitute 34 percent of prison inmates and 42 percent of people on death row.

However, while police brutality and related injustices are obvious, the most overwhelming burden for Blacks is the political disempowerment and economic inequities which they have to bear.

Blacks are approximately 13 percent of the population. But currently, while their presence in the House is roughly equivalent (52 out of 435), they have only three Senators (the highest ever), and no Governors. Of the 189 American Ambassadors, only three are Black, usually in “hardship posts” or less relevant assignments (like Bangladesh?).

According to Valerie Wilson from the Economic Policy Institute, in 2018, a median Black worker only earned about 75 percent of what a White person does (USD 14.92 per hour to USD 19.79), and The Economist reported that in 2019 mean household wealth was USD 138,000 for Blacks, and USD 933,700 for Whites. While more than 72 percent of Whites own homes usually in nice neighbourhoods, only 42 percent of Blacks do so usually in shabbier environments. Unemployment rates are typically twice that of Whites. 

Approximately 23 percent of Covid-19 patients are Black, and similar discrepancies are seen in terms of people suffering from blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, asthma, cancer, and other health challenges.   

Educational disparities are pronounced. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, while almost 80 percent of Whites graduate from high school, only 62 percent of Blacks do so. While 29 percent of White males and 38 percent of White females graduate from college, only 15 percent of Black males and 22 percent of Black females do the same. 

This is not because of innate intellectual differences traditionally used to explain the “achievement gap” (comparative lower scores in reading and math for Black students). As John Valant pointed out, Black performance in standardised tests has much more to do with exclusionary zoning policies that keep Black families from better school districts, mass incarceration practices that remove Black parents from children, and under-resourced Black school districts that impose relatively poor-quality teachers, weak supportive infrastructure and an environment of hopelessness and despair that students are compelled to endure. Expecting these kids to perform at the same level as others is like tying a weight to their legs and hoping that they can be competitive in a marathon.

President Johnson’s effort to “level the playing field” led to some Affirmative Action policies, and the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965, to provide historically disadvantaged groups some extra educational and economic opportunities. Some progress has certainly been made. A small Black middle class of professionals has gradually come into existence, some Black entrepreneurs have been notably prosperous, and a few Black performers have gained spectacular success in the entertainment and sports industries (unrelated to affirmative action).

But, on the other hand, many Whites resented these programmes which were gradually challenged, and in some ways gutted, through charges of “reverse discrimination” (Bakke v Board of Regents University of California, 1978). The sentiment was that these policies unfairly violated a merit-based system of rewards, and created an entitlement culture for undeserving Blacks (conveniently forgetting that Whites had gained from it for centuries). Sometimes affirmative action only meant incorporating a few Blacks in various positions to prove an institution’s quantitative adherence to EEOC requirements. It was tokenist, grudging and alienating. Instead of bridging racial divides, they deepened them.

Ay, and there is the rub, as Shakespeare would say. The issue of racism is not about a chokehold of a White police officer, but its stranglehold on US society. It is ingrained in the predatory capitalism that the US worships with its emphasis on ugly materialism over human development, selfish individualism over collective welfare, desperate profit-seeking over social responsibility, immoral inequalities over a sharing culture, patriarchal dominance over an inclusive democracy, mindless consumerism over ecological concern, and a phenomenally successful strategy of keeping people, particularly the working class, divided and loathing each other.

It is also true that the races are prisoners of their respective assumptions, perceptions and judgments that lead them to see “the other” in radically distorted terms. Their narratives of history, their engagement with reality, and their judgment of events condemn them to their own rhetorical echo-chambers, making communications difficult. What the Blacks will see and remember will be vastly different from what the Whites will (e.g. Blacks will hear George Floyd crying out for his mother as a casually sadistic White officer chokes him to death, Whites will see the looting). In these conditions, hate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Finally, when racism is reduced, and isolated, to a simple problem (e.g. police brutality), it will let politicians shake their cynical heads and issue condemnations with platitudes and clichés that will come trippingly to their tongues. It will permit them to tinker with this or that aspect of law enforcement and claim to have “fixed it”. It will encourage the power-elite to seek TV-rich moments such as taking a knee, or carrying a BLM placard, or raising a fist at a funeral memorial—high in symbolism but pitifully, perhaps deliberately, low in accomplishment.

As long as they ignore the larger historical, political and psychological context in which White defensiveness and Black weaknesses are located, one can treat the symptoms and not the virus of racism. The intellectual honesty and moral courage this would require has been absent in the past, and there is neither much evidence, nor much hope, that we will see it anytime soon.

Postscript: Having lived in America for many years, I can personally attest to the fairness and decency of the vast majority of colleagues, students, and general people my wife and I have met, and the genuine graciousness and warmth of many friends that we have been blessed to have. This merely underscores the point that the issue is not individual but institutional, not personal but structural.

(The cases mentioned in the article are all Supreme Court cases.)

 Ahrar Ahmad is Director General, Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka.

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Racism in America: Police chokehold is not the issue

The American project was founded on rank hypocrisies. On the one hand, President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the stirring words in the Declaration of Independence that upheld “these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”, did not free his own slaves (not even Sally Hemings, who bore him six children).

Similarly, the Constitution of the US, celebrated as one of the finest examples of a self-conscious construction of a liberal democratic order, defined Blacks as only three-fifths of a person, not a full human being. Though “slave trade” was abolished by Congress in 1808, a brisk market in slaves continued since it was considered essential to the “Southern life-style” and the mode of production in a plantation economy. Even in 1857, the Supreme Court ruled (Dred Scott v Sanford) that Black people were to be deemed “property”, not “citizens”.

It took a Civil War and three momentous amendments to the constitution (the 13th in 1865, the 14th in 1868, and the 15th in 1870) for slavery to be abolished, for Blacks to be accorded the “due process” protections of citizenship, and for them to receive the right to vote. (Women did not receive that right till the 19th amendment in 1920).

While the abject inhumanity of slavery may have been legally mitigated to some extent, the institutions, practices and values of exclusion, exploitation and devaluation were not.  Constitutional guarantees, and Supreme Court decisions, could be cleverly subverted by the states.  For example, Black people were denied the right to vote through poll taxes, arbitrary registration requirements, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white primaries and so on. In 1940, 70 years after they had received the right to vote, only 3 percent of Blacks in the South were registered as voters.  Less overt voter suppression efforts continue to this day.

Similarly, discriminatory laws in many Southern states also imposed second-class citizenship on them. There were restrictions on residence, employment, bank loans, travel (they had to sit in the back of the bus) and, till the Court’s decision in Brown (1954), the schools they could attend. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed many of these ostensible barriers, but the shadows remained long, corrosive and cruel.

While slavery may have been “the original sin” through which America came into being, its treatment of other minorities was not very tender. The ones who suffered the most immediately and most grievously were the Native Americans. This land which was theirs was taken away from them. Today, most live in reservations which constitute only 4 percent of US land area.  

They were also physically decimated. They became collateral damage in the relentless westward expansion of the Europeans based on notions of “manifest destiny”. They were killed through forced marches—e.g. the “trail of tears” between 1830-1850, when almost 60,000 of them were uprooted from their habitats and relocated elsewhere, with almost one-fourth dying on the way. There were massacres—e.g. in Bear River, Idaho, 1863, Oak Run, California, 1864, Sand Creek, Colorado, 1864, Marias, Montana, 1870, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1890, and many others.  And there were summary executions—e.g. the largest execution in US history was that of Dakota men in Mankato after the Sioux Wars in 1862.

When Columbus “discovered” America, the Native population was between 10-15 million. By the end of the 19th century, thanks to the efforts to civilise and Christianize those “red savages”, it had been reduced to 238,000. Today, it is less than 7m, or about 2 percent of the population.

Smaller minority groups in the US faced similar discrimination. Jews were saddled with the long-standing accusation of being “Christ-killers” and their intellectual and financial skills generated envy and anxiety. They were also considered to be consummate conspirators intent on taking over the world, ironically as bankers and financiers (Henry Ford’s argument), or as Bolshevik revolutionaries (Hitler’s conviction, also echoed in the US).    

The Chinese were the only people to be formally denied immigration into the country through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many Chinese, welcomed earlier as “coolie” labourers to lay the railroad tracks, faced harsh treatment and even violence. The Japanese, restricted through a “gentleman’s agreement” in 1907 from coming into the country any more, were herded into internment camps after Pearl Harbor even though there was not a shred of evidence that anyone had done anything wrong. “Indians”, i.e. those from South Asia, were not considered to be “free Whites” and thus not eligible for citizenship (US v Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923). Asian immigration was completely banned in 1924 and, when the door was slightly opened in 1946, limited by strict quotas of about 100 annually from these three countries. 

Thus racism was sown right into the fabric of American history, practices and values. The question that is frequently asked is why, while other minority groups subjected to discrimination were able to prosper later, Blacks did not. There is usually a racist subtext to that question to underscore White assumptions about Black laziness, intellectual inferiority, moral weakness, and collective inability to cooperate, organise and develop social capital. That conclusion is both self-serving and untrue.

First, no other group endured the sheer ferocity and persistence of bigotry in the same way that Blacks did. All others (except Native Americans, whose conditions have not improved) had voluntarily come to the country. The Blacks were captured, enslaved and commodified. They were not scrappy immigrants who came to the land of opportunity to pursue the American dream; they were forcibly brought here and left to contend with their American nightmare. 

Second, while others also faced stereotypes and prejudice, none encountered the uncouth mockery and the sheer physical violence that were inflicted on the Blacks. Minstrel shows, which caricatured Black people as sub-human beings (played by White folks in blackface), were wildly popular. 

But it was the slaps and kicks, the lashes and chains, the nigger hunting licenses and tar-and-featherings, the burning of crosses and the lynchings that were emblematic of the dehumanisation of Black people. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 Blacks were lynched. Many of these lynchings became public events which communities enjoyed as spectacle and the celebration of White power.

It is certainly not that Blacks only understood the language of violence. But this was certainly the only language preferred by Whites to speak to them. Those attitudes and tropes remained, manifested in new forms, sometimes hiding behind police badges. This is vigilante justice dispensed and protected by the instruments of the state, and sanctioned by historical practice. Hence we hear about teaching them a lesson, demonstrating overwhelming force, putting them in their place, to “dominate” as President Trump advised the other day, threatening to use the military if needed. It is for this reason too that Philonise Floyd poignantly pointed out, in his testimony to the US Congress, that his brother had been subjected to a modern-day lynching. 

Third, there was a psycho-sexual dimension to this relationship that complicated matters even further. While White men had always been fiercely protective of “their women”, their concern and insecurity regarding Black men were particularly pronounced. Even a hint, a look, a word, the slightest of moves that could be construed as expressing Black lust for a White woman, would provoke savage reprisal. This lasted well into the 20th century.

In 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Black teenager was accused of molesting a white woman, even though she never pressed charges. In the resulting carnage, there were 10-15 White casualties and, by some estimates, up to 300 Black. The entire Black neighbourhood of Greenwood was set on fire, and more than a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. Not a single person was convicted.   

Similarly, in 1955, Emmet Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago visiting his aunt in Mississippi, was accused of making a pass at a White woman by whistling at her. The boy was tortured to death, so badly brutalised that his mother could not even recognise her own son. The perpetrators were acquitted by an all-White jury. 

Ahrar Ahmad is Director General, Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka

(The second part of this article will be published next week – A Rahman)

                                                       

Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Dissecting COVID-19 Mortality Rates

Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is inflicting unprecedented havoc all over the world not only on human lives but also on social, economic, educational and political spheres. The most devastating part is that as scientists, medical professionals, virologists, epidemiologists and so forth come up with a potential cure or preventive medicine, they find that the virus had subtly changed in the meantime such that the medicine is no longer as effective as it is meant to be. It is a sort of cat and mouse game between scientists and the nature, where scientists are pursuing the naturally evolving deadly virus with all its technical arsenals and the nature is changing the characteristics of the viruses to outwit scientists. So far, over the past five months or so, nature is having the upper hand!

Now, setting aside the biological aspects of this devastating virus, parallel work had been going on to find out who the victims were and what were the inherent characteristics of the victims. If these characteristics could be identified precisely, then from the traits of these characteristics adequate protective measures can be prescribed and the likelihood of future damages can be reduced.  

In order to do that, one needs to have sufficiently large database of victims spanning over a period of time covering variables such as races of the victims, genders, demographic distribution, socio-economic conditions, living standards and lifestyle choices, religious adherence etc. Underneath all these variables, there may be few dominant traits which cut across these variables to perpetrate this disease within the population. To filter out these traits, one needs to dissect the mortality figures attributable to various factors.

The overall findings of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) over the past three months or so in England and Wales concur with the statistics in other multicultural and multi-ethnicity countries that black and Asian people, collectively known as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), were at higher risk from the novel coronavirus. But within this overall group, there are sub-groups where the risks are widely distributed – the risks vary on economic grounds, on educational grounds, on professional grounds as well as on religious grounds. But in all of these sub-groups, risks of BAME are higher, sometimes significantly higher, than the corresponding white sub-groups’. However, this article concentrates on risks based on religious subgroup.    

What had been identified from the study of mortality rates over the past three months or so in England and Wales was that religions offer a significant factor in fatality figures. Of course, other factors associated with the religious factor such as communal gathering in private houses, distributing and sharing of food items on religious occasions etc may have played significant roles as underlying causes in increasing the fatality figures. Let us look at the overall statistical figures before going into the underlying causes.

The ONS analysis of the mortality figures in England and Wales from March 2 to May 15 show that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have mortality rates in that order with the Muslims being the highest. The lowest rate is among people who have no-religion. Although the religion of a deceased person is not required to be specified in the death certificate, the ONS had to coordinate the deceased person’s religious affiliation from the 2011 census data, which are the latest available figures. Table 1 shows the percentage distribution of population of various religious groups. It may be noted that study population distribution is somewhat different from the 2011 Census distribution, as some people in the Census may since have passed away or emigrated and hence not available in the study population.

Table 1: Religious groups as used by the ONS
Religious
group
2011 Census
percentage distribution
Study population
percentage distribution
No religion25.126.0
Christian59.358.6
Buddhist0.40.4
Hindu1.51.5
Jewish0.50.5
Muslim4.84.9
Sikh0.80.8
Other religion0.40.4
Not stated or required7.27.0

It had been found that the mortality rate among Muslim men was 98.9 deaths per 100,000 (of Muslim men) and 98.2 deaths per 100,000 for women. For those who said they had no religion in Britain’s 2011 census, the figure was 80.7 deaths per 100,000 males and 47.9 deaths per 100,000 females.

However, when the age-standardised mortality rates (ASMRs) involving COVID-19 were evaluated, the deaths among Muslim religious group became 198.9 deaths per 100,000 males and 98.2 deaths per 100,000 females, which were the highest rates. The corresponding figures among Christians were 92.6 males and 54.6 females. The lowest figures were among those with no religious affiliations; the corresponding figures were 80.7 males and 47.9 females. ASMR is a statistical measure to allow more precise comparisons between two or more populations by eliminating the effects in age structure by using a “standard population”, which is taken as the European Standard Population.

Table 2: Age-standardised mortality rates involving COVID-19 for those aged nine years and over by sex and religious group, England and Wales, 2 March to 15 May 2020
Age-standardised mortality rates involving COVID-19 
Religious groupMalesFemales 
No religion80.747.9 
Christian92.654.6 
Buddhist113.557.4 
Sikh128.669.4 
 Hindu154.893.3 
Jewish187.994.3 
Muslim198.998.2 
Other religion or not stated84.249.2 

The ONS report states that with ethnicity included, it demonstrates that a substantial part of the difference in mortality between religious groups is explained by the different circumstances in which members of these groups are known to live – for example, living in areas with higher levels of socio-economic deprivation and differences in ethnic makeup. The adherents of various religions have different levels of education and career pursuits and that may lead to different socio-economic strata.

Figure 1: Muslim, Sikh or Hindu had higher mortality rates compared to the Christian and no-religion populations

Age-standardised mortality rates of death involving COVID-19 for those aged 9 to 64 years by sex and religious group, England and Wales, 2 March to 15 May 2020. It may be pointed out that, for example, ASMR in Muslim males between 9 and 64 is about 47 per 100,000, whereas for the whole population of Muslim males, i.e. age 9 to 64 and 65+, the figure is 198.9 per 100,000. That shows that the mortality in the age group 65+ is 151.9 per 100,000! Thus, the 65+ Muslim group is over 3 times more vulnerable than the under 65 group in England and Wales!

It had also been found out that the highest mortality rate was among black men at 255.7 per 100,000 compared to a rate of 87 deaths per 100,000 white males. The death rate was 119.8 per 100,000 for black women and 52 per 100,000 for white women.

Thus, COVID-19 pandemic had identified the vulnerability of population as a whole and the various subgroups of population. From those sub-groups the underlying causes such as economic deprivation, lack of education, concentration of people in the community, lifestyles, social patterns, religious adherence and many other factors may be identified.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Life as it is

Economic measures we should take in response to COVID-19 in Bangladesh

The 2020-21 budget of Bangladesh, under preparation now, could have been exciting. The country was having an unbroken run of 6 percent or higher growth rate for the last nine years. In 2019, it reached 8.2 percent. Poverty declined to reach 24.3 percent in 2016 (World Bank). Export earnings and remittance income, put together, covered more than three-fourths of the country’s import bill, and the country’s debt service ratio was at a comfortable level of 5.7 percent (in 2018). The achievements in the social sectors (in child and maternal mortality, in education, and nutrition) were praiseworthy, better than many other countries at similar levels of income.  

A number of mega projects involving huge expenditures (such as the Padma Bridge, Deep Sea Port, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, Karnaphuli Tunnel, Metro Rail Project) were taken up to develop and modernise the country further. The country was looking forward to celebrating 50 years of its independence (towards the end of 2021) in style.

COVID-19 pandemic has put an end to this euphoria. The highly contagious virus, with its high toll of human lives and livelihoods, pushed the world to a recession. The IMF estimates the world GDP to shrink by 3 percent this year. With supply chains broken, factories, trades and businesses either closed or nearly so, unemployment is expected to rise. The level of unemployment has already reached 26 million in the USA and 22 million in EU. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the virus had not reached its peak yet, and that there could be multiple spells of the virus.

Bangladesh has not been spared either. Although the impact of COVID-19 in terms of infection and fatalities (going by official statistics) remains lower than some developed countries, the casualties (which do not include community deaths and deaths in hundreds of private clinics around the country) can mount in the coming months. Like in most other countries, Bangladesh also imposed lockdown measures. Educational institutions, non-essential services, offices, shops and transportation services, small, medium and large industries including the vibrant and major foreign exchange earner, the readymade garment (RMG) factories, have been closed down.  However, some are opening slowly in recent days after the relaxation of lockdown measures.

The World Bank estimates a sharp decline of Bangladesh’s growth rate to around 2-3 percent in 2020, and further to 1.2-2.9 percent in 2021 from the 2019 growth rate of 8.2 percent. These are way below the 7-8 percent growth needed to reach the middle-income status by 2024.

The lockdowns have seriously disrupted normal economic and social activities in the country. Millions of workers engaged in shops and restaurants, in transport and communication sector, working as domestic help, self-employed as traders, hawkers, day labourers, totalling anywhere between 15-20 million, are expected to lose their livelihoods. With the closure of the readymade garment (RMGs) industry, another four million employees, mostly young women and their families, are expected to face difficult economic and social condition. Their low incomes make them vulnerable even to short periods of unemployment. 

Fear of the virus as well as loss of income are driving thousands of these vulnerable low income urban people to their rural roots. Others, who do not have this option, are staying back in urban slums, where congested living can be the breeding ground of the virus.

Given this background of unprecedented economic and social circumstances, the budget of 2020-21 will have to be significantly different from what could have been an “euphoric” budget. Instead, the budget will be one of damage limitation, caused by external circumstances and rebuilding.

The emergency measures are expected to tackle the emergencies created by the COVID-19 pandemic (in terms of both halting the progress of the virus and providing medical care to those infected), and supporting people survive through their immense economic hardship. The rebuilding measures, on the other hand, will address the issues of restarting the economy with directed support, subsidies, grants, and helping to build institutions to tackle future pandemics, including resurgence of COVID-19.

The emergency measures will have to focus on expanding the capacity of public healthcare institutions, through infrastructure development, procurement of equipment (PPE, masks, ventilators) and medicines (both anti-COVID-19 and for curing COVID-19 infection), and of course providing due support to all medical care staff, most importantly to the frontline care staff. And it will also have to beef up the country’s poor social protection initiatives (which is lowest in the Asia Pacific Region: UN Asia Pacific Region Report April 13, 2020). Part of the prime minister’s cash incentive of about 95.6 thousand crores taka could give the social protection initiative a boost, as well as provide cash incentives to medical workers.

The rebuilding measures, on the other hand, will focus on those sectors which are the main drivers of the economy, i.e. restarting RMGs, facilitating the repatriation of those who might have gotten stuck in Bangladesh. The measures could also include working capital support to small and medium industries, and small loans to traders. Low interest loans could also be provided to small businesses and industries who would like to configure their factory floors and work spaces to conform to the need for social distancing, to avoid further spread of COVID-19.

Beyond these, it will be immensely worthwhile to support agriculture, especially the smallholder farmers, through small loans to farmers, subsidised inputs, water and uninterrupted electricity supply during the dry season (now) and through ensuring availability of seasonal labour for harvesting. Microfinance institutions (MFIs), refinanced by Bangladesh Bank, could play an effective role in this area.

RMG sector, a major foreign exchange earner of the country, and employer of nearly four million workers (mostly for women), will need to be beefed up as early as possible. There could be a special fund to provide subsidised loans to the RMG industries on a case by case basis, judged by their ability to restart production, export and re-employment of staff laid off during the COVID crisis.

All these measures, detailed out and costed, will be a very tall order. The critical issue is how to get the budget financed.

The pandemic related crisis will severely restrict the growth of Bangladesh, and also imports, through reduction of economic activities. Both of these will severely reduce the government’s ability to raise revenue; the latter through reduction of revenue from import duties. The country will have to borrow: from external sources to the extent they are available, but also from domestic sources. These will create inflationary pressure, both because of reduced supply response and lower imports. The challenge will be to channel support to activities which could quickly respond through increased production.

 Dr Atiqur Rahman, economist and former lead strategist of IFAD, Rome, Italy.