Cultural, Human Rights, International, Political, Religious

Are these the Religious Verses from the Holy Quran?

(The following 26 verses from the Holy Quran had been petitioned to the Indian Supreme Court by Waseem Rizvi, a Shiite leader in India, for the removal from Quran due to the vicious nature of the verses and excitement to violence. Whether the Indian Supreme Court will regard itself an appropriate body to remove them is open to question. But the verses do look like vicious in nature. Full translation of the verses from Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Holy Quran is given below.)

The full transcript of the Quranic Verses forwarded by Waseem Rizvi for publication is given below. Please pay due respect to these Quranic Verses, as they are from the Holy Quran, only in English

1.Sura Al-Baqarah:

Ayat 191         And slay them whenever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for prosecution is worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who reject Faith.

2. Sura Al-i-Imam:

Ayat 151         Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined partners with Allah, for which He had sent no authority; their abode will be the Fire: and evil is the home of the wrong-doers!

3. Sura An-Nisaa:

Ayat 56           Those who reject our Signs, we shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, we shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the Chastisement: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.

4. Sura An-Nisaa:

Ayat 89           They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they); so take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (from what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.

5. Sura An-Nisaa:

Ayat 111         And if anyone earns sin, he earns it against his own soul: for Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom.

6. Sura Al-Maidah:

Ayat 14           From those, too, who call themselves Christians, we did take a Covenant, but they forgot a good part of the Message that was sent them: so we stirred up enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the Day of Judgment. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done.

7. Sura Al-Maidah:

Ayat 51           O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: they are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth nota people unjust.

8. Sura Al-Maidah:

Ayat 57           O ye who believe! Take not for friends and protectors those who take your religion for a mockery or sport – whether among those who received the Scripture before you, or among those who reject Faith: but fear ye Allah, if ye have Faith (indeed).

9. Sura Al-Anfal:

Ayat 65           O Prophet! Rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding.

10. Sura Al-Anfal:

Ayat 69           But (now) enjoy what ye took in war, lawful and good: but fear Allah: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

11. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 5             But when the forbidden months are past then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and pay Zakat then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

12. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 14           Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, and disgrace them help you (to victory) over them, heal the breast of Believers.

13. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 23           O ye who believe! Take not for protectors your fathers and your brothers if they love infidelity above Faith: if any of you do so, they are wrong.

14. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 28           O ye who believe! Truly the Pagans are unclean; so let them not, after this year of theirs, approach the Sacred Mosque. And if ye fear poverty, soon will Allah enrich you, if He wills, out of his bounty, for Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

15. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 29           Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

16. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 37           Verily the transposing (of a prohibited month) is an addition to Unbelief: Unbelievers are led to wrong thereby: for they make it lawful one year, and forbidden another year, in order to agree with the number of months forbidden by Allah and make such forbidden ones Lawful. The evil of their course seems pleasing to them. But Allah guideth not those who reject Faith.

17. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 58           And among them are men who slander thee in the matter of (the distribution of) the alms. If they are given part thereof, they are pleased, but if not, behold! They are indignant!

18. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 111         Allah hath purchased of the Believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Garden (of Paradise): they fight in His Cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in Truth, through the Torah, the Gospel and the Quran: and who is more faithful to his Covenant than Allah? Then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme.

19. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 123         O ye who believe! Fight the Unbelievers who are near to you and let them find harshness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.

20. Sura Al-Anbiyaa:

Ayat 98           Verily ye, (Unbelievers), and the (false) gods that ye worship besides Allah, are (but) fuel for Hell! To it will ye (surely) come!

21. Sura As-Sajda:

Ayat 22           And who does more wrong than one to whom are recited the Signs of his Lord, and then turns away therefrom? Verily from those who transgress we shall exact (due) retribution.

22. Sura Al-Ahzab:

Ayat 61           They shall have a curse on them: wherever they are found, they shall be seized and slain.

23. Sura Fussilat:

Ayat 27           But we will certainly give the Unbelievers a taste of a severe chastisement, and We will requite them for the worst of their deeds.

24. Sura Fussilat:

Ayat 28           Such is the requital of the enemies of Allah – the Fire: therein will be for them the Eternal Home: a (fit) requital, for that they were wont to reject Our Signs.

25. Sura Al-Fat-h:

Ayat 20           Allah has promised you many gains that ye shall acquire, and He has given you these beforehand: and He has restrained the hands of men from you; that it may be a Sign for the Believers, and that He may guide you to a Straight Path.

26. Sura At-Tahrim:

Ayat 9                         O Prophet! Strive hard against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their abode is Hell – an evil refuge (indeed).

Waseem Rizvi is a Shia Cleric in India

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

Enemies of Bangladesh striking from within

More than fifty years ago, Bangladeshi people fought a bloody war against Pakistani brutal oppression. In suppressing the legitimate demands of the people of then East Pakistan, Pakistani military authority had the ready and willing support of armed gang of the 5th columnists – the so-called Islamist thugs trying to save the country for religion.

Bangladesh won the independence after shedding tremendous amount of bloodshed, sacrificing the dignity of tens of thousands of Bengali women, millions of people had to flee their homeland by crossing the borders in all directions to India. After nine months of war, the country achieved independence by beating the Pakistani force.

Now the 5th columnists are attacking the very foundation of Bangladesh from within and to add insults to injury on the day of independence, on the day when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inspired the Bengali people to rise up and fight for our national dignity, for our national identity. How dare these Hefazat-e-Islam thugs attack Bangladesh’s national emblem as well as national properties when the country was primed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of its independence.

These Hefazati people are not only the enemy of the State, they are also the vicious people and criminals. They cannot tolerate the celebration of independence of Bangladesh, which broke away from their stark racist religious state of Pakistan. Even after 50 years, they are hankering after their fanatic country Pakistan and scheming to end the secular state of Bangladesh.

Now the question is, who are these Hefazati people and how did they get such a strong foothold in the country which they opposed so violently? To answer this question, one has to look back to the political history of Bangladesh. The killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, on 15th August 1975 was the turning point when the country had been wrenched out from secularism towards Islamisation. Ziaur Rahman who took control of the country after the turmoil of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s death started to change Bangladesh Constitution from secularity to Islamic Constitution, putting Bismillaher Rahmanir Rahim in the Preamble of the Constitution and stating Islam as the State religion. He then allowed Rajakars, al-Badr and other blatant religious groups who were violently involved in killing innocent people during the liberation war to come back to Bangladesh.  

At the same time, Saudi money started pouring in to open madrasas – Qawmi type which is of the fundamentalist variety – throughout the whole country. In addition, mosques were established in almost every street corner of the capital city and all major cities of the country with Saudi money. Ziaur Rahman surreptitiously encouraged these religious activities and with the explicit and implicit support of these religious bigots, he started a political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). After Ziaur Rahman, Mohammad Ershad continued in the same vane allowing and encouraging clandestine foreign supply of funds for political-religious purposes.

At the moment, there are at least 64,000 Qawmi madrasas in the country and the number of students is assumed to be nearly 10 million (as par Institute of Commonwealth Studies). The exact number of madrasas or madrasa students is not known as these madrasas are not registered and regulated by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, as these madrasas are financed privately. That is where the problem lies and the dark side of madrasa education starts to emerge. It is an open secret that Saudi Arabia as the main sponsor of the Salafist / Wahhabi ideology is the financier of these Qawmi madrasas and mosques, not only in Bangladesh but also in many other Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia also financed the setting up of Ibn Sina banks, Ibn Sina hospitals, universities, primary schools and even bus services and hotels in Bangladesh. The tentacles of Islamic financial activities go far and wide and are deeply rooted. Obviously, with such financial muscle comes the political muscle and any democratic government of a relatively poor country would be hard pressed to confront them.  

Hefazat-e-Islam as a political organisation emerged in 2010 when millions Qawmi madrassah people were readily available to populate this blatantly communal organisation. In fact, Hefazat has become the political forum for these Madrasa-trained people who have no vocation or skill to offer, other than simply reciting some verses from Quran without even understanding anything about it. These madrasas only produced millions of morons and enemies of the State. These people are total dead weight to the country.

Over the years, these madrasa-trained people had been piling up and they would now demand employment. That they are not suitable for any productive work is beyond their comprehension. However, the government should have warned them before they were allowed to go down the blind alley and now it falls on the government to train them and move them towards the constructive sector of the economy. These people, as they stand now, are now primed to be radicalised and can very easily be turned into Islamic terrorists.    

Demonstrating against foreign leaders or foreign powers, vandalising private and public properties, attacking minorities and their properties etc would seem to be the pastimes for these people. The government must stop them firmly. The whole sector of madrasa education should be closed down without any delay. The problem that the military-people-turned-politician had created in the past to get a foothold in the political field has to be tackled now. The country has to bear the brunt of the thuggery of Hefazati people by deploying the Border Guards to protect foreign leaders and saving government and minority properties, but can this extra vigil continue indefinitely? The root cause, the source of the problem needs to be tackled head on; otherwise, the mayhem caused by these illiterate madrasa-trained people may continue.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Economic, International, Political

Smallholder farmers in Bangladesh at risk from country’s growing prosperity

Today, Bangladesh has almost everything going for it; pre covid-19 growth rate had been one of the highest in the developing world, social sector achievements have been exemplary during the covid-19 period (2020 and early part of 2021), the country is faring much better than many other countries. Columnists, commentators of development experiences have been hailing the country for proudly shrugging off the infamous label of ‘international basket case’ at its independence in 1971, and rightly claiming a middle income spot now.

Unfortunately, however, the benefits of growth do not seem to be shared by all. The most deprived people seem to be the country’s 9 million or so smallholder farmers (SHFs). The SHFs (defined by landholding size of 2.5 acres (1.0 hectare) or less) constitute 84 percent of all farmers. One in every four in Bangladesh depend directly on small farming for their livelihoods, more if ancillary activities like food processing, marketing and transportation of agricultural products are included.

The country’s food security largely depends on the SHFs, and the government can ill afford to neglect them.  Yet, the SHFs belong to the poorest segment of the country’s population, and they are facing a slow process of decline.

Two factors are primarily responsible for this outcome.

The first is the rising income inequality which is marginalising the large majority of the smallholders.

The country’s income inequality has kept on increasing, and the SHFs, mostly at the bottom end of the income scale, have experienced a decline in their relative share of the country’s income.

The second and the more menacing threat facing the SHFs is loss of their agricultural land over time.

Available data, though rather fragmented and often not very consistent, indicate a worrisome trend of loss of land by agriculture, the large burden of which is borne by the SHFs.

Information emerging from rather infrequent land censuses as well as surveys by researchers indicate a decline of agricultural land area from 20.2 million acres (8.2 million hectares) in 1984 to 17.8 million acres (7.2 million hectares) in 1996 i.e., by 2.4 million acres (1.0 million hectare). This is about 12.0 per cent over the 12-year period.

Over the longer term, 1984-2008, there has been a decline in agricultural land. Bangladesh seems to have lost about one per cent of cultivated land per annum (about 80,000 hectares) over this period due to non-agricultural uses such as urban expansion, expansion of rural habitation, construction of roads and highways, economic zones, and other infrastructure facilities.

There is evidence of land loss brought out by other studies too. The Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI) shows that over the 44-year period of 1976 and 2010, a total of 43 thousand hectares of land per year seems to have been lost to agriculture. A private survey of 6 divisions in Bangladesh shows that land loss is very high in Dhaka (a Division with very high development activities) than in Khulna. Given the growth momentum in recent years, it can be hypothesised that land loss has increased in recent years.

The loss of land however is not due to coercive tactics of the rich and the powerful, nor of the state.  

The coercive tactics by the private sector are not ruled out, but much more is lost through operation of market forces, though purchases by both rural and urban entrepreneurs, tax evaders, money launderers and speculators. Small farmers (needing cash to meet their various economic, social and health related exigencies) succumb to the offer of cash by the rich purchasers. Encroaching salinity, river erosion, floods and droughts increase the magnitude of land loss. These natural disasters ‘force them’ to sell a part or whole of their holding ‘voluntarily’.

But it is not only the private sector interests that gobble up agricultural land. The same is done by the public sector too, but for the ‘noble purpose’ of rapid economic growth. Big public projects like power plants, roads and highways, economic zones, airports, cantonments, parks etc., require acquisition of large swathes of land. Land holders are now compensated handsomely at about 2-3 times of the market price of land. The poor and cash starved SHFs even wish that their land is ‘marked’ for acquisition by government.

The government policy of handsome compensation unwittingly becomes an instrument for land loss by poor SHFs.

Growth pushing back the frontiers of agriculture is not unique for Bangladesh only. China, for example, is losing about 1 million hectares of land every year, and the USA about 400,000 hectares every year. But the difference is that while those countries can afford to lose, given their large land mass; Bangladesh, with high population and low land/man ratio, can ill afford to do that.

This dilemma between unhindered growth and protecting the landholding of SHFs raises the critical question: should Bangladesh sacrifice growth to protect smallholder interests?

This is an enduring dilemma, and this is certainly not what is suggested. Policies can be crafted without sacrificing either. Bangladesh badly needs infrastructure projects, economic zones and investments to continue its upwards trend of prosperity. But that does not mean that it will have to be at the cost of SHFs. It is possible to craft policies to accommodate both.

What is required is a much stricter land utilisation policy, not only by making construction ‘going vertical’, but also limiting the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. The government could impose hefty penalties for land purchased for speculative and money laundering purchases. Further, the government could create a national digital ledger, which will contain information on land codified as agricultural (including fishery, livestock) and non-agricultural.  Conversion could be allowed only after careful review and only on national interests, and even that after public hearing of the views of land right groups/environmentalists and public representatives.

In addition, there should be increase in investments (i) on research to increase productivity of SHFs, by developing new and more productive varieties of plants, (ii) to improve transparency of land sales by Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), also called Blockchain, (iii) to reduce distress sales of land by farmers by providing loans on easy terms, and (iv) further increasing taxes on non-agricultural land. These policies if carefully developed and implemented could go a long way to stop the rot of our agriculture.

Dr Atiqur Rahman is an economist and ex-Lead Strategist of IFAD,

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

Mind-boggling Saudi mendacity

Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia portrays itself as the holiest place in the whole of Muslim world of 54 sovereign states and claims to be the custodian of two most sacred mosques in Islam. But the reality cannot be furthest from such exulted claims. The country is bereft with corruption, misogyny, brutality, inhumanity, deception and downright criminality. No country in the whole world can match or even come close to Saudi Arabia’s egregious claim of virtuosity and the reality of unfettered criminality.

Let us scrutinise Saudi Arabia’s activities in modern times and the havoc these activities are creating worldwide. To do so, we have to start from the roots of Saudi Arabia, its barbaric activities, its total absence of humanity and its criminal use of religion for political purposes. Overall, this country wants to gain prominence and supremacy at the back of religion and to do so, nothing is off the table.  

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia came into being in 1932 when Abdulaziz ibn Saud managed to beat his rival, Ikhwan in the battle of Sabilla in 1930 with the covert support of Britain and named the country after his family name, Saud. In other words, the country became the possession of the Saud dynasty. The country and the people were extremely impoverished at that time. But as luck would have it, in 1938 vast reserve of oil was discovered in areas close to the Persian Gulf by a British oil company. As petrodollars started pouring in, the country prospered, despite blatant corruption. The oil revenue in 2019 was $202 billion, despite oil price being less than half of what it was a year ago.

Saudi Arabia’s objectives with its vast oil wealth rests on two main planks: (i) legitimising and securing the rule of ibn Saud over the country and (ii) gaining undisputed supremacy in the Islamic world by eliminating any vestiges of dissent to their Sunni sect from other religious sects in Islam. Needless to say that Islam, being the political religion, readily lends itself to use overtly and covertly to achieve the above mentioned objectives of the Saudi Sunni dynasty.

When Abdulaziz ibn Saud conquered Riyadh in 1902 by sheer brutality, he realised that the fractious regions of desert lands of Arabia could only be brought together under his control if the overarching umbrella of religion was established – an uncanny resemblance of what Prophet Mohammed felt some 1400 years earlier. He revived an alliance drawn between Mohammad ibn Saud (the founder of 1st Saud dynasty) and the preacher Abd-al Wahhab in 1744 whereby ibn Saud and his heirs pledged to protect the Wahhabi dynasty from the prevailing animosity towards it in exchange of retaining the proprietary right over this Wahhabi ideology by the Saudis. This Wahhabi ideology mirrored the original teachings of Islam as encoded in Salafism, but with more vitriol and viciousness.  It suited Abdulaziz ibn-Saud and his band of warrior Islamicists very well to use Wahhabism/Salafism as a tool to impose autocracy in the name of Islam. Thus, Islam became truly a political-military religion.

What ISIL/IS did in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere reflect in totality the Wahhabi ideology which Saudi Arabia propagated and promoted. Few beheadings by IS in camera of ‘infidels’ might have shocked the world; but in Saudi Arabia beheadings of human beings on offences like adultery, apostasy, heresy, insult to prophet Muhammad etc. are almost every day affair. These are all done in Saudi Arabia legitimately under the Sharia Law. That the brutality of Sharia Law conflicts with the Human Rights Provisions to which Saudi Arabia had signed up to does not bother them an iota. Law is what suits the interests of the ruling class in Saudi Arabia; not something that conflicts with their interests.

It may be mentioned that the political Islam, reflecting the Bedouin culture of 7th century in the deserts of Arabia, lends very good helping hand to those bigoted men. As per religion, women are not to be treated equal to men. In fact, in matters of inheritance, a daughter is exactly half of a son. A woman cannot divorce her husband at all in Islam, but a man can divorce his wife by pronouncing ‘divorce’ words three times. If a woman is raped, it is always the fault of the woman – on the grounds that she might have aroused sexuality in the man and hence she is the one to be punished. Many hundreds of migrant women workers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Countries are punished every year by long term imprisonment, severe lashing or even beheading when their masters happen to rape them. For fear of their lives, these women workers remain silent. But if they become pregnant, they have to face brutal punishment as prescribed by the Wahhabi ideology.

Saudi Arabia’s other objective is the global domination of Sunni Wahhabism. As the King of Saudi Arabia is the custodian of two holiest mosques in Islam, Sunni domination is effectively his domination. The war in Yemen that is going on from 2014 is due to Saudi Arabia’s attack on Houthi rebels who are mainly Shias. Saudi Arabia had been bombing various parts of the country to kill Houthi rebels and any fatality of innocent civilians were regarded as collateral damage. More than 233,000 civilians have died until the end of 2020 due to the Saudi-led coalition attacks on Yemen, according to UN Humanitarian Office. Millions of children are now facing serious malnutrition and death due to diseases.

Saudi Arabia and its cohorts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia) had been funding and fuelling the discontent among the Syrian people against the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Alawite belongs to the Shiite sect of Islam, which Saudi Arabia regards as the enemy of Sunni. Other Shiite denominations such as Ismaili, Zaidi, Baha’is and Ahmadiyya are Wahhabis/Salafist enemies. Sufi had been declared non-Muslim. ISIL/IS had been killing these apostates under their occupation, unless they accept Sunni ideology straightaway.

Saudi Arabia is the root of most of the evils, if not all, of the world today. Most of the attackers of the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001 were Saudi fundamentalists. The untold misery of millions of people in Syria, Iraq and other places were due to Saudi inspired rebellion against established regimes. Despite that, the country did not feel any compassion to offer refuge to the dispossessed war victims, although the country has hundreds of billions of dollars and vast unused tracts of land. Saudi and other Wahhabi regimes in the Middle East gave the Fatwah that women (and even girls over 10 or 11) would be required to wear face veil (hijab) and all body veil (burqa) as part of the religious requirement. And now hundreds of millions of women round the world wear these attires, although there is nowhere in the religious books that they are mandatory.

In 2018, a Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi who worked for the Washington Post had been killed in Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He advocated liberalisation of strict Wahhabi doctrine in Saudi Arabia and in the process became an enemy of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. When Khashoggi went to Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect his marriage certificate on 2nd October 2018, the death squad was waiting for him. He was murdered, his body was chopped up into pieces and then dumped into the well of the Consul General’s home just across the road. They also enacted an elaborate ploy as one look-alike Khashoggi leaving the consulate through the back door. When Khashoggi did not come out of the consulate hours later, his fiancée (a Turkish national) started enquiring, the Saudi Consulate said at first that they knew nothing about Khashoggi’s whereabout and when she contacted high level Turkish officials, then they said he had left through the back door and produced the video clip to support it. That was a complete fake as reporters found that the imposter was wearing different shoes and different tie. The Turkish government investigated the case and found that Khashoggi had been brutally murdered inside the consulate. Two weeks later, the Saudi government said that he was killed in a fight. Yesterday, the American Intelligence report produced in 2018, which was stopped by Donald Trump’s orders, had been made public and that showed that he was murdered inside the consulate by the direct orders of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. For over two years, the Saudi government had been lying and deceiving the world and Donald Trump was complicit with it.      

There is a humourous saying which asks, when do you know that an Arab is lying? The answer came, when he opens his mouth.

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist
Bangladesh, Economic, International, Political

Bangladesh’s rising Foreign Exchange Reserve – getting the most out of it

With the highest ever Foreign Exchange Reserve (FER) of 43 billion USD (end 2020), Bangladesh faces a dilemma – should it continue accumulating the reserve or invest the surplus reserve on large-scale public sector projects?

The government seems to be staking in favour of development projects. A write-up in the Daily Star reported that “The Bangladesh government has decided to use the country’s ballooning foreign exchange reserves to implement development projects” (Byron and Uddin, The Daily Star, 12 October 2020). If this is true, it is a momentous but risky decision for Bangladesh.

The FER in developing countries are mostly used for self-insurance: to acquire the ability to pay for imports, service external loans, maintain a stable currency exchange rate, and competitively priced exports. A good reserve spares a country from kowtowing to donors and preserve its dignity.

But maintaining a reserve beyond what is necessary for self-insurance also involves a cost; the cost is the spread between current earnings (which is zero or near zero) and potential return. Safety considerations may dictate maintaining a high reserve for rainy days; on the other hand, investments in high yield projects could generate a handsome dividend.

There is therefore a temptation to use the surplus reserves for large scale investments, and get a handsome return.

Such investments would be welcome if they can be invested in high yield sectors, and the reserves could be made to increase at its historic rate to provide self-insurance for the country.  If these two requirements are not met, the country can be in financial peril in the longer run. Examples abound in the world on large publicly financed investments not delivering the right returns at the right time.

At this time of covid-19 related uncertainties, the risk arising from the volatility of the global economic situation can be quite large. Today, most countries in the world, impacted by covid-19, have slumped. Small and big businesses, especially those related to tourism, travel, and those requiring close human contacts have suffered. And so far, recovery has been erratic. Even with the roll out of vaccines, the recovery remains uncertain.

The prospects of investment in these circumstances vary widely across countries. The opportunities for successes and the risks for failures, both can be high depending on how well businesses click with evolving economic opportunities, public health and financial support scenarios. Well placed, they can succeed (like Amazon, communication like Zoom, and not the least the medical equipment suppliers and covid-19 vaccine producers); if not, they can limp on and even fail (like tourism, airline industry and other forms of public transport).  Huge public investments can fail to deliver, not only because of bad choice of projects but also due to adverse local and global economic circumstances, bad management and the risk of time and cost overruns.

China’s trillion dollar ‘One Belt One Road’ project financed out of its huge reserve is a long-term initiative to project China’s global reach and its economic and political intentions. It is a high-stake investment which is expected to over a number of years. The country has enough economic prowess, well recognized management capacity and political influence to pull it up. Even if it does not fire initially, the Chinese juggernaut support structure and financial capacity can pull it up.

Similarly, examples of sovereign funds of many petroleum rich countries and rich developed countries can succeed as they have large resource base to back them up, tide over bad patches and come out successful at the end.  Such examples of investments using sovereign fund are not of much relevance to Bangladesh given the country’s smallish surplus reserve and limited capacity to take up large projects on its own.

The debate in India on the choice between self-insurance and public investment in large infrastructure projects could be more pertinent to Bangladesh. India today boasts of having a very high FER of about 585 billion USD, but compared proportionately with Bangladesh, the difference is not enormously high. What makes it more comparable to Bangladesh is its socioeconomic environment and the governance structure, in which these two countries are not too far apart.

India too called for investing the surplus FER for infrastructure projects and public sector investments for industrial development. But it attracted flaks from financial analysts, independent reviewers and economists. The government’s policy to invest in large scale publicly financed projects  was criticised on the grounds that such investments could very well crowd out private investments, that investment in the industrial sector could be boosted by cutting tariffs instead of creating facilities for the potential investors to borrow funds. Moreover, it was argued that big public sector investments could create monopolies, which is considered to be an unwelcome outcome where anti-monopoly and anti-trust legislations are not well developed. A better policy would be to support the domestic economy through market stabilization scheme rather than investing in infrastructure projects.

While the above provide some indications of what could possibly be the direction and modality of utilizing surplus reserve in a situation similar to that of Bangladesh, the answer to the dilemma facing Bangladesh has to be sought and resolved in the specific Bangladesh context.

Apart from the issues raised in the context of India, for Bangladesh, one has to consider the constraints on project implementation due to the evolving covid-19 situation, the usual drama of not so infrequent changes in project designs and management inefficiencies leading to time and cost overruns, and therefore delays in profiting from the returns on investments. The government currently has its hands full with (more than a dozen) large scale development projects, financed by foreign loans as well as by the country’s own resources. These mega projects are at various stages of completion, and some are suffering from significant time and cost overruns. The projected returns are expected to be delayed, and therefore low at current prices. Even though Bangladesh is projected to do well in terms of recovery from covid-19 slump, thanks to the pick-up of the vibrant garment sector and minor damage, if any, to the agricultural sector, the longer term prospects of recovery and growth would depend on how quickly the covid-19 pandemic is tamed.

And it will also depend crucially on how quickly the remittance income of the country, the main driver behind the growth of FER, picks up. It is hard to make a projection; much of the pickup will depend on the growth of the host economies of Bangladeshi migrant workers. It will also depend on whether the economies which traditionally absorbed Bangladeshi workers will continue their dependence on unskilled and semi-skilled workers or move towards automation, use of robot technology, and highly skilled workers.

The flow of remittances can probably increase over the short term, but in the longer term, it may as well decline.

The country’s FER therefore may even go up the in the near future, but whether it will return to the current high level is questionable. In this scenario, it would be wise for the country to focus on completing more than a dozen on-going large scale infrastructure projects (financed through local funding and donor assistance). It would be wise to take a step back from taking on more large scale investment projects, assess the situation, local and global, and not throw precaution out of the window in a hurry to minimize the opportunity cost of surplus FER. 

This does not mean that the purpose of holding on to the reserve fund is to keep the surplus fund idle. Given the time and cost overruns of the on-going projects, much of the surplus fund may be needed for successful completion of the on-going projects. Besides, the government could focus, in the short and medium term, on supporting (through subsidized loans) the small and medium industries in the private sector to strengthen the industrial base of the country, finance advanced research and capitalization of agriculture, develop the IT sector, and improve manpower skills so that expatriate workers can move up the ladder of income scale when they get employed abroad.

As the global economy recovers and the country begins to build up its reserve fund, it would be time for the country to be ambitious again. Until then, the government has to be cautious with people centric approach for consolidating growth. The country is doing fine, and the mega projects awaiting completion will keep the country engaged for some time.  Hurried approach and high ambition with more large scale projects can overheat the economy and jeopardies the stable and good progress the country made so far.

Dr Atiqur Rahman is an economist and ex-Lead Strategist of IFAD, Rome.