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How Bangladesh has arrived on the global map at 50

A cast of dynamic Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and intellectuals tell the story of a nation on the upsurge, that has emerged from a difficult past to a prosperous and nuanced present

Written by Shubhajit Roy |
Updated: March 28, 2021 10:31:53 am
Inside Out: There is a greater thrust on education and a conscious desire to move away from an agrarian background to an urban, techno-centric life (Getty image)

It’s almost 9 pm and the air is cool and crisp. On the 13th floor of the Shadhinata Tower in Dhaka sits Kamal Quadir, founder and CEO of bKash — arguably one of Bangladesh’s most popular indigenous mobile payment services. Far below, one can hear the muted honking on the arterial roads of Dhaka, choked with serpentine traffic, even as the illuminated glass facades of buildings twinkle in the distance.Quadir’s rooftop office overlooks the Tejgaon airfield, which was the Dhaka base of the Pakistan Air Force in 1971, and was bombed by the Indian Air Force — a key point in the Liberation War.

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Like his country, Quadir, too, turned 50 early this month, one of Bangladesh’s “midnight’s children”, born just three days before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s famous inspirational speech: “Ebarer songram, amader muktir songram, ebarer songram, shadhinotar songram” (This time the struggle is for our freedom. This time the struggle is for our independence). After studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in the US, he returned to Bangladesh to set up his mobile financial service firm bKash — a take on the Bengali word for development “bikash” and on “cash” transactions in 2016. Its app is now on almost everyone’s smartphone in Dhaka and has been used by a third of Bangladesh’s population — 52 out of 168 million people — at least once in the last 10 years.

In a country of 168 million people, more than 70 per cent of Bangladesh’s people are estimated to be born after 1971. People like Quadir represent the new face of the country, powering its technology, commerce and entertainment, and epitomising all that is dynamic and vibrant about the country.In 1971, Bangladesh’s GDP was estimated at US$8 billion. Fifty years later, the country is emerging as the fastest growing economy in the region, with a GDP that has now grown to about US$320 billion; its per capita income has risen from US$ 93 to US$ 2,000 in the same period. With 25 million Bangladeshis lifted from poverty over 15 years, the World Bank calls Bangladesh “an inspiring story of reducing poverty”.

In Dhaka, the development and prosperity can be seen at every street — with Metro construction going on, new buildings being constructed, flashy imported cars that coexist with the chaotic autos and rickshaws on the streets. Apart from the old-school brick-and-mortar economy, the mobile-app economy, born out of a mobile penetration of 99 per cent of the population, has led to a mushrooming of indigenous start-ups whose apps feature on everyone’s smartphones.

Thirty one-year-old Hossain M Elius is one such successful entrepreneur. Born and raised in Dhaka, he studied in the city’s North South University — one of Bangladesh’s top private institutions — and experimented with start-up ideas since college before hitting the jackpot. Today, he is the CEO of Pathao (“send” in Bengali), a two-wheeler ride-sharing service, which he started in 2016 along with two friends. While the city’s traffic snarls are legendary, with cars crawling at a speed of barely 7 km per hour, it was his daily commute of nearly 4.5 hours to and from college that gave Elius the idea for Pathao. “I had heard a TED talk that one out of 10 startups become successful. I had thought I would have to do 10 startups and one would succeed. I didn’t, my sixth idea worked,” he says. When they launched the two-wheeler ride-sharing service, “it did not grow, it exploded”, with about a million users on an average everyday.

The current government has stomped out Islamic extremism… This means a lot in a Muslim-majority country: Hussain M Elius, CEO, Pathao

Both Quadir and Elius are household names in the country today. A lot of their success, says Elius, comes from the relative political stability they have grown up amidst. “I was in school before 2008 and the rise of Islamic extremism was apparent then. We lived through great political turmoil. The current government has done a good job of stomping that out. This means a lot in a Muslim-majority country,” he says.

The Sheikh Hasina government came to power in 2008, after two years of a military-led caretaker government and five years of Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) rule between 2001 and 2006, when Islamic hardliners were part of the ruling coalition and exercised control. Hasina’s return to power saw a rise in staunchly secular policies and a crackdown against extremist groups. Anti terrorist and anti-money laundering laws were passed, and counter-terrorist operations were taken up with India’s help. This has made her government popular among the liberals and progressives in the country, who fought against the Islamic identity in 1971 and have always endorsed Bengali nationalism as their first and sometimes, only identity. In the last elections in 2018, Hasina’s party, the Awami League, won 258 out of 300 seats in the Parliament.

Mithila Farzana, 41, one of the country’s most popular TV hosts and the face of the popular current-affairs talk show, Ekattor Journal, remembers the relentless death threats and abuses from Islamic groups that want women to be veiled. “Dom Rakhte na para tai shabhabik (not being able to stay on is the usual norm)”. After persisting for two decades, she says there are moments of vindication when someone comes and says “We want our daughter to be like you. All these years of overcoming fear seem to have worked,” she says.

Nadia Samdani, 39, founder of the Dhaka Art Summit and one of the country’s foremost patrons of art, too, says that the current political climate has been conducive for intellectual activities. “Bangladesh is a very liberal and forward-thinking country”, she says, adding that she has never had to censor any shows in deference to political views. On the contrary, her aim has been to throw art open to people from all walks of life. Unlike at the India Art Summit, there are no business hours at the Dhaka Art Summit. “The head curator of Tate Modern and a taxi driver can walk in around the same time,” says Samdani.

***

Senjuti Saha, 34, and her team have decoded the genome sequence of the COVID-19-causing virus, SARS-CoV2, in Bangladesh. At 17, Saha had left her home and microbiologist parents in Dhaka and moved to Canada to pursue higher education. But 11 years and a PhD in molecular biology later, when she asked herself whether the “very sophisticated research” she was doing would find effective application, Saha decided to return to Dhaka, where joined an NGO, Child Health Research Foundation.

The difference between a high-income country and a low-income country, Saha says, as she brings her palms close, is that in the West, a lot of work can yield some benefits. “But here”, she gesticulates, “a small amount of work can lead to large benefits.” “In hospitals, the deaths of children can be prevented with simple technology which is not that expensive,” she says. True to her words, there has been substantial reductions in infant and child mortality in Bangladesh in the last two decades. Since 2000, a World Bank report says that infant mortality has decreased sharply, from 64 to 27 infants per 1,000 live births. Today, Bangladesh is performing better in these dimensions than other countries in the South Asia region, where average life expectancy is 69 years and infant mortality is about 36.4 infants per 1,000 live births.

We need more women in leadership positions… Democracy is not a linear slope, it’s a process: Senjuti Saha, scientist

If Saha left a comfortable life overseas to come back to Dhaka and is using technology to save lives, Fayaz Taher, 36, returned from the US after higher studies to use technology to entertain. Taher, 36, is the chief operating officer of Bongo, Bangladesh’ answer to Youtube and Netflix. Bongo started with digitising classics, films, dramas from the ’70s and the ’80s and now have about 15,000 hours of content — old classics, drama, rooted in culture. Run almost entirely by local tech professionals, Bongo clocks “one billion views every month” on an average. While 40 per cent of viewers are in Bangladesh, about 60 per cent of them are overseas, including in India, the US and the MiddleEast.

Quadir feels independence gave Bangladeshis a clear sense of priority. “Every family knows somebody who was tortured or affected during the freedom struggle. My own house in Jessore was completely looted by the military and the militia. A drive to pursue their aspiration was instilled in people and basic elements of statecraft and nation-building — the Constitution, the Central Bank, the Planning Commission — were created early on,” he says, adding, “Adda is not considered a good thing for a working culture any longer.” A lot of the change, he says, has also been driven by the country’s current government. The internet and the digital platforms, too, have changed the ecosystem in the country in irreversible ways. There is a greater thrust on education and a conscious desire to move away from an agrarian background to an urban, techno-centric life. This has prompted people like Taher to contemplate moving Bongo into spheres like online education, in the near future. “The policies, tax exemptions, IT policy — all have contributed to the growth,” he says.

***

While most of these entrepreneurs credit “political stability” as one of the reasons for development, Tahid Awal, 41, a young and upcoming BNP leader, disagrees. “If we don’t stand up any more, then who else will? There are zero outlets for expression of dissent,” says Awal, a member of the executive council of the party, who was north Dhaka’s mayor candidate in 2015 and 2020.

Independent filmmaker Humaira Bilkis, 40, returned to Dhaka after pursuing a filmmaking course from a private institution in Delhi and wants her work to showcase contemporary Bangladesh. She has worked with Oscar winning Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy as an associate producer; Bilkis’s film, I am Yet to See Delhi, featured in a film festival in Japan, and her upcoming movie, Bilkis and Bilkis was chosen as one of the 10 projects in the Berlinale in 2019. Bilkis considers herself “mukto mona” (a free-spirited woman). “Swadhin desh-e jonmo hoyechhe (we are born in an independent country), we want to speak freely,” she says, in a reflective tone. “How much freely will I be able to make a movie, that is a question I ask…Often, at the idea stage itself, we start censoring,” she says.

Bilkis’s fears are not entirely unfounded. In 2011, director Rubaiyat Hossain’s movie, Meherjaan, was banned in the country as it showed a love affair between a Bangladeshi woman and a Pakistani military officer. Despite the improvement in the economy and other social indicators, the political churn in the country has created deep fissures and vitriol in society. With the Hasina government winning three consecutive elections in the country, the space for dissent and opposition, many say, have shrunk visibly over the last few years. In 2016, journalist Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper was slapped with 83 cases of sedition and defamation; photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested in 2018 for his criticism of the government’s violent response to the 2018 Bangladesh road safety protests. The country’s main opposition leader Khaleda Zia has been in jail for last two years, her sentence recently commuted to house arrest during the pandemic on health grounds.

The BNP is now run by her son Tareque Rehman from London and senior leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in Dhaka.

***

While Awal has a divergent view, most other entrepreneurs make a good case for the growing stability, economic and otherwise, in the country, once described by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “basket case”. For the past four years before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the global economy, Bangladesh was galloping at a growth rate of 7 to 8 per cent per year — which is more than China’s growth rate, according to World Bank statistics.

Elius, whose Pathao is one of the most downloaded apps after Bkash, now is aspiring for more, having expanded to Nepal. What he sees as a limiting factor is a lack of foreign capital. “India has a lot of capital, we don’t have enough,” he says, adding that one company in India got 300 million USD as capital funding, this is equivalent to Bangladesh’s foreign capital for startups in the last three years. Change is slow, but he says their timing was crucial. “We began right after 4G was rolled out and cheap Chinese smartphones were available. And of course, a little bit of luck.

Fifty years after independence, Taher says the country is still young. “It’s like a child growing up…ultimately, we have to improve our quality of life,” he says, listing out the major challenges as education, jobs and entrepreneurship.
Saha puts Bangladesh’s development in a more clinical context, “On 14 December, 1971, teachers, professors, scientists were killed. It was akin to a person’s legs being cut off. It would have been so difficult to be up again. Credit should go to Bangladesh. We have overcome a lot. How did we do it? I am in awe still. In 1971, our life expectancy was 46, and now, it is 72. Can we do better? Of course, we can. We need more women in leadership positions. Democracy is not a linear slope, it’s a process,” she says.

Muntassir Mamoon, 69, one of the doyens of history at Dhaka university who now heads the 1971 Genocide Torture Archive and Museum Trust, says, “In 1971, I didn’t think that I will see a Bangladesh like today’s 50 years later.” Since 1966, he has seen Bangladesh or what was then East Pakistan fight against religious fundamentalism, poverty, calamity and mis-governance. “Earlier I would be apprehensive about going with my green passport. Now, I don’t bother. This new confidence is something to note as a student of history,” he says.

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