August 2, 2023
DHAKA – The people of Bangladesh are currently facing several crises. On the one hand, the prices of commodities are increasing, with no moves from the authorities to bring them down. Different ministers have different things to say about this – while one says the people of the country are well, another says they don’t have a way to interfere with the syndicates. Yet others are implying that the situation is unavoidable. All this means that the people will not see an end to their financial woes anytime soon.
Now, what does it mean when the prices of commodities increase like this? It signals a decrease in people’s real income. But real income was quite low as it was. Take the salaries of garment workers, for example, whose minimum monthly salary was Tk 8,000. If adjusted for inflation over the last couple of years, that money now has a real value of around Tk 5,000. So, in order for a minimum-wage garment worker to have the same purchasing power as before, they would need to be paid a salary of Tk 11,000 or more. The government has hinted at a five-percent increase in government workers’ salary to battle inflation. But we need to keep in mind that 90 percent of the population doesn’t fall under this category.
The second crisis is the country’s current political atmosphere. Namely, the immense political instability and aggression we are witnessing. No one knows how far this will go. Due to different international players like the EU, the US, China, and Russia all taking different stances, the situation is becoming ever more complicated. The US and the EU, for instance, are exerting pressure from multiple directions to ensure that Bangladesh holds a truly neutral and fair election. How sad that even after 52 years of our independence, foreign nations have more of a say about the fate of our electoral process than the people of this country! What is even sadder is that none of this would have been necessary if our own legislative authorities were functioning properly. If the Election Commission were able to ensure the bare minimum voting rights of citizens, then these other states would not have felt the need to interfere.
This is not the only instance of external pressures bearing more fruit than internal protests. The people of Bangladesh staged various protests to stop extrajudicial killings, and to abolish the draconian Digital Security Act that is used to harass people and suppress freedom of speech. But this barely had an effect on the government. Yet, when the US imposed sanctions and visa restrictions, we saw a decrease in the number of atrocities.
What can be more pitiful than the people’s wants falling short while outside pressures lead to results?
Finally, and most recently, there’s the dengue situation. The condition in Dhaka is dire and has spilled over to other parts of the country fast. The urgency that was required from the government and particularly the health ministry to deal with the dengue epidemic cautiously and keep it in control is absent even now when the cases of infection and deaths are spiking. It would seem like common sense for the city corporations to employ more people near hotspots such as construction sites, business establishments, government offices, and anywhere with garbage piles to clear these spaces of mosquitoes and their larvae. Yet, this effort is missing. A prime example of systematic failure is the area of Jurain. Due to so-called development activities, there are always potholes and waterlogging in the area. And even when dengue wasn’t an issue, Jurain residents were exposed to a number of other diseases. This has happened because the city corporations and other government agencies failed miserably to do their jobs.
The health ministry, too, should have been proactive given how there are not nearly enough beds to accommodate the increasing number of dengue patients. Lower income groups, who were already suffering because of inflation are now even worse off due to the uncontrolled spread of dengue. As such, the tests and treatment for the disease should have been made free of cost for all by now.
So, the people of Bangladesh are uncertain about their right to vote freely in a fair election, and they are in an insecure financial state in an economy headed towards recession. Furthermore, the people are at risk of not having the bare minimum defence against a health crisis like the current dengue situation, and the lack of sensible government effort in battling it.
Of course, the situation isn’t the same for everyone. Some groups, which can be called oligopolies in economic terms, receive colossal earnings, say, from the power sector, due to contracts tailored to benefit them disproportionately. In the last 14 years, these private power plants have received around Tk 90,000 crore from the government, without supplying any electricity. The banks, too, despite being continuously “looted,” and with the overall banking sector weakening, are receiving more and more support. Garment manufacturers are also reaping huge profits due to the taka weakening against the dollar. Meanwhile, the working classes’ real income keeps declining.
All this needs to change soon, and the change must come from within. Many are looking towards international bodies, particularly the US. But it would do us well to remember that progressive change won’t happen if we depend on other countries. Be it the US, China or Russia, they all have their own agendas and interests that they will prioritise over the interests of the people of Bangladesh. This is why, unless the general population of our country engages in claiming and protecting their political rights, the right to health, and the minimum rights associated with living as a human being, these uncertainties, sufferings, and exploitation will continue with no bounds.
Anu Muhammad is former professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University.