Half a dozen MBA students watched apprehensively as the elderly professor wrote on the black-board. There were seven questions. It was the final of ‘Markets and Governance’ in 2001. It was perhaps the last time Professor Muzaffer Ahmad had given a course at Dhaka University’s Institute of Business Administration (IBA). I was fortunate to be among them. We were majoring in development economics.
It took him almost half an hour to get done with the exam questions. It was obvious that he made up the radical government decisions as he went along.
‘The government announces a new procurement plan. It will buy all the paddy and wheat from farmers in the next season. Paddy farmers will be able to sell at cost but the government promises a 10 percent mark-up for wheat,’ this is roughly what one question said.
There was another one on transport, and this is from a time when the smoke spewing three-wheel auto-rickshaws, the baby taxis, still raged on Dhaka’s streets contributing to extreme levels of lead pollution. ‘The government decides to introduce fitness stickers for the two-stroke three wheelers — i.e. the baby taxis — with catalytic converters. The rest will be moved out of Dhaka within six months.’
We were to explain the effect such decisions would have on the market. For a couple, it was the other way round. We were to rationalise our prescribed government decision addressing a certain market trend. It was open book.
Muzaffer Ahmad turned around with a knowing smile and ended most of our queries with one answer. “There is no right or wrong answer here. They really depend on your assumptions, so explain them well.”
This hardly calmed the students. Some of us had studied the five-year plans, some had read the Professor’s papers, some others thought he would really be asking more theoretical questions like ‘Explain why a governed market is better than a free market’. We had the tools, he said, and we had the knowledge to explain each of the problems. He advised us to discuss among ourselves. “Then go to the library if need be. You can even go and talk to Rehman Sobhan if you want.”
We settled on a four hours’ time to answer. It was 2pm and he had some seminar to attend. “I am taking your word. You are honour bound to submit the papers by 6pm. Slide them under my door. I will be off now.”
There were other times over the semester when he had skipped his conferences and seminars when junior teachers said they were tied up elsewhere and would not be able make it to the class.
He never compromised on his duties as a teacher, a rarity at the business school. IBA students dreaded taking a course with this Chicago graduate. He would invariably have at least double the contact hours, and in turn cover a lot more material. Teeming with students bent on making a six-figure salary before they crossed 30, I thought Muzaffer Ahmad was pitching to a wrong crowd, really.
When a bunch of us got together at the end of the third semester unwilling to take any of the ‘hot’ majors, this man said, “Get me six willing students for development economics and leave the rest to me.” The administration had said there were no jobs for this major, there were no teachers, there were no classrooms available and so on. So Muzaffer Ahmad had them hire two teachers from outside and we took classes on the weekends — from almost right after ‘fajr’ till ‘maghrib’. The professor prayed five times a day.
That last semester at IBA was perhaps the most exciting academic journey of my life. From the first assignment to the final exam, I was not expected to regurgitate the texts. With every assignment I felt challenged. It was the first time I took interest in my studies.
We learned about the development paths of the Asian tigers but it did not stop with that. Muzaffer Ahmad then made us go through Bangladesh’s five-year plans sector by sector and come up with our observations, with rational explanations of course.
Given the volume of assignments and the kind of groundwork they required, we were constantly on the lookout for good reports or articles that might ‘lessen’ our work. There were quite a few times when someone had to abandon ‘borrowing’ from such reports, especially in the context of Bangladesh’s health and education. More often than not, Muzaffer Ahmad turned out to be one of the authors.
There was one book that we had to review. A World Bank publication, ‘Bureaucrats in Business’. The whole point of the book was why governments should run businesses. Muzaffer Ahmad did not seem to be a big fan of the idea, but he pointed to both sides of the coin. He explained how a number Bangladeshi state owned enterprises had gone wrong and how privatising such enterprises had spelled doom in even the developed countries. He told us about his experience as an industries adviser during General Ziaur Rahman’s regime and what he had done to raise performances of government factories. Military regimes were something Muzaffer Ahmad seemed to get mixed up in. He was also the chief guest at the publication ceremony of General Moeen Uddin Ahmed’s biography in the middle of the 2007-08 state of emergency when the military controlled the ‘caretaker’ government. I was disappointed.
I remembered his mischievous smile from one afternoon just as we were getting done with the class. We had just gotten through the development paths and the professor asked what we thought of people like Lee Kuan Yew or Mahathir Mohamad. “They were not really great fans of democracy and fair elections. But then, they did lead their countries to prosperity and development. What do you make of that?” His eyes ran over all of us. He turned and left with the smile still on his lips. He had his politics but that hardly interfered with what he taught. I remember him explaining in great detail the importance of civil and political rights, which were not included in the UNDP’s human development indicator.
By then of course I had come to appreciate what I learned in his classes. Perhaps what I value most is that he did not stop at having expanded our horizons but showed us how to find new ones, how to go about exploring them and most importantly how to question. Somehow, given my aversion to corporations, I thought that did not behove a genuine corporate animal. I believe I emerged as a better, more evolved human. I have asked myself, given the hindsight, would I have still majored under the professor. Every time, the answer is almost invariably an emphatic ‘No’. This time I would do it with more conviction.
It is perhaps the people we meet and come into contact with who have the most influence on our lives. It is those people who change us as individuals. Muzaffer Ahmad, I am certain, will remain such a landmark.
Tanim Ahmed is an Assistant Editor, bdnews24.com.