Bangladesh’s back-to-back win in two ODI cricket series against Pakistan and India within two months is no flash in the pan. And this does not prove just its emerging cricketing prowess.
It is a manifestation of the all-round progress that South Asia’s youngest nation has made since Henry Kissinger sneeringly called it a “basket case” after its birth through an “ocean of blood” in 1971. And it is reflective of the enormous self-confidence born out of a powerful language-and-culture driven nationalism playing out on a homogenous demography replete with youth dividend. It took India 25 years after Independence to beat its one-time colonial masters in a cricket series. It has taken Bangladesh around 40 years to beat its sub-continental rivals India and Pakistan in the same year. There hangs the tale.
Much as the spread of democracy in India impacted cricket and the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and M S Dhoni left the Maharajas and Nawabs far behind, an improving rural economy and all-round development in Bangladesh has led to the rise of the likes of Mustafizur Rahman – who took away the ODI series by his stellar left arm seam bowling.
Mustafizur is the youngest of six children of a farmer who improved his family fortunes by shifting to prawn cultivation from subsistence agriculture a few years after his birth. Young Mustafizur got much support (cricketing gear and funds) from uncles settled in far off US and UK, reflecting the way in which the Bangladesh diaspora, whose lung power was on display in far off Oceania during the World Cup, has contributed to the country’s economy and to an aggressive nationalism that shapes its self-confidence. Remittances now touching nearly $25 billion a year are the second biggest foreign exchange earner for Bangladesh after garment exports.
But for those in India who still see Bangladesh as only generating desperate migrants, it is important to know that Bangladesh has beaten India (and surely Pakistan) in many important social and human development indicators – an achievement which Nobel laureate Amartya Sen never forgets to recall as the Bangladesh conundrum. A 2014 research paper in World Development says: “Considering its initial unfavourable conditions (caused by the devastating 1971 war and the 1974 famine) and the existing challenges of poor public governance and political stability, Bangladesh’s achievements in social development are truly surprising.”
What makes it more surprising is that Bangladesh is far ahead in social development among countries in the same economic league as itself – something that led The Economist to observe that Bangladesh might be a role model for inclusive growth and distributive justice. In areas such as female education, family planning or child health, Bangladesh has left India and Pakistan far behind.
Nowhere is female empowerment in Bangladesh more in evidence than in its politics. At one point, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government had five powerful women ministers running key portfolios. The opposition leader is a woman, so is the Speaker. Interestingly, three women of Bangladesh origin made it to the UK House of Commons this year. So much for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “despite a woman” remark.
Hasina’s dream of turning Bangladesh into a middle-income country is still some years away. The target date is 2021, but finance minister A M A Muhith feels that will happen before his term ends in January 2019. There is still stark poverty in some areas but overall poverty levels have come down sharply – in one year from 2010 to 2011, says the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the level of poverty dropped from 31% to 25.6%, with the number of “ultra poor” pitched at 12%.
That grey zone in the population still produces hapless migrants on leaky boats trying to reach Southeast Asia for a better livelihood – but Hasina’s government has done much to regularise labour exports and cracked down on illegal migration rackets. Many African nations now welcome Bangladesh farmers to boost agriculture and end famines.
Hasina’s government has undertaken huge infrastructure development – the most important being the 6.15 km Padma railroad bridge which, when completed, will add 1% of national GDP by bringing 21 southern districts close to the national capital. In her six years in power, Hasina’s government has augmented the national power output by three times. She laments the pace of both economic and social development would be much faster if the country’s Islamist opposition refrains from violent agitations.
But Bangladeshis are primarily a race of resilient hardy farmers who weather deadly floods and cyclones and stay afloat to fight for another day – perhaps they’re the toughest farmers of the subcontinent. They have learnt to live – and grow – amid the uncertainties of violent fractious politics and corruption at the top. Bangladesh’s cricket has drawn strength from the country’s social and economic progress at the grassroots, primarily driven by conscious public policies focussing on social development and a wonderful synergy between NGOs, government agencies and local stakeholders (including the poorest).
The fearlessness of its cricketers is born of the vicissitudes of sheer survival faced by millions in an over-populated delta nation battling the worst of climate change and the confidence of a young nation (65% below 35) unencumbered by colonial hangovers or confused national identity.
Subir Bhaumik is a bdnews24.com columnist. This piece was first published in Times of India.
Subir Bhaumikis a columnist and former senior editor of bdnews24.com. He also worked as a correspondent of the BBC World Service for many years. As a journalist he has broken some of the biggest stories in North East India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan. He has written a number of books on the region.