I was waiting for my luggage at the baggage claim of Dhaka international airport. Airports are a suitable place to examine a country’s new trends, cultural attitudes, and its views of the world. So, I looked for anything that I hadn’t seen during my previous trip to Dhaka.
What struck me most was the advertisement of a diamond shop. It was a digital display, placed on the divider of the baggage claim. Advertisements are a good measure of a society’s qualitative transformations. Even a decade or so ago, diamonds were exclusive and invisible, decorating only the body of the superrich. Diamonds were not part of mass culture. Gold was.
The fact that diamonds are being advertised today to the masses suggests that there are both real and potential buyers. Have diamonds replaced gold as a new measure of exhibitionist affluence? It seems that Bangladesh has transitioned from the traditional preference for 24-karat “yellow” gold to a robust appetite for diamonds, thanks to a preening consumer economy.
A few days later, I was walking along the Parade Ground, one of Chittagong’s few remaining playgrounds. At the corner of the playground on the Chawk Bazar side, there was a giant billboard of another diamond shop, the so-called “1st diamond store in Chittagong.” I stopped and took a picture. (See picture)
So, diamond is in. Gold is old stuff. In fact, there is a growing export-oriented industry in Bangladesh for cutting and polishing rough diamonds. “Diamonds are a pre-emerging industry in Bangladesh, suffering all the birth pains,” says Onu Jaigirdar, managing director of Brilliant Hera, the country’s sole diamond manufacturing plant. India’s Gem & Jewellery Export Promotion Council has stated not too long ago that Bangladesh with its growing middle-class has become a lucrative market for diamonds.
Let’s return to the billboard. Is it a sign of growing buying power of the middle-class? Does it signify economic progress? The more crucial question is: would economic progress automatically mean social progress?
Now, let’s try a deeper analysis of the billboard in its immediate urban context. It stands, literally, on top of a makeshift garbage dump. People just throw their trash in front of it, creating a most unlikely combination of two symbols: the gem and the filth. It’s a paradoxical unity of disunity. If the gem signifies people’s burgeoning buying power and the filth people’s irrational public behaviour and poor attitude toward urban hygiene, the two conditions’ odd coexistence calls into question the “value” of economic prosperity. Does economic prosperity without social advancement mean anything at all?
As if the strange cohabitation of the gem and the filth isn’t enough, a person is attending nature’s call right under the billboard. The cynic would be wondering if he is actually urinating at the altar of an ostentatious consumer culture or criticising an economic system that failed him.
What this symptomatic urban scene in Bangladesh tells us is that the relationship between economic progress and social progress is seldom direct. One does not automatically guarantee the other. Think of India, a country that presents to the world history of a cherished civilisation. But it is “a wounded civilization,” according to V. S. Naipaul, who saw it incompatible that in a country with such a rich history people would still defecate in public. With his “brown sahib” hubris, Naipaul may have considered it a crude reflection of low cultural threshold, while ignoring the inhumanity of poverty and the lack of public toilets. Yet, he raises questions about what “progress” means.
It is a paradox that while people buy diamonds showcasing their new wealth, they are also willing to tolerate rotting garbage dumped on streets. If economic growth transpires with a continued lack of social consciousness for improved public hygiene, it is what the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have called “an uncertain glory.” “The lack of health care, tolerably good schools and other basic facilities important for human well-being and elementary freedoms, keeps a majority of Indians shackled to their deprived lives in a way quite rarely seen in other self-respecting countries that are trying to move ahead in the world.”
The message is simple. A country can’t move forward without investing in basic public services. Diamonds would embellish a rich body or two here and there but won’t move a country forward.
It is time we questioned a singular emphasis on economic growth which often takes precedence over the greater public good. The growth of economy would be meaningful only when it is wedded to such basic social advancements as the creation of public toilets and recyclable garbage collection systems, the protection of public parks and natural resources, and the development of affordable and quality public schools.
The continued coexistence of the gem and the filth is not progress.
Adnan Morshed is an associate professor, urbanist, architect, and architectural historian based in Washington, DC.