Feature Img
Photo courtesy: Adnan Morshed
Photo courtesy: Adnan Morshed

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.

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Adnan Morshed is an associate professor, urbanist, architect, and architectural historian based in Washington, DC.

9 Responses to “Diamonds and social progress”

  1. Md Rashed Bhuyan

    Re read:
    *She takes
    *She directly transforms
    *She, or whoever she represents

  2. Md Asadujjaman Wajib

    We are heading towards a dangerous situation. It reminds me of the novel ‘a tale of two cities’.

  3. newton

    This is what happens in Bangladesh! Such stark contradiction!!!

  4. tania

    Diamond is getting popular because gold is getting out of everyone’s reach due its tremendous pace price hike. you can find a good pendant set for 30k but with the same amount you won’t get anything significant in gold.

  5. Palash

    Such contrast! Those who are rich getting richer. but the society as a whole is heading to the gutter.

  6. Perth Xaviar

    right on. The country has stupid and uncouth leaders and their supporters. The meaning of good life, civil living and orderly and organized living is absent. Everyone things how to grab someone else’s property or money to increase their own without earning themselves or the capacity to do so.

  7. Naima Hassan

    I wonder why probashis like you even bother to grace the homeland if you are just going to complain only. You grew up in Bangladesh seeing garbage strewn all over the city streets, and what Naipaul objected to. So why is the big surprise? And another thing why shouldn’t Bengali women wear diamonds if they can afford it? Are Tiffanys engagement rings and Cartier love bracelets exclusive to foreign women? Do you want me to believe that in your years in America, you never gave a diamond to your significant other? That is if you are blessed to have someone. Even if the Bangladeshi women didn’t embellish themselves with the glittery glass stone, do you think they will use the money to do good to others?? Nope. What is the point of having money, if it sits in a Swiss Bank account? Let the women enjoy their diamonds. Don’t you know diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Progress comes from broad mindedness,not by ridiculing diamond wearing women. Progress will happen when people stop stealing money that was given to make progress happen. So the hubbies are making the wives happy by throwing a stone, from the money they are getting from all kinds of questionable sources. Why are you opposed to that? Only objection I have is diamonds to not really go well with the complexion of Bengali women. But if they don’t care, why should you?

    • Hamida

      this is the dumbest thing i have read in a while. diamonds are a girls best friend??? lady, education and self sufficiency are a girls best friend. women like you are our worst enemies. stick to wearing shiny metals and rocks and leave progress to people who actually know what that means.

    • Md Rashed Bhuyan

      This is an interesting comment although initially might appear to be a ‘nonsense’. This helps us to discover another layer of sociology that the author might have missed: the sociology of ‘becoming’–the process of how the filth becomes gem, and co-exist!

      Morshed might have forgotten to consider the power of ‘affect’ in creating space. In this comment a very personal notion of ‘affect’ or desire is revealed. Affect emerges from inside, indefinitely and often only from ‘neighbouring reference of interest’; as it is here for Naima Hasan.

      Naima Likes diamond very much. She take it as a symbol of love from her beloved. In no way, she is ready to loose her love (affection) for the ‘world of diamond’. Her reference here is the ‘gem’ and the ‘text’. She directly transform the text as the ‘personalised-author trying to hinder her lovely world of diamond. How to address such comment which is seemingly from another world? Is it indicative of something? or, is it meaningless enough that the comment represents nothing?

      Morshed first created a binary: ‘the gem and the filth’, to draw our attention to his pseudo-personal (but it seems comprehensively public to us, anyway) interest and critiquing the state of the affairs. Morshed, does not approve any of these two identities. It seems he is not ready to buy diamond, nor take the advantage of the ‘filth’ that the person in the image is taking by urinating beside it (the article does not deal this directly though!). An observer he is.

      What if we assume that there is nothing of binary sorts in the picture. The poor, no matter how poor they are, aspire the diamond and the rich aspire such a ‘filthy’ neighbor to literally enjoy their ‘body with diamond’. One of the questions among many might be how (the process) they are co-existing. How-come! And this is where Morshed reveals his own forces of ‘affect’. on the other side, interestingly, Naima also shouts: “how-come! My diamonds of love!”.

      It seems that Morshed has a pre-conceived notion about the urban context he is writing on. But this comment by Naima shuts off such preconceptions by revealing an intense ‘desire’ for ‘both’,rather than ‘or’: for diamond and for the filth (by accepting the state of the affairs by separating herself from the total world of social critics). She, or who ver she represents, seems to be performing in the process!

      I liked both the main article, for being so lucid in its own conceptions and this comment for sharing a world which is in-itself. May be, that’s why I wrote this as well.

      Hope it does not hurt, if not of any help! Thank you.

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