Political Authoritarianism and Disturbing Developments in Bangladesh

THERE are resistances in society and the resistance is getting stronger day by day, suggesting that it would not be easy for the incumbents to continue with the authoritarian exercise of power for a long time. However, the prime force of political resistance at the moment, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been the prime victim of the League’s authoritarian political practices over the past 13 years, has similar records of undemocratic political practices and running anti-egalitarian economic policies.

Bangladesh practically emerged independent 51 years ago on this day, December 16, 1971, with the occupation forces of Pakistan laying down their weapons used against the liberation forces of Bangladesh for nine months since March 25, 1971 and for two weeks against both the Bangladeshi freedom fighters and their allied Indian army since December 3 the same year. Bangladesh went to the war to uphold the honour of the people’s electoral verdict that the Pakistani ruling elite of the day chose to neglect and liberated the country to establish, along with representative democracy, ‘equality, social justice and human dignity’ that its Proclamation of Independence unequivocally declared on April 10, 1971.

However, more than half a century after the independence, Bangladesh, despite progress in many areas of social life and living, has now been exposed to political authoritarianism that deprives the people of their voting rights and an undemocratic development model that denies ‘equality, social justice and human dignity’. Ironically, the deprivation and the denial are committed under the leadership of the Awami League — the political party that led the country’s liberation war. The level of the denial of democratic rights has reached such a stage that it is even risky for any democratically-oriented citizen to be publicly critical of the authoritarian practices of the League. Nevertheless, it is of utmost importance to question the practices, particularly on the day Bangladesh emerged at the cost of enormous sacrifices primarily of the poor people and with golden hopes and aspirations to collectively ‘prosper in freedom’.

Political authoritarianism

THAT Bangladesh has been reeling under an authoritarian regime, political and otherwise, for quite some time is crystal clear to most people of the country while the authoritarian regime appeared to have succeeded in hiding from many the dangers of the ‘economic development’ that it brought in, posing a dangerous threat to the materialisation of Bangladesh’s birth promise — equality, social justice and human dignity. The authoritarian regime, which has rhetorically been propagating for more than a decade that it has brought in an amount of development that surpassed the amount done collectively by all its preceding governments since the country’s independence, has now started publicly admitting that the country is exposed to the threat of a famine.

Authoritarianism, a dangerous phenomenon for the democratic emancipation of any people, is inherent in the political system of Bangladesh, for it constitutionally allows a partisan individual, Sheikh Hasina in the present case, to control the executive and legislative branches of the state, on the one hand, and the entire machine of the ruling party, on the other, practically making the judiciary quite vulnerable in dispensing justice to political opponents of the incumbents. While authoritarianism is an idea directly opposed to the universal democratic values, it never accommodates others’ views in running affairs of the state — political, economic and otherwise.

Politically, the incumbents have been displaying since long a disgusting intolerance towards their political and ideological opponents while making all possible efforts to gag the democratic freedom of expression, in general, and the freedom of the press, in particular. The regime’s partisan law enforcement agencies, along with the unruly League activists enjoying a perpetual impunity against almost all kinds of crimes, have routinely been obstructing in many old and new ways peaceful protest rallies and processions of the opposition parties and groups of any political colour — rightwing, Left or centrist. The incidents of extrajudicial murders of crime suspects and enforced disappearances of political opponents remain a living proof of the League regime’s lack of commitment to the rule of law. The press, on the other hand, is the worst victim of the regime’s repressive media laws, particularly the infamous Digital Security Act.

Worse, they shamelessly argue, as do all the dictatorial regimes on earth, that economic development is more important than democracy and that they have brought about unprecedented development in the country. The incumbents and their partisan intelligentsia mercilessly abuse, even project them to be unpatriotic, those who argue that democratic governance is an essential condition for ensuring sustainable development and that the development model pursued by the incumbents is creating a huge economic disparity in society, which is dangerous for the country’s future — political, economic and cultural. Besides, those who do not subscribe to the idea that the rate of the growth of the gross domestic product or the increase in per capita income in the conventional sense are the genuine matrices of the development of a people, people at large that is, are also being castigated regularly by the incumbents.

Development debacles

WHILE the League’s government and its partisan intellectuals continue to brag about the high rate of economic growth under its rule, some reputed Bangladeshi economists have consistently been contesting the government’s claim to be highly inflated for quite some years now. The latter argue that the government calculations are deliberately manipulated to befool the people. The claim of the opposing local economists got substantiated when, on November 1, a visiting team of the International Monetary Fund clearly questioned the government’s method of calculating the ‘economic growth rate’ as well as that of ‘inflation’. Officials of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, a state body that calculates the growth, reportedly said that the government’s approval was necessary to change the method, clearly suggesting that the incumbents’ subjective intervention is an impediment to the BBS’s objective calculation of the rates of growth and inflation.

The government, in a bid to claim enormous economic developments under it, argues that in the midst of pervasive Covid crisis and subsequent economic slowdown, Bangladesh’s per capita income increased to 2,227 dollars from 2,064 dollars in 2020, but it hardly talks about the fact that during the same period, some 2.45 crore ‘vulnerable non-poor’ Bangladeshis have slipped into ‘poverty’. Would we still measure ‘economic development’ by ‘per capita income’? Whose ‘per capita income’ and whose ‘economic development’ is the government talking about?

However, the problem is that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself appears to be extremely intolerant even towards any impersonal criticism of the development model pursued by her government. She found the critics of her development model to be the ones having ‘lost their eyesight’ and asked the critics, as the Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha reported on November 22, to ‘go to ophthalmologists’. Earlier, on June 10 this year, she publicly called the critics to be ‘mean-minded’ and was seen on the TV prescribing that ‘the eyes of those who do not see the developments need to be vaccinated [with syringes] in the manner Covid-19 vaccines are being pushed’. Then, again, she asked a group of Bangladeshi expatriates in the United States on September 25 ‘not to pay heed’ to the critics but to ‘present the development scenario carried out by us to the people.” Nevertheless, the idea of pushing syringes into the eyes of the development critics is gravely intimidating, to say the least.

Sheikh Hasina’s government has, indeed, spent billions of takas in various development projects, particularly in the power and the physical infrastructure sectors since it was voted to power in 2009 and retained it through two highly controversial ‘national elections’ held in 2014 and 2018. The signs of certain physical infrastructural developments, such as roads, flyovers and bridges, are, indeed, visible here and there in the country, but the extraordinary financial cost of the ‘development’ projects has gravely harmed the national economy from within, for the government has ‘spent’ double to triple the amount that the neighbouring countries of South Asia, and even beyond, spent on constructing such infrastructure. The government has approved the inflated costs, double or triple of the originally proposed ones, in different phases of the implementation of the projects by the politically connected business groups — local and foreign. The phenomenon is so irrational that the cabinet secretary of the state, Khandaker Anwarul Islam, on September 18 told a ‘closed-door seminar’ of government officials that ‘inflating project costs is a hindrance to […] the development of the country’. He also told the officers that, as New Age reported the next day, ‘it is unclear how it can be good for the country when the cost of project is inflated to Tk 2,000 crore from [the originally estimated cost of] Tk 1,000 crore’. “It is robbery”, the cabinet secretary observed and expressed his doubts over ‘any good return from such projects, many of which are implemented with foreign loans with stringent conditions’.

Understandably, an unpatriotic axis of sections of dishonest politicians, unscrupulous businessmen and corrupt bureaucrats has been unduly benefited out of the so-called development projects. However, in the process of such plundering of public money, the authorities concerned have imposed on the people a huge amount of foreign debts that would take the painfully laborious efforts of more than a generation of Bangladeshis to get rid of.

The Bangladesh Bank data show that the country’s total foreign debt has stood at $94.503 billion, which is Tk 9,07,229 crore by the official exchange rate of Tk 96 for a US dollar, at the end of June 2022. Notably, the amount of foreign debt was $81.57 billion in the 2020–21 financial year, $45.81 billion in 2016–17 financial year, $27 billion in 2011–12 financial year and $18 billion when the League government came to power in early 2009. Understandably, the perpetual rise in external liabilities, composed of principal and interest amounts, would eat up a major portion of the country’s income.

Meanwhile, the Economic Relations Department of the government calculated in May this year that the maturity of a number of big foreign loans, with grace period ending soon, will almost double the country’s external debt repayment at $4.02 billion in the 2025 financial year against $2.4 billion in the outgoing 2022 financial year. The ERD calculation reveals that the overall debt repayment would stand at $2.7 billion in the 2023 financial year, of which $1.9 billion would be principal and the rest interest. In the 2024 financial year, the overall repayment volume would be $3.38 billion, with $2.3 billion in principal and $980 million in interest.

What is, however, alarming is that Bangladesh has already been exposed to dollar crisis due to an unwise use of foreign currency reserves: the Bangladesh-China Power Company Limited has already missed the deadline for paying $110 million to China Exim Bank amid a shortage of dollars. The deadline for clearing the fourth instalment under the $1.98 billion loan taken out from Exim Bank to construct the 1,320MW power plant at Payra expired on December 8, 2022. The rhetorical slogans of achieving ‘unprecedented economic development’ clearly does not match the reality.

Then, as regards the power sector development that the incumbents have been boasting of for quite some years has now proved to be a nationally and internationally scandalous issue.

The prime minister boastfully claimed on the other day, on June 10, that her government had been able to produce enough electricity for the country and said that ‘there is now an electric connection in every house’. Her government even claimed early this year that the country was now capable of producing more electricity than it required and was planning to export power to neighbouring countries. The state minister for power, energy and mineral resources, Nasrul Hamid, even proposed on April 25 the visiting Nepali energy, water resources and agriculture minister, Pampa Bhushal, that Bangladesh could export electricity to Nepal in the winter. But, alas, before the arrival of the winter, the prime minister ‘asked the authorities concerned on July 6 to’, as the government-controlled state-run news agency BSS reported the same day, ‘prepare a routine to accomplish area-wise specific time-based load shedding of electricity across the country, urging people to save power to the best of their ability.’

The prime ministerial instruction came following random power cuts disrupting life and business and that too against the backdrop of 50 per cent over capacity in power production that is believed to have cost Bangladesh about Tk 26,000 crore in idle plants in the 2021–22 financial year. Notably, the government has given as much as Tk 90,000 crore in capacity charge, without getting a watt of electricity, to private-sector rental power plants between 2011–2012 and 2021–2022 financial years. Of the amount, Tk 60,000 crore reportedly went to the pockets of 12 companies, coming to be known as ‘dirty dozens’ these days. Besides, the payment for the unused power capacity, known as ‘capacity charge’, in the 2022–2023 financial year is estimated to be Tk 26,535 crore, a 101 per cent rise in the country’s expenditure for unused power compared with that in the previous financial year.

Meanwhile, with the approach of the winter, the prime minister’s energy adviser, Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, painted a bleak picture of electricity production in the country and publicly urged all concerned on October 23 to ‘take preparations for not using electricity in day light, if necessary, to protect industry and agriculture’. Ironically, the next day, the Nepalese ambassador in Dhaka, Ghanashyam Bhandari, assured the Bangladesh’s prime minister that Kathmandu could provide Dhaka with 40–50MW of electricity ‘at the moment’.

The question arises as to why the country, and its economy, should suffer from the shortage of electricity when millions of dollars have been spent on power generation by private-sector local and joint venture rental plants and, again, why the government should fail to receive and utilise the amount of electricity that the plants in question are supposed to produced and provide. Simple. The governing authorities do not adequately strengthen and expand the electricity transmission networks. This is a deliberate act, aimed at enabling private-sector power plants to receive millions of dollars without producing electricity up to their capacity and supplying power to the country, obviously under unholy deals signed by the government, again, in collaboration with sections of dishonest politicians, unscrupulous businessmen and corrupt bureaucrats. This is nothing but the plundering of public money.

The story of corruption in the power sector does not end here. A recent report of the Bangladesh Working Group on External Debt, launched on December 13, reveals that many a power plant has continuously been projecting highly inflated amount of electricity generation, even much more than the maximum capacity of the plants. The Working Group found that, as the Bangladesh Power Development Board reported, in 56 cases, certain power plants claimed 109–150 per cent higher generation of power than the maximum capacity of the plants concerned; in four cases, the plants claimed 200–300 per cent higher production than their maximum capacity and some even claimed 1000–1,500 per cent higher production. To give a few examples, as New Age reported on December 14, based on the Working Group findings, the Khulna 225MW combined cycled power plant claimed to generate 1,721.5 per cent higher than its generation capacity on June 30, 2022 while the Habiganj 11MW power plant claimed to generate 1,770.5 per cent higher than its capacity on November 30, 2022. In the case of the Majhipara 8MW solar park, which has the capacity to generate 0.68 million units of electricity a day, claims to have generated 14.13 million units of electricity on August 28, 2021. Such not-so-innocent claims of inflated amount of electricity generation obviously leave an enormous scope for making overpayment by the state exchequer while it remains to be investigated how much public money has been plundered by a section of the rich directly or indirectly connected with the incumbents.

The costly development of the infrastructure and power sectors has, thus, contributed to creating a section of the superrich in the country very quickly, at the rate of 17.3 per cent, which is the highest in the world in recent times. A report of the Washington-based Wealth-X published in May 2020 shows that between 2010 and 2019, the ultra-wealthy people with assets worth more than 5 million US dollars increased in Bangladesh much faster than in any other country of the world which ranked the country first among the 10 fastest growing wealth makers, followed by China, Kenya, the Philippines, Thailand, New Zealand, the United States, Pakistan and China. The process continues, obviously creating grave inequalities of income by the rich and the poor, which is manifested in the quick increase of the number of accounts with Tk 1 crore and above with local banks. The United News of Bangladesh, a private-sector news agency of the country, reported on June 22 this year that the number of millionaires with an asset value worth Tk 50 lakh had increased at an average rate of 14.3 per cent since 2010. The UNB also reported, quoting the Bangladesh Bank statistics, that the number of bank accounts with Tk 1 crore and above was 82,625 in March 2020 and the number was 1,01,976 in December 2021 and the figure stood at 1,03,597 in March 2022. Besides, as New Age reported June 6, 2022, the number of bank accounts with more than Tk 50 crore jumped to 1,715 in the fourth quarter of 2021 from 1,569 in the third quarter of the same year. This has happened in the disastrous Covid period when the country’s several million ‘new poor’ was added to the pre-Covid poor Bangladeshis.

However, one can understand that while the poor has become poorer, the per capita income of a section of the politically privileged has, indeed, increased tremendously.

However, the development model of the incumbents has created, side by side creating small groups of the rich and the ultrarich in the country of some 180 million people, a dangerous economic culture of defaulting bank loans by the rich and the siphoning of money abroad with almost absolute impunity.

The amount of default loans with all banks and financial institutions of the country till March 2022, as admitted by the finance minister in the parliament on June 22, 2022, is Tk 1,26,389 crore. Besides, as New Age reported the next day, the banks and financial institutions are unable to realise another Tk 21,046 crore from borrowers due to the ‘stay order’ of the High Court. Then, again, the Bangladesh Bank data released on November 13 this year show that the defaulted loans soared to Tk 1,34,396 crore at the end of September from Tk 1,25,257 crore at the end of June this year. Of the amount Tk 1,18,553 crore turned bad loans which the central bank apprehended are not recoverable. Notably, the volume of non-performing loans in the country’s financial sector has surged by Tk 31,000 crore in the last nine months of 2022 while a total of 13 banks having more than Tk 2,000 crore of classified loan registered around 70 per cent of the total default loans.

The making of quick money through an inflated cost of building physical infrastructure and bagging millions of dollars in the name of ‘capacity charge’ without generating electricity and defaulting huge amount on bank loans by certain sections of the politically powerful rich have, by all probability, the connection with the laundering of billions of takas abroad. The Washington-based Global Financial Integrity estimated in 2020 that the rich Bangladeshis had laundered as much as $7.53 billion to 36 developed countries between 2008 and 2017. Not surprisingly, deposits of the Bangladeshi citizens in Swiss banks stood at Tk 5,393 crore in 2029. The figure must have grown higher by this year.

The state of the poor

While the regime’s ‘economic developments’ appear quite disturbing to thinking sections of the patriotic citizens, poorer sections of the people appear to have been the direct victims of the development debacle, creating enormous inequality of income of the rich and the poor.

The foreign affairs minister, AK Abdul Momen, who has already earned infamy for admittedly requesting Indian authorities in Delhi to ‘do whatever is required to keep Sheikh Hasina in power’, claimed on August 12 this year that ‘Bangladeshis are living in paradise compared with those of other countries.’ Earlier, on June 2, the commerce minister, Tipu Munshi, told the press that ‘three crore of the country’s 17 crore people are still below the poverty line, but the spending power of 4.5 to 5 core among the rest 14 crore parallels the westerners or the Europeans’. While the commerce minister’s observation, if taken at face value, adequately speaks of the grave income disparity among citizens, it is important to look at the condition of the poor and those living below the poverty line.

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World in 2022, published on July 7, reveals that a total of 73.5 per cent of Bangladeshis are unable to afford healthy food as one needs to spend $3.064 on getting required nutrition per day while Bangladesh remains the third most vulnerable, after Nepal and Pakistan. A total of 11.98 crore people in Bangladesh could not afford a healthy diet in 2019 and the number rose to 12.11 crore in 2020, showing a rising trend of people in this category. The situation has worsened in the following years, due to inflation and price hike of essential commodities. The data of the state-owned Trading Corporation of Bangladesh show that prices of major essential commodities increased by 30–62 per cent between May 31, 2021 and May 31, 2022 — causing consumers to reel from the non-stop price spiral after being hit by income losses due to Covid-19. Prices of basic food items have gone beyond the reach of ordinary citizens because of high inflation that are hardly reflected in the official data. The Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue found in June that the minimum wage of workers in nine industrial sectors — shrimp, trawler boats, hotels and restaurants, soap and cosmetics, cotton and textile, bakery, automobile workshop and leather and footwear — failed to afford even a compromised diet for a four-member household requiring Tk 8,016 per month. The CPD analysis further shows that neither workers nor employees of 21 industries, including readymade garments, aluminium, glass, plastic, re-rolling and rice mills, have the purchasing power of ‘regular diet’ requiring Tk 21,358 per month for a household of four people in cities.

Under such circumstances, only those lacking human conscience can assert repeatedly that Bangladesh under the League’s authoritarian regime has attained developments of people at large.

Moreover, development is not an economic category, rather a pervasive concept of homogeneous wellbeing of people, in general, which includes the development of health, education, environment and so on and so forth. The government of Bangladesh hardly cares for any such approach towards development while it continues to brag about development, which is nothing but empty. For instance, the incumbents are apparently euphoric about developing digital skills of the youth. But the fact remains, as a joint report of the United Nations’ Education Commission and UNICEF published on World Youth Skills Day on July 15, reveals, that 84.9 per cent of the youth in Bangladesh lack in necessary digital skills and 57 per cent are without secondary-level skills needed for employment. While ‘digital skills’ refer to the ability to use and understand technology and perform basic computer-related activities, nearly three quarters of a total of 3,09,75,426 Bangladeshi youths, aged between 15 and 24 years, are not skilled digitally. The report shows that as regards general ‘digital skills’, the Bangladeshi youths are behind those in Bhutan, Sri Lanka and India while ahead of those in Nepal and Pakistan.

Change for the better

THERE are resistances in society and the resistance is getting stronger day by day, suggesting that it would not be easy for the incumbents to continue with the authoritarian exercise of power for a long time. However, the prime force of political resistance at the moment, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, which has been the prime victim of the League’s authoritarian political practices over the past 13 years, has similar records of undemocratic political practices and running anti-egalitarian economic policies. The Nationalist Party, which is trying to draw other opposition forces nearer to put up a decisive resistance against the incumbents and, thus, return to power, has not yet put forwarded any concrete set of democratic reforms of the state and its constitution that would stand in the way of continuing political and economic authoritarianism under the new regimes in the days to come. There is, therefore, no light at the end of the tunnel, yet. Under the circumstances, while putting up a united resistance against the autocratic forces in power, the democratically oriented sections of people need to make sure that those who would replace the League, if and when, are forced to behave, obviously, in the light of the democratic spirit that motivated the people to liberate Bangladesh.

  • The article has originally been published in New Age, 15 December 2022.

Nurul Kabir is a Bangladeshi journalist, writer, columnist, editor, and activist. He is the editor of the outspoken Bangladeshi newspaper, New Age. His notable publications are : The Red Moulana (2012); Nairbachanik Swairatantra O Ganatantrer Sangram (2012); Kathokota (a collection of interviews) (2014); Disposing of a Dictator: Revisiting a Magnificent Mass Uprising after 50 Years (2020).

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