In an exclusive interview with Nikkei Asian Review, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh's economy is headed for a 10% annual growth and has the potential to become Asia's fastest growing economy
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said Bangladesh's fast economic expansion will gain further momentum and hit 10% annual growth over the next three years.
In an exclusive interview with the Nikkei Asian Review ahead of the11th general election around the corner on December 30, Hasina, 71, said by 2024, Bangladesh would be rid of its "least developed country" status.
Under her stewardship, the economy has seen a consistent expansion for a decade of around 6-7%, and 7.86% in the 2017-18 fiscal year. Sheikh Hasina said the projected growth of this fiscal year is 8.25%, and that such growth would persist. "If elected, I can assure you that the program we have undertaken will get us up to 10% by 2021," she said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also said Bangladesh has the potential to become Asia's fastest growing economy with the implementation of a range of policies. An example she gave was how the country was attempting to coax foreign companies to establish branches in any of a planned total of 100 special economic zones. As of now, 11 of the zones are functional and 79 are being built.
The Nikkei Asian Review writes that Hasina's policies will face a crucial test during the upcoming election. The previous polls, held in 2014 and won by her party Awami League, was boycotted by Bangladesh National Party (BNP), the most populous opposition group. However, headed by their incarcerated leader Khaleda Zia, BNP will contest the election this year. Nevertheless, opinion polls show that Awami League will most likely win the 300-seat parliament by a large majority.
“We will begin seeking bids for our second nuclear power plant project as early as next year. The plant is part of Dhaka's efforts to expand and diversify the country's power supply amid its prolonged economic boom,” Hasina further said.
Around 58% of Bangladesh's 17,340 megawatts of power generation capacity is sourced using natural gas, according to Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB). In light of domestic gas production declining, however, the country plans to meet demand by greatly increasing the import of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and use nuclear power and renewable energy, which is being expanded annually by an estimated 10%.
Since reassuming power in 2009 (she was also prime minister from 1996-2001), Sheikh Hasina has endeavoured in an ambitious program to improve the country’s infrastructure. The number of power plants in the country has grown from 27 to 121, while access to electricity among the population of 166 million has risen from 47% to 93% - a figure she has pledged to bring to 100% by the middle of next year.
Russian and Indian companies are jointly building Bangladesh’s first nuclear plant in Rooppur, located in the Ishwardi upazila of Pabna. “The facility's two reactors, with an output capacity totalling 2,400 megawatts, will start producing electricity in 2024," Hasina said.
For the proposed second plant, "we are still searching for a location," she said, stating that she would like for it to be built in the south of the country, which is one of its poorest regions.
“We will consider inviting proposals after the election, once the land is secured,” she said.
According to local media reports, China, which stepped up its involvement in Bangladesh recently with its flagship Belt and Road Initiative, has already expressed its interest in the project.
In Beijing's estimated $38 billion total investment in Bangladesh, $24 billion are meant for bilateral assistance for infrastructure projects, with $13.6 billion slated for joint ventures. China also recently acquired a 25% stake in Dhaka Stock Exchange after outbidding their Indian counterparts.
Moreover, Bangladesh is also one of the foremost importers of Chinese military hardware.
Emphasizing her country's "good relations" with all world powers, Hasina said Dhaka will opt for the proposal that is "suitable and comfortable for our country."
Speaking about the approximately 800,000 or so Rohingya refugees in the country who fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh starting from August 2017, Hasina brushed aside any concerns over the situation becoming an issue during the election.
“Bangladeshis feel solidarity with the Rohingyas after their own experiences in the Liberation War with Pakistan in 1971, when an estimated 10 million fled into neighbouring India,” she said. Western estimates of the death toll of that conflict range from 200,000 to 3 million people.
"I am very lucky that people trusted me, when I called upon my people to recognize their suffering. If necessary, we will share our food. Our people have accepted this," she said of Bangladesh taking in Rohingya refugees.
"We have done our part," she added. "We gave them shelter, we are providing them food, health care and taking care of children and taking care of women."
The two countries had come to an agreement to repatriate refugees in mid-November, but the venture came to a standstill after the first group of returnees refused to leave.
Sheikh Hasina also confirmed plans to relocate some of the refugees to a new encampment on a nearby island, rejecting international concerns that the small, flood-prone island would be akin to a prison camp.
"It is a beautiful island used by people to farm cattle. They can live in a better way there; children will get education, healthcare; we built a warehouse so we can deliver the relief. At this moment, we are preparing for 100,000, but we can take 1 million there," she said.
The prime minister repeated assurances that refugees would not be forcibly repatriated, but asked other countries and multinational organizations to assist in resolving the issue. “It is now the international community's turn to figure out how to make Myanmar take back their people to their own country," she said.