The whole nation, thanks to our vibrant electronic, print, and broadcast media, was able to savour and share the extraordinary happiness generated through the distribution of free books to children in thousands of educational institutions in January.
The Ministry of Education in the recent past has been under the hammer over allegations that the quality of education being imparted in the country is going down. Last year also witnessed several mistakes in the books that were distributed among different educational institutions. This year, the media has revealed that 354.2 million textbooks on 357 different subjects have been distributed free of cost.
This included 8,405 braille books for 983 visually impaired students and 149,000 books in five ethnic languages for 58,255 students. Those receiving the free books included 43.7 million students of pre-primary, primary, and secondary levels.
This has indeed been a giant stride forward.
Bangladesh, over 2017, has had to take on several serious challenges and overcome them one at a time. There was the massive flooding that not only destroyed existing crops in north-eastern and northwestern regions of the country, but also most of the existing infrastructure in these rural areas. It affected nearly 6.25 million people.
Then came the influx of more than 700,000 Rohingya migrants who streamed into the south-eastern region of the country from the neighbouring Rakhine state, fleeing torture, rape, and arson perpetrated on them in an organized manner by the Myanmar authorities and the local radicalized Buddhist community in their effort to complete ethnic cleansing. Their arrival has pushed the total number of such illegal migrant refugees from Myanmar to over one million.
The humanitarian approach on the part of our government in dealing with this crisis has meant not only providing required security and health care to the distressed affected migrant population but also ensuring reasonable quantities of food.
This has assumed critical proportions in terms of disaster management and finding the financial resources for this purpose. The developed world has come forward, supported us in our quest for resolution of this crisis, and promised us financial assistance.
However, there has been quite a bit lacking in terms of pledges and commitments and actual availability of funds. Consequently, Bangladesh authorities have been forced to continue importing rice and wheat from abroad -- something which we had generally stopped doing some time ago, thanks to our agricultural revolution.
This difficult dynamic has been further compounded by the fact that some political parties have tried to politicize these emerging and evolving situations. They have been doing so in anticipation of the national elections that are expected to take place towards the end of this year.
The Election Commission is facing cross-fire, even if they try their best to have an inclusive and fair election. It is proverbially almost like that adage: “Heads I win, tails you lose.”
We have seen only partial satisfaction after the recent Rangpur Corporation election. Instead of coming forward and welcoming the efforts made in this regard by the Election Commission and the local authorities, chants are still continuing that a free and fair election can only be possible if there is an impartial and neutral government.
Practice of democracy in any state or society requires transparency -- but it also needs belief in oneself, the credible strength in one’s political party, and also in the institution responsible for holding the election -- in this case the Election Commission.
The total number of voters who are expected to vote in one day is more than the total number of voters in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Portugal, Ireland, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Malta, Bhutan, and Maldives.
Consequently, it needs to be understood that instead of criticism, all the political parties need to be positive and constructive in their approach. They should be able to assist the chief election commissioner in his efforts to overcome existing difficulties. Then, the end result will be inclusive and good for the entire country.
In the economic front, we have had made movement in some areas. Our remittance inflow in 2017 has dropped to a six-year low to $13.54 billion. It improved in the second half of the year, following higher exchange rate of the US dollar against the taka. Efforts by Bangladesh Bank to strengthen monitoring of illegal fund transfers has also helped. Our central bank is optimistic that this upward trend will continue.
This hope regarding enhanced remittance possibilities is based on the fact that according to our Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET) the total number of our migrant expatriate workers who have gone abroad with employment opportunities in 2017 crossed one million, a rise of 34.15% over 2016. This figure also included about 113,000 women workers. Most of the workers went to Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, and Oman.
It needs to be understood that instead of criticism, all the political parties need to be positive and constructive in their approach
One should also be encouraged with the fact that according to official data revenue collection has grown by 18% year on year to Tk75,308cr in the July-November period of the current fiscal year, driven by rising imports and increased domestic economic activities.
The collection has grown at a faster pace in the current fiscal year compared to the previous year. However, the National Board of Revenue has pointed out that it has missed the target of Tk84,066cr for this five-month period.
It is being hoped, however, that the pace of collection will increase in the second half of the current fiscal year as the implementation of the Annual Development Program will accelerate during this period.
It would, however, be pertinent to note here that Bangladesh’s external sector is expected to pass through a degree of challenges in 2018, given the anticipated surge in food import, rise in crude oil price in the world market, private sector foreign loans, and election-focused expansionary fiscal policy.
This might result in foreign exchange reserves depleting further and the taka continuing to slide against the US dollar. Settlement of Letters of Credit worth $874 million pertaining to food grain imports are also going to impose some strain. However, one does not need to despair.
Economists have expressed anxiety, but at the same time suggested that tightening of the monetary policy for the second half of the current fiscal year might help to ease the situation. We need to wait and see how this evolves.
One cannot conclude without pointing out that sooner than later, Bangladesh will be entering a different domain in its telecommunication information technology sector. Very soon, the BTRC is also expected to complete the required steps for issuing 4G license on February 14, following a spectrum auction for three different bands on February 13.
This will be indeed a welcome step, and should facilitate not only connectivity, but also encourage a faster dynamics within our manufacturing and trade sector.
We have challenges ahead of us, but the glass is no longer half empty.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]