A few days ago, Lipi’s mother -- our part-time domestic help -- after completing two work shifts in other homes, was late. When asked for the reason for her delay, she apologized, saying that she was stuck in traffic, primarily caused by processions of people celebrating what she understood as a victory parade for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
She then proceeded to ask me a series of questions: “Mama, will this ‘unnayan
’ bring down the price of rice?”
“Can I now send my daughters to a cost-free school and get free medical help?”
“Will the government now provide better accommodation than my dark, dank, and squalid room in the shanty, for a family of five?”
“Will this increase the salary my daughter Lipi makes at the garment factory?”
I felt embarrassed and distressed by her queries. I remained silent as I did not have answers to such valid questions.
I pay a salary of Tk5,000 monthly to Nasima, our full-time domestic help who supports her family of five, including her mother back home in Netrokona, and seems to perennially be suffering from financial troubles. It is not uncommon for her to need to borrow money from me for emergency needs.
Neither do I have any answers to offer to Rafiq, our security guard who works two shifts for 16 hours and earns Tk9,000 monthly to feed his family of four in Narail, and nor do I have answer to the same questions from Rashida, who disposes the garbage from our apartment building and two adjoining buildings and earns Tk6,000 monthly.
Their stories are of unending struggle to survive. These are real people with real struggles, not fictional characters or pseudonyms, and they are the forgotten silent majority representing more than 80% of the disgruntled, underprivileged, downtrodden population of Bangladesh, who have been left behind in the development goals during the last decade.
Sadly, for them, the graduation of our country from least developed country to developing country does not matter, and remains irrelevant to their day-to-day hardship.
The grass is richer on the other side
There is no doubt about the development success of our country. The UN has recognized it after much scrutiny and appraisal of our development indices, and both the UN secretary general and the World Bank chief have congratulated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina for the landmark development achievement in the country.
Signs of development are also quite noticable in our current habits, lifestyle, and standards of living: The Padma bridge now being constructed by our own resources, the four-lane inter-connecting highway roads, the posh residential apartment buildings in Baridhara, Gulshan, Banani, Dhanmondi, and Uttara, shopping malls in each and every neighbourhood in the city, the thousands of good restaurants, the elaborate (and mostly wasteful) wedding celebrations.
Roads are bustling with ever more expensive brands of cars; scores of expensive luxury vacation resorts popping up in the suburban countryside in Dhaka, Sylhet, and Chittagong; people going on expensive vacations in Bali, Bangkok, Malaysia, Singapore, and more -- thes are all signs of our development and increased purchasing power.
These are real people with real struggles, and they are the forgotten silent majority representing more than 80% of the disgruntled, underprivileged, downtrodden population of Bangladesh
Who says that we are a poor country?
I remember my wedding in October 1962 with my bridal party of 20, riding on 10 rickshaws from our Elephant Road residence to the bride’s house at Dhanmondi, road no 8. There was no engagement, no “gaye holud,” no elaborate wedding reception, or maddening dance and music. The expenses were not beyond Rs500.
We were yet to live in a wasteful society. It was a golden time of simple life, bereft of selfishness, with love and compassion for others.
But this development has been skewed. Its benefits have not been evenly spread within society. There is inequality and a yawning gap of income distribution between the rich, the super rich, and the poor in the society.
The poor do not have access to basic needs and rights, let alone an acceptable standard of living.
In fact, it is we, the bureaucrats, businessmen, politicians, bankers, the professional class, the so-called elite intellectuals, the think-tank consultants, the doctors, engineers, real estate developers, and contractors, who are responsible for this burgeoning inequality, disparity, and discrimination in society.
It is we, the greedy and corrupt, the so-called middle and upper class who have grabbed and hijacked the benefits of the development by cheating the vast majority of our population that is stuck in the aforementioned poverty, exclusion, and deprivation. They have been cheated and left behind in a life of despair and humiliation. It is we who have robbed the poor of their rightful ownership of development.
We must all feel ashamed.
I am no economist and do not know of the remedy to our situation, however, the government, with help from our expert economists, need to address the situation immediately, so that the underprivileged classes in our society get their fair share of our nation’s hard-earned development success.
Prime Minister Hasina said it herself, “the development success is an achievement of the common people.” Unless and until that is truly achieved, this celebration will ring hollow.
Abdul Hannan is a former diplomat.