Who are the elite?
My seven-year-old grandson Ozair almost gets crazy about buying a cow for sacrifice for the Eid-ul-Azha.
He gives me hourly reports about Sami’s father, who is a contractor; Mahi’s father, who is a land developer; Obaid’s father, who is a surgeon; Zillur’s father, who is an RMG business-owner; and many other wealthy individuals who have purchased large cattle at exorbitant prices.
Ozair would insist on me taking a walk along the streets adjoining our apartment building to have a look at the rows of cows tied to the buildings. It was significant to note that the majority of cows were rather large in size -- the number of small cows was few and far between.
In the afternoon, when I bought a small cow at Tk70,000, Ozair was visibly shocked and dismayed. With a sad and melancholy look he asked me why I had bought a small cow while most of his friends in other neighourhoods had big cows.
I said others bought big cows because they had a lot of money and we bought a small cow because we had little money. But he was not convinced, and asked me how was it that I had little money while others had much more. I said it is the social condition which allowed for unequal distribution of wealth, which made some people super rich and others not so rich and still others poor.
He was not pleased with the answer and looked quite sad.
However, Ozair’s comments continued to haunt and disturb me and brought home to me the stark realization that the social landscape and demographics of Dhanmondi has been silently transformed in favour of the fortunate few and the exclusion of us, the original middle class residents, whose income has remained stagnant and sluggish, and perhaps even deteriorated.
Now, suddenly, with the emergence of this class of new arrivals in the block, the erstwhile majority has been squeezed, reduced, diminished, and otherwise marginalized -- devoured by inequality.
Yet, the emergence of this ultra wealthy class in Bangladesh is a very recent phenomenon, as attested by a WHO report. According to the report, the number of the ultra wealthy, with incomes more than Tk250 crore, has been rising at 17%, carving a place among China, the US, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Kenya. This is a startling revelation, and largely explains Ozair’s curiosity about the economic disparity between his friends’ families and ours.
This new class of ultra wealthy reaped the benefits from the windfall of unprecedented economic growth, an offshoot of the neo-liberal free market capitalist economy.
But the vast majority of the population has been denied a slice of the pie, being left behind in the process.
It was us, the middle class of retired civil servants and the professionals -- teachers, doctors, and engineers -- who once enjoyed unrivalled position, power, prestige and privilege afforded by a high social status. A wedding proposal from a resident of Dhanmondi was once considered an honourable leap into the ranks of a privileged, respectable class.
I thought if others had become moneyed elites, I still enjoyed the enviable status of belonging to the class of cultural elite. I have the distinct privilege of intellectual satisfaction and aesthetic sophistication, drawing happiness out of curiosity and wide interests in life by being able to read a book or having my own writing published.
I felt reassured and found clues to unanswered questions of my dear Dada bhai: Money and material possession are not everything. It is the culture, imagination, and values which are precious and worth pursuing in life.
Abdul Hannan is a former diplomat.