• Wednesday, Dec 01, 2021
  • Last Update : 03:03 pm

OP-ED: Dissonant futurity

  • Published at 03:24 am October 26th, 2021
children playing
What does the future hold for them? BIGSTOCK

Does the promise of better lives tomorrow justify misery today?

Bangladesh has been achieving tremendous economic growth recently. During 2011–2019, exports from Bangladesh increased by 8.6% every year compared to a 0.4% average global increase. Because of unprecedented economic growth, the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2017 referred to Bangladesh as the new “Asian Tiger.” 

In 2021, because of the country’s increasing per capita income ($2,227), Bloomberg columnist Mihir Sharma, in an op-ed, termed Bangladesh as South Asia’s “standout star.” Bangladesh is also being labelled as the new “Royal Bengal Tiger of Asia.”

This economic growth is a pretext and also a result of our rush towards an imagined future of development and prosperity -- played out at the international, regional, and national levels -- the state, corporations, businesses, and individuals all produce ideas and hopes of a “future.” 

For instance: In Bangladesh, several megaprojects -- large-scale, costly, and complex ventures -- are underway. The transportation, energy, seaport, airport, bridges, and mining projects are primarily undertaken through public-private partnerships. 

When completed, these are likely to contribute to economic growth potential by at least 4% and thus help reduce poverty. These megaprojects are therefore essential steps towards achieving the SDGs and also becoming a developed country by 2041. Nonetheless, the human cost in the process is hardly recognized.

At what cost?

Nawshad Ahmed, in a recent op-ed, claimed that massive delays and cost overruns of these projects are causing a significant drain in the national budget and lowering the social benefits. This relates to the point that our efforts to achieve an “imagined future” have repercussions that we largely overlook.

In the construction site of Dhaka Metro Rail in the Press Club area -- a sign-board said: “Help in the construction of metro rail today -- it will bring benefits for you tomorrow.” It is just an example of how the “future” is placed before us to let go of today’s miseries that we face during the construction, for example, traffic congestion and sometimes even death caused by accidents at the construction sites. 

Hence, one may argue that the futures that development projects portray and the lives of many people are radically dissonant. More importantly, we could identify visions of life -- progress versus misery -- within the same time and space. 

During the last three decades, in ensuring public health, making the city aesthetic, meeting the needs of businesses, traffic requirements (railways, streets) -- in developing the so-called futuristic city of Dhaka -- the working-class people have been expelled from the city’s central areas. As a result, working-class people have lost housing, and new slums continue to appear on the city’s outskirts. 

Hence, the future practices are exclusionary. In the effort to develop a future city -- the “pleasant” view of the city illuminated with neon lights and shiny billboards advertising expensive products is sought after. But beyond such portrayals exist the invisible-visible boundaries and social injustices. Yet, unfortunately, the rhetoric of progress keeps us aloof from the challenges humanity faces in the age of capitalist globalization. 

Suppose we divert our attention to sectors that heavily relates to our national future of becoming a high-income country: The prosperous future relies on the export earnings from the RMG industry and inflow of foreign remittances by the migrants. Over the years, governments have been facilitating these sectors to secure the future of the country. However, more than 4 million RMG workers and around 10 million labour migrants envisage and experience different futures.

During my research with the RMG workers and international labour migrants, I have come across perspectives towards life far from the treasured national scenarios of the future. Many become RMG workers or international labour migrants to overcome the economic constraints of the family. For many, these are the only options for personal or familial financial stability. 

In response to the question, “what future do you see coming?” invariably, the RMG workers replied, “we want to go back to the village.” They preferred returning to the village and living life by cultivating or running a small business. 

Thus, many aimed to save enough money so that they could finally return to the village. Mostly, they do not see their future as RMG workers. On the other hand, international labour migrants typically embark on an unknown journey. This is because most migrants are uncertain about the job they will be expected to do before starting the journey. 

While travelling out of the international airport at Dhaka recently, I saw a young man talking with his parents at the boarding gate. I overheard him repeatedly saying, “jan’e pani nai ar” -- that he could barely manage to pass the immigration. 

After a while, an immigration officer came to recheck his papers. He was heading to Croatia, I believe, and had spent hundreds of thousands of taka to arrange a visa to embark on a dicey journey to secure a future for himself and his family.

For RMG workers, “future” is about returning to the life lived in the past, while, for migrant workers, the future is unknown territory. However, enormous amounts of remittance inflow, export income, or GDP growth never acknowledge these concerns. The different futures of the workers sometimes derive from the fact that they primarily work in perilous conditions. 

The death rows and industrial accidents make the newspaper headlines now and then -- just a few months ago, a fire in a food processing factory building of Hashem Food Ltd killed at least 52 people. In addition, the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board reports that as many as 33,112 Bangladeshi migrant workers died in foreign lands during 2005–2017. 

These uncertainties of life confirm Ernst Junger’s claim that national futuristic plans supported by the illusions of progress had become “not the basis of security, but the source of constant production of danger and destruction.” The world is propelled by the promises of advancement, rewards, and good fortune for all. Yet, even though apparently it unites all, at the same time, it creates stark divisions.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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