Why Bangladesh overtook Pakistan

Published February 9, 2019
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

BANGLADESH is not some Scandinavian heaven. It is poor and overpopulated, undereducated and corrupt, frequented by natural catastrophes, experiences occasional terrorism, and the farcical nature of its democracy was exposed in the December 2018 elections. But the earlier caricature of a country on life support disappeared years ago. Today, some economists say it shall be the next Asian tiger. Its growth rate last year (7.8 per cent) put it at par with India (8.0pc) and well above Pakistan (5.8pc). The debt per capita for Bangladesh ($434) is less than half that for Pakistan ($974), and its foreign exchange reserves ($32 billion) are four times Pakistan’s ($8bn).

Take a look: Why we lag behind

Much of this growth owes to exports which zoomed from zero in 1971 to $35.8bn in 2018 (Pakistan’s is $24.8bn). Bangladesh produces no cotton but, to the chagrin of Pakistan’s pampered textile industry, it has eaten savagely into its market share. The IMF calculates Bangladesh’s economy growing from $180bn presently to $322bn by 2021. This means that the average Bangladeshi today is almost as wealthy as the average Pakistani and, if the rupee depreciates further, will be technically wealthier by 2020.

Other indicators are equally stunning. East Pakistan’s population in the 1951 census was 42 million, while West Pakistan’s was 33.7m. But today Bangladesh has far fewer people than Pakistan — 165m versus 200m. A sustained population planning campaign helped reduce fertility in Bangladesh. No such campaign — or even its beginnings — is visible today in Pakistan.

Eschewing militarism in favour of human development, Bangladesh set its initial priorities correctly.

The health sector is no less impressive — far fewer babies die at birth in Bangladesh than in Pakistan. Immunisation is common and no one gets shot dead for administering polio drops. Life expectancy (72.5 years) is higher than Pakistan’s (66.5 years). According to the ILO, females are well ahead in employment (33.2pc) as compared to Pakistan (25.1pc).

How did West Pakistan’s poor cousin manage to upstage its richer relative by so much so fast? It’s all the more puzzling because Bangladesh has no geostrategic assets saleable to America, China, or Saudi Arabia. It also has no nuclear weapons, no army of significance, no wise men in uniform running the country from the shadows, and no large pool of competent professionals. At birth, East Pakistan had, in fact, no trained bureaucracy; it received just one member of the former Indian Civil Service.

Special report: The Breakup of Pakistan 1969-1971

None should be more surprised at these new developments than those West Pakistanis — like me — who went to school during the 1950s and 1960s and grew up surrounded by unconcealed racism. Short and dark Bengalis were reputedly good only for growing jute and rice and catching fish. They were Muslims and Pakistanis, of course, but as children we were made to imagine that all good Muslims and real Pakistanis are tall, fair, and speak chaste Urdu. We’d laugh madly at the strange-sounding Bengali news broadcasts from Radio Pakistan. In our foolish macho world, they sounded terribly feminine.

The mega surrender of 1971 made West Pakistanis eat humble pie. But, even as the two-nation theory went out of the window, the overwhelming majority was loath to change its thinking. The west wing renamed itself Pakistan, many assuming this was temporary. They said Bangladesh could never survive economically and would humbly ask to be taken back.

Others optimistically imagined that the disaster had taught Pakistan a profound lesson making change inevitable. Responding enthusiastically to the popular roti, kapra, makaan slogan, they believed Pakistan would shift from pampering its hyper-privileged ones towards providing welfare for all. Equally, it was hoped that the rights of Pakistan’s culturally diverse regions would be respected. None of this happened. Instead, we simply got more of what had been earlier.

Thirsting for vengeance, Pakistan’s establishment could think of nothing beyond wounded honour and ways to settle scores with India. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s secret call for the nuclear bomb led to the famed Multan meeting just six weeks after the surrender. That centralisation of authority breeds local resentment remained an unlearned lesson. In 1973, Bhutto dismissed the NAP government in Balochistan and ordered military action, starting a series of local rebellions that has never gone away. In doing so, he re-empowered those who ultimately hanged him.

In a nutshell, Bangladesh and Pakistan are different countries today because they perceive their national interest very differently. Bangladesh sees its future in human development and economic growth. Goal posts are set at increasing exports, reducing unemployment, improving health, reducing dependence upon loans and aid, and further extending micro credit. Water and boundary disputes with India are serious and Bangladesh suffers bullying by its bigger neighbour on matters of illegal immigration, drugs, etc. But its basic priorities have not wavered.

For Pakistan, human development comes a distant second. The bulk of national energies remain focused upon check-mating India. Relations with Afghanistan and Iran are therefore troubled; Pakistan accuses both of being excessively close to India. But the most expensive consequence of the security state mindset was the nurturing of extra state actors in the 1990s. Ultimately they had to be crushed after the APS massacre of Dec 16, 2014. This, coincidentally, was the day Dhaka had fallen 43 years earlier.

Bangladesh is conflicted by internal rifts. Still, being more multicultural and liberal, its civil society and activist intelligentsia have stopped armed groups from grabbing the reins of power. Although elected or quasi-elected Bangladeshi leaders are often horribly corrupt and incompetent, they don’t simply endorse decisions — they actually make them. Ultimately responsible to their electorate, they are forced to invest in people instead of weapons or a massive military establishment.

For Pakistan, these are lessons to be pondered over. CPEC or no CPEC, it’s impossible to match India tank for tank or missile by missile. Surely it is time to get realistic. Shouting ‘Pakistan zindabad’ from the rooftops while obsequiously taking dictation from the Americans, Chinese, and Saudis has taken us nowhere. Announcing that we have become targets of a fifth-generation hi-tech secret subversion inflames national paranoia but is otherwise pointless. Instead, to move forward, Pakistan must transform its war economy into ultimately becoming a peace economy.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2019

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