Event ReportsPublished on Dec 17, 2013
At a roundtable on "Understanding Contemporary Bangladesh", attended by vice-chancellors from nine universities of Bangladesh, the consensus view was that regional integration is not only beneficial for Bangladesh but for all of South Asia.
Integration good for not only Bangladesh but for all of South Asia

Bangladesh is going through a major transformation and regional integration is not only beneficial for the country but for all of South Asia. This was the consensus of a roundtable discussion on "Understanding Contemporary Bangladesh" organised Observer Research Foundation in Delhi on December 17.

The discussion, moderated by Amb. T. C. A. Rangachari, Director, MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, centred around demographic development with emphasis on education and employment, regional integration, identity formation, socio-economic development and the rise of new media.

The panellists from Bangladesh included Vice Chancellors of nine leading universities from Bangladesh. Prof. Imran Rahman, Vice Chancellor, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB); Prof. Md. Anwarul Azim Arif, Vice Chancellor, University of Chittagong (CU); Prof. Dr. S. M. Nazrul Islam, Vice Chancellor, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology; Prof. Ainun Nishat, Vice Chancellor, BRAC University; Prof. M. Omar Rahman, Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB); Prof. Dr. Anwar Hossain, Vice Chancellor, Southeast University (SEU); Prof. Dr. Muhammad Mizanuddin, Vice Chancellor, University of Rajshahi (RU); Prof. Iftekhar Ghani Chowdhury, State University of Bangladesh and Prof. Md. Aminul Haque Bhuyan, Vice Chancellor, Shahjalal University of Science & Technology.

Opening the discussion, Prof Iftekhar Ghani Chowdhury opined that Bangladesh is undergoing socio-political and economic transformation. Soon the country will become a middle income country. Women empowerment has been a major driver for social change in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is currently laying emphasis on educating the youth, given the substantive demographic tilt towards a young population. Thus, improving education is, today, the main challenge confronting the country in order to bring about development of the society.

Prof Chowdhury also elaborated on the existent levels of social disparity in Bangladesh and the consequent efforts of the government towards social inclusion and framing policies for poverty alleviation. On the issue of regional integration, Prof Chowdhary was of the opinion that while integration is imperative for development of the region, South Asia is lagging behind.

Talking about Bangladesh’s achievements in meeting the millennium developmental goal (MDG), Prof. M Animul Haque Bhuyian said that the country is likely to achieve MGD targets by 2015. Sharing his views on the youth of Bangladesh, he said that they have a forward looking vision. He also added that exposure to new media has opened new channels for the youth.

Prof. Anwar Hossain carried forward this discussion with his views on the changes taking place in Bangladesh and the youth’s aspirations. Prof Hossain opined that the youth too understands the importance of education and are investing on acquiring the same. Resultantly, there has been proliferation of private educational institutions and enrolment in the private sector is more than in the public sector. The government is supporting this trend by undertaking measures for the development of education -- like providing free education to girls and facilitating a decline in the dropout rate. He also pointed out that employment of women in the garment sector has been a major agent of change in Bangladesh. Employment in this sector has led to their economic empowerment and standing in the society. Family patterns are also changing, a process in Bangladesh’s sociological transformation. A rise in political consciousness and awareness of political rights must be complemented by elections.

Talking on the contemporary developments, Prof M Omar Rahman said that there has been a tremendous change in Bangladesh in last 20 years and certain trends are evident. These trends are: 1) sustained investment in the field of health and education, done largely by government. This has greatly impacted the society. 2) Privatisation, especially in the garment industry. This has substantially increased formal employment, including that of women. 3) NGOs have been an integral part of these transformations. One particular aspect has been micro finance. It has played an important role in reducing rural poverty. d) Diaspora and its contributions. Remittances from diaspora is now higher than foreign direct investment. Remittances have not only played important role in reducing rural poverty but also brought about social transformation. This is evident from the rise in entrepreneurship among youths.

Prof Muhammad Mizanuddin shared his views on the political situation. He said the country is at cross roads and is facing another liberation war because the criminals of the 1971 war are now undergoing trials. Saying he is sceptical about the future of the country, Prof Mizanuddin said he is not sure where the country is headed. He claimed that Bangladesh’s liberation war was the light house which showed direction to the country for decades. However, the pro-liberation forces are in a dilemma today about whether or not they can cross this transitional period and prevent the fundamentalist forces from occupying the political centre-stage. However, he was optimistic about the youth of the country. He said the youth of Bangladesh want a transparent and accountable leadership, corruption free polity and good governance.

Stressing on the need for regional integration, Prof Ainun Nishat observed that it is important for Bangladesh to have proper integration with India in all aspects. Bangladesh is self sufficient in food and has increased agricultural productivity 4 to 5 times since 1947. But whatever the country could achieve is saturated now, and for Bangladesh to move forward, it needs regional integration. Prof Nishat observed that days of bilateralism are over. He informed that a framework for cooperation has been set up and there have been some movements in this regard.

Prof. S M Nazrul Islam added that manpower development has been a major focus of the Bangladesh government. He also added that the government adopted a new education policy in 2010 and is focusing on vocational training. He said more than one lakh technical institutions have been opened across the country. And over one lakh people join the labour force annually. He noted that the government is encouraging self-employment by giving loans which are contributing to the growth of the economy. The per capita income of Bangladesh is now $1000. Given these trends, Bangladesh may be able to alleviate hunger by 2015, he said.

Prof Anwar Azim Arif said the main problem for Bangladesh is that after every five years, the country faces turbulence over elections. Thus, the imperative question facing the country is how to achieve a peaceful, democratic transfer of power. The path of progress and prosperity that Bangladesh is embarking upon will be hampered by the disfunction in political processes.

Prof. Imran Rahman said that the Shahbagh movement was an interesting phase. Social media played an important role in this movement. He said the movement had two lessons. The young people began to understand the power they wield, aided by the power of social media. He also stressed on the point of regional integration. However, he said there is a lot of misinformation about integration among youth in Bangladesh. He said the governments of both India and Bangladesh should emphasise on understanding the youth’s perception on integration. He also suggested greater interaction among youths of the two countries.

Amb. Veena Sikri, former Indian High Commissioner to Bangladesh, said India wants a peaceful, democratic, stable and prosperous Bangladesh. The uniqueness of Bangladesh is in the liberation where many people selflessly perished. Even more unique was the period in 1990 when Bangladesh, in peaceful, non-violent way, went back to democracy after 15 years of military rule.

Ms Jayshree Sengupta, Senior Fellow, ORF, in her remarks said that Bangladesh has made significant progress in the social sector but there is still substantial inequality. Poverty in Bangladesh is largely because 70 percent of people are employed in agriculture. She said transition of Bangladesh from outsourcing to manufacturing is important for the growth of the country and regional integration can help in this regard.

Dr Suresh Sharma, former Director, Centre of the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, appreciated the development Bangladesh has achieved and said that the country has created for itself a space in the modern world against many odds, in a framework of openness and liberalism.

The meeting was attended by distinguished academicians, former diplomats, policy makers and senior ORF faculty. Mr.Vikram Sood, Vice President, ORF, delivered the welcome remarks.

(The report is prepared by Dr Joyeeta Bhattacharjee, Associate Fellow Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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