It is not a Guinness Book type of statistic, but pumping up the blood in our victory month doesn't hurt either. Remember how the life of East Pakistan was 24 years long? In 2019, Bangladesh completed twice that number. Of course, 48 still falls short by two of the first coveted threshold of any new country, but there is ample to cheer about nonetheless.
Bangladesh's 8+% current economic growth-rate against 5+% in Pakistan could serve for starters. The iceberg beneath those annual figures depicts an even more gaping gap between the two economies. Since the neo-liberal era began in the early 1990s, Pakistan has recorded at least 8.0 below 3.0 per cent annual growth-rate performances, accounting for over one-fifth of the time-span. It would be hard to find even a single-year Bangladesh dipping below that 3.0 per cent mark.
One might correctly argue how economic performances do not say it all: there is a heck of a lot more constituting a country than its mineral stocks, assembly-line churn-outs, and crops. For these two countries, though, economic handling gets to the very core of why they broke (and how gruesome it was opens another more sordid can of worms for a later discussion). The typical line of how three-quarters of the erstwhile Pakistan export income stemmed from product in the east, with jute leading the way, is solid enough to hold any fire. When one returns to those statistics, Pakistan's growth-rates during the 1960s, for instance, never fell below 4.4 per cent (in 1962), often stayed above 5.0 per cent, hitting double-digits twice thereafter, in fact (10.4 per cent in 1965 and 11.3 per cent in 1970). Just to think how little of this trickled down to agricultural East Pakistan is enough to get the blood curdling; then to ponder how East Pakistan's contributions were actually being spun by non-Bangalees, more or less, and converted into a military machine without sufficient Bangalee representation, or a Mongla Dam here and a Tarbela Dam there, even the construction of a brand new capital in West Pakistan rather than the East, where a majority of the population lived anyway, all of these produced a toxic mix where after-effects can still be felt today.
Only once since the 1971 rupture has Pakistan's growth-rate hit double-digits (in 1980), and although Bangladesh has yet to record its first double-digit moment, on average it has far outshone Pakistan's economic performances, and much more consistently, whether in growth-rate or in balancing the account books. A larger proportion of women have entered the workforce, indeed how this one group has advanced, by no means in model-fashion, leaves a lot for the rest of even South Asia to be desired.
If 48 years have pushed the country almost into the world's top-40 economies, given its 'bottomless pit' start, the next 48 might really clinch the issue of the 1971 value. Those should be the years of consolidating the economic rewards and windfalls of the past into social, political, and educational gains.
It helps us how our population growth-rate has hit replacement levels, even beginning to dip below that. As that population plateaus over the next decade or two, leaving us with just over 200 million mouths to feed, clothe, house, educate, and employ, we might again peek across the vast Indian plains to see how Pakistan has already overtaken us in this regard (keeping in mind how East Pakistan always had more people than West Pakistan): not only that, but with a higher growth-rate, Pakistan's population might impose far higher demands and costs than even a worse-case Bangladesh scenario, at least into the visible future (never more than a generation ahead).
True Pakistan is far larger territorially than Bangladesh was ever blessed to be, but taking the nature of the terrain, picturesque as it may be, there is not so much more of vitally needed farm products that can be added. Already the paucity of rivers has posed problems, but the growing threat of manipulating the sources of those rivers, many of them outside Pakistan, may become the Damoclean Sword overhanging Pakistan.
Bangladesh, too, faces a similar problem, perhaps just a shade less critical, but still of vital importance: rivers entering Bangladesh have already been manipulated, enough to generate the seeds of desertification in what was Mother Nature's most famous delta. How we adapt to these constraints on the negotiating table may need more than the finesse of our diplomats, as too the havocs expected from climate-change oceanic developments. Adding rapid urbanisation without commensurate planning in the world's most densely populated country where air-pollution and untreated contamination dominate does not present a welcoming future at all. Pakistan fares better for not being the sea-level country Bangladesh is, thus spared the initial climate-change brunt; and with more land to spare, urbanisation, even at a frantic rate, does expose some light at tunnel's end.
When all is said and done for both countries within a comparative context, the future may belong less to physical resources than intellectual capacities. It will be planning sustainable pathways that could become, and most likely increasing so, the ace-cards. Domestic problems will surely multiply, with the only solace being that no country under the sun will be spared this predicament: from environmental neglect and gluttony to outwitting the next-door neighbour, we have brought upon ourselves our very own nemeses.
Forging ahead demands how the country's vital interests get re-juggled. For Bangladesh, it may be elevating Mother Nature in all its elements higher the priority-list than attaining the 'developed country' status, even though the latter is impossible without the former. Added to that will be how we negotiate abroad, not just about rivers, but also transactions, both humans and merchandise. Channelling fruits from these into the classrooms, and thereby into the mindsets of students, could be the make-or-break issue.
Most of all, the key 1971 lesson is the one awaiting some attention. Behind the economic discrimination, Bangalees wanted their own Bangalee culture, customs, language, and traditions to be alive and thriving. That may be our cutting-edge advantage: we have that nationalistic unity which, though still far from being perfect, still leaves us far ahead of a fissiparous Pakistan. If taming the military is Pakistan's urgent long-term mission, affording minorities a sense of identity cannot be far behind. After all, how much money in each person's/country's coffers may mean little without knowing who/which that entity is. Identity, ultimately, says it all, and does it all, the ace of spade.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
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