Bangabandhu is a rare personality who drew strength from his life-long aspiration for making Bangladesh a poverty-free country. His commitment to egalitarian development for the masses was strong right from his boyhood. He held on to this commitment throughout his entire political lifespan.
Bangabandhu was committed to end inequality and improve the conditions of the disadvantaged people of the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Hence, when he became the Minister of Industries of the Provincial Government in mid-1950s, he tried heart and soul to ensure growth of the industrial sector of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). He bargained hard with the central government to ensure that a fair share of the export earnings of Pakistan be spent for development of the Eastern part of the country (Bangladesh). He proposed to give the provincial government the authority to issue import licenses and control industries such as jute and cotton. He also proposed to set up an office of the import-export controller and the Director General of Supply and Development Department in East Pakistan. He demanded 50 per cent of Pakistan's foreign exchange to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), instead of only 10 per cent that was prevalent.
Apart from these, as the Chairman of the Central Tea Board, Bangabandhu negotiated with the central government for the growth of the industry. As per his proposals, control of all industries and commerce of East Pakistan was to go to the local authorities from January 1957. By that time he was, however, out of the government. In between he went to China and was impressed by the egalitarian development process initiated by post-revolution People's Republic of China under the leadership of Mao Zedong.
Bangabandhu was a politician, not an economist. Yet he was prudent enough to propose two separate economies for two parts of Pakistan. He said, "The fifteen hundred-mile distance between East and West Pakistan is a geographic truth. So there is no alternative to having two separate economies for these two regions." Bangabandhu's strong desire to ensure economic independence of the people of this country was one of the main factors working behind the liberation war of 1971 and eventual independence of Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu proposed to form an Economic Commission to find/assess the economic disparities between the Eastern and Western parts of Pakistan. The central government formed one Economic Commission as per his proposal. Economist Professor Nurul Islam and bureaucrat D.K. Power, among others, represented East Pakistan in that commission. They pointed out the economic disparities between East and West Pakistan in their separate report as the federal commission was not willing to accept their arguments. Their report justified what Bangabandhu had been saying for many years. But the central government suppressed that report and was not willing to address the issues related to economic disparities. Eventually, Bangabandhu formulated the six-point programme and started the historic movement for autonomy. The core demand of the six-point movement was that the issue of inequality must be addressed. For this Bangabandhu had to go to jail again and again. Yet his resolve got stronger and he never compromised. Indeed, his six-point movement caught the imagination of people of all classes and cemented an unprecedented unity among them. The students and youths were sources of his strength and he successfully galvanised their protests into a movement for the freedom of Bengalees even though he was kept behind bars. He was then falsely accused of sedition under the so-called Agartala Conspiracy case. The movement for his freedom turned into a people's uprising in early 1969 and he had to be released subsequently. He was then given the title of Bangabandhu, the friend of Bengal. There was a change of guards at the centre. The new military ruler General Yahya Khan, who took power from Ayub Khan, declared a general election in 1970. This opportunity was immediately grabbed by Bangabandhu and he got an overwhelming mandate for the implementation of the 6-point programme as his party won absolute majority of 160 in a 300-seat National Assembly. This gave him stronger bargaining power to write the constitution of Pakistan based on this 6-point programme. But unfortunately the Pakistani elites had other things in mind and hence postponed the sitting of the Constituent Assembly. Bangabandhu and the people of eastern part of Pakistan (already termed as Bangladesh by then) reacted with resolutely against to defeat all conspiracies and the rest is history.
After independence of Bangladesh, Bangabandhu took up the difficult task of rebuilding a war-torn economy. He rightly prioritised agriculture and industry. He realised that agriculture not only ensures food for the people, but will also remain as the main source of income for the people for many more years. Additionally, along with poverty eradication agricultural growth will also ensure supply of raw materials for a growing industrial sector of the country.
Hence, after independence Bangabandhu emphasised on agricultural development of the country and took many initiatives. Some of these initiatives are: reconstruction of agricultural infrastructure of the war-torn country as soon as possible, ensuring supply of agricultural equipment at low cost or no cost, ensuring adequate supply of seeds, cancelation of one million certificate cases against the farmers filed by the Pakistan government, ensuring maximum fair price for agro-products, ration facilities for poor and marginal farmers etc.
Bangabandhu was very much aware of the complementarity between agriculture and industry. For example: fertiliser is critically important for agriculture. So, Bangabandhu prioritised building fertiliser factories. He knew that there was no alternative to industrialisation. He clearly recongnised the merit of walking on two legs, agriculture and industry. He could see the logic that industrial products met the local demand and could be exported for earning foreign currency and furthermore, the industrial sector could ensure employment for growing population. Most probably, ensuring industrialisation was the biggest challenge that Bangabandhu faced in the newly-independent country. It must be noted that he started his economic journey with empty hands. There was no reserve, no foreign investment, no backward or forward linkage, and above all, very few people in the country had entrepreneurial skills immediately after the independence of Bangladesh.
Bangabandhu focused on creating an enabling environment for the entrepreneurs. Immediately after independence, it was very difficult to ensure growth of private sector in the newly independent country. So, he rightly chose to ensure state-led industrial growth. As the major Pakistani entrepreneurs and managers took all the money and other equipment from the industrial units and businesses under their control, Bangabandhu had to go for massive nationalisation. He nationalised major Banks and insurance companies, jute and sugar mills, and textile factories. And the early outcomes of these initiatives were really rewarding. Within the first year of independence the jute mills were producing at 56 per cent of their capacity. For textile mills, paper mills, and fertiliser factories this ratio went up to 60 per cent, 69 per cent, and 62 per cent respectively. All the factories and other industrial units were doing much better than they had done during the Pakistan period. But this momentum could not be maintained for long as the state is not the best entrepreneur. The bureaucratic tangles undermined the initial gains and hence Bangabandhu started changing his course.
Bangabandhu went for state-led growth at the beginning due to understandable reasons. But his medium- to long-term plan was to ensure an enabling environment for growth of private sector. The first Five Year Plan and the National Budget Proposals are testament to this. For example: in the budget proposal for FY 1974-75 the upper limit of private sector investment was revised from Tk 2.5 million (25 lakh) taka to Tk 30 million (3 crore). Additionally, the scope was created so that private sector could set up industrial units. Apart from these, during Bangabandhu's tenure 133 industrial units abandoned by Pakistanis were handed over to private sector investors. He really was a realistic policy maker. So it can be presumed that he would have further liberalised the economy.
Unfortunately, he could not continue this journey as the conspirators, both domestic and foreign, were not ready to give him the breathing space for a natural transition. So there was a sudden cruel attack on him on the night of 15th August 1975, eliminating him physically. And Bangladesh started moving backward against the principle of egalitarian development process put into gear by Bangabandhu. The idea of welfare state got a jolt and the income inequality started burgeoning. Poverty and social insecurity were increasing. People also started feeling the pressure of inflation. They then started the movement for democracy which got a momentum after Bangabandhu's daughter Sheikh Hasina joined it after spending years in political asylum.
After a long struggle Sheikh Hasina finally won the election and restarted the journey of egalitarian development which was spearheaded by Bangabandhu. She was denied the chance of continuing the journey in 2001 and finally came back to power in 2008 after a protracted struggle for democracy. Under her strong leadership the country is moving on and is now at the verge of becoming a developing country. Given her inclusive development strategy the country is poised to become prosperous yet egalitarian in the foreseeable future, as dreamt by Bangabandhu. To achieve this goal, Bangladesh needs to maintain continued peace and harmony in society and polity, alongside financial stability. The government must also facilitate steady entrepreneurial growth, and focus attention towards those who are at the bottom of the social pyramid. The emphasis on supporting small and medium enterprises, including those owned by women, should be further enhanced. This will bolster domestic economy and help reduce inequality in the economy and society. I am sure the current leadership is well aware of this huge responsibility and will do its best to transform Bangladesh into 'Sonar Bangla' (the golden Bangladesh).
Dr Atiur Rahman, an eminent economist, is a former Governor of Bangladesh Bank.