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Bangladesh, misfortuned for ever?
Kuakata (Bangladesh), February 26th 2008

It is hard to believe, but there was a time, way back in the past, that Bengal (of which a big part is present Bangladesh) was a very prosperous area. The region of Bengal played a global role in the production and trade of jute, sugar, salt and opium. The region became also famous for its cotton and silk industry. Much of the success was owed to Bengal’s fertile ground and its many and extensive water ways which made a detailed transport infrastructure possible. The revenues of Bengal were almost three times higher than any other region in India, of which Bengal was a part at that time. How big can the contrast be, if you compare that situation in the past with the present situation of Bangladesh? Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on earth, and it still has a long way to go on the development ladder. What went wrong?

The first blow came after Bengal became part of the British colonial empire. Like in many colonies, the colonists did not invest in the colony, but were mainly busy with exploiting the area for their own gain. That is also what happened to Bengal. The British were extremely interested in the agricultural riches of the area and transformed Bengal to a simple supplier of raw agricultural materials. So, the British did not invest in local industries (to transfer the raw materials into products), trade skills or education for the Bengali people. The only thing that they demanded was that they worked hard and long hours on the land. And if the British did invest in industries in the colony, they did it in one of the economic centres, Bombay in the west or Calcutta in the east. Most of the manufacturing activities were transferred to Britain. Some (especially Bengal) economists state that the success of the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century in Britain was the result of the systematic ruining of the industries in Bengal. This is probably a little bit exaggerated, but most historians believe that there is some truth in the theory that the British transformed Bengal from a prosperous and independent region, to a simple producer of raw agricultural materials.

The second blow for the area came in 1947, after the independence of India and Pakistan from Great Britain. The Hindu part of the British colony became India, and the Muslim part became Pakistan. Greater Pakistan was divided in two parts, West Pakistan (present Pakistan) in the west, and East Pakistan (a big part of Bengal, which is present Bangladesh) in the east. These two Pakistani regions formed together one country, but were thousands of kilometres apart, separated by their huge neighbour India. East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) has played since independent a subordinated role in greater Pakistan. This was mainly due to the fact that the region was exploited during the British colonial times. There were no industries and the people were mainly simple farmers that spend most of their lives on the land. All the relations that East Pakistan had during the British colonial period were with the economic centre Calcutta, which was allocated to India at independence. So, there was no history of economic or governmental relations between East and West Pakistan. After independence, the economic exploitation of East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) did not end. Only the exploiter changed; it was the British Empire and it became West Pakistan. Till 1971 (the year in where East Pakistan became independent Bangladesh), East Pakistan tried to acquire an equal position in greater Pakistan. However, West Pakistan had the strategy to frustrate all attempts of East Pakistan (in where the majority (55%) of all Pakistani’s lived) to become a full player in greater Pakistan. This was possible because the bulk of the government jobs in East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) were occupied by West Pakistani’s. Besides that, the army was also denominated by the West Pakistani’s (90% of the soldiers were West Pakistani’s). The economic exploitation of East Pakistan (present Bangladesh) of that time can also be seen in the development in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capital during the period 1947-1971. While the difference in GDP per capita between West and East Pakistan was only 9% in 1950, it increased to 60% in 1971.

The wish of East Pakistan to become an independent country got an extra boost in 1970. A political party of East Pakistan won the elections and could not be ignored anymore. However, the West Pakistani military junta did not bow to the result of the elections. This was the start of the bloody civil war that hit East Pakistan in the beginning of the 1970’s, which eventually, after interference of the Indian army, resulted in an independent Bangladesh on December 16th 1971. One would expect that from that moment on, things would go much better for Bangladesh. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Bangladesh is still one of the poorest countries in the world and it has difficulties in making their first steps on the development ladder. This is partly caused by the exploitation that took place last centuries. The country has almost no industries, no experiences in trade and still 40% of the Bangladeshi people are analphabetic. Besides that, present Bangladesh is afflicted by a high level of corruption. After the independence of Bangladesh, the West Pakistani’s that occupied the governmental jobs left for West Pakistan. Their positions were taken by inexperienced Bangladeshi civil servants, of which many were not interested to serve their country, but their own wallet. An instable political climate is only worsening the situation. The country is still operating under a state of emergency. The present government promised to organise free, fair and transparent elections in December 2008.

The most recent blows that hit Bangladesh are the result of the changing climate. On average, once in every three years, Bangladesh is hit by a huge natural disaster, like recently the cyclone Sidr in November 2007. Scientists expect that the frequency and fierceness of these disasters will only increase in the future, due to the changing climate. Every natural disaster has an enormous negative impact on the country, throwing her back in her development. Bangladesh is making signals to the world that it wants to be compensated for the climate change that is caused by the western world, but gets, as expected, not much response. Bangladesh is just not powerful enough to impress the western world. Bangladesh is a country that received already many blows in the past, and is probably continuing to receive them. That isn’t something you wish to somebody, especially not to the Bangladeshi’s.

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