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Diversification: Cultural implications

Imtiaz A Hussain | December 09, 2019 00:00:00

At its most basic, culture stems from how the human being interacts with his/her environment. Therefore, Eskimos are not known for farming, and those who are, have been conveniently thrown under the 'agriculture' etymological domain, as too those dealing with plants under horticulture, water or water-bodies under aquaculture, silk producers under sericulture, and so forth. These domains have been further subdivided along ethnic and national lines, then thrown into linguistic categories, and even brought together, when necessary, as spiritual brethrens, as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (in chronological order) have been over the centuries (and all too conveniently).

The point to be made, however, is that not only do community boundaries based upon a variety of identities, keep changing, but also that communities also change substantively, that is in their content, and thereby appearances. Rabindranath Tagore is one who captured what traditional Bangladesh was replete with: green vegetation, full of ever-flowing rivers, and very, very rural. Until independence much of what he could easily recognise and write about remained more or less intact. Making his epic song our national anthem was not just logical and emotional, it also reflected realities: we were driven by his images to our independence, so much so that we will defend them, come what may, even if they belong to a great extent in growing mythologies, and even if the Bangladesh landscape is far, far different from 1971 half-a-century hence.

Of course, the RMG (ready-made garment) onset and labour migration abroad were the significant game-changers. They sparked urban migration where the rural landscape began to change, not so much by the fewer people proportionately living there, but by industrial discharges killing rivers (and river-life), or river-flows no longer making their last stretch to the sea through our fair land, among other new changes, or congested cities consuming every resource available, be they animal, vegetable, or mineral, infrastructures piercing, as if, the virginity of the countryside, and, of course, natural forces, such as climate change, and with it, coastal and land erosion chewing away limited land.

Pollution and new diseases entered community confines, and just the new business instincts culminated in a gilded age in which the environment does or becomes what money deems it must. Lost in that nexus was not just the countryside's personality we could get personal with, but also the time to savour or nurture how our multiple and increasing other preferences and priorities have been reconfiguring it. In short, whether the causes be symptoms of the First Industrial Revolution, that is, IR 1.0, or IR 2.0, or 3.0, or even 4.0, all we see is flux, constant flux, growing flux. Surely cultural traits must show these in some manner to future generations.

If the last two generations have witnessed all these artificial changes (while bowing to the pressure of the natural changes, such as the absolute population growth even with a relatively lower and declining growth-rate), we can be sure economic diversification will bring a string of similar changes. Given all the variables at hand, not all of which can shed meaningful light in the first place at this stage,

Bangladesh's leaders and people want a developed country by mid-century, given the progress of the previous generations. In the absence of artificial (or human-made) changes to produce that outcome, past less-developed-country behavioural patterns will continue unabated, even consolidating themselves in the process. Natural change cannot but be influenced by these, given the altered human-environment relationship: from over three quarters of the population in 1971 being farmers, only about one-third remain as such today, with the declining trajectory continuing still; and with 200-odd million people to cater to by mid-century or so, with the diminishing land-space of the country, over-congested urban areas will have burst at the seams, leaving spillovers to affect the countryside one way or another. Without translating anticipated outcomes into realities, the developed-country future is being left to the winds.

Two of the dominant recommendations made by experts both within the country and outside, have been to diversify the economy, and to decentralise. How these will evolve, if at all in a substantial way, may determine the country's next set of cultural values. Just a caveat or two: no more cultural traits will remain as enduringly as those Tagore captured in his poems and prose; and indeed, what he did see and write about will still remain, but as lost or diminished traits of an era gone.

Economic diversification cannot take place in established urban areas. With prohibitive real-estate values, they do not furnish viable locations, especially with gridlocked traffic to boot, as well as variable energy supplies and as yet unsure infrastructural costs to complicate matters. This was what drove the government to establish a hundred-odd special economic and export-processing zones (SEZ/EPZ) project, attracting both domestic and foreign entrepreneurs with such incentives as one-stop clearance house (that is, all investment formalities, licenses, and permissions not to mention privileged energy supply-lines, self-contained communities, and a clearer environment).

Although many will hug urban outskirts, or be well-connected to the cities (where, still, huge market outlets remain), many more hectares of the countryside will disappear, making Bangladesh a huge con-urban sprawl, the largest in the world and the most congested. At least the world's most congested metropolitan, Dhaka, will be spared. Although the specific reasons why it will escape the diversification accented is discussed more elaborately below, the very types of diversification accented is to promote both offshore foreign units, meaning assembling final products will continue to remain a large chunk of the emergent Bangladesh. For any new manufacturing plant, the story remains the same: our market being large enough and our semi-skilled workers still remaining at a lower wage-threshold than in many other countries, these plants can carry a longer future shadow than assembly plants. The bottom-line is straight-forward: their success premises include not only Bangladesh's ascent up the middle-income ladder, but also serves as an invitation for other copycat or duplicate plants. What begins as a 100-odd SEZ/EPZ venture, could spawn rival industrial estates, all at the expense of the countryside. Note how industry has become part of the country's landscape, where agriculture once dominated, and with it an urban culture and a far more cosmopolitan outlook than ever before, what with millions of labour emigrants abroad remitting more cash than their village homes can utilise, and so forth. A service economy has been functioning in the shadows.

These movements into manufacturing and upper middle-class societies cannot be singly blamed for what Daniel Lerner called "the passing of traditional society" (his subject being the Middle East, but so perennially relevant worldwide): the RMG chapter of Bangladesh's history contributed to that, indeed, began the very process. Whether we end up as a modern society or not will depend on many other non-economic variables, as spelled out in the second essay of this Scopus series, but what must be borne in mind is the faster progression of the human civilization. For technological reasons, we cannot but move faster, altering the landscape all around us. This is neither positive nor negative, but just a society changing, only more rapidly than ever before.

Decentralisation is an idea that is not new within this context. Its roots can be traced back to Dacca Improvement Trust's late 1950s model township, Dhanmandi, being plucked out of paddy fields, then the extensions to Gulshan, Banani, and Uttara where forests prevailed in the 1960s, all in that same chronological order, all of them hardly capturing what we today mean by decentralisation (to devolve people, policy-structures, professions, and community-living), not in the 1950s and neither in the 1960s, when more space was needed, especially for migrants from India after partition and what was then West Pakistan (for example, the fabled 22-odd families ruling East Pakistan's economy, all but one or two from the West). Nevertheless, a model was laid, which the World Bank's 2018 report, Greater Dhaka, fully capitalises upon to open an 'East Dhaka paradigm'.

Purbachal, built upon 6,277 acres of countryside land, symbolises the government's decentralisation emphasis. It is expected to reduce West Dhaka congestion from 69,000 per square kilometer to 59,000, even though Greater Dhaka's current population of 19 million will spiral to 25 million. Yet, with 38.7 per cent of the area earmarked for residential purposes, 25.9 per cent for roads and highways, 7.1 per cent for lakes and canals, 6.6 per cent for fresh air, 6.41 per cent for administrative and commercial spaces, 6.0 per cent for education, health, and social activities, 3.2 per cent for industries, and 2.5 per cent for sports, Purbachal represents a new neighbourhood model in the country historically and presently, if the roadmap becomes reality. With its planned 142-storey tower to become the world's tallest, clearly it is not addressing Tagore's Bangla, but a truly modern and very different counterpart. If this Purbachal township is replicated in other congested cities, and particularly balancing out of residencies, commercial, recreational, and industrial zones, Bangladesh's cultural patterns will clearly change: not only far more urban than rural, meaning learning how to drive automobiles than boats, generating in the process a far more cultivated urban neighbourhood than the haphazard commercially-driven, high-rise filled cluttered types we see everywhere now. One awaits to see what kind of children will evolve from such a setting, with more playgrounds to access, and perhaps more soccer and cricket, but fewer kabbadi or ha-do-do type of traditional games; and greater intra-city mobility and exposure to more diverse cultural influences, thereby opening up the external milieu, than re-enacting Tagore plays, heeding local calls, and promoting the internal setting. Will we have fewer swimmers and fishermen in our larger population than before, what with rivers polluting or simply disappearing? Or the start of Bangalees, the perennially symbolised farmers, adjusting to desertification along its south-western borders?

Its success very much like the SEZs/EPZs projects can only eat away more of the country's rural area, converting it into that con-urban sprawl aforementioned. In a country without any viable Purbachal-type antecedent (that is, the proportionate demarcation of neighbourhoods for specific purposes), Purbachal still stands out as an ideal: we will never recreate what is being planned on paper, though what does come out could still be far superior to what we have thus far seen. Against this best-case scenario, we must fit in all the nightmares driving people out of Bangladesh's cities. The World Bank report succinctly identified them, the absence of "autonomy, fiscal autonomy, accountability and transparency," culminating in "an empowerment deficit, a resource deficit, and an accountability deficit" (p. 31). Building a new culture without these would belong to that best-case scenario, but if the past is any guide, the more likely outcome may be a hotchpotch of both the ideal and the nightmares: we can run away from geographical space, but not our own habits and behavioural styles.

If we could unite 75 million people, or just about that many in 1971, out of the 75 million claiming this land as theirs out of birth, will we be able to even get that many behind any life-threatening cause, say a climate change havoc, even out of 165 million today, or 200 million tomorrow? Tradition bred unity, the modernisation process breeds, by definition, diversity, in industries, professions, pursuits, and so forth. Can we rise to the occasion to at least accept the differences without defending any cause with militancy? That would sow the seeds of future cultural components.

An even more recent World Bank document, Making Decentralization Work (2019) articulates all the economic inefficiencies of congested Bangladesh metropolitans (9-17), and, more modestly, proposes a mixture very much in the nature of private-public partnerships: centralisation-decentralisation admixtures (40-45). Culturally that does mean modern, but a traditional-modern hybrid, which could be the most slippery of passages: we have not yet shown how to improve upon our good neighbourhood sense given our greater lust for cash at all expenses.

One final thought relates to the simultaneous IR 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 pursuits across Sonar Bangla. Our IR 1.0 RMG industry has already highlighted its dominant features of low-wage production, the instant growth of a bourgeois class, and dirty factories blessed by the large presence of the fair gender. Contrast these to the expectations of an IR 4.0 post-industrial, ICT-driven, software-anchored society. It is not so much the substance of the IR 4.0 expectations, but the capacity of this country and its people to permit continued cohabitation of two contrasting societies, as it did before the landlord-peasant feudal system, in 'modern' Bangladesh. Will the emergent 'developed' Bangladesh be more divided and unequal than it ever was under Tagore's Bangla conception? Is that the price we must pay, as have many other countries with similar parallels, for modernising, promoting individual ego or community welfare? Have we learned how to negotiate across community boundaries in this still unequal society, rather than to merely strengthen our fortress-mindedness previous stance, reflected, for instance, in shifting to Gulshan to escape Gulistan congestion, then Purbachal to be freed from Gulshan's congestion, or to use Gulshan modernisation to uplift Gulistan, and Purbachal experimentation to recreate Gulshan in the way it was originally meant to be?

What happens when we run out of space, especially as Rohingya refugees are helping expose with Cox's Bazar and Chattogram Hill Tracts trees and vegetation? And the toxic rivers eventually polluting so much the Bay of Bengal, if not already, then clearly in the near future, out of its life-sustenance capacities? Pushing the point, how will we deal with coastal erosion in the south or Assamese Bangalees being forced into Bangladesh in the north?

Our responses to these environmental changes will, as Tagore and other eminent lyricists have noted, continue to shape the country's future. Supportive action now would ease the inevitable future trajectories, as contrasted to jerks, which would destroy the very community fabric. Some elements of the fabled sonar would remain a part of our living culture only if we want it to do so on the ground, not just in the mind or through lyrics. Or, beginning with our grandchildren, will the emergent folklore be more about pollution, smog, and spatial constrictions than paddy-fields, romantic sunsets, and sitar sonnets?

Questions will undergird any emergent cultural picture like they never have before.


Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is Head of Global Studies & Governance Programme at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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