Bangabandhu's thoughts on economic freedom are still relevant -

Dr. Atiur Rahman | Monday, 15 August 2022

Apparently gone are the days of great moderation of high growth and low inflation in today's world. The stagflation era with low growth and high inflation followed by a severe recession is looming large according to noted economist Nouriel Roubini. He predicts that the world is set to enter a 'dangerous and destabilising new regime'. Indeed, according to him, the world economy is 'undergoing a radical regime shift' precipitated by the fallouts of the unprecedented pandemic-related slowdown of the economy which has been lately accelerated by the disruptive Russia-Ukraine war. The sanctions and countersanctions have already put brakes on the benefits of globalisation where all countries including Russia and China were deeply engaged in the post-cold war era. The supply chains have been further disrupted leading to oil shocks that have pushed global inflation to a level that can be compared to some extent with that in the 1970s when OPEC showed its teeth to form a oil curtail. In response, the monetary policy was tightened, and the money supply was restrained. Bangladesh was no exception either and followed the global lead on both fiscal and monetary policies. Bangladesh, however, moved a step further by designing a more inclusive development strategy by providing additional support to agriculture through greater diversification and modernisation to cope with the challenge of rising food inflation. This indigenous policy drive was led by none other than Bangabandhu, our Father of the Nation, when newly-independent Bangladesh was struggling hard to come out of the ashes of the 1971 War of Liberation. His economic vision of investing in people defying all odds, global and local, laid the strong foundation of macroeconomic stability which has been still providing us the strength of sustainability even in this turbulent world. Agriculture remains our major source of strength in addition to the growth of manufacturing, particularly the textile sector. Here too human factors have been playing a crucial role with massive participation of the women labour force which received basic education supported by the state, again deriving strength from the farsighted policy strategy initiated by Bangabandhu and later bolstered by his daughter subsequently. Besides, he also initiated several policies like laying the foundation of energy security by buying the shares of eight units of the global gas company Shell, divesting some of the jute mills that were nationalised immediately after the liberation of the country, and developing barter trade with friendly countries with the provision of at least forty per cent export of non-traditional items. Also, he started negotiations with Japan for financing the Bangabandhu bridge to connect the northern part of the country with the mainstream. This infrastructural focus of Bangabandhu ultimately helped Bangladesh invest in transportation-related mega infrastructure projects including the recently-inaugurated Padma bridge that will take the country far ahead by adding substantial growth to the economy.
This comprehensive vision of economic freedom for all his people evolved gradually right from his school days. He was a great organiser and could enthuse energies among his followers with hope and inspiration even during disasters. Thus, he organised volunteers to run gruel kitchens during the 1943 Bengal famine when he was a student leader in Kolkata. He worked relentlessly to provide some food to the starving people who flocked to Kolkata by raising money in the party office and hostel premises. Similarly, he organised relief camps in Patna and Asansol in 1947 for the displaced people who were victims of the communal riots following the partition of India. He could fathom the level of deprivation among the masses while participating in such humanitarian activities and remained focused on the need for realising economic freedom. He participated in the Pakistan movement only to realise the freedom of the peasants who were victims of the Zamindari system so that their food security could be ensured if the system were abolished in an independent country. However, the newly-created Pakistan was to him a 'false dawn' as it was captured by the elites including the Zamindars who were reluctant to abolish the existing land system. He returned to Dhaka and got admitted to the Law Department of Dhaka University. He started organising the students and youths under the banner of the East Pakistan Muslim Student League and later Awami Muslim League to push the agenda of freedom for the downtrodden. In the meantime, he started leading the Language Movement as the Pakistani elites wanted to undermine the sanctity of Bengali as a language. He was arrested on 11th March 1948 along with his co-leaders for raising his voice against the government policy of excluding Bengali as a state language even though Bengalis were the majority. His support for the low-income employees of Dhaka University was also a reflection of his passion for equality, for which he was again arrested. This time he was also expelled from Dhaka University as he declined to beg an apology and pay a fine to the University authority. He continued to lead the Language Movement from jail and was freed only after a countrywide uprising following the martyrdom of a few of the students and activists on 21st February 1952. That he remained glued to the idea of economic freedom as a political leader was clear when he spoke in a big gathering at Armanitola Maidan on 21st February 1953. He said the Language Movement was not only a struggle for achieving the state language status for Bengali but was deeply embedded in the aspiration for economic emancipation of the people. And he pushed the agenda during the 1954 election campaign. He continued this drive during his short stints as a minister (served twice) in the cabinet of the East Bengal government when he tried to bring substantial policy reforms for helping the farmers and smaller entrepreneurs. He was jailed after the military took over the government and was alleged to have done corruption while working for small entrepreneurs. The court rightly dismissed this allegation and later set him free. Although kept under surveillance, he organised his party from the grassroots and gave the
six-point political programme which was essentially embedded in economic freedom decrying growing inequality between two parts of Pakistan. This political campaign gathered wide support from the masses, for which he was jailed for many years until he was freed by another mass uprising in 1969. The student leaders simply adored him and gave him the people's title 'Bangabandhu' which has become his namesake. He participated in the national election following the collapse of the Ayub regime. The new military government led by General Yahiya offered this election to calm the political environment which was highly heated. He grabbed this offer and made the 'six points' the anchor of his political campaign. The people rallied behind his call and Awami League was able to achieve an absolute majority to form the government in Pakistan. However, the Pakistani elites conspired to undo this overwhelming mandate of the people and Bangabandhu emerged as the legitimate leader to give a call for a non-cooperation movement against the authoritarian government of Pakistan. This movement further galvanised the unity of Bengalis who were by then ready to fight a war of liberation. Bangabandhu gave that call as the Pakistani army started the genocide. And, obviously, Bangabandhu was arrested but the Bengali nation rose to the occasion to fight an ethical war. Bangabandhu returned to his independent Bangladesh from captivity only to wage another war for economic freedom.
The key element of his vision for economic freedom was clearly reflected in his maiden speech at the Racecourse Maidan (now Suhrawardy Udyan) on 10 January after his return to independent Bangladesh. He said on that afternoon that political freedom would be meaningless if people were not able to eat and get employment. So started his new journey of reconstruction of war-ravaged Bangladesh to achieve that goal.
After returning to independent Bangladesh, Bangabandhu began the amazing journey of rebuilding the war-torn economy and society. His unique pro-people development philosophy originated from his life-long struggle for socio-economic emancipation of the ordinary people which was clearly reflected in the fundamental state principles of equality and justice in all spheres of life and livelihoods as enshrined in the constitution of the Republic. With a meagre resource base, he had to reconstruct the war-ravaged country's physical and social infrastructure, rehabilitate more than ten million war refugees, and restart most of the regulatory and other institutions amidst hostile natural and diplomatic environments. Yet, he relied heavily on agriculture which continues to give us sustenance and extra strength. Simultaneously, he decided to nationalise almost all the industrial units as these were left unattended by the Pakistani entrepreneurs who rushed to Pakistan during the last days of the war. Despite serious challenges arising out of adverse natural calamities and subsequent food insecurity, he kept on raising the bar of expectation of achieving a prosperous country with mobilisation of domestic resources including human resources. His emphasis on education and human resource development was certainly very strategic.
Defying the domestic and international political and diplomatic challenges, he was able to improve the per capita income of the country three times higher in just about four years. While it was 93 USD in 1972, the same went up to 272.75 USD in 1975. In his later years, he gradually liberalised the economy and raised the ceiling for private investment from 2.5 million Taka to 30 million Taka in the 1975-76 budget. His First Five Year Plan aspired to achieve economic growth of 5.5% which in fact went up substantially more than that by 1975. However, this fantastic journey of inclusive development was cut short by heinous intervention by the betrayers who killed Bangabandhu on August 15, 1975.
Bangabandhu was driving the country to self-reliance in food production which the country has now achieved under the prudent leadership of his daughter. She too walks on both legs encouraging both agriculture and industry to grow in tandem. Like her father, she is equally committed to the well-being of the disadvantaged and the extremely poor. As a result, today's Bangladesh has turned out to be one of the best performers in most development indices in Asia including per capita income defying all the odds of the ongoing pandemic, as indicated by global institutions like IMF and ADB. However, because of the global economic slowdown precipitated by first the pandemic and then the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war, Bangladesh today faces numerous challenges including a high rate of inflation and significant foreign exchange instability. Yet we remain optimistic and vigilant drawing inspiration from Bangabandhu who engraved a fighting spirit among the people of Bangladesh to turn challenges into opportunities. Fortunately, his daughter has further consolidated that inner strength. Surely, like the rest of the world, Bangladesh is also braving the odds imposed on her by the global economic crisis. The people of Bangladesh are confident that they will be able to overcome these challenges and continue their journey towards Bangabandhu's aspired 'Sonar Bangla' (Golden Bengal). His long-term vision for a prosperous Bangladesh was firmly footed by his confidence in the inner strength of the nation. This was aptly reflected in a significant speech he gave on 26 March 1975 at the Suhrawardy Udyan. He said, "This challenging phase of our nation will end soon. We have land, our dream to make our country a golden Bengal, and we have jute, gas, forest, fish, and livestock. If we can develop these resources, this difficult phase will end. We are victims of the global economic order. You raise shipping bills at your whims. You raise the price of imported goods as you like. And we are forced to buy these commodities at your chosen prices. The inflation is going up and our survival is at stake." He also spoke in a similar language at the UN General Assembly highlighting the contradictions prevailing in the global economic order and asking for a peaceful, poverty-free, and technologically robust new world. We can now feel how farsighted and on target Bangabandhu was seeing what is going on in today's turbulent world. He remains a beacon of hope for not only the people of Bangladesh but also the entire struggling millions of the world. Let's try our best to remain focused on his vision of economic freedom.

The author is a noted economist and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]