1744Published on April 27, 2022
Marking the Golden Jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence, Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has written an in-depth article in an international journal. In the article titled 'Striving to Realize the Ideals of My Father', she mentioned the steps of transformation of today's modern Bangladesh. How war-torn Bangladesh, full of extremism, was transformed into a Digital Bangladesh, how the Awami League government carried out this huge task - all these issues came up in the article. The daughter of Bangabandhu Sheikh Hasina wrote in this context: Bangladesh has been able to come to today’s position as the result of hard labour, blood, toil, and tears of enterprising farmers, garment workers, and expatriates abroad.
She further adds: As I look back at all we have achieved, I can’t help but wish my father could see us now. I know how proud he would be of how far we have come, and I know he would remind us that there is more work to be done. It is the indomitable spirit of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman that drives us forward, and we dare not rest till we achieve all his dreams.
In the article, she points out three steps behind the transition to today's Bangladesh. (1). First, her ideological effort to build the country was inspired by Bangabandhu’s thoughts about the state, based on which she has planned to build the country in the next two steps. (2) Second, developing the agriculture, health, education, shelter, empowerment of women, children and backward communities, and activities to increase the economic capacity of the mass people. (3). Third, the role and initiatives of the government to prepare the country for the better life of new generations through seven more master plans after fulfilling the seven basic needs of the people.
The ways the government is working to establish Bangladesh for the new generations are as follows.
1. Conflict Resolution
Almost immediately after starting her first term in 1997, Sheikh Hasina and her government negotiated and signed a historic peace agreement with the indigenous population in the Chittagong Hill Tracts area, putting an end to the long-running conflict there. This agreement, which ended a long-festering armed insurgency in the eastern region of the country, recognized the rights of the local people and ethnic tribes. It also established a regional development council to promote greater prosperity in a region that had been held back. As a result, all modern facilities have reached the people of remote hill tracts.
2. Water Supply
After forming the government, the Awami League government was able to sign the Indo-Bangladesh agreement for sharing the water flowing through the Ganges River. It ensured an adequate flow of water during the lean season for crops and quickly boosted agricultural growth in the south-western region of the country. To deliver the benefits of this or other water deals with India, Bangladesh has created various irrigation projects that have helped boost agriculture. At this point, 72% of our arable land comes under irrigation, allowing us, as mentioned elsewhere, to become the world’s second-largest producer of rice and third largest of vegetables.
The government also started implementing various programmes to ensure that people had clean water, sanitary latrines, and overall household cleanliness. At the moment, 98.5% of our population receives safe drinking water; 85.7% is through tube wells/boreholes, and 11.7% is through piped water. However, something that needs significant improvement in our country is the rate of piped water in urban areas, which remains low at only 38.1%.
3. Development of Communication System
When Awami League began governing the country in 1996, Bangladesh had a very underdeveloped infrastructure. To reach the remote villages, it was necessary to construct bridges and a rural road network. In the physical infrastructure sector, the most important accomplishment during the first term of the Awami League government was to complete and open the 5.8-kilometre bridge over the Jamuna River. This bridge linked the northern and western regions of Bangladesh with the country’s eastern region; the latter was comparatively more developed. The country’s first mega-project, the bridge ushered in a new era of agricultural development in the northern districts, which had hitherto lacked access to the bigger markets in the eastern districts and Chittagong port, the gateway for most of the country’s imports and exports.
Bangladesh is still lagging constructing world-class roads and highways. But the government is on its way to solving road infrastructure soon through four-lane highways across the country.
During the second term of the Awami League, which began in 2009, the government started much of the unfinished work. The construction of a new multimodal bridge over the mighty Padma River is on the verge. It will usher in a serious transformation of the southern part of our economy, just as the Jamuna Bridge boosted the economy of the northern region.
Massive new investments in mega-projects for the modernizing of physical infrastructure, including a rapid transit system in Dhaka, are now taking place, many to be completed by 2025.
4. Digitization and Modern Technologies
Within months of taking oﬃce in 1996, Sheikh Hasina endorsed three digital mobile licenses for nationwide services. These networks now provide mobile access to virtually everyone in Bangladesh. In 2009, to capitalize on the widespread availability of mobile phones, complement the phenomenon, and catapult the country into a digital future, the Awami League government launched the Digital Bangladesh initiative. This vision includes e-governance (bringing doorstep delivery of government services through digital platforms), creating a technology-centric knowledge-based economy, and developing a world-class ICT sector.
The government set the ambitious target of achieving the first phase of Digital Bangladesh by 2021, and the achievements have exceeded the expectations. Today, government services continue their rapid digitization, our ICT sector is a booming export industry, and our IT freelancers are in demand all over the world.
Digital centres have been set up in each union council (community-based governance group) location; there are 5,275 union councils across Bangladesh. In a typical case, a small entrepreneur runs each centre. Area-based multi-dimensional employment opportunities have been created. By using digital technologies, newly made stores oﬀer printing, photocopying, and mobile financial services. Another source of income for the digital centres comes from expatriate workers who want to make video calls to their families at home. People with disabilities can arrange their own employment after they get training arranged by the government.
These union council-based centres have started getting broadband access, a project that will be completed soon. Arrangements are also being made to accomplish government work using digital centres and digital devices in 6,500 post oﬃces and 18,500 government oﬃces in the zilas and upazillas.
The government is establishing 13,000 Sheikh Russel digital labs for children (8,000 have already been established) across the country. Similar agricultural data centres have been established, through which farmers can obtain information of interest to them via their own mobile devices.
The government has been able to build some relatively large information and communications technology parks, incubators for entrepreneurs, and world-class data centres across the country. People in remote areas are already benefiting from Bangabandhu-1, a satellite recently launched by Bangladesh.
The government is also preparing, through 31 specialized labs, to harness new opportunities now on the horizon: artificial intelligence, robotics, cyber security, and the internet of things, among others. Sheikh Hasina's government has invested US$300 million in funding, helping, and promoting startups. There has been a chance for Bangladesh to lead this sector in near future.
The government is facilitating multimedia classrooms and computer education in most schools, which encourages children to learn through digital devices. Expanding training in information and communications technologies will require a further revamping of our school curricula at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels. It also will require expanded teacher-training programmes. Trained and skilled Bangladeshis employed overseas can become a major source of foreign income and a primary resource for propelling economic development. To date, more than two million young people have received training in various ICT-related trades.
In addition, the government has introduced learning and earning programmes, whereby youth can learn technical skills (such as coding) and then earn money while working at home as freelancers. Foreign companies seek out these freelancers when they want to outsource their software development. A large share of Bangladesh’s educated youth is earning through this outsourced work. To recognize their work, the government is registering freelancers and giving them certificates to make it easier for them to obtain.
At the moment, Bangladesh is exporting US$1.3 billion in software and other digital services. In addition, about 650,000 freelancers are earning more than US$500 million a year. The government are aiming to boost exports to US$5 billion by 2025. Besides, when every social activity was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh made it possible to run all state activities using digital technologies. Our e-commerce activities were around US$100 million at the beginning of 2020, a figure that has doubled during the pandemic.
5. Electricity Supply
The prime minister has always considered energy to be a major pillar of economic development. Hence, starting with the Private Power Generation Policy in 1996 and her eﬀorts to privatize power generation that year, Bangladesh managed to increase both the generation and diversification of energy sources. The Sheikh Hasina government formulated several other policies, including one creating incentives to mobilize private capital and foreign investments. Our diversification eﬀorts have embraced diﬀerent fuel options, including nuclear and renewables.
In addition, we have initiated regional cooperation with India, Bhutan, and Nepal for the export and import of power, including hydropower.
The initiatives have met the scarcity of electricity in the country. The government has brought almost all 70,000 villages under electricity coverage. The number of people receiving grid power has risen from fewer than 11 million to nearly 35 million since 2009.
Electricity has been ensured to reach the country’s island areas through submarine cable or by solar panels. The number of solar panels in use in the country has risen from fewer than one million in 2009 to 55 million today. Sustainable and quality transmission lines are being set up, so no household will remain without electricity. In terms of power generation, we have increased our capacity from 4,900 MW in 2009 to 25,235 MW at present. The government is projected to achieve 40,000 MW by 2030 and 60,000 MW by 2041.
There are at least three reasons why the development plan of Bangladesh is profitably sustainable. First, in terms of handling the speed of expansion, we have quadrupled power generation in the last dozen years (since 2009) and thus have proven our ability to handle rapid growth. Second, this planned increase in the power supply will buttress our projected economic growth of 8% per year (the actual pre-pandemic level), which in turn will support the capital cost with good returns. An increased power supply will empower people to be more economically self-sufficient.
6. Foreign Investment, Industrialization, and Job Creation
Many industries in Bangladesh would welcome investment and, Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina believes, produce good returns. These include agriculture and food processing, leather, light engineering and manufacturing, automotive parts and batteries, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, construction materials and chemicals, textiles, and electrical devices and electronics. The domestic demands in these areas are massive. It is, after all, a country of 165 million with an economy that was growing at an annual rate of 8% just before the pandemic.
In the pre-pandemic years, our foreign direct investment (FDI) increased steadily, reaching close to US$3.9 billion in 2018-19. It fell to US$2.4 billion in 2019-20 and US$2 billion in 2020-21— most likely due to the pandemic. But it starts booming after the pandemic.
Investments relative to GDP, both public and private, have been holding at 30% during the pandemic. In particular, private investments as a percentage of GDP are holding above 21%, which highlights local investors’ (including foreign ones who are already here) ongoing confidence in the economy. This should be a good signal to potential new foreign investors. To promote industries and facilitate greater FDI, we have been working and continue to work on several fronts.
In addition to building better communication facilities, the government has created special economic zones (SEZs) or industrial estates to attract both foreign and domestic investments and set up new technology-based industries. These zones have improved infrastructure (e.g., gas and power connections) and specialized ecologies suitable for specific types of industries. We now have 88 SEZs, 59 of which are owned by the government and 29 by private parties; five more will be added by 2030. Within these SEZs, 38 countries have made investments.
The government has established vocational training schools to mitigate concerns that our labour force lacks adequate skills, In any event, there are 150 higher education institutes in the country at the moment. There is a long list of eﬀorts underway to train young people.
What is important to note is that we did not window-dress our country to attract FDI; instead, we built an inclusive economy by addressing the needs of the lowest-income people. This has brought Bangladesh to a new stage with a much greater capacity to put large amounts of FDI to good use. Due to cheap labour and a developed economic region, Bangladesh has been an attractive land to invest in for the world.
7. Natural Environment
Perhaps the greatest long-term threat Bangladesh is facing is climate change, which is bringing warmer temperatures and rising sea waters. We have the largest delta in the world, and much of our coastal region is likely to be inundated. It is indeed a global issue, and we hope that wealthier nations will take concerted concrete action to reduce carbon emissions and meet the agreed-upon targets of the Paris Agreement.
However, the Sheikh Hasina government has formulated its own long-term delta development plan to mitigate the adverse eﬀects of global climate change. To protect people in coastal areas from cyclones and tsunamis, the government has built thousands of multi-storied and multi-purpose cyclone shelters. Embankments along the coast have been erected to protect people and their farms from the incursion of seawater. The Awami League government is developing a comprehensive plan that focuses on sustainable economic growth, environmental conservation, and enhanced climate resilience.
The daughter of Bangabandhu, Sheikh Hasina in her article also says: I wish to stress that our nation has literally risen from the ashes of the devastating 1971 war. Today’s Bangladesh is a transformed country, one that is economically self-reliant. Formerly food deficient, today it is self-suﬃcient and even has surplus production of various food crops. Rice production has increased more than three times since independence, a time during which the country’s population doubled.
Our healthcare infrastructure has gradually increased, and extensive family planning campaigns have begun to produce results. Healthcare has been brought to the doorsteps of people, even in remote rural areas, through the establishment of community clinics. Also, the light of electricity removed darkness in the village. Almost 100% of school-age children are going to school. To encourage children and their families to go to school, the government has taken the initiative to distribute cost-free textbooks and a large number of stipends to students up to the secondary level. About 23 million students from primary school to the higher levels have been given various stipends and scholarships.
The Awami League government has accomplished a great deal in the last 50 years. When we emerged as an independent nation at the end of 1971, our war-ravaged country of 75 million was mired in widespread suﬀering. The per-capita GDP was only US$133 and growing minimally, if at all, and life expectancy was only 47 years. Bangladesh is now a vibrant economy of 165 million, with a per-capita GDP of US$2,554 and growing fast, and life expectancy has risen to 73 years.
Taking into account the relative cost of living, Sheikh Hasina said the per-capita income of people has increased in line with the living cost of the people. Bangladesh is now close to being a trillion-dollar economy. Bangladesh is certainly one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia. The readymade garment industry is popular across the world. Remittance earnings from expatriates working abroad hit a record US$21 billion in 2020, the eighth highest in the world. The country’s foreign exchange reserve stands at US$47 billion. It continues since then.
Bangladesh has already become a middle-income country. According to the UN resolution, Bangladesh is now a developing country. If this trend of development continues, Digital Bangladesh will be added to the list of developed countries in a short time. This amazing transformation within a decade has taken place neither accidentally nor by a miracle. We have been able to come to this stage due to planned eﬀorts, grassroots initiatives, and the entrepreneurial spirit of our people, who are determined to overcome our adversities.