Rise of the ultra rich and decline of the middle class

Abdul Hannan | Published: September 28, 2018 20:01:27

My 7-year-old grandson Ozayer is excited and crazy about buying a cow for sacrifice for the Eid-ul Azha. He is very popular in our immediate neighbourhood in Dhanmondi Residential Area and has easy access to many apartments. He makes hourly reports to me about his friends' fathers who have purchased big cows at prices varying from one and a half lakh taka (Tk 1,50,000) to four lakh taka (Tk 4,00,000). While they are mostly businessmen, some are ready-made garment industry owners, others are importers of garment machinery, some are real estate owners and others are government contractors. Still others are bankers, doctors and engineers. Ozair would not rest content with such narratives but insists on my taking a walk along the street adjoining our apartment building to have a look at the rows of cows tied to the buildings. It was significant to note that the majority of cows were of big size. The number of small cows was few and far between.

In the afternoon when I bought a small cow at Tk 70,000 shared by my son and two sisters, Ozair was visibly shocked and dismayed.  With a sad and melancholy look he asked me why I had bought a small cow while most of his friends in our neighbourhood had purchased big cows. I said others bought big cows because they had big money and we bought a small cow because we had small money. But he was not convinced and asked me how it was that I had no big money while I was an educated person and held important jobs. I said: You will not understand now.  He stared at me with a vacant look in his eyes. I felt a little uncomfortable.

Ozayer's comments continued to haunt and disturb me for a long time. There was a time when we lived a happy and contented life of simple living and high thinking after my father   in late fifties built a small one-storied house at Dhanmndi, home to the middle class of civil servants, professors, doctors and engineers. We had no wealth or affluence but we had the proud privilege of belonging to a respectable and aristocratic class. We were held in high esteem by others. We lived a decent life of modest success and personal accomplishment. It was a pleasure to read books, listen to songs and music from radio, watch movies in cinema halls and go to art exhibitions. Weekend gatherings of friends and relatives at our home were a family delight. Life was beautiful and many splendered.

But now the social landscape and demographics of Dhanmondi residential area have been silently transformed in favour of the fortunate few of the rich and super rich to the exclusion of us, the original middle class residents whose income has remained stagnant and perhaps deteriorated. Now suddenly with the emergence of this class of new arrivals in the block, the erstwhile majority  has been squeezed, diminished and marginalised  as  a minority facing an existential threat of being swamped and wiped out by a new ultra wealthy class. Now for us it is a grim struggle of existence. The reversal of fortune of the middle class has been foisted on us by dispensation and onslaughts of an unhinged and predatory capitalist economy patronised by corrupt vested interests. Now there's an unmistakable divide and cleavage between them and us. Nevertheless, if they are the moneyed elite, we remain as the cultural elite of the society.

Yet, this ultra wealthy class in Bangladesh has been a recent phenomenon since 2012 as indicated by the world wealth population report published recently by the New York-based Research For Wealth X. According to the report, the number of ultra wealthy whose income is more than Tk 2.50 billion (Tk 250 crore) has been rising in Bangladesh at a rate of 17 per cent even topping United States, China, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Kenya. It is stunning and disturbing revelation and largely explains Ozayer's questions about the economic disparity between his friends' fathers and us. This new class of ultra wealthy has reaped the benefit and windfall of an extremely skewed economic growth in favour of the rich in the country. But the vast majority of the population has been denied a bite of the pie and left behind.

This wealthy class is the new moneyed elite. They have a lavish lifestyle. They make vulgar display of wealth. They lead an ostentatious life of affluence and extravagance. They buy big cows, shop in expensive stores, dine in expensive restaurants, indulge in expensive wedding parties and dancing revelry, go for weekend rest and recreation in countryside expensive resorts. They drive Lexus, Harrier, BMW and Jaguar, even a dream in western countries. They go on vacation to London, New York and Paris, go to Bangkok and Singapore for medical treatment. They expropriate national wealth by not paying adequate taxes and swindling banks by their default loans, laundering money in Swiss banks and offshore havens and buying second homes in Malaysia and Toronto. Their children are educated in America, Canada or Australia. They have enormous political influence and power. They are the new aristocrats.

They look alien and distant strangers to human beings living next door in slums and shanties and languishing in squalor, misery, disease and death and picking food crumbs from garbage dumps round the corner. This is the perfect picture post card of two sides of Bangladesh -- one of unreal world of ultra rich and the other, the ugly sore of abject and grinding poverty. This yawning disparity and incongruity of concentration of wealth in the hands of the few are despicable, wrong and unconscionable. This cannot continue.

Perhaps this is the paradox, side effect and fallout of development. But certainly it could have been contained by addressing the danger of potential governance failure. What is needed is the resolve along with joint efforts of the government, our economists and people to cure the festering malaise.

Abdul Hannan is a former diplomat.

hannanabd@ gmail.com

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