Lipi's mother who works at my home as a part time domestic help after doing two shifts elsewhere was today late. When asked for the reason for the delay, she apologised saying that she was held back by the traffic jam caused by processions of people celebrating what she understood as a victory parade for achieving development by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She asks me, "Mama, will this 'unnayan' bring down the price of rice to Tk 30 from the existing Tk 50 which is beyond our reach?" She continues, "Can I now send my daughters Liza and Nipa to a tuition fee-free school and get free medical help?" She asks, "Will government now provide us better accommodation than my dark, dank and squalid one room in the shanty for a family of five?" Lipi who is married and works in a garment factory finds it hard to make both ends meet to support her family of three. She wonders if her salary will be raised now. I feel embarrassed and distressed. I remain silent as I do not know the answer to such innocent concerns of Lipi's mother.
I pay a salary of Tk 5.0 thousand to Nasima, my full time domestic help who has to support her family of five including her mother back home in Netrakona and seems perennially to suffer from financial hardship. It is not infrequently she borrows money from me to meet emergency needs but seldom returns it as she does not have the capacity. Their stories are of unending penury and struggle for existence,
I do not have answer either to almost similar questions from Rafiq, our security guard who works two shifts for 16 hours and earns Tk 9000 to feed his family of four left at his home in Narail and defray the expenses for his own board and lodging. Nor do I have answer to same questions from Rashida who collects garbage from our apartment buildings and two adjoining buildings and earns Tk 6,000. She is the only earning member of a family of five as her husband lies disabled from an accident. Moqbul the vegetable vendor, Motaleb the construction worker, Idris the fisherman who supplies fish in our neighbourhood and the rickshaw pullers who visit home in Barisal, Kurigram and Netrakona only during Eid holidays barely eke out their living. My cousin Sajal shows up twice a year from our village home for help as he does not get adequate price for his agricultural produce.
Yet, they are the forgotten silent majority representing more than eighty per cent of the disgruntled in the class of underprivileged down-trodden of our population who are left behind in the attainment of development in the last one decade. Sadly, for them the graduation of our country from the least developed country status to a developing one does not make any sense. It does not matter and is irrelevant to them.
Why is this contradiction and paradox? There is no doubt about the development achievement in the country. The UN has recognised it after serious scrutiny and appraisal of our development index. The UN secretary general and the World Bank chief have congratulated Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over the landmark development achievement in the country.
Signs of development are also writ large in our habits, lifestyle and standard of living. The Padma bridge under construction from our own resources, the four-lane inter-connecting highway roads, spick and span posh residential apartment buildings in Baridhara, Gulshan, Banani, Dhanmondi and Uttara, the razzle dazzle shopping malls in every neighbourhood, tens of hundreds of glittering restaurants in residential areas, the elaborate wasteful and mind boggling wedding arrangement and expensive wedding dinners are signs of the rising status.
Roads are bustling with Hondas, Toyotas and Lexus, Zaguar and Mercedez, Volvos and BMWs, Ferari, Hummer, Porshe, Prado, Pajero and Land cruiser. Scores of expensive luxury vacation resorts in the suburban countryside in Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong, people going on expensive vacation in Bali and Bangkok, Malaysia and Singapore, London, Rome and New York are all signs of our development and purchasing power. Who says we are a poor country?
What a stark and glaring change of lifestyle. I remember my wedding in October 1962 with my bridal party of 20 persons riding by 10 rickshaws from our Elephant Road residence to go to the bride's residence at the Road No 8, Dhanmondi residential area. There was no engagement, no gaye holud, no elaborate wedding reception or maddening dance and musical revelry. It was a graceful and solemn wedding invoking departure and responsibility. The expense was not beyond 500 rupees. We did not live yet in a wasteful society. It was a golden time of simple life with love and compassion for others bereft of selfishness.
But this development has been skewed. Its benefits have not been evenly spread in the society. There is inequality and a yawning gap of income distribution between the rich, super rich and the poor in the society. The poor do not have access to lavish lifestyle and high standard of living.
Yet, it is we the bureaucrats and businessman, the politicians and bankers, the professional class of so-called elite intellectuals and civic society of proliferating think-tank consultants, the doctors and engineers, real estate developers and contractors who are responsible for this burgeoning inequality, disparity and discrimination in society. It is we, the greedy and corrupt so-called middle and upper class who have grabbed, forfeited and hijacked the benefits of development by cheating the vast majority of population steeped in aforementioned cesspool of grinding poverty and exclusion, deprivation and destitution and relegated to a life of squalor, despair and humiliation. It is we who have robbed the poor of their rightful ownership of development.
This is unfair, unacceptable and cannot be allowed to continue. We all must feel ashamed of this condition. I am no economist and do not know the remedy. The government together with the economists must address the situation to make amends to right the wrong so that the poor and under-privileged class in the society get a fair share of fruits of the government's hard-earned economic development.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina truly said, 'The development achievement is an achievement of common people'. Bangabandhu fought his entire life to win freedom to bring smiles to the teeming millions of hapless people. Unless and until that is achieved, the celebrations for growth will ring hollow, lack meaning and purpose and be a cruel mockery. We all will be held guilty by posterity for failing to respond to the challenge.
The writer is a former diplomat. Email:[email protected]