A cast of dynamic Bangladeshi entrepreneurs and intellectuals tell the story of a nation on the upsurge, that has emerged from a difficult past to a prosperous and nuanced present
It’s almost 9 pm and the air is cool and crisp. On the 13th floor of the Shadhinata Tower in Dhaka sits Kamal Quadir, founder and CEO of bKash — arguably one of Bangladesh’s most popular indigenous mobile-payment services. Far below, one can hear the muted honking on the arterial roads of Dhaka, choked with serpentine traffic, even as the illuminated glass facades of buildings twinkle in the distance.
Quadir’s rooftop office overlooks the Tejgaon airfield, which was the Dhaka base of the Pakistan Air Force in 1971, and was bombed by the Indian Air Force — a key point in the Liberation War.
Like his country, Quadir, too, turned 50 earlier this month, one of Bangladesh’s “midnight’s children”, born just three days before Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s famous inspirational speech: “Ebarer songram, amader muktir songram, ebarer songram, shadhinotar songram” (This time the struggle is for our freedom. This time the struggle is for our independence). After studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in the US, he returned to Bangladesh to set up his mobile financial-service firm bKash — a take on the Bengali word for development “bikash” and on “cash” — in 2016. Its app is now on almost everyone’s smartphone in Dhaka and has been used by a third of Bangladesh’s population (52 million), at least once in the last 10 years.
In a country of more than 168 million people, about 70 per cent are estimated to be born after 1971. People like Quadir represent the new face of the country, powering its technology, commerce and entertainment, and epitomising all that is dynamic and vibrant about the country.
In 1971, Bangladesh’s GDP was estimated at $8.8 billion. Fifty years later, the country is emerging as the fastest-growing economy in the region, with a GDP that has now grown to over $300 billion and its per capita income to nearly $ 2,000. With 25 million Bangladeshis lifted from poverty over 15 years, the World Bank calls Bangladesh “an inspiring story of reducing poverty”. In Dhaka, the development and prosperity can be seen on every street — with Metro construction going on, new buildings being constructed, flashy imported cars that coexist with the chaotic autos and rickshaws on the streets. Apart from the old-school brick-and-mortar economy, the mobile-app economy, born out of a mobile penetration of 99 per cent of the population, has led to a mushrooming of indigenous start-ups whose apps feature on everyone’s smartphones.
Thirty-one-year-old Hussain M Elius is one such successful entrepreneur. Born and raised in Dhaka, he studied in the city’s North South University — one of Bangladesh’s top private institutions — and experimented with start-up ideas since college before hitting the jackpot. Today, he is the CEO of Pathao (“send” in Bengali), a two-wheeler ride-sharing service, which he started in 2016 along with two friends. While the city’s traffic snarls are legendary, it was his daily commute of nearly five hours to and from college that gave Elius the idea for Pathao. “I had heard a TED talk that one out of 10 start-ups become successful. My sixth idea worked,” he says. When they launched the two-wheeler ride-sharing service, “it did not grow, it exploded”, with about a million users on an average everyday.
A lot of his success, says Elius, comes from the relative political stability he has grown up amidst. “I was in school before 2008 and the rise of Islamic extremism was apparent then. We lived through great political turmoil. The current government has done a good job of stomping that out. This means a lot in a Muslim-majority country,” he says.
The Sheikh Hasina government came to power in 2008, after two years of a military-led caretaker government and five years of Khaleda Zia-led Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) rule between 2001 and 2006, when Islamic hardliners were part of the ruling coalition and exercised control. Sheikh Hasina’s return to power saw a rise in staunchly secular policies and a crackdown on extremist groups. Anti-terrorist and anti-money laundering laws were passed, and counter-terrorist operations were taken up with India’s help. This has made her government popular among the liberals and progressives in the country, who fought against the Islamic identity in 1971 and have always endorsed Bengali nationalism as their first and sometimes, only identity. In the last elections in 2018, Hasina’s party, the Awami League, won 258 out of 300 seats in the Parliament.
Mithila Farzana, 41, one of the country’s most popular TV hosts and the face of the popular current-affairs talk show, Ekattor Journal, remembers the relentless death threats and abuses from Islamic groups that want women to be veiled. “Dom rakhte na para tai shabhabik (not being able to stay on is the usual norm)”. After persisting for two decades, she says there are moments of vindication when someone comes and says “We want our daughter to be like you. All these years of overcoming fear seem to have worked,” she says.
Senjuti Saha, 34, and her team have decoded the genome sequence of the COVID-19-causing virus, SARS-CoV2, in Bangladesh. At 17, Saha had moved to Canada to pursue higher education. But 11 years and a PhD in molecular biology later, when she asked herself whether the “very sophisticated research” she was doing would find effective application, Saha decided to return to Dhaka, where she joined an NGO, Child Health Research Foundation.
The difference between a high-income country and a low-income country, Saha says, is that in the West, a lot of work can yield some benefits. “But here a small amount of work can lead to large benefits. In hospitals, the deaths of children can be prevented with simple, inexpensive technology,” she says. True to her words, there has been substantial reductions in infant and child mortality in Bangladesh in the last two decades. Since 2000, a World Bank report says that infant mortality has decreased sharply, from 64 to 27 infants per 1,000 live births. Today, Bangladesh is performing better in these dimensions than other countries in the South Asia region, where infant mortality is about 36.4 infants per 1,000 live births.
If Saha left a comfortable life overseas to return to Dhaka to use her expertise to save lives, Fayaz Taher, 36, returned from the US after higher studies to use technology to entertain. Taher is the chief operating officer of Bongo, Bangladesh’s answer to YouTube and Netflix, that started with digitising classics, films, dramas from the ’70s and the ’80s and now has about 15,000 hours of content. Run almost entirely by local tech professionals, Bongo clocks “one billion views every month” on an average. While 40 per cent of viewers are in Bangladesh, about 60 per cent of them are overseas, including in India, the US and the Middle East.
Quadir feels independence gave Bangladeshis a clear sense of priority. “Every family knows somebody who was tortured or affected during the freedom struggle. My own house in Jessore was looted by the military and the militia. A drive to pursue their aspiration was instilled in people and basic elements of statecraft and nation-building — the Constitution, the Central Bank, the Planning Commission — were created early on,” he says, adding, “Adda is not considered a good thing for a working culture any longer.” A lot of change, he says, has also been driven by the country’s current government. There is a greater thrust on education and a conscious desire to move away from an agrarian background to an urban, techno-centric life. This has prompted people like Taher to contemplate expanding into spheres like online education in the near future. “The tax exemptions, IT policies have all have contributed to the growth,” says Taher.
While most of the entrepreneurs credit “political stability” for development, Tabith Awal, 41, a young and upcoming BNP leader, disagrees. “If we don’t stand up any more, then who else will? There are zero outlets for expression of dissent,” says Awal, a member of the executive council of the party, who was north Dhaka’s mayor candidate in 2015
Independent filmmaker Humaira Bilkis, 40, returned to Dhaka after pursuing a filmmaking course in Delhi, looking to showcase contemporary Bangladesh in her work. She has worked with Oscar-winning Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy as an associate producer; Bilkis’s film, I am Yet to See Delhi, featured in a film festival in Japan, and her upcoming movie, Bilkis and Bilkis was chosen as one of the 10 projects in the Berlinale in 2019. Bilkis considers herself “mukto mona” (a free-spirited woman). “Swadhin desh-e jonmo hoyechhe (we are born in an independent country), we want to speak freely. How much freely will I be able to make a movie, that is a question I ask. Often, at the idea stage itself, we start censoring,” she says.
Bilkis’s fears are not entirely unfounded. In 2011, director Rubaiyat Hossain’s movie, Meherjaan, was banned in the country as it showed a love affair between a Bangladeshi woman and a Pakistani military officer. Despite noticeable improvement in economic spheres, the political churn in the country has created deep fissures in society. With the Hasina government winning three consecutive elections, the space for dissent and opposition, many say, have shrunk visibly. In 2016, for instance, journalist Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star newspaper, was slapped with 83 cases of sedition and defamation; photojournalist Shahidul Alam was arrested in 2018 for his criticism of the government’s response to the 2018 Bangladesh road-safety protests. The country’s main opposition leader Khaleda Zia has been in jail for last two years, her sentence recently commuted to house arrest during the pandemic on health grounds.
The BNP is now run by her London-based son Tarique Rahman and senior leader Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir in Dhaka.
While Awal has a divergent view, most entrepreneurs make a good case for the stability in the country, once described by US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “basket case”. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, for four consecutive years, Bangladesh was galloping at a growth rate of 7 to 8 per cent per year — more than China’s growth rate, according to World Bank statistics.
Fifty years after independence, Taher says the country is still young. “It’s like (watching) a child grow up…ultimately, we have to improve our quality of life,” he says. Saha puts it more succinctly. “On 14 December, 1971, teachers, professors, scientists were killed. It was akin to a person’s legs being cut off. We have overcome a lot. In 1971, our life expectancy was 47, now, it is 72. Can we do better? Of course, we can. We need more women in leadership positions, for instance. Democracy is not a linear slope, it’s a process,” she says.
Muntassir Mamoon, 69, one of the doyens of history at Dhaka University, who now heads the 1971 Genocide Torture Archive and Museum Trust, says, “In 1971, I didn’t think that I will see a Bangladesh like today’s, 50 years later.” Since 1966, he has seen Bangladesh or what was then East Pakistan fight against religious fundamentalism, poverty and mis-governance. “Earlier I would be apprehensive about going anywhere with my green passport. Now, I don’t bother. This new confidence is something to note as a student of history,” he says.
Source: Read Full Article