Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Why economists should look back to 1964

In 1964, in undivided Pakistan, the then dictator of West and East Pakistan, General Ayub Khan began a dialogue with the leading economists of the eastern wing. History tells us that East Pakistan became an independent nation seven years later. But that was all far away and unthinkable at the time. Ayub Khan had grabbed power in 1958 at the height of the Cold War. Needless to say he made Pakistan one of the most loyal allies of the USA and was in supreme confidence. A sparkling new capital, called Islamabad, was created in the middle of nowhere. The export dollars from East Pakistani jute were ploughed into industries in the Western wing. East Bengal or Pakistan was relegated to the status of a farm. A hinterland with useful cash-crop farmers and grain producers. The traditional link of East Bengal’s rural economy to the centre of India’s industry in West Bengal had been broken in 1947 with the departure of the British.
Now, the plan was for West Pakistan to become industrialised and take the place of West Bengal. The economic relationship or exploitation was shifted a thousand miles to the west. Things were stirring in Dhaka or Dacca, as it was then known. The Language movement had not died down from the massacre of 1952. The middle class Bengali saw there was a glass ceiling to advancement in the professions and business. The intellectuals had cottoned on to the economic injustice in this neo-colonialist structure. They wanted a better deal.
Bengali economists therefore were at the vanguard of this thinking by default. It was their specialisation. They were supposed to understand how this all worked. In those days, lawyers monopolised politics. They didn’t have strong links to business or finance. Development planning was in vogue all round the world, even in Western Europe. Economics was still unscarred by its failures in the 1970s. Most Third World countries still had hopes of a prosperous future.
It was against this background that Ayub Khan decided that he needed the cooperation of Bengali economists in his strategic thinking. He wanted to meet the leading economists on an individual basis, influence a handful of them and use them as spokesmen for the current economic policy. He met an unusual wall of resistance from the then ‘East Pakistani Economic Association’ who would meet as one or not at all. Divide and rule did not work. Reluctantly, Ayub Khan went ahead and met them. The economists united on one point: each wing of the country would develop its economy on the basis of the resources present within each province or wing. In other words, East Pakistan would use it resources to invest in East Pakistan. The same would go for the West.
The logic was simple. But it wasn’t too simple. The implication was devastating to the existing political set-up. No longer could resources be siphoned out from the East to feed the West. If each wing were economically autonomous, then there would be an inevitable move to political autonomy. Looser links would then weaken the overall political entity and could even lead to ‘secession’. The economists were therefore indirectly talking politics. Geo-politics.
An attempt was made to move the debate to less contentious issues but the economists refused to discuss any other matters until this vital issue was resolved.
This success in nationalist terms then turned into failure several years later. This had been a massive breakthrough in consciousness in the mid 1960s. It could have then led Bengali nationalist economists to produce a coherent economic plan and vision. Politicians would then have known what kind of society and economy was in store for them. The leadership would have been ready not just for an autonomous province but an independent country or state.
We now know that across the board the leaders of the new nation of Bangladesh were unprepared to lead 75 million people to prosperity. The debate had remained confined to the politics of identity and language. Slogans about self-reliance were not backed by concrete plans on how this would be implemented. The major sectors such as agriculture and land, water, education, health and industrialisation were untouched. The movement had not been made aware of what needed to be done. Moreover, it was preoccupied with the (then) seemingly impossible task of liberation. Economics could wait.
Of course, it couldn’t. After liberation, some economists did tell the new leaders in clear and graphic terms about radical economic changes needed but by then the politicians were not prepared to listen. More than forty years later, the number of people living below the poverty line today is equal to the entire population in 1971. Kind words from donor agencies about ‘successful indicators’ cannot mask the failure to provide the very basics in literacy, health, jobs and security to the people. The propaganda won’t wash anymore. Now there is no visible over-arching enemy to aim for. There is no single, external exploiter to justifiably blame out troubles on. The problem lies within our borders.


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Blogger Swakkhar Shatabda said...

nice post

5:27 pm  

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