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Monday, October 26, 2009

Whither a 'strong Bangladesh' and the missing middle-class?

Mahfuz Kabir

In his State of the Union Address 2015, President Barack Obama urged building of a 'Strong America.' He affirmed: “This country does the best when everyone gets their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules. Everyone needs to contribute to the country's success.” His 'mantra' of middle class economics seemed to be working as per the statistics presented in the address. It is indeed a contradiction of Kuznets' hypothesis that the income inequality tends to decrease if income per capita increases. Indeed, global income inequality has been mounting in a never ending process that cannot be reversed automatically through increasing income; it has to be tamed through invigorating something like middle-class economics.
In a report titled “Wealth: Having It All and Wanting More,” Oxfam mentioned that only 85 individuals possessed wealth equivalent to that of half of the world's population. Now, 1% of the world population has 48% of world income, which will be 50% by 2016 as per projection. Income gap between women and men has also been widening sharply. Such extreme economic inequality is a stumbling block in alleviation of global poverty.
Even though recent World Bank estimates provide conservative figures of income inequality, national reports paint a dismal picture. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reports Gini index of income inequality to be 45.8 in 2010, which was 46.7 in 2005. That means, annual rate of reduction of inequality was a minuscule 0.18 percentage point even though macroeconomic and development policies were claimed to be pro-poor in nature. With the same database the World Bank's conservative estimate of Gini index is only 32.1. If Bangladesh's estimate is taken as baseline, the distribution of global inequality would reveal a much worse scenario.
The gap between income group at the bottom (lowest 5%) and their richest counterpart (top 5%) is extremely high; the correspondent figures were 0.78 and 24.61%, respectively in 2010. Top 10% households had as high as 35.9%, while their corresponding bottom households had only 2% share in total income. World Bank had conservative estimates of these numbers too, but the huge disparity is quite vivid across the world. Even Sweden, one of the most equalising countries, could not bring income of top 10% households to 20%. The income of bottom 10% also does not make a difference as it is 3.8% of its total income.  
In response to Oxfam's report, Bill Gates responds quite correctly that market economy creates space for abnormal extraction of income ('high success,' in his words) of a few people. However, his solution to the problem is 'charity' as he believes that “philanthropy is part of how we deal with those inequities.” Now a million-dollar question to the multi-billionaire: what do statistics tell about this claim? They show that charitable spending is high in the countries with high inequality.
In his address, Obama emphasised that many corporations give low to no tax and he wanted to bring them in the tax net for spending on the middle-class. Areas of increased spending would be, among others, on helping middle-class families, childcare, schooling, retirement benefit, and community college from where 40% of the graduates would be from the US. At the same time he made a commitment to develop a competitive economy, promote smart leadership and invest on quality infrastructure. This is the essence of middle-class economics for a 'strong America.' Indeed, middle-class is the bearer of social values, creativity and strength of the society. They also have been instrumental in driving civilisations as Arnold Toynbee mentioned in A Study of History.
Is there a middle-class economics in Bangladesh? Do we have strong commitment of public spending on and redistributive priority for the middle-class? During his last visit to Bangladesh, Professor Nurul Islam urged crafting of a strong, educated and hardworking middle-class for intellectual development, creativity and driving the society. Bangladeshi middle-class has been struggling and decaying between 'ends and scarce means.' In the last decade, we promoted pro-poor growth; we changed it to inclusive growth and shared prosperity for this decade to become a middle-income country, maybe without adherence to the needs of the middle-class.
The dream of an American lies in the middle-class economics for a strong America. Conversely, the dream of a strong Bangladesh dries in the desert of diminishing middle-class aspirations. Indeed, the middle-class helped the formation of Bengali nationalism, and was at the forefront in the War of Liberation. They have been forgotten since the third five-year plan and thus have become a real 'missing middle.' The seventh five-year plan is currently being prepared. It is now imperative to place strategies and policy priorities for invigorating them again, fulfilling their hopes and desires.  
The writer is an Economist and Senior Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS).
E-mail: mahfuzkabir@yahoo.com.


The Daily Star, 27 January 2015

Short Story: Lovers' mistakes

I met her at a party. She was only eighteen, and had just started her first year at the university. I was a senior, a communications/journalism major, working two jobs to help pay the bills. I was staying with my parents in Uttora and while they paid for my tuition and books, all other expenses, including transportation, meals, and other incidentals, came out of my pocket. I did not have time to party much, but when my classmate Sharmila invited me to her birthday party, I accepted. It was there that I met Nora.
“Hey, Abu, I want you to meet Nora, my neighbor. She just started university and is fun to be with!” said Sharmila by way of introduction.
I stood there uncomfortably, trying not to look directly at Nora, while Sharmila did the introductions and then the two of them proceeded to engage in small talk. I felt awkward not knowing whether they were ignoring me, but I did not want to walk away from them without saying “Hello” to Nora. So I continued to pretend that I was part of their conversation and was enjoying their discussion of Hindi movies. I could sense that Nora was just as bemused, and I even imagined that she might be itching to break away from this long discussion about Hindi movies, which I knew was Sharmila's addiction, but she just had to go along with the flow in deference to the host. Finally, when Sharmila paused for a second, Nora turned to me and said, “Hi!”
“Kemon achho”, I said in Bengali. She had an innocent charm about her that was very appealing, and in her voice, I felt genuineness even when she first greeted me. We talked a little bit about school, her career interest, which happened to be diplomacy, and then music. I knew (or just guessed) that she was a singer, and she was. She went to Chhayanaut, and sang Nazrul Geeti. “Wow”, I said to myself. I knew nothing about Nazrul Geeti, except that some of them had a classical arrangement.
The party went on past 10 o'clock, and I stayed until the end. I ran into Nora a couple more times at the party that evening, and we even had a dance together. I was not much of a dancer but when I saw all my classmates were having a good time on the floor, I also waded in and found Nora who said yes when I asked her for a number.
Two days later, I saw Nora at the university, and this time I approached her as she was getting off the car at the front entrance.
“Hi, Nora. Do you remember me?”
“Of course, I do. You like Tagore songs and work as a journalist.” I was pleasantly surprised that she remembered those little details about me from a few minutes' encounter at Sharmila's party. However, I also felt thrilled that she had paid attention to my hobbies and interests and did not hesitate to let me know that she did not forget about things that I have shared with her at our first casual encounter.
She was wearing a shalwar kameez, and looked very different from the Nora I saw at the party. I felt a tug deep inside my heart, and knew that I had to show her that I was also interested. So, I said, a little hesitatingly,
“Do you mind if I walk you up to your class?” “Oh no, not at all,” she said in her sparkling voice. “And actually, my class does not start until another hour. So I am in no hurry.”

Her frankness put me at ease, and we decided to go to the canteen on the sixth floor. We found a corner table and talked about all sorts of things over coffee and sandwich.
I started enjoying the way she talked. She had a very rhythmic and musical tone, and an easygoing style. Unlike my other friends, she never disagreed with anything I said, either about pop culture, international affairs, social taboos, or what have you. I wasn't sure if she just was being polite, wanted to be nice to me, or that was her real nature. But I liked talking with her. Soon we were meeting on a regular basis before and after her classes, and hanging out together a lot. Even though we tried to meet at parks and other locations out of sight of our friends and classmates, pretty soon they knew about us and would leave us alone whenever they saw us chatting in the cafeteria corner.
Our best times were near the lake where I'd ask her to sing. She had the most beautiful voice, and I felt very thrilled that she was singing at my request. Her favorite song was Anjali Loho More, a Nazrul Geeti, and Amio Srabon Hoye, an old song from the 70s. I would just be floating with the clouds since not only did her voice soothe my nerves, but also knowing that I was with someone who was as passionate about music as I was, even if of different genres. My favourite singers were Srikanto, Jorasanko, and Subhomita. I'd sometimes hum their tunes, but often thought I had failed to impress Nora with my skills in the vocal department. Occasionally, she'd also tease me about my choice of songs and artistes, a ploy I later learned was often only to get me into a chatty mood. She once said,
“I don't know how you can worship Srikanto. I think he does not have the depth, and his voice is kind of flaky. If I get a chance to go and study at Shantiniketan, I'd like to sit down next to Aurobindo and learn from him.”
I try to stay calm knowing she was teasing me, and just played the game. “But did you hear Srikanto sing one of my favorites, ami chonchol hey? I bet if you listen to his rendition and compare it to Debobroto's or Mohiuzzaman's, you'll reconsider your low esteem for Srikanto's musical talents”.
Nevertheless, Nora liked it every time I sang amar praaner porey choley gelo ke. She'd just sit there motionless, without any comments, or any expression on her face, and allow me to finish the song, which took me a full five minutes. I never told her that it was my feeling that came out through that song. “A thousand flowers bloom when she comes” (phool phutiyey gelo shoto shoto). But that did not stop me from believing that she knew the song was written for me to express how I felt about her.
On my mp3 player, I'd carry some of these tunes and let her listen to them while we were together. But I failed to change her mind about these artistes and their repertoire. Basically, our quarrels always centered around our choices of artistes and songs. She'd interpret a song one way and I'd do it differently, and vice versa. And we did so endlessly, and she never seemed to get tired of our verbal swings at each other's favourites.
But these differences did not matter to me and I was in the seventh heaven. I was thinking about finishing my studies, and getting a full time job. For the first time in my life, I was able to see the road ahead clearly, and think about what I need to do to build a career.
Being with Nora made me feel good. My friends were constantly teasing me for going out with a first year student. Once my friend Shamim, trying to defend me, said, “Premey mojiley mone, kiba hari, kiba dome”. I took exception to this characterization, and jumped at him “Shala, is Nora a dome? I'll tell her what you think of her”. “Oh, no! Please don't, I can't face her wrath.”

Of course, I would not tell her. To shield her from my friends' jokes and other jabs, she and I would go out whenever I had the car, and sit beside the lake. Our favorite was always Ashulia, and Nora and I spent quite a few afternoons on a bench facing the vast expanse of open water. But we also spent a lot of time in empty classrooms or just talk on the phone.
She got me to use the SMS. At night, while I would be studying for an exam or hunched over the computer, she'd text me, “Don't study too hard”. Or, “please don't forget 10 oclock tmrw”. I had to work hard to learn her vocabulary.
As my final exams drew closer, I was spending more time in the library or at home studying, and could not meet with her as often. I was feeling envious of her friends and my friends who saw her more regularly than I, and going to movies or spending time together. I could not tell her that I was jealous. After all, even though we were close, nothing forbid her from seeing or talking with others, I reasoned. She knew that and sometimes I felt she was trying to make me jealous. When she'd talk about her young teachers or other friends in glowing terms, or praise their look or style, I always felt a little pain.
Soon, my final exams were over, and I was working on a couple of papers that I had sought an extension for. One evening, I went to a wedding. Some of my friends and I were hanging out at the entrance just chatting away and waiting for the groom's motorcade to arrive. I spotted Nora from a distance, and I had not seen her almost two weeks. My heart raced fast at her sight, and I was looking for an excuse to break away from my friends to go and talk to her. I could not take my eyes off of hershe was wearing a magenta saree with matching ornaments and accessories. She looked very mature, and, almost “dulhanish”, as if ready for her own transition along the path of matrimony. She finally spotted me with my friends and approached us.
“Hi Nora, look at you”, I said first.
“Look at you too! Why didn't you tell me that you were coming to this wedding?”
“How would I have known that you were coming here too?
“Well I thought you were too busy studying. Now I know what you were studying. Other girls!”
I was a little surprised that she decided to bring up other girls. I was not sure if she was just teasing or was showing jealousy. Soon the conversation turned to other things, and my friends joined in. Nora became the center of attraction and my friends were competing with each other to talk to her. Pretty soon, I felt left out, and every time I tried to rejoin the “chat room”, as it were, someone would cut me off, and try to grab her attention. I felt a little piqued and as the conversation drifted I was almost an observer. I was also feeing very empty inside, and could not reconcile that Nora, my steady girl friend, was giving all her attention to my friends, and almost ignoring me who had not seen her for more than two weeks. Soon the call for dinner came and we all split up and I just had my dinner and left.
The next day she texted, “Hi didn't see u after dinner. Where did u go”. Her text stirred up my bad feelings from last night and I did not text her back. She also left me a voice mail message and I ignored that too. I tried to bury myself in the papers that I had to finish. I ignored two more text messages from Nora the next day. One said, “Why are you ignoring me?” I could not tell her that I was too hurt to reply, or call back.

A month passed by and I was waiting for my final graduation. I had a job offer but was not sure whether to take that offer or look for more jobs. I also had filled out the forms for the Civil Service exams, and started getting mentally ready for it. But, I was missing Nora, and wanted to just hear her sing one last time.
It was a Sunday night and I had come back home from a concert by Saadi Muhammed. I had met Saadi Bhai when he had come to visit the University during our Cultural Week at the invitation of Shama Madam. During that visit, he offered two classes and we learned a few Tagore songs from him. During the concert, I requested him to sing “Amar praner porey” and soon as he started, I felt very lovesick. After the concert, we just stayed and chatted a little. It was past midnight. I came home and was just checking my emails when I saw some news about the University, and the beginning of a new semester. Nora was probably going back to school, I said to myself. I decided to pick up my mobile and texted,
“Hi Nora, r u going to U tmrw”
Within seconds came the reply, “At 10. r u coming”
“love 2”
“luv u”, was her reply in text.