OPINION: The power of the youth
DHAKA (The Daily Star/ANN) - They can help establish good governance and rule of law, and arrest the backslide in our moral and social values
The year 1991 is a significant one in our history. By the beginning of that year, General Ershad had been forced out of office and it is in 1991 that parliamentary democracy was formally restored. The collapse of the USSR, a staunch ally of Bangladesh during the Liberation War, was a setback for progressive politics in the country and elsewhere, and it also facilitated global economic domination by predatory capitalism which has seen 99 per cent of the world's resources being concentrated in the hands of one per cent of the world's richest.
Bangladesh has also not been immune to this development, where ideology and liberation values have flown out of the window and have been replaced by pervasive greed-driven corruption made possible by a quest for rapid economic growth at any cost. Since 1991 the two parties that have ruled Bangladesh by turns have fought bitterly to retain or regain power by any means, as victory assures a ride on the “gravy train” while defeat results in deprivation and persecution. Parliament is dominated by the rich and the powerful as politics is viewed by some as the best business for wealth accumulation.
Last month it was reported that Bangladesh ranks third among the world's top countries with the fastest millionaire population growth, and the country has the world's third highest income disparity between the richest and the 20 million extreme poor. This is attributed to gross financial irregularities and flight of capital. AL's stand on “zero tolerance against corruption” will be supported by everyone, but for it to be effective and credible, the search for culprits must start with people closest to power and previous perpetrators must not be spared.
AL won the 11th parliamentary election with an astounding majority of seats and votes amidst allegations of massive vote-rigging and intimidation. The AL government is set to rule for the next five years and preside over celebrations of Bangabandhu's 100th birth anniversary and the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh's independence.
With its extraordinary majority in parliament, AL can pass and enact any law and, if it so wishes, use this special power to bring about much-needed political and electoral reforms and strengthen good governance and rule of law. The honourable PM could show statesmanship by extending an invitation to learned citizens and experts representing different sections of society, and pro-liberation political parties, to a national dialogue with an agreed agenda that could include discussions on issues such as an election-time government acceptable to all; a law for formation of a truly independent and powerful Election Commission (EC); funding and conduct of election campaigns by EC; election of MPs through proportional representation; delineation of respective responsibilities of MPs and upazila chairmen; and decentralisation of central government entities, regional development and strengthening of local governments. Recommendations from such a national dialogue would help to bridge the chasms that now divide the nation which would be an appropriate 50th anniversary present to the citizens of Bangladesh.
Besides the loss of ideology and liberation principles, there has also been a rapid erosion of moral and social values as seen by the increase in violence against women and children. The task of arresting this slide and upholding the essence of muktijuddher chetona could fall on the shoulders of the new generation of youth who, unlike the preceding one, have been fortunate to learn about all aspects of the Liberation War and are more likely to keep alive the dreams of Bangabandhu, and of those who took up arms in his name to establish a just and equal society based on four fundamental principles.
As a generation that is better educated, tech-savvy and politically and socially conscious, they could be inclined to take up the cause of the voiceless common man and raise their own voices against corruption and economic exploitation, and for equality, good governance and protection of the environment. If their elders are unable or unwilling to take necessary remedial measures, and if public aspirations are not met or suppressed, then they will come to the fore and accomplish the needful as they have done time and again in the past. Those movements were led by Ducsu and other student bodies till 1990. So, people are eagerly looking forward to a free and fair Ducsu election for the emergence of fresh leadership to guide and support the aspirations of students and the youth. Without representative student body elections, spontaneous protest movements, such as the Gonojagoron Moncho and the recent quota and safe road movements, could erupt at any time and may not be that easily contained in future.
The impressive and prolonged 7 per cent GDP growth has relied largely on cheap labour provided by young women and men working in agriculture and RMG sectors, and by unskilled expatriate workers. The GDP growth could be further bolstered by good governance and corruption-free infrastructure developments that support communications and regional growth. However, sustainable growth higher than 10 per cent of GDP required for meeting the SDGs and for transition to the next stages of economic development is only possible by providing youth with the appropriate education, skills and full employment. Highest priority must be given to technical and vocational training, and to producing highly trained teachers for all levels of education. There is a big disconnect between the skills and professionals being produced in our universities and colleges and what is required by employers, leading to high unemployment of local graduates and unnecessary hiring of foreigners. Appropriate courses and curricula need to be designed based on the types and numbers of graduates and professionals required to meet present to long-term needs. International competitiveness is critically dependent on postgraduate research and innovation, academia-industry partnerships, and involvement of NRB scientists and experts in research capacity development. If Bangladesh is to benefit fully from its fortunate youth population dividend to meet its stated socio-economic goals, then current inadequate budget allocations need to be increased to the recommended 6-8 per cent of GDP for education and training, and at least two per cent of GDP for R&D, research and innovation.
Guided and motivated by the founding principles and empowered by quality and need-based education and training, the young generation could provide the leadership in establishing economic prosperity and social justice in parallel and hopefully put Bangladesh back on the intended path of the Liberation War.
(Dr Ahmed A Azad is a retired academic and medical researcher who works pro bono to help develop biotechnology research capacity in Bangladesh.)