In an age
of dog-whistle scaremongering, a Union minister alleged on February 9 that,
“half of Bangladesh will come to India if citizenship is offered.” But no
crystal ball prediction could be more deluded. This year Bangladesh’s economic
growth rate has surpassed India. In the last decade, on a range of social
development indicators, from infant mortality to immunisation, Bangladesh has
fared better. Even on the cricket pitch, Bangladesh beat India at the junior
world cup. So why would Bangladeshis en masse want to leave their cherished
since economic liberalisation, Indians have grown much richer than
Bangladeshis, but in terms of quality of life our neighbour largely outshines
us. India trails across several (not all) composite indices from the latest
Global Hunger Index to the Gender Development Index. Even on the 2019 World
Happiness Index, Bangladeshis score better. While, technically, on the Human
Development Index, Bangladesh scores marginally less, this is largely because
the index merges income and non-income parameters.
doctoral thesis sought to decode precisely this South Asian puzzle. How have
India’s poorer neighbours forged ahead in social development? In the case of
Bangladesh, the most prominent factor has been the country’s ability to
dissolve inequalities through sustained investment in public services and the
bridging of social and gender distances.
healthcare. Till the Eighties, Indians lived longer than most South Asians. But
now, despite being poorer, an average Bangladeshi female child at birth can
expect to live for four years more. Fewer Bangladeshi children also die before
their fifth birthday. The formula for this success has been relatively simple.
Since 2009, the government has constructed well-stocked “community clinics” in
every third village. In addition, for four decades, committed cadres of
government health workers have delivered medicines and family planning to women
in the comfort of their homes.
the education front, even though India has a demographic dividend, Bangladesh
has achieved a marginal advantage in youth literacy. Further, across income
quintiles, Bangladeshi girls have higher educational attainments than boys.
Most importantly, my doctoral survey in Panchagarh district found that
Bangladeshi children had better reading skills than the Indian average as
assessed by Pratham. Across 44 Bangladeshi schools, there were lower levels of
teacher absenteeism. Further, the government provides free textbooks in the
government, non-government (NGO) and madrassa-run schools promptly at the start
of the academic year, without the chronic delays which plague India.
Jean Drèze has aptly described India as amongst the world champions in social
underspending. In contrast, Bangladesh despite being a poorer neighbour since
the Nineties, has spent a greater proportion of government expenditure on
education and healthcare. The fruits of these sustained investments have reaped
the nutrition front too, Bangladesh fares better. Thirtythree per cent of
Bangladeshi children are underweight compared to India’s 36 per cent as per the
demographic health surveys. Similarly, a greater proportion of Indian children
are also stunted. Further, the inequality between wealth quintiles is more
stark in India. A few years ago, the Bangladeshi government, with the help of
NGOs, hired a unique cadre of “Pushti Apas” (nutrition sisters) who went
door-to-door in their social endeavours. Unlike the Indian Poshan Abhiyan’s
focus on vegetarian foods, they did not shy away from teaching mothers to feed
growing infants a balanced diet with mashed fish, meat and eggs.
even at the turn of the millennium, at least 80 per cent of Bangladeshi homes
had toilets, even if rudimentary. By 2016, 96 per cent of households and 80 per
cent of schools in my doctoral survey had proper sanitation. Apart from the
typical Islamic emphasis on hygiene, local governments not only provide cement
rings for free to poor families, but they also regularly spread messages
through community group discussions, mosques, mass media and schools. Local
entrepreneurs have also ensured that with the innovation of plastic pans, the
cheapest toilets cost less than Chinese mobile phones.
Bangladeshi women are also increasingly assertive. The 2006 World Bank Survey
on Gender Norms found a growing trend of “educational hypogamy”. In sharp
contrast to India’s decline, Bangladeshi women also have higher labour force
participation. Apart from the urban readymade garment sector, thousands of
rural women work in agro-processing tea factories, jute mills, poultry and
dairy industries. Every morning, streams of women in saris can be seen walking
towards these factories with characteristic steel lunch Dabbas in their arms.
comparison, India is grappling with the worst unemployment levels in 45 years
and sinking economic growth rates. Government ministers should pull up their
own socks, instead. Berating our neighbours with the false bogey of illegal
immigrants, in light of the Citizenship Amendment Act, is nothing but an
unjustifiable Islamophobic distraction. Instead, it would be far wiser for the
Indian government to humbly learn the recipe of South Asian success to improve
the lives of citizens from the impressive “Shonar Bangla”.
Narayan is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Development
Headline: Bangladesh fares better
Source: The Indian Express