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OP-ED: Are we changing enough?

  • Published at 07:58 pm September 26th, 2020

Within the span of a few decades, Bangladesh has become a different country

Nowadays, we are so busy coping with the changes in our day-to-day lives that we do not have the time to step back and think for a moment about how Bangladesh is changing and what those changes are. 

Let’s take a trip down memory lane and try to figure out some of the significant changes that took place between 1990 and 2020, apart from the Covid-driven “new normal.”

I don’t remember accessing Facebook or any other social media platform or even e-mail in the 90s as we do now, though e-mail started in 1971. My eye doctor keeps on cautioning me not to look at screens too much. 

But who cares? There were no mobile phones in 1990 as Pacific Bangladesh Telecom, popularly known as Citycell, was awarded the license and came into operation at the end of 1992. T&T landline connections have fallen from a sought-after necessity to almost an obsolete mode of communication. 

According to 2008 data, Bangladesh was ranked 67th in terms of number of land telephone lines in use, with 1.4 million connections. We can safely assume that the number has not gone up significantly in the past several years. Almost all PSTN (public switched telephone network) companies had premature deaths. 

To the credit of the mobile operators, most of the population has been brought under internet coverage. The number of personal computers in use was around 5% of the population in 2010. Even before Covid-19, we had witnessed a significant rise in personal computer usage, especially laptops.

Five private FM radio stations emerged as a new medium for entertainment in 2010. Personal time in front of television has gone up due to the increasing affordability of most modern TV sets and increasing options through cable TV and about 30 private Bangla satellite channels. Now, even small grocery shops have a TV, and there are always 10-20 people in the evening watching whatever is going on.

However, TV time is decreasing among the urban youth. They are more inclined towards hanging out with friends on weekends, video-chatting on busy days, Facebooking, Youtubing and the like, not to mention Netflix or Amazon Prime. 

In 2010, over 850,000 people were using Facebook in Bangladesh, and the subscriber base has risen exponentially over the last few years, not only for Facebook but also for other popular social networking sites. These days, you should not be at all surprised to receive a friend request from your maid or chauffer.

The daily routine of a government or private service-holder 30 years ago was to work from nine to five, come home straight or after a little bit of shopping, and have afternoon snacks with their spouse and children. The whole evening was leisure time, which people spent listening to music, reading books, visiting relatives, and the like. 

Large-scale privatization and increasing Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) have changed this daily routine. The private sector has taken over the driving seat of the economy, more multinational corporations (MNC) have come in, and local private companies are embracing the business practices of the world’s largest MNCs through management level recruitments. 

As a result, workplace culture has become faster, delivery-focused, and deadline-oriented. This has led to flexibility in office timings. Some come in early in the morning, some work long hours to meet a deadline, and some carry the work home in laptops and tend to important emails while stuck in hours-long traffic. Working from home has become regular under the “new normal.” 

Women empowerment has taken place in two distinct ways. Rural women have been financially active through the micro-finance movement. On the other hand, more and more women in urban areas are enrolling in universities, going abroad for higher studies, and joining the corporate world. 

Eating out has gone up because people have started appreciating the diversity of different cuisines or outsourced kitchens. Almost every month there is at least one new fast food joint/coffee shop/restaurant propping up in the city’s happening spots. 

For women, the amount of time spent with family has gone down significantly. Nowadays, unlike earlier times, they do not always accept the decisions of the spouse.

Motor vehicles have become the main vehicle for transportation instead of rickshaws. In a country where vehicle and fuel prices have gone up gradually, cars are no longer an obvious choice. Both foreign and domestic air travel to and from Bangladesh have increased manifold. 

Apart from the national carrier, three privately-owned Bangladeshi airlines and about 15 foreign airlines are operating to meet the fast-growing demand for air travel. 

The country is getting urbanized at an annual average urbanization rate of 3.5%. We have seen mass migration to cities, especially Dhaka. 

Dhaka was marked as the “the city with the highest population growth in the world” by World Bank. It is still growing, with half a million migrants being added per year.

City people are now more eager to embrace festivals such as Pohela Boishakh, Pohela Falgun, and new year celebrations with friends and family as a breath of fresh air in their busy lives. As society has evolved, the mushrooming growth of English-medium schools, ladies’ hostels, shared apartments for private university students, community centres, shopping malls, beauty salons etc is also seen. 

Amusement parks, resorts, and gymnasiums have cropped up. Retail investment in capital market as well as the number of bank accounts rose in line with increase in relevant activities.

Well, not everything has changed in Bangladesh. For instance, the public health scenario remains archaic or non-responsive, the quality of public education has not improved, the transport situation has worsened, deregulation and policy adaptation have not been taken up at the desired pace. 

The two heads of the two large political parties have not joined any discussions “face to face” for almost 30 years. Civil bureaucracy is still playing their main role of being “bureaucratic.” 

Here is hoping that someday we will be able to ponder over tremendous positive changes taking place in these neglected areas as well. My boss at Standard Chartered London used to say: “Change has to happen, because change is the only constant thing in this world.”

Mamun Rashid is an economic analyst.