By Swagato Ganguly
So the debate rages in India: Should it follow liberal, multicultural values, or norms that assume a uniform, homogeneous culture treating dissent as anti-national and minorities as second class citizens?
One way of settling the issue is to look at two of India’s south Asian neighbours. Pakistan and Bangladesh are both Muslim majority nations, which had once been together and hewed out of pre-independence India, creating a uniform frame of reference. But among them Bangladesh is relatively more liberal, multicultural, hounds minorities less, allows women a greater role in public life and cracks down on religious zealotry more effectively.
Bangladesh is also now richer than Pakistan in terms of per capita GDP (see this Economist article). This is a historic milestone, comparable to Ireland – once an impoverished British colony – leaving its colonizer in the shade in terms of prosperity. Pakistanis had once considered Bangladeshis their poor cousins who they ruthlessly exploited. As the article says, industry accounted for only 6-7% of its GDP as opposed to 20% of Pakistan’s GDP when the two separated in 1971. Moreover Bangladesh’s battle for independence itself left the country devastated and millions killed.
But Bangladesh has come from behind like a meteor, it seems. Its GDP per capita was $1538 the past fiscal year, compared to Pakistan’s $1470. Industry now accounts for 29% of Bangladesh’s GDP. It has achieved impressive reductions in fertility (by contrast, Pakistan has crossed Brazil in terms of population). Bangladesh does far better than India, let alone Pakistan, on infant mortality rate. This means, to put it in plain terms, that a child born in Bangladesh today has much better chance of survival than a child born in India (think Gorakhpur).
What’s significant is that Bangladesh now exports more ready-made garments than India and Pakistan combined. That is surely something to celebrate if one is Bangladeshi. But India is so much bigger than Bangladesh, and from an Indian point of view it is a tragedy.
Textiles are a labour intensive industry particularly conducive to a low skilled workforce and can thus be a job spinner in a South Asian context. They are how industrial revolutions get started. But India appears to have missed this bus even as it is able to offer few jobs to its young people today. This is testimony to the poor quality of its economic policies, particularly shameful if you consider that in pre-industrial times, say around 1700, India was indubitably the world’s textile superpower.
But congratulations where it’s due: to Bangladesh. Among other things it has settled an Indian debate decisively: it offers food for thought to those super-nationalists and hyper-religionists who want to convert India into a Hindu Pakistan (assuming, of course, that they are capable of thinking).
Times of India, September 15, 2017