A few weeks ago, India observers were confronted with numbers that the Indian government had said, unofficially though, would never materialise. But Bangladesh has overtaken India on this score.
Data from the IMF shows how – since 2020 – Bangladesh has managed to post a higher per capita GDP than India, and might continue to be ahead of India -- on this number -- in the foreseeable future.
This is doubly impressive. First, because Bangladesh is puny compared to India, both in terms of size and total GDP. Yet, it has raced ahead and beaten India on the per capita GDP score. India cannot even hide behind the fig leaf that it has a large population. Bangladesh has a significantly higher density of population -- of 1,106 people per km2 against 415.4/km2 for India. Had Bangladesh been ‘gifted’ the same density of population that India has, its per capita GDP would have more than doubled, leaving India way behind.
Bangladesh has begun providing job opportunities that pay at least 600 takas per day even to unskilled workers. Wages are increasing in that country. Dubai has suddenly become less attractive for Bangladeshi migrant workers.
Ask the police in India and they will tell you how the influx of illegal migrants from Bangladesh has declined substantially. Not because our immigration or security officials have become more vigilant, but because their own country offers more opportunities. Instead, you have Biharis from India migrating to Bangladesh nowadays.
So, what was it that Bangladesh did that India has not been able to do? First, let us consider areas where Bangladesh does not excel.
Bangladesh has begun providing job opportunities that pay at least 600 takas per day even to unskilled workers. | Daily Star (Bangladesh), The Print, IMF
The IMF in its report points out that Bangladesh needs to reduce financial sector vulnerabilities and develop capital markets. The IMF believes that Bangladesh needs to improve its investment climate and boost productivity.
The report states, “Revenue as a share of GDP has remained persistently low and trailed behind peers, with the gap relative to the median of other countries in the region and emerging markets (EMs) increasing since 2013. Bangladesh needs to spend more on health, education, and social safety nets and boost investment in infrastructure.” But then India’s expenditure on health and education is also dismal.
Yet, despite these shortcomings, the government reacted quickly and decisively to address the economic fallout of the pandemic. Remittances surpassed pre-crisis levels, supporting consumption, and moderating the current account (CA) deficit to 1.3 per cent of GDP in FY21 from 1.7 per cent in FY20.
One more factor that has helped Bangladesh is Sheikh Hasina's premiership (she was prime minister from 1996 to 2001 and once again from 2009 onwards). She has refused to allow fundamentalist forces any free rein. Any attempt to polarise people along communal lines is quickly stomped, swiftly, and decisively.
This is despite Muslims accounting for almost 90% of the population. Occasionally, when communal fires in India tend to be amplified in Bangladesh, the government moves in and emphatically douses such fires. And surprisingly, despite her party (Awami League) having a grand alliance with 14 other parties, the government has endured.
Bengalis account for almost 98 % of the population and this includes around 8.5% who are Hindus. Other religious minorities include Christians and Buddhists – barely 1% of the population.
Interestingly, the Bangladesh Constitution grants freedom of religion, thus officially becoming a secular state. This is even though Islam is a “state religion”. The government gives every citizen “the right to profess, practice, or propagate any religion every religious community or denomination the right to establish, maintain, and manage its religious institutions; and states that no person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own”.
Significantly, “no person attending any educational institution shall be required to receive religious instruction, or to take part in or to attend any religious ceremony or worship if that instruction, ceremony or worship relates to a religion other than his own.” There is no clamour for reading the Quran in Hindu schools or the Gita in Muslim schools.
It is possibly this emphasis on social harmony, and rejection of fundamentalism that has allowed the country to grow economically, despite all the shortcomings pointed out by the IMF. Expect this country to continue faring well. Any country that ensures that per capita GDP and per capita incomes can be raised year after year, is one that is bound to march ahead.
(The author is consulting editor with FPJ)