Last week I led a delegation of British politicians to Dhaka and Sylhet in my capacity as Vice Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Bangladesh.
The highlight of the first leg of our trip in the Capital, Dhaka, was a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Frankly I was astonished that our motley delegation was able to get such high level access. Indeed, the PM asked me pertinent questions about likely UK election timing and results and seemed fully briefed as to its likely outcome, so we were not entirely surprised that our billed “courtesy call” turned into a lively 25 minute long meeting which was extensively featured in the Bangladeshi media the next day.
Our discussions focused on the thawing of Bangladeshi/India relations, especially important as the latter rapidly develops world economic power status. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also spoke warmly of her initiatives to make life easier for those Bengali Britons wishing to invest and develop businesses in the country.
Historically the investment of UK Bangladeshi in their ancestral homeland has focused on building large houses in their home district. Increasingly, however, many more are seeking long-term investment in Bengali businesses that will provide opportunity and employment for the next generation of Bangladeshis. This should be strongly welcomed.
Whilst in Dhaka we also had fruitful meetings with Opposition Leader and former PM, Mrs Khaleda Zia, and at the residence of the High Commissioner, HE Stephen Evans, who was keen to stress in the aftermath of the Copenhagen Summit that “even if you are sceptical about climate change, you have to accept that Bangladesh is at the front line in terms of vulnerability”.
We also learned more about the emergence of a Bengali middle class, whose growth provides, in our High Commission’s view, the best guarantee of better governance in the country and a diminution in the pervasive influence of corruption in public life.
GDP growth remains robust at 6%, reflecting stronger economic relations with India and China and providing a keen sense for Bangladeshis that life for their children and grandchildren will be markedly better. Indeed, one of Dhaka’s biggest problems is partly one of increased affluence – appalling traffic congestion. We seemed to get caught up in endless traffic jams and I reflected that this has all the makings of a huge, unpredictable political issue before too long as the quality of life of the city’s dwellers diminishes and further foreign investment risks being curtailed.
The second part of our time in Bangladesh involved taking a five hour cross-country drive north to Sylhet, the district from which most British Bangladeshis hail. The flatness of Northern Bangladesh makes the Fens look positively undulating as we entered the rural plains, made up of rice fields and tea plantations. Appropriately for a sports obsessed nation informal cricket pitches litter this landscape and during our journey we saw countless games being played by eager makeshift teams of boys.
Travelling by road in Bangladesh is not for the faint-hearted. The manic speed of drivers and the total lack of adherence to the Bengali equivalent of the Highway Code makes life as a passenger (or driver, for that matter) a terrifying experience as cars, lorries, buses and vans veer across the central reservation with impunity trying to overtake or avoid tuc-tucs, rickshaws, pedestrians and animals alike.
In Sylhet we were the guests of honour at two large village public meetings. Whole villages numbering several hundred men, boys and girls turned out to see us and I reflected that this is what British politics must have been like in an era before TV, play-stations, celebrity culture and voter apathy took hold of the electorate. Even in such poverty-stricken rural villages the educated elders spoke passionately about issues such as globalisation, humanitarian aid and the plight of Bengali students trying to attend college in the UK. We always received a warmth of goodwill and hospitality that at times bordered on the embarrassing.
On a late evening walk on our second evening in Sylhet we stumbled across preparations for a suburban wedding at the bride’s parents’ ramshackle home. We were ushered into a makeshift marquee put together with wooden poles and linen strips and along with 50 or so villagers saw a nervous young bride-to-be being presented with small gifts of fruit and cake. For me, as for her, it was an unforgettable experience. It was sobering to learn later that the token gift of money our delegation gave her amounted to six months’ income for her entire household.
For me there were two lasting observations from our travels: one depressing, the other more optimistic.
In each town or city there is an all pervading dust, dirt and litter covering every conceivable patch of public space and zero care is taken individually or collectively to improve these conditions.
Yet, amidst this teeming mass of humanity (Bangladesh has a population of 150 million, rising fast) there is an infectious enthusiasm, as people hurry about their daily business, often keen to sell you on the streets and in the roads an unimaginable range of local produce. In truth where there is capitalism, there is hope.