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Prospects for Bangladesh

Submitted by on 06 Oct 2011 – 15:27

Robert EvansRobert Evans, former MEP, now a South Asian Consultant

Deep in Bangladesh’s Beautiful Forest or ‘Sundarbans’ lurks one of the largest surviving populations of tigers in the world. At estimated 300 or more of this magnificent big cat prowl around the biggest mangrove forest on the globe. However, despite being legally protected since 1974, like many other great species, the Bengali tiger is under threat. Globally numbers have dropped from about 100,000 a century ago to perhaps as few as 3000 today.

The Sundarbans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and supports the livelihoods of millions of local people. It also provides food and building materials whilst protecting Bangladesh from the worst of the cyclones and preventing the coast from being washed away by rising seas.

But the tiger, a large carnivore needs a lot of land and territory to survive and land is one commodity in short supply in this overcrowded country. With an estimated 160 million people living in a country little bigger than England (pop 50m) Bangladesh is the ninth most populated nation on the planet.

So it is not only the tiger population which is putting a strain on this nation’s over stretched land resources. In some parts of the capital Dhaka, land prices have shot up to a par with those in Manhattan. According to some reports, over the last 15 years land prices in Dhaka have increased by 25 times and property prices by as much as ten times. Small wonder that the government is looking to ease the pressure by building four new satellite townships on the outskirts of the capital with thousands of new flats planned for the next few years.

Many of these new homes will be used to house Bangladesh’s ever increasing army of garment workers who work long hours to satisfy Europe’s insatiable demand for cheap mass-produced clothing. The European Union now accounts for 56% of Bangladesh’s exports, of which ready-made garments make up 90%. The country’s main imports from the EU consist of machinery and mechanical appliances (55%) and chemical products (14%). In 2008 the EU’s exports the other way amounted to €1.1 billion, compared with €5.5 billion Bangladeshi exports to the EU.

Bangladesh is celebrating its fortieth birthday this year, having been born in 1971 when it won independence from Pakistan, an ill judged partner conjured up on the partition of post war India. The belief then, that two different places, linked only by a majority religion Islam, could survive the linguistic and geographic divide, today seems at best fanciful and at worst,  extreme folly.

In its short history Bangladesh has endured years of political turmoil and bloodshed, with a series of troubled governments. It is small wonder then that the country has struggled to realise its full potential. However since the last general election in 2008, Bangladesh has benefitted from stable government under its veteran Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which is reflected in the soaring land prices witnessed in Dhaka.

No longer an underdeveloped backwater, Bangladesh is beginning to show its true colours with investors eyeing every aspect of this emerging state. Sadly there is little such stability or release of potential with the nation’s cricket team which despite great patience and huge investment has seriously failed to live up to hopes and expectations. A heavy defeat against lowly Zimbabwe saw both the captain Shakib Al-Hasan and his deputy Tamim Iqbal removed. Both are talented players and the team on-form are extremely entertaining but despite the considerable amounts of money that world cricket has invested in Bangladesh it has so far failed to live up to its billing. Perhaps it was naive of the international authorities to think that the obvious enthusiasm and undoubted natural skills could be transformed so quickly into world beating prowess, but as the veteran commentator Geoffrey Boycott commented recently ‘just how long are we going to wait for Bangladesh?’

In truth the world must keep watching Bangladesh. A country with a population the size of Germany, France, Luxembourg and Netherlands combined cannot be ignored. Quite apart from sport or tigers, there is a huge export and import market to be considered. Add in the realistic potential for tourism and it’s easy to see why land prices are rocketing. What is more of a puzzle is why so much of the rest of the world seems to be ignoring this South Asian gem.

If you take your eye off a tiger it might jump out from nowhere to attack you. The world would be wise to beware of the Bengali tiger in 2012.