Looking at a map of Bangladesh, the country looks like it lies in the jaws of a big tiger, the tiger being India, which surrounds Bangladesh except for the Bay of Bengal to the south and a rather short border with Myanmar to the southeast. But the tiger is friendly. It is a Bengal tiger, the national animal of both India and Bangladesh.
The Bengal tiger originated in Siberia and over decades migrated to the south. Today their populations, primarily in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan, are diminishing. Since 2010, the Bengal tiger has been classified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In mythology, the Bengal tiger is the guardian of the jungle, the carrier of the Mother Goddess, and the creator of Rain. He is capable of controlling drought and can invoke Indra, the god of Thunder and Rain. He protects and guards, and he can kill if he finds someone breaking the laws of the jungle.
Not only do Bangladesh and India have the same national animal, the Bengal tiger, but Bangladesh was once a part of India. The large area that includes India, Bangladesh and Pakistan was governed in its early history by a succession of Indian empires that repeatedly fought for power and alternated between Hindu and Muslim religious predominance. In the 16th Century, the Portuguese, Dutch, British and French established trading posts in the area, and there followed many years of conflict as European powers, primarily the British and French, vied for control of the region. By the 1850s, the British East India Company monopolized trade in the region and controlled most of the Indian subcontinent. In 1858, the British government dissolved the East India Company and took control of the region itself, with Queen Victoria taking the title of Empress of India.
An independence movement in India, and violence between Hindu and Muslim groups, led Britain in 1947 to partition India (primarily Hindu) and Pakistan (primarily Muslim) as independent states, with Pakistan consisting of West Pakistan (the present Pakistan) and East Bengal (subsequently named East Pakistan in 1955). Geographically, West Pakistan and East Pakistan were physically separated by more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory, and despite their having a common religion, East Pakistan felt exploited and ignored by the West-dominated Pakistan government. Also, a number of linguistic, cultural and ethnic differences contributed to their feelings of isolation. After years of political and military conflict between the two, India intervened on behalf of East Pakistan, and a newly independent country of Bangladesh emerged as a parliamentary democracy in January 1972 in the place of East Pakistan.
Until its independence, Bangladesh had one of the most prosperous economies in South Asia, benefitting from abundant natural resources and a large population. Its primarily agricultural economy had the advantages of a mild, partially tropical climate, fertile soil, ample water, and an abundance of fish, wildlife and fruit. Large quantities of rice, tea, teak, cotton, cane and jute were produced for export and processors around the world. After independence, however, the Bangladesh government failed to capitalize on the country’s economic strengths. In the 1970s and 1980s, the government nationalized many industries, which turned out to be a mistake because competitive strengths were lost, they failed to develop infrastructure such as rail and roads, and they became mired in political dissention and corruption. But since 1996, despite political instability, poor infrastructure, corruption, insufficient power supplies, and slow implementation of economic reforms, the Bangladesh economy has grown an average of 5-6 percent per annum and is expected to grow by 7 percent in the period 2012-2017.
Today, in addition to its traditional agricultural products of rice, fish, jute, vegetables and fruit, Bangladesh is producing leather goods, ceramics and ready-made goods. Forty-five percent of Bangladeshis are employed in the agriculture sector, where rice is the most important product, but service industries account for more than half of the country’s gross domestic product. Garments and textiles now provide 80 percent of the country’s export earnings. And remittances from Bangladeshis working overseas, largely in the Middle East, provide additional earnings.
Bangladesh’s garment industry employs over 3.6 million workers, 80 percent of them women. The industrial zone of Ashulia, just outside of Bangladesh’s sprawling capital, Dhaka, is one of the principal centers of the industry. Here, some 4,500 factories – from hulking concrete structures to one-story buildings that resemble small storefront shops – produce ready-made garments for export to numerous customers in Asia and elsewhere like the retailers Wal-Mart in the United States and Tesco in the United Kingdom. Due primarily to low wages, Bangladesh’s garment industry is now one of the largest in the world, second only to China, having overtaken Vietnam and Indonesia in 2011.
Among Bangladesh’s economic handicaps is its susceptibility to the natural disaster of flooding from monsoon storms during the monsoon season during June to September each year. Eighty percent of the country’s geography is flood plain, and 75 percent is less than 30 feet above sea level. Every year at least 18 percent of the country is flooded with an estimated average of 5,000 people being killed and seven million homes destroyed. Eighteen major floods occurred in the 20th Century. In a severe flood, as much as 75 percent of the country is flooded, as was the case in 1998. Other years when there was severe flooding were 1966, 1987, 1988, 2004 and 2007.
Perhaps Bangladesh will always be subject to the devastating economic effects of natural disasters like monsoon-generated flooding, but it has the potential to overcome its current man-made shortcomings – political instability, poor infrastructure, corruption, insufficient power supplies, and slow implementation of economic reforms. To the good is the country’s large population of workers with its potential to provide low-cost manufacturing when wages in other countries like China are rising. There are also the favorable centralized locations of its seaports for trade between East Asia and South Asia, and the emergence of new industries such as shipbuilding, pharmaceuticals and tourism.
Like its national animal, the Bengal tiger, Bangladesh is emerging from the jungle of its past history to fulfill a promise of growth and wellbeing. For the Bangladesh government, in addressing the challenging tasks before it, there is an opportunity to follow the path of its national animal. Tradition holds that the Bengal tiger is a symbol of life, force and justice.
© Copyright 2013 ABC-CLIO