The geopolitical advantage that Bangladesh presumably enjoys in the South Asian region and how it can use this to its advantage is critical. East Asian countries saw regionalism as seamless connectivity, so all of them joined the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and became members of regional value chains instead of the global ones. In this context, three critical questions need answers. These are: Is Bangladesh reaping the benefits of all "the low hanging fruits"? How will sea-based regional cooperation take place? How will Bangladesh address Open vs. Closed regionalism?
Open regionalism has low external barriers, non-restrictive rules of origin, service markets and strong focus on reducing transaction costs. Success of open regionalism is, however, questionable as in the case of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
While deciding the foreign policy of Bangladesh, three types of interests deserve attention: geopolitical, geo-economic and regime interests.
Regionalism in this area without addressing China's "One Belt, One Road" policy can't be discussed. China has already established deep-sea ports in Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Therefore, our policy of connectivity should keep in view the regional development.
For example, what is happening in Myanmar? There have been two important changes: one is transfer of political power from military to a civilian government; and secondly, infrastructure development. Myanmar has already started working on Sino-Burmese gas pipelines and regional highways. It is also part of the ADB-GMS (Asian Development Bank- Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Programme). Thus, Myanmar is already involved in mega infrastructure projects, which will attract huge foreign direct investment (FDI) and create opportunities for trade.
The next thing is: what is happening in India, specially in the north-east part of the country? There has been a paradigm shift in the political sphere in north-east India. It is very important for us as we look to north-east India for hydro-power, trade and investment. But NE India is now looking for connectivity with Thailand, Vietnam and Laos -- so where does that leave us?
Against these regional developments, key questions are: Does Bangladesh have a geopolitical advantage given the current world situation? Which strategy will be the best amongst the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM) and these types of quadrangular initiatives?
Moreover, can we look at connectivity in isolation of trade in goods and services or should we look at it as a package? With Bangladesh maritime border expanding will sea connectivity bring a new dimension to regional co-operation?
It is also important to understand how do the leadership in India, China and Myanmar evaluate Bangladesh? What should Bangladesh's strategy be to deal with Myanmar? How should we take the look east policy forward? Is Bangladesh at a "critically fortunate moment" as it is being talked about and big parties are taking interest?
LAND ISSUES: Agricultural land conversion estimates vary form 0.13-1.0 per cent per annum. We need to have a much better idea about land use changes. The 2005 Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) survey of 64 districts found that 93 per cent were subsistence farms; only 2.5 per cent farms had land over 2.5 acres. No surplus land! How do we meet the land demand of industry, transport and housing?
A new phenomenon has been noted: Urban rich are buying land from farmers and setting up tea gardens or farms in the name of agricultural production and development.
Special Economic Zones (SEZ) could be an important part of the solution for industry. Issues related to infrastructure, energy, governance, access are critical. The "economics of SEZ" needs to be examined. Experience from the region is mixed.
Khas land issues have been allowed to remain unresolved, mired in local corruption, grabbing, ad hoc measures. Allocation of Khas land to SEZ might be the best thing to do. Attempts to redistribute have failed. But SEZ could also degenerate into a land-grab exercise.
The Chinese have done very well with SEZ. We should learn from them, bring in Chinese managers and ensure that the first few succeed well before we talk about 100 SEZ.
Introducing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and integrated software in land administration is a good initiative to get out of the limitations imposed by the land administration system. Digitisation and computerisation can help provide access to all the relevant information quickly, from one place. This will help improve the efficiency of the land market. Bangladesh has already initiated a pilot project for land digitisation, which should be extended in terms of scope and coverage.
Political will is needed to re-establish the rule of law and stop illegal grabbing (river, water bodies, khas land, etc.). There is also need to reform the land office, which is mired in bad practices and corruption and is a source of infinite misery to all those who go there.
REVISITING THE ROLE OF AGRICULTURE: Crop diversification has not progressed. The focus is still on rice. The amount of land under food-grains over the period 1992-2012 has remained fixed while the amount of land under rice has increased. So, instead of crop diversification, rice production has become even more concentrated.
Emerging shortages are water for irrigation and paucity of labour.
Water constraint poses a major threat in the sense that use of ground water has peaked while the use of surface water has dramatically declined. There may be a looming water shortage in the offing.
Labour constraints in agriculture may seem like a paradox in Bangladesh. Recent dynamics of agriculture in the country is indicative of an emerging shortage or at least diminishing supply. This is resulting in more women in the labour market and growing capital intensity.
Large farmers are more productive! Rice export is not advisable - 'Bangladesh has competitive advantage in case of rice in its import price not in export price'. We need to switch from water-dependent Boro rice back to rain-fed Aman rice. Should newer technologies be adopted? What are the prospects for fortified rice, genetically modified (GM) crops or high-value crops?
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) promise that the country will be hunger-free by 2030. How to sustain agriculture growth in the near future is one of the greatest challenges for Bangladesh.
WHAT SHOULD WE ASPIRE TO?
As someone suggested, "We should be the largest-ever manufacturing takeoff in a democracy".
Only seven countries are at least as large as us in this regard. With 100 million people or more, Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Russia are commodity stories, relying on commodity (i.e., oil) exports; India is a service story, trying hard to ignite manufacturing; China and Vietnam are manufacturing stories but in a socialist market economy. That would make Bangladesh a story of the largest manufacturing-led takeoff in a democracy, 'if the green shoots mature as trees'.
Why the emphasis on manufacturing? The reason is simple: it can create more and better jobs quickly to absorb our 2.0 million new workers every year.
With diffused manufacturing, what and how well we produce is important. Equally, if not more, important is how seamlessly we connect with the world. That's why infrastructure, skills, and institutions matter so much, especially as our manufacturing extends beyond RMG.
Bangladesh is now in an unprecedented flux amid four critical transitions: industrialisation, urbanisation, youthful demographics, and technologies (mobile, media).
These forces can both unite and fragment societies, straining harmony. During these transitions, changes often do not add up; they multiply.
Harmony is not exactly in abundance in today's world where cultures and identities are weathering complex pressures, where aspirations and resentments have gone global and digital. Technology, for example, spreads light but also darkness, polarising the immature into binary positions: aspire or despair; conform or perish. Good news is our growth drivers - garments, remittance, agriculture - have mostly been inclusive so far but it is not clear if this trend will or can be sustained.
Looking ahead, global growth will likely be slower over the next 20 years than in the past 20 years. Think of China's churning and Japan's tepid growth, the uncertainty in the US under Trump, the Middle East hurting from the low oil price and geopolitics, the European Union (EU) still coping with the 2008 crisis and now Brexit. With weaker tailwinds on our back, we need to sail harder, reform faster, and implement better. A new phase awaits us, breathing for newer solutions, consensus, and new capacities.
Dr KAS Murshid is the director general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).
The write-up is adapted from his keynote address at the inaugural
session of the BIDS Critical Convesation-2017 on Sunday .