Searching for Digital Bangladesh

In the ennui that invariably follows election jubilation, promises made during campaigning can quickly turn into whispers. All too often, this happens even before the bunting has been folded neatly away. Throughout her campaign in December, the promise of a 'Digital Bangladesh' was a slogan continuously repeated by the Awami League leader and prime minister, Sheikh Hasina. But as it is true for all good political slogans, the particulars of what exactly a 'Digital Bangladesh' would look like were, and remain, frustratingly vague. The idea is to develop a digitalised Bangladesh by the year 2021, the 50th anniversary of the country's independence. But what does this mean? When the concept first began to be bandied about, this writer had envisaged fishermen being able to throw computerised nets into rivers, which would digitally calculate which fish were mature enough to catch. But that does not seem to be what any political leader has in mind.

One way or another, the slogan was successful in capturing the imagination of many voters – particularly young first-timers who constituted one-third of the electorate. But one has to decipher Sheikh Hasina's speeches to try and understand what Digital Bangladesh is all about. During one gathering, she announced, "the Awami League-led Grand Alliance has set the vision of 2021 for the youth. We want to build a Digital Bangladesh, where people will get developed lives, free from crime and misrule, to face the challenges of the 21st century." From the sounds of it, Digital Bangladesh seems to point to something other than smart computers. After all, technology is not a requirement to get rid of crime and misrule. At the same time, a society that values justice, and whose politicians have integrity (rather than millions of dollars in overseas bank accounts), is the precondition to achieving these goals.

Perhaps another of Hasina speech will offer some additional definition? During a gathering in Dhaka, this is how she presented the new digitalised country: "Bangladesh should be developed, and emerge with dignity in the global arena. We will make Dhaka a modern city, free of criminal activities, traffic congestion and power, water and gas outages. And we'll improve communication with other parts of the country." She added, "We will build a developed country full of possibilities and free of poverty, where all will have access to health care and education. There will be food security, so no one is deprived of food, and the challenges of the 21st century will be faced boldly." There is nothing in that to disagree with, except it does little to explain the contours of a Digital Bangladesh. There is certainly no mention of e-governance, computerised schools or the use of advanced information technology to deal with the annual floods.

In a country in which electricity is as rare as girls from poor homes completing their high-school education, Digital Bangladesh is emerging as nothing but a piece of election gimmickry. It appears to be aimed at capturing youth votes and the support of those hoping to get beyond the personality politics that has dogged the country since the War of Liberation. This writer eventually tested out the 'new' technology, and e-mailed the Bangladesh government a request for a bit more information on this new undertaking. Not surprisingly, there was no response.

Here is a joke that is currently doing the rounds. A farmer goes to the bazaar to buy a cow. On the way, he meets a friend who tells him that he can buy one on a mobile phone. The farmer calls the number, only to find himself listening to an automated message: "For cows, press 1. For goats, press 2. For chickens, press 3." The farmer presses 1. "For Bangladeshi cows, press 1. For foreign cows, press 2." He presses 1. "For black cows, press 1. For brown cows, press 2. For white…" Then, the line is suddenly disconnected – the farmer has used up all the credit on his phone.

Digital evolution
General scepticism aside, many in Bangladesh do believe that a Digital Bangladesh is both desirable and possible. Many of the most enthusiastic supporters are found on the social-networking website Facebook, where nearly 4000 people have joined the Digital Bangladesh group. All too predictably, they are nearly all middle class, urban and educated, and eager for a new technologically advanced country. Saiful is one such example, writing "promises of a 'Digital Bangladesh' have renewed hope in the government and the public equally, particularly for the young generation … Bangladesh can be the next destination of the IT generation all over the world. This campaign is like another War of Liberation, giving the country a real chance for a digital evolution." Similarly, Ismail exclaims, "Digital Bangladesher shopno amra dekhchhi" (We can see the dream of 'Digital Bangladesh').

Even these young proponents of the cause are realistic about the challenge of implementation, however. Many ask how a digital Bangladesh is possible when crippling power cuts are the order of the day, even in the major cities. Others point out that the country's general development is hampered by corruption and government inefficiency, and wonder if ever a good idea can in fact be implemented. Some ask where the money will come from. Most, however, talk about poor literacy levels and the consequence of the rural poor being left out of any kind of development. Some are downright sceptical. Engr, for example, writes, "What will 'Digital Bangladesh' deliver? Is it important to 80% of underprivileged people of Bangladesh? … 'Digital Bangladesh' will be a Frankenstein. Only 10-15% will take the opportunity, and will deprive others." Yet trawling through these comments, there is still little explanation or understanding of the full scope of a 'Digital Bangladesh' – its goals, missions and the all-important matter of how it will be put into action.

Still seeking answers, I turned to Hafiz Siddiqi, vice-chancellor of North South University, one of largest private centres of higher education in Dhaka. At last, he provides me with a fairly concrete vision. He deems Digital Bangladesh to be an extremely ambitious plan – one that could help the country to run more efficiently and transparently, to become commercially productive, but only if the programme is properly implemented. For Siddiqi, the most significant aspect of the plan is an information-and-communication technology (ICT) network that, he says, could push Bangladesh towards becoming a mid-income country. While universities are partly digitised already, by 2021 all colleges, high schools, primary schools and madrassas are to be wired. Similarly, he continues, hospitals, clinics and healthcare services at all levels will be connected electronically, which will allow medical reports to be analysed and responded to by doctors in Dhaka for patients in villages hundreds of miles away, all in a matter of minutes.

In the tricky area of governance, Siddiqi notes, communication between those making the decisions and those employed to implement them will become faster and more effective. Performances can be monitored. For the first time, there will be an easy flow of information between ministries and administrative offices at district levels, right down to the village. Siddiqi acknowledges that, in order to realise the aspirations of the 2021 vision, Bangladesh must be able to produce its own engineers, scientists and technological know-how, which requires vastly increased investment in education. Otherwise, he warns, the country will become vulnerable, being forced to continue depending on those countries that have more resources.

First, a school
It is important to keep in mind that university professors and website users do not represent the Bangladeshi majority. Nor are they the ones whose force and power ensured Prime Minister Hasina's election victory last December. Bangladesh, like all Southasian countries, begins at the village level; and, if ever implemented, Digital Bangladesh will need to affect the rural populace.

Among the tens of thousands in Bangladesh, one such deprived village is Malikpur, an eight-hour drive from Dhaka. As I arrive, a class on the Roman alphabet is being held in the courtyard of the local mosque – there is no school building here. Thirty youngsters, aged four or five, are sitting cross-legged in rows on the floor, each in various states of undress. None is wearing footwear. The teacher, an old bearded man in a purple shirt and white hat, sits barefooted in front of them. He is actually a rice farmer, but teaches the primary class a few times a week. The few books the pupils have are covered in rejected election posters. At the moment, there are more girls here than boys; as the children progress further up the educational ladder, however, these proportions will suddenly switch.

I join the class at the letter H. "H diye house," the teacher says. "H diye house," the class intones. The joy of learning something new and alien is clear in their shrill voices. "House holo ki?" What is a house? the teacher asks in Bangla. He answers himself. "House holo basha." The kids repeat. "Who lives in your house?" he asks. The children shout out various responses "My mum!", "Granddad!", "Uncle's wife!", "My dad's cows!", "Our ducks!" They move onto I. "I diye ice cream." "Ice cream holo ki?" the teacher asks. "Ice cream holo ice cream," the students answer. Some are surprised that ice cream is the same in English and Bangla. "Ice cream is bad for you," the teacher cautions them. "You will get aches in your bellies if you eat too many." The class looks unconvinced. "J diye jug. Jug holo jug," the teacher continues. Now the kids are laughing.

The class is interrupted by the call for lunchtime prayers, and the kids run home for their rice. I ask the teacher in English what he thinks of the idea of a Digital Bangladesh. He has no idea what I am talking about. I try Bangla. He smiles, and says that he has never heard of it. I ask him who he voted for in the election. It is not rude to ask such questions here, where just about everything is politicised. He responds "the boat", referring to the symbol for the Awami League. I try and explain Digital Bangladesh to him. From what he is able to grasp of it, he thinks it is a good idea. He would like computers for his students, he says, noting that he feels they would undoubtedly benefit from the experience. But first he would like a school building, some books and pens even. A fan for the hot season would also be good, as would a light bulb.

Transparency anxieties
The government should implement Digital Bangladesh – whatever it may mean – for the urban middle classes. At the same time, it should provide the school buildings, blackboards, chairs and tables, and all the other basics required for schools that serve the rural poor. The two are neither mutually exclusive nor in competition with each other. In fact, for Digital Bangladesh to be a success, it will need a more literate population. A mass computer-literacy programme, or even a government-sponsored computer course, could function as an incentive for every student who completes his or her secondary school education. This would benefit all.

Other obstacles to Bangladesh's digitalisation loom. Soon after taking over, in early March, the Hasina government blocked the video-sharing Internet site YouTube throughout the country. Users were unable to access it due to the fact that an audio recording of a meeting between the prime minister and army officers had been posted. In the recording, the latter was heard berating the former over the deaths of army officers during the failed Bangladesh Rifles mutiny that had recently taken place.

Incidents such as this inevitably lead the public to doubt the government's integrity when it comes to official undertakings such as Digital Bangladesh. A Digital Bangladesh means first and foremost the free and unfettered use of information and a trust in the public's ability to use what they download. The 2021 vision is synonymous with hope for a better democracy and greater transparency – both ideals to which consecutive Bangladeshi governments, including those of the Awami League, have shown insufficient fealty. Digital Bangladesh could certainly open dramatically new avenues by which the public could demand accountability: through effective websites for government departments, financial accounts of state departments being made freely accessible online, the possibility of e-mailing public representatives, and the examination of the voting record of every MP, among other things. But a question remains unanswered: Is the government actually willing to enter this brave new world?

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Himal Southasian