Digital Bangladesh

Rumi Ahmed

Published Daily Star February 6.2009

BANGLADESH is being promised a digital future. In fact, the tagline of the landmark election victory of Awami League was a promise of digital Bangladesh by 2021. BNP also promised to implement digital Bangladesh sooner than 2021. Our intellectuals have started advising the government about how to implement digital Bangladesh, and opposition rhetoric locked horns with the government about who can make Bangladesh digital faster. 

But way before this brouhaha by disconnected politicians Bangladesh had stepped into, and now walks boldly in, the digital age thanks to a new generation of IT savvy youth. This digitalisation took place during the fifteen years of democratic Bangladesh.

Bangladesh used to be a country where getting an analog land telephone connection was a combination of waiting, bribery, good connection with government high-ups and good fortune. Starting in the early 1990s, a digital telecommunication revolution took place. Nearly one-third of Bangladeshis are using high-tech, latest generation digital mobile technology for communication and other information related needs — no political leader had to promise this! 

Without any manifesto or political rhetoric, computer villages grew in places like the IDB Bhaban or Elephant Road. And against all odds, totally through private initiative, young Bangladeshi entrepreneurs started bringing in IT related business to Dhaka. 

Until the 1990s we had only one TV channel, and conversion into colour broadcasting was the sole major technological breakthrough in a decade. Thanks to some private entrepreneurs’ innovation, efforts and skill, in a matter of only several years, dozens of highly sophisticated TV channels started broadcasting quality programs. 

There was hardly any need for overseas technological assistance, and the young people who made this happen did not have any formal IT education. They educated themselves to accomplish difficult technological feats. 

While few people had ever seen a computer even five years ago, personal computers are now household items in middle class Bangladesh. Millions of households in remote alleys of the cities and towns, and even villages, are now connected to the information superhighway via broadband or mobile Internet connections. 

A new generation of entrepreneurs, engineers and IT professionals made Bangladesh digital without much government help or vision. These folks can take our country farther than anyone can dream of. They will probably able to achieve all; provided our leaders can ensure three important pre-requisites to a prosperous Bangladesh.

What the nation needs from the leaders is a promise of a stable and secure Bangladesh. A repeat of pre-1/11 style street violence will take us back to the Stone Age, not digital age. Frequent sieges, unannounced closure of ports and roads, and violence in public places turn the wheel of development backward. Similarly, corruption, nepotism, rampant politicisation of the administration and political thuggery make the country weak and unstable. 

One of the major components of digital Bangladesh is wooing of foreign investment and IT work-orders. These will never come our way as long as we keep patronising the bribery culture or resort to middle-age style violence.

A digital Bangladesh needs another much more basic prerequisite — its very existence. Bangladesh faces at least two existential challenges. Although we did not hear about it during the election cycle, we cannot afford to ignore the issue of energy security. We have 150 million people on a very small piece of land, and are rapidly using up all our natural resources. 

If we don’t act now with the highest possible priority, we will leave our next generation nothing but an overcrowded, used up piece of uninhabitable land. With global demand, time will come when energy will not even be available for import.

There is another vital issue that is missing from the politicians’ rhetoric and party manifestos. The physical existence of Bangladesh is imperiled by rising sea level. Bangladesh is set to face the brunt of the environmental holocaust earlier than most other nations. Some reports suggest that Bangladesh might lose half its landmass to the rising sea within the next fifty years.

During the election politicians spoke against cronyism, corruption, nepotism and war criminals. But we did not hear much about the energy security plans of the political parties. We also did not hear anything about how our political parties will combat the threat of global warming. And also missing, after the election, is a full-scale embrace of pre-election promises of shunning the culture of intolerance, suppression, exclusion, rejection and boycott.

We already have attained much towards digital Bangladesh, and we sure will be able to go light-years more. But first we must ensure our geographical existence, energy self-sufficiency and relative political stability. 

Rumi Ahmed, a physician, is an Assistant Professor at Medical College of Wisconsin, USA. He writes for the Drishtipat Writers’ Collective and can be reached at dpwriters@drishtipat.org.
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