Shuvo shokal from the Tropic of Cancer,
What happens when three blokes are cleaning the tiles on a wall and someone introduces a sandblaster? What happens when six blokes are tending a field in a rural zone and someone introduces a tractor? And, what happens when four blokes are pushing mowers across the soccer field and someone introduces a ride-on mower?
Lots of workers are thrown out of work, right? Or was your answer something completely different? New efficiencies are secured, temporary joblessness gives way to tremendous never-ending economic growth, displaced workers find jobs in hitherto unknown industries and the general standard of living rises.
This is the dilemma that Bangladesh faces at this stage of its life, 40 years after independence. Ned Ludd and Charlie Chaplin famously grappled with the same questions in other eras, and in very different ways.
underemployment and unemployment
With so much underemployment here, it would almost seem churlish and quite counter-intuitive to introduce a newfangled piece of machinery which saves labour. It would be unsurprising if the general populace was – at best – suspicious of the measure. Economists will tell you that the resultant short-term unemployment is soon extinguished by the need to service new and burgeoning industries which spring from the new demand.
Being here in Bangladesh at this delicate time, we see history lesson unfolding before us. We can predict the difficulties looming, too. Linda commented just this evening that we are witnessing a moment in the country’s history when the rise of the middle class begets new challenges.
Just as in the time of the spinning jenny, Bangladesh workers are exercising their democratic rights in the form of hartals. There was a half-day hartal called for one day last week. “Hartal” a local word for strikes. These don’t seem to be the usual withdrawal of labour but more an organised and choreographed street riot involving aggrieved people from a variety of crafts. The privileged children who attend our school sometimes choose to stay away from school on such days, for fear of being punished (for being in the privileged class). Others choose to dress in mufti in an effort to disguise themselves; to blend in, as it were.
On hartal days, we as teachers are required to send work home electronically. Last year – when there were many days lost to hartals – some students resorted to unorthodox means of getting to school eg. commandeering an ambulance. Despite these distractions, the hartals appear to represent an important element of democracy at play.
one huge advantage
The fledgling nation of Bangladesh is at the same crossroads that England was three or four centuries ago. They have one huge advantage ie. they have history to guide them through the next phase. I don’t suppose too many of the mowers or rural workers spend much time contemplating these dilemmas but there is ample evidence to point to some agitation and some reasoned negotiation of the treacherous waters ahead.
Khoda hafez from Dhaka