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Reimagining Bangladesh

By Nuri Bhuiyan, Harvard College '22

Hooded, innocent eyes. Shivering lashes. Small, warped, rag-clothed bodies. Growing up in America had formed a shield around me that was broken by my first trip abroad to my parents’ home country of Bangladesh in 2007. The pain I felt from hearing children beg for food and water and the shock from seeing villagers walk from muddy ponds with large pots atop their heads fiercely clashed with the reality I lived in―where water readily poured from a faucet. Until that point, water was primordial, possibly even infinite. It was then when I realized how scarce it actually is.

 

The issue of water scarcity occupied me throughout middle school and early high school. But soon enough, my concerns about Bangladesh went beyond water. I realized that in actuality, Bangladesh is a country ravaged by a whole host of issues, including water scarcity and groundwater contamination, but also sea-level rise, land degradation, biodiversity loss, and ecosystem damage. All are in some way exacerbated by the current climate crisis. 

 

There is much debate as to how to go about addressing these problems and the climate crisis as a whole in Bangladesh, and because of the country’s dense population and its abundance of low-lying coastal zones, sea-level rise has become the focus of this debate. Almost a quarter of the country’s area has been determined to be critically vulnerable to sea-level rise, and it is predicted that around 25 million people will be displaced by 2050.

 

The ensuing discourse has had complex effects on the Bangladeshi people, for two main reasons. First, the focus on sea level rise, an already occurring disaster that is likely to worsen, has made the conversation very dystopian in nature and eroded faith in  Bangladesh’s survival through climate change. Second, people abstracted from Bangladeshis, including development practitioners, policy workers, and scientists, lead the discourse. These actors all operate separately from the people who are actually affected by poverty or by climate change on the ground. Thus, foreigners’ conception of the problem is magnified while Bangladeshi authority and voice is largely nonexistent. These two issues are central to the current dominant “imagination” of Bangladesh as a country that is powerless, as one that will not make it through the climate crisis.

 

I myself have contributed to this depressing imagination. When I went to Bangladesh this past winter, even as I laughed and smiled and saw beauty and savored fresh Bengali cooking, there wasn’t a day during my trip to Bangladesh that my eyes didn’t water from what I witnessed. An adult’s face on a child’s body, a servant mumbling incessantly about her diseased eye, the hopelessness in the eyes of a grandmother on the verge of death. Bangladesh reduced to a montage of struggles, instead of joyful family reunion and beautiful pastoral landscapes. 

 

As I immersed myself in the suffering of these people, I began to empathize with them, but without any legitimate basis. I began to create narratives about them from just seeing them, or from a few uttered words. My mind began to fill with unspoken stories, of people being neglected, of people feeling hopeless, of people loathing their lives. From these stories that I created, I began to formulate a dystopian vision of what it meant to be Bangladeshi, dismissive of the food, the music and dance, and the empowering history of independence. In my mind, being Bangladeshi meant to be mired in poverty and live in despair. 

 

My imagination of Bangladesh coincided precisely with the broader “imagination” of Bangladesh from the international community. What is so remarkable is that it was unfounded - I didn’t talk to people or record stories. I just imagined. What my imagination does, as well as the broader imagination, is impose hopelessness. In this imagination, Bangladeshis are denied agency over the issues that concern their own nation.

 

The lack of agency attributed to Bangladeshis in the current climate-related imagination of Bangladesh is not without history. Since Bangladesh’s birth in 1971, the underdeveloped economic and political institutions of the country left it far behind other countries, prompting the use of the term “basket case” by a US official during Bangladesh’s time as a newly independent country. Through greater NGO presence, to a point where 90% of villages have at least one NGO in the area, and Bangladesh’s capitulation to different market-led, neoliberal developments under the military rule of Ziaur Rahman, a “development regime” took hold that gave way to increased hope. However, the country’s advancements didn’t translate to an elevated agency of the Bangladeshi people or a significantly more positive imagination. This was in part because Bangladesh’s rise was not attributed to its own internal development as it was to outside influences, like NGOs and the pressure of an increasingly neoliberal world. 

 

The perpetually pessimistic imagination of Bangladesh has made it a region prime for “experimentation,” or development interventions. The scale of testing there is founded upon the belief that if an intervention works in Bangladesh, given how dire it is, it will probably work anywhere. Such interventions have become so rampant in fact, that one can put together a system of spatial governance in the country by looking at development agencies alone. Bangladesh’s likeness to a “laboratory for development intervention” and its identification with experimentation is problematic because it implies the presence of destruction. This experimentation perpetuates the prevailing imagination of Bangladesh as a site of pathology.

 

Both of these concepts, “imagination” and “experimentation” together act to propel a sense of dystopian future, and this dystopia facilitates the further subjugation of Bangladeshis in tangible ways. The Khulna area for example and much of Bangladesh’s coastal region is seen as a disaster zone, doomed to sink under sea level rise. Dispossession and migration of agrarian zones, in which people essentially lose their homes and give away their livelihoods, is frequent because the overwhelming dystopian discourse presents this as the only way to cope. Thus, we see how imagination and experimentation, which already minimize the agency of the Bangladeshi people, build up to the ultimate subjugation: dispossession.

 

The three factors, imagination, experimentation, and dispossession, together comprise an “adaptation regime,” defined as “a socially and historically specific configuration of power that governs the landscape of possible intervention.” An entrenched model of discourse naturally has become the foundation for a dominant method of intervention and then adaptation. The resulting adaptation regime has manifested in the Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League’s election manifesto Vision 2021, which presents a mandate for export-led growth and urbanization and a shift from agriculture, as well as in the rise of climate refugees, where as much as 70% of Dhaka’s slum-dwellers have moved there fleeing some environmental shock. Perceptions from outside actors have perpetuated a normative vision of rural dystopia that infiltrates the country’s levels of authority and render people on the ground powerless. Meanwhile, unique perspectives from local discourse and intervention are belittled and downplayed. 

 

I see this lack of agency of Bangladeshi people as critical to the issue of climate adaptation in Bangladesh and around the world. It’s problematic that we assume people on the ground in coastal communities don’t know about climate change, and it’s problematic that we silence their perspectives and ideas for solutions. In actuality, Bangladeshi locals are made knowledgeable through sources like street theatre, radio, and NGO presentations, and there are alternative visions to rural dystopia, realized by peasant social movements, that focus on addressing threats posed by agrarian dispossession and inequalities in land and labor relations. Such discourse and modes of intervention stand in opposition to the normative vision posing the “death of the peasantry” as inevitable in progression of the climate crisis. 

 

In order to facilitate a better and more just method of climate adaptation, local voices need to be legitimized and given more weight. Officials and scientists, and people like me who are simply visiting Bangladesh, need to open our minds and cease to impose our assumptions on Bangladeshi people. We can’t keep assuming what people feel or desire without a democratic and in-depth process of gauging that. We need to make sure that the imagination of Bangladesh is free and dialectical, focused on contestation, as opposed to the integration of viewpoints into one functional and convenient whole. In order to prevent yet another instance of Western subjugation of different ideologies and ways of thinking, we must create space for varied voices around adaptation in Bangladesh, especially for those who are affected by it. We must create space for a new imagination.

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