by Syed Serajul Islam 17 May 2020
In 1990 after the overthrow of the military regime led by General Ershad, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) got a landslide victory in a general election held in 1991 and BNP’s Leader, Khaleda Zia, was sworn-in as the first woman prime minister of Bangladesh. The second time she became Prime Minister was in 1996. It was a short-lived government (discussed later). The third term, she became Prime Minister, was in 2001 and continued until 2006. During her tenures, Khaleda Zia contributed a lot to the society, economy, and politics of Bangladesh. This paper is primarily designed to discuss Khaleda Zia’s contributions to her three terms as the prime minister of Bangladesh.
First Term (1991-1996)
Until the election in 1991, the existing system of Bangladesh was a Presidential system of Government. There was a demand to replace the presidential system with a parliamentary system. Immediate after the election, in the Jatiya Sangsad (parliament), she initiated the historic 12th constitutional amendment bill on August 6, 1991, to introduce the parliamentary form of Government replacing the presidential system. The bill was passed unanimously in the parliament. Consequently, on September 19, 1991, Khaleda Zia took oath as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh under the new parliamentary system.
Khaleda Zia’s Government achieved massive success in many areas during her first term (1991-196). Her significant contribution was in the education sector. She is the one who introduced free and compulsory primary education in Bangladesh. She also made education for girls’ tuition-free up to class ten, the end of High School. Also she initiated a project for the “Food for Education” program in 1993 to promote education among the poor people of Bangladesh. The Government set up a National University and an Open University and also allowed private universities and medical colleges to enhance the country’s higher education.
Another significant contribution of Khaleda was in the industrial sector. In 1991 Khaleda Zia’s Government declared a new industrial policy paving the way for private foreign investments. Without any restrictions hundred percent ownership of foreign companies and joint ventures were allowed in Bangladesh. Simultaneously, there were massive cutbacks on custom duties at the import level as part of the free-market trade liberalization policy of the Government. For the first time in Bangladesh foreign exchange reserve reached an all-time high level in the country. Many measures were taken to reduce dependence on foreign aid for the country’s development.
The Government increased the share of local resources in its budget from 21 percent to over 40 percent in five years. (Helaluddin Ahmed, ‘Zia, Begum Khaleda,’ Banglapedia, December 21, 201). During the 1993-94 fiscal year, value-added tax (VAT) was introduced at the production and import level. That created a new way of bringing revenue for the Government.
To boost up the agricultural production and reduce floods, Khaleda Zia’s Government reintroduced the canal digging program that was initially introduced by her husband, President Zia. Also, in Bangladesh, throughout the trees were becoming less and less. Khaleda Zia introduced a nationwide social movement for tree plantation. She also actively initiated a policy for the development of the livestock sector. That led to the swift establishment of various poultry and dairy farms throughout Bangladesh. This not only contributed to the growth of chicken meats for the public but also contributed to the GDP and per capita income of the people in the country.
During Khaleda’s Government, some administrative measures were taken, making a significant contribution to the Government’s smooth running. Her Government established the national pay commission for enhancing the salaries and allowances of government employees.
The Government implemented the recommendation of the commission by increasing the age limit for the entry in government service from 27 years to 30 years, simplifying the pension-sanctioning procedure, introducing life-long family pension for widows and children’s in case of deaths of government employees, fixing minimum wage for workers in several sectors, establishing the Coast Guard for stopping piracy and smuggling in the Bay of Bengal, creating a Security and Exchange Commission for looking after the country’s stock market, and For the first time, enacting a bill in parliament to distribute voter identity cards among the eligible citizens and launching a project for that. Another significant contribution of the Khaleda government was that she established a permanent Law Commission for the continuous updating of laws in the country.
Khaleda’s Government made significant progress in the communication sector as well. The road connection with the northern part of Bangladesh was blocked by long river, Jamuna. She started during her tenure the physical construction of the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge in 1994. Khaleda’s Government started the construction of the Meghna-Gumti Bridge on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway for an uninterrupted road connection between Dhaka and Chittagong. The Government also started the construction of a modern railway station in Chittagong and undertook a project to upgrade Chittagong Airport into the second international airport.
To strengthen regional cooperation among South Asian countries, Khaleda Zia refreshed the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) by hosting a summit in Dhaka in 1993. President Zia, her husband, was the one who took the original initiative for establishing the SAARC. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was elected chairperson of the regional forum of the SAARC. This greatly enhanced Bangladesh’s international image.
The Khaleda government also showed exceptional political tolerance towards the political opposition parties. However, in 1994, the major opposition political parties—the Awami League, the Jatiya Party, and the Jamaat-e- Islami–led a movement for a caretaker government for holding parliamentary elections, and that disrupted the work of her Government during her first term. Although there were many countrywide strikes, blockades, and other forms of disruptive activities by the opposition, the Government smoothly maintained law and order. Khaleda’s Government opened up the free press. Consequently, this made the number of newspapers and periodicals nearly double. For the first time in the history of Bangladesh, satellite TV channels like CNN and BBC were allowed to broadcast their programs in the country, and other international channels followed them very soon.
Second Term (February 1996-March, 1996)
On February 15, 1996, Khaleda Zia gave the election in which her party BNP emerged victoriously, and she became the prime minister for a second consecutive term. The major opposition parties, however, did not participate in the elections. They demanded the introduction of a neutral caretaker government for conducting parliamentary elections.
To meet these demands, Khaleda Zia had a considerable contribution. In the parliament, she introduced the 13th Amendment bill to the Constitution for adding a caretaker government. The bill was passed unanimously, and then the parliament was dissolved. Immediately after that, on March 30, 1996, Khaleda Zia handed over power to a caretaker government. Under the caretaker government headed by Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman on June 12, 1996, the BNP was defeated by the Awami League. So, subsequently, Khaleda Zia played the role of the Leader of the Opposition in the parliament.
Third Term (2001-2006)
A neutral caretaker government headed by Justice Latifur Rahman conducted the next parliamentary elections in 2001. The BNP-led four-party alliance won more than two-thirds of the seats in the parliament. Khaleda Zia was sworn-in as Bangladesh’s prime minister for the third time on October 10, 2001. During the third term of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh achieved high growth in socio-economic sectors and a gradual rise in foreign direct investments. In the country’s history, the average GDP growth rate during her whole period remained above 5 percent for the first time. There was a steep rise in remittances sent by expatriate workers from foreign countries. The foreign exchange reserve went up from a mere 1 billion dollar in 2001 to more than 3 billion dollar. (Banglapedia, op.cit.)
In the industrial sector, there was healthy growth. Although the Multi Fibre Arrangement quota system was abolished in 2005, the garments industries continued to progress due to the Government’s handling of the sector efficiently. Due to investment-friendly economic policies and strategies pursued by the Government many foreign companies were attracted to invest in Bangladesh. Until March 2006 nearly 9 thousand industrial projects were registered with the Board of Investment. (Banglapedia, op. cit.). In fact, this was more than double compared to the previous five years of Hasina regime. In 2004-2005, after paying all outstanding dues of officers and employees of this loss-incurring state-owned enterprise of Adamjee Jute Mills, the Government established a new Export Processing Zone (EPZ) on that compound.
In the education sector, the Khaleda government achieved great success. In primary schools, the enrolment rate went up to nearly a hundred percent. The tuition fee for girl students was made free up to class twelve to obtain a gender parity among boys and girls in schools. To increase further women’s education at higher levels, two new girls’ cadet colleges and three new polytechnic institutes for women were established. With assistance from the USA, a plan was also taken for creating an Asian University for Women in Chittagong town. The Government opened several new public universities. Simultaneously, even the Government provided licenses to many new private universities. To expand higher education in the areas of science and technology, the Government took necessary steps for promoting vocational training, and thus, upgraded the existing vocational institutions into colleges.
In healthcare services, the Khaleda government adopted various programs for bringing health facilities to the doorsteps of the masses. The Government increased “the number of beds from 31 to 50 in Upazila (sub-district) hospitals, from 50 to 100 in hospitals of new district towns, and from 100 to 250 in hospitals of greater district towns”. (Banglapedia, op.cit.) Side by side, the Government, established some new medical colleges and hospitals. Due to measures taken by the Government, infant and maternal mortality rates came down in the country. Due to the strengthening of the family planning program, the rate of population growth decreased to less than one and a half percent. (Dag Hammarskjöld Library, UN, New York, Khaleda’s Address to the 60th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 14, 2005)
Furthermore, the Khaleda government took some administrative measures. It established an Anti-Corruption Commission replacing the old Bureau of Anti-Corruption to strengthen the organization and make the country free from corruption. To improve the law and order situation, her Government established a new force, called the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). To decentralize the administration further, her Government created some new Upazilas.
The Khaleda Zia government enhanced the communication sector significantly during her third term. The railway service via the Jamuna bridge was not initiated earlier. During this term, railway service between the eastern and north-western parts of the country via the Jamuna Bridge started. Additionally, many vital road-bridges were constructed. To enlarge communication between India and Bangladesh, the direct bus service between Dhaka and Agartala started. A proposal for the direct railway connection between Dhaka and Kolkata was processed during her term.
The Khaleda government also attached significant importance to the development of telecommunication in the country.
The Government almost doubled the number of fixed telephones. It set up digital telephone exchanges in all districts of Bangladesh and attempted to bring all sub-districts gradually under the digital telephone network. During the third term of Khaleda the total number of fixed and mobile telephone connections in Bangladesh went to more than the one and a half crore. The Government gave licenses to several private companies to provide and make more accessible fixed-phone services to the people. At the same time, Tele-talk Bangladesh owned by the Government was providing mobile phone services to the masses. During her time the mobile telephone services started its operation in Bangladesh. Through linking up with a submarine cable also the Government attempted to connect Bangladesh with the information super-highway. All this resulted in speeding up overseas communication and internet connections easier.
Khaleda Zia government formulated a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper as a medium-term plan document in correspondence with the Millennium Development Goals declared by the United Nations.
Every year the budgetary allocation for poverty alleviation programs was gradually increased. Khaleda’s Government initiated a social safety net programs for direct poverty alleviation of hardcore and underprivileged people in rural areas. Several measures were adopted for the welfare of neglected areas and peoples of the country, such as for Monga-infested (famine-like state) areas and Char areas. It raised the monthly allowances of the widows, old age persons, and distressed women. As a result of all these policies, the population below the poverty level in Bangladesh came down to a massive level during the reign of Khaleda Zia.
During the third term, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia pursued a progressive and decisive foreign policy enhancing good neighborly relations with South Asian countries and promoting look–east policy. Khaleda Zia also carried the responsibility of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Chairperson after hosting the 2005 summit. This was when Bangladesh showed strict adherence to the United Nations Charter and got elected to many United Nations’ bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Council, Peace Building Commission, and Economic and Social Council, etc. During her term, Bangladesh began to involve more and more to the peaceful and negotiated settlement of international disputes and foreign peacekeeping forces by sending the highest number of troops to the United Nations Peacekeeping Missions.
The above analysis indicates Khaleda achieved a lot of success in the social, economic, and political lives of Bangladesh. In an article in New York times, Barbara Crossette wrote on October 17, 1993, “at the World Bank; nobody calls Bangladesh a basket case anymore. Although it still ranks among the least developed nations — and is vulnerable to horrifying natural disasters — the country outpaces much of Africa and a few Asian nations in certain measures of improved quality of life.” (New York Times, October 17, 1993.). In 2006, American Business magazine, Forbes, commented that Khaleda Zia had managed to promote strong GDP growth in a poverty-stricken country, Bangladesh.