Ajit Kumar Sarkar
The words Digital Bangladesh were unknown in Bangladesh’s lexicon until 12 December 2008.
But they got traction when Sheikh Hasina, as the leader of the opposition, unveiled on 12th December 2008 her Vision 2021 that enshrined Digital Bangladesh to establish a knowledge-based society. The people of Bangladesh became more familiar with these words when Sheikh Hasina assumed power and included Digital Bangladesh in the priority list of her overall developmental agenda and started work in right earnest towards its implementation.
Bangladesh is lucky to have a reputed ICT expert Sajeeb Wazed Joy as the ICT Affairs Adviser to the Prime Minister who is playing a major role in promoting the ICT sector as the next growth engine for Bangladesh. Since 2009, he has been supervising and monitoring the various initiatives taken in line with Digital Bangladesh aimed at fostering the development process ensuring ICT sector’s contribution in the growth which would be the beacon on the march towards achieving the status of a middle-income country.
Eleven years have been elapsed since the country embarked on the journey towards digital literacy. Bangladesh witnessed tremendous growth in the ICT sector during the period.
Bangladesh has a market of 170 million people, where consumer spending is around $130 billion plus and growing at 6 percent annually. The mobile phone subscribers and internet users have increased substantially in the country. According to Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the total number of active mobile phone subscribers stood at 166.4 million till end of 2019, which means over 98 percent of Bangladesh population has mobile connections. The fact is: only 12 countries in the world have more than 100 million active subscribers. Bangladesh has surpassed 100 million mark three years back. The number of internet users has reached to over 100 million till August 2019 and of them 84.6 million access the worldwide web on mobile phone. The launch of 3G network in 2013 and 4G in February 2018 is the main cause of growing demand for mobile phone and internet as well as increase of digital savvy consumers.
From the very beginning of its journey towards Digital Bangladesh the government put emphasized on sustainable ICT industry growth. It sets the target of achieving $5 billion ICT export and reaching the number of IT professionals up to 2 million by 2021. Keeping this in mind the government undertook massive technology-driven actions for building the necessary infrastructure and connectivity for the ICT sector, providing policy support and creating a skilled workforce.
The government took initiative to build 28 IT parks across the country. Of them one Hi-Tech Park and two software technology parks have been completed so far and the construction of the remaining IT parks are going on full swing. One of the core objectives of this initiatives is to make Bangladesh a destination for global manufacturing and services and boost ICT export. A world-class business environment has been created for local and foreign investors in the newly built Bangabandhu Hi-Tech City at Kaliakoir, Sheikh Hasina Software Technology Park in Jessore and Software Technology Park at Janata Tower.
Investors are provided with a host of benefits, such as income tax (IT) exemption for 10 years, dividend tax exemption and duty exemption on exports. The government has introduced incentives exclusively for the high-tech industry players, including reduced import duties for raw materials and initiated a series of policy changes that allows organizations to set up production bases in Bangladesh, with an intention to cater to the domestic and regional demand of neighboring countries, such as Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Nepal. Enjoying the facilities offered by the government multiple local and international players are operating in Bangladesh. Significant among them are Symphony, Samsung, Huawei Technologies, Transsion Holdings and Walton. They combine to hold 53.2 percent of the smartphone market share.
Besides, 40 local and international firms have already been allocated land to invest respectively in the Bangabandhu Hi-Tech City, Sheikh Hasina Software Technology Park in Jessore and Software Technology Park at Janata Tower. Most of the firms have started business in these parks. The government has also allowed five private companies -Accenture, Augmedix, Digicon, Technologies, Bangladesh-Japan IT and Kazi IT— to set up their own Software Technology Parks. They will also enjoy additional benefits from the government.
The ICT export saw a robust growth in the last 10 years due to the government’s various actions including policy support. The ICT export increased to $800 million in 2018 against only $26 million in 2008.
Developing ICT backbone is the key to Digital Bangladesh transformation. The government has undertaken initiatives to build ICT infrastructure and establish connectivity up to rural area of the country. It launched a second submarine cable connection for commercial use, making another stride in ensuring uninterrupted internet connectivity and boosting online-based business. This cable has the capacity of 1600 Gigabits per second. After districts and upazilas all unions are being brought under broadband connectivity through establishing optical fiber cable lines by 2019. Even the 772 unions situated at the remotest areas of the country will bring under high-speed internet connectivity using Bangabandhu Satellite-1 (BS-1) based broadband connectivity.
Some 20,734 government offices have been brought under the same network by establishing connectivity. This initiative has sent a vital message about changing the mindset within the government to embrace ICT as a powerful enabler for the nation’s socioeconomic transformation.
Digitization of various services has brought a revolutionary change in the cumbersome method of service delivery system of the past. The government has offered IT-enabled services to fit with citizens’ requirement aimed at building a people-centric, inclusive and development- oriented Digital Bangladesh. Launching of 9,224 Digital Centers to provide information services, Jatiyo Tathyabatyan, the largest- ever portal of 25,000 websites including all government offices, smart National ID for 90 million voters, the e-Purjee through mobile SMS at all sugar mills, telemedicine centers to provide healthcare, online admission into the educational institutions and e-agriculture centers to provide agri-info and services are some of initiatives that have reached services to the doorstep of the people.
Only 24 percent of Bangladesh’s adult population enjoyed banking services. The mobile banking has brought the unbanked adult population especially the people of rural areas. Over 50 million mobile phone accounts transacted Taka 10 billion (BDT 1000 crore) every day. At present, mobile applications (mobile apps) are a popular platform for availing services. The government has developed mobile apps of its various services to ensure people’s easy access to information. The ride sharing apps developed by the private sector have become popular in the country. Pathao, one of ride sharing apps registered one lakh motorcycles to ride passengers.
The government has set up Bangladesh National Architecture (BNDA) to get government’s information and data from a single platform and make the information interoperable. It has also established BGD-eGov CIRT to check fast-growing cybercrimes.
With 65 percent of the population younger than 35 years of age, Bangladesh has the advantage of an adequate labor pool that can help drive ICT sector. It fixed the target of creating 2 million IT professionals by 2021. Since 2009, it took various projects and programmes to provide quality training to the youngsters to achieve the target. Specialized labs were set up to create high-skilled IT professionals. Over 0.5 million skilled human resources have so far been created through providing IT training. The country has also introduced ICT as compulsory education at secondary education level.
Bangladesh has become one of the top destinations for freelance online work outshining many countries of the world. oDesk Corp, a US-based leading marketplace for companies and online workers, ranked Dhaka third among global cities where online jobs are outsourced from the West. The World Bank in its report titled: `Global Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work’ said 15 percent (or about 0.65 million) of the total online workforce is from Bangladesh.
The country has also moved up by four steps in Global Service Location Index of the US-based research and consulting firm AT Kearney buoyed by the successes in IT outsourcing, back office or off-shoring business processing outsourcing, voice service. It moved up to the 22nd position this year from the 26th in 2014. AT Kearney has in its new research paper identified Bangladesh among the top outsourcing destinations.
Bangladesh has also moved nine notches up to rank 115th in 2018 among 193 countries in the global e-government index of the United Nations. The UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs recently-released the E-Government Survey 2018 that also showed that Bangladesh scored 0.4862 in the e-government development index (EGDE).
The world is changing at a tremendous pace and the tool for changing the world is Information Technology. To keep Bangladesh on this track, the government under the visionary and time-befitting leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has achieved noticeable progress towards the implementation of Digital Bangladesh in the last 10 years. This development and progress have grabbed the attention of the international community. The country has won some prestigious international awards including South-South Award of the UN, `South-South Cooperation Visionary Award, World Summit on Information Society prize, Global ICT Excellence Award, ‘ICT Education Award, `E-Asia Award, Open Group President Award-2018, ASSOCIO Digital Award, Global MobileGov Award due to its outstanding contribution to the ICT sector.
The Digital Bangladesh is no longer a pipedream. It’s a reality. Bangladesh is confidently marching towards full digital connectivity and coverage that will transform the country by 2021, the year that coincides with the landmark of 50 years of independence. There could not be a better gift than something which touches the lives of the people across the economic spectrum and gives a huge leg-up to their welfare.
Ajit Kumar Sarkar is a senior journalist and former City Editor of BSS.