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Zia, Begum Khaleda


Zia, Begum Khaleda Prime Minister of Bangladesh (1991-96, 2001-06) and the chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party. Khaleda Zia was born on 15 August 1945 at Jalpaiguri in Dinajpur district where her father Iskandar Majumdar was a resident businessman. After the partition of India in 1947, Majumdar left his tea-business at Jalpaiguri and settled in Dinajpur town. Khaleda initially attended Dinajpur Missionary School and later did her matriculation from Dinajpur Girls' School in 1960. In the same year, she was married to the then Captain Ziaur Rahman, who later became the country's President. Khaleda Zia continued her education at Surendranath College of Dinajpur until 1965 when she went to West Pakistan to join her husband.

Begum Khaleda Zia

With the beginning of the war of liberation in March 1971, Ziaur Rahman revolted against the Pakistan army and joined the liberation war. The Pakistan occupation army took Khaleda Zia under custody, and she was freed in Dhaka only after Bangladesh achieved victory on 16 December 1971. After the brutal assassination of President Ziaur Rahman on 30 May 1981, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) he founded faced serious crisis. Justice Abdus Sattar, the new chairman of BNP and also the President of Bangladesh was ousted from the presidency by a military coup staged by the then army chief General Hussein Mohammad Ershad, who proclaimed martial law on 24 March 1982.

At that time, many BNP leaders left the party and joined the military government. At this critical juncture, Khaleda Zia became the vice-president of BNP and on 10 May 1984, she was elected its chairperson. Under the leadership of Khaleda Zia, BNP formed a 7-party alliance in 1983 and launched a relentless struggle against the autocratic regime of General Ershad. During the 9-year long struggle against Ershad, Khaleda Zia did not compromise with his dictatorial and illegitimate government. The Ershad-government restricted her movements through application of prohibitive laws. She was detained several times in eight years. But undaunted, Khaleda Zia continued to provide leadership in the movement for ousting Ershad.

In the face of a mass upsurge spearheaded by the alliances led by Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, Ershad at last handed over power to a neutral caretaker government headed by Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed on 6 December 1990. In the parliamentary elections held under this government on 27 February 1991, Bangladesh Nationalist Party emerged victorious as a single majority party. Khaleda Zia contested from five constituencies in three consecutive parliamentary elections and won in all the seats.

On 20 March 1991, Khaleda Zia was sworn-in as the first woman prime minister of Bangladesh. She piloted the historic 12th constitutional amendment bill that was passed in the Jatiya Sangsad on 6 August 1991 to reintroduce the parliamentary form of government in place of the presidential one. Khaleda took oath as the prime minister under the new system on 19 September 1991.

While in power during 1991-96, Khaleda Zia's government achieved considerable progress in the education sector, including introduction of free and compulsory primary education, tuition-free education for girls up to class ten, stipend for female students and the Food for Education program. It also went to the credit of her government that during this period, tree plantation had become a nationwide social movement. Further, it was during this period that the physical construction of the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge had started. Khaleda Zia played a commendable role in revitalizing the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) by hosting a summit in Dhaka in 1993. Her rule, however, was seriously disrupted by the opposition movement for a caretaker government for holding parliamentary elections, which was launched by the major opposition political parties including the Awami League, Jatiya Party and the Jamaat-e- Islami in 1994.

Khaleda Zia became the prime minister for a second consecutive term after BNP emerged victorious in the general elections for the 6th Jatiya Sangsad held on 15 February 1996. All major opposition parties, however, boycotted the elections. Their demand was to bring amendment to the Constitution for making the provision of a neutral caretaker government for conducting parliamentary elections. To meet these demands, the 6th Jatiya Sangsad made the 13th amendment to the Constitution, after which the Jatiya Sangsad was dissolved and Khaleda Zia handed over power to a caretaker government on 30 March 1996. In the polls that followed under the caretaker government headed by Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman on 12 June 1996, BNP was defeated by the Awami League.

During the 1996-2001 tenure of the Awami League government, Khaleda Zia played the role of Leader of the Opposition in the Jatiya Sangsad. In the next parliamentary elections held under a neutral caretaker government headed by Justice Latifur Rahman on 1 October 2001, the BNP-led four-party alliance won more than two-thirds of the seats in the Jatiya Sangsad. On 10 October 2001, Khaleda Zia was sworn-in as the country's prime minister for the third time.

Khaleda Zia's third tenure in office was marked by a steep rise in export earnings and remittances sent by expatriate Bangladeshi workers, a healthy growth in the industrial and telecommunication sector, gradual rise in foreign direct investments, corruption scandals, Operation Clean Heart and formation of Rapid Action Battalion for improving the law and order situation, and massive crackdown against Islamic fundamentalist outfits including the JMB and HUJI. She left office on 28 October 2006, but her party could manage only 30 seats in the Ninth Jatiya Sangsad election held on 29 December 2008 under the 2-year long caretaker government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed. During the caretaker rule of 2007-8, a number of corruption cases were filed against Khaleda Zia and she was kept confined for almost one year. She is now the Leader of the Opposition in the current Jatiya Sangsad.

Governance Successes Vast areas of southern Bangladesh was hit by one of the worst cyclones and tidal bores of the century only 39 days after Khaleda Zia assumed office of the prime minister for the first time on 20 March 1991. The calamitous situation was handled quite efficiently by her government despite acute shortage of relief and rehabilitation materials. The rate of inflation was brought down to an all-time low during her tenure, and industrial and agricultural growth underwent acceleration. A new industrial policy was announced in 1991, which paved the way for private foreign investments and rapid expansion of the private sector, especially in the small and medium enterprises sub-sector. Hundred percent foreign ownership and joint ventures were allowed without any restrictions. The government actively promoted the development of livestock sector, which led to the swift establishment of innumerable poultry and dairy farms throughout the country. The local currency was made partially convertible for the first time and foreign exchange reserve reached an all-time high level. Pragmatic measures were taken to reduce dependence on external aid in the country's development budget by increasing the share of local resources from 21 percent to over 40 percent in five years. Value added tax was introduced for the first time in the country at production and import level during 1993-94 fiscal year, which opened up new avenues for augmenting the mobilisation of domestic budgetary resources. Side by side, there were massive cutbacks on custom duties at the import level as part of the free-market trade liberalisation policy of the government.

The canal digging programme was reintroduced during this period to augment agricultural production and reduce floods. During the Fourth Five Year Plan (1990-95) period, the highest allocation was earmarked for the education sector, 70 percent of which went to primary and mass education sub-sector. A National University and an Open University were set up by the Khaleda government, and establishment of private universities and medical colleges were allowed to prop up the country's higher education sector. A separate Primary and Mass Education Division was created under the Prime Minister's Office in order to make the country's population literate within the shortest possible time. Primary education was made compulsory throughout the country from 1 July 1993. The Khaleda government also introduced the 'Food for Education' programme in 1993 to promote education among the poorer segments of the population. Secondary education for girls was made free in the rural areas and a stipend programme was introduced for the secondary level female students throughout the country.

A permanent Law Commission was set by the Khaleda government for continuous updating of the country's laws. Significant steps were also taken during her first tenure to develop the country's communication network. These included the launching of the physical construction work of the Jamuna Multipurpose Bridge on 16 October 1994, construction of the Meghna-Gumti Bridge on the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway for uninterrupted road communication between Dhaka and Chittagong, construction of a modern railway station in Chittagong and the undertaking of a project to upgrade Chittagong Airport into an international one. For the first time in Bangladesh's history, preparatory work on Barapukuria Coal Mine and Madhyapara Hard Rock projects were completed, and agreements were signed with Chinese and Korean agencies for full implementation of these mining projects. New gas fields were also discovered at Bhola and in the Bay of Bengal during Khaleda's first tenure of office.

Bangladesh's international image was greatly boosted by the holding of the Seventh SAARC Summit in Dhaka in April 1993, where Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was elected chairperson of the regional forum. Because of unrestricted press freedom, the number of newspapers and periodicals nearly doubled during the first tenure of Khaleda Zia. For the first time in the country's history, satellite TV channels like CNN and BBC were allowed to broadcast their programmes in Bangladesh and other international channels followed suit very soon. Cellular mobile telephone also commenced its journey in the country during this period.

Some administrative measures taken by Prime Minister Khaleda Zia during this period included implementation of the recommendations of the national pay commission for enhancing the salaries and allowances of government servants; raising the age of entry in government service from 27 years to 30 years; simplification of the pension-sanctioning procedure and introduction of life-long family pension for widows and offspring in case of deaths of government employees; fixation of minimum wage for workers in 17 sectors; establishment of the Coast Guard for curbing piracy and smuggling in the Bay of Bengal; creation of a Securities and Exchange Commission for overseeing the functioning of the country's stock market. It was also her government which for the first time enacted a bill in Jatiya Sangsad for distribution of voter identity cards among the voters and launched a project for the purpose. There were hardly any allegations against the first Khaleda government regarding politicisation of administration. However, she attracted the wrath of a section of bureaucracy, as she tried to change the status quo and remove disparities among various cadres of Bangladesh Civil Service. The first Khaleda government also showed exceptional political tolerance as no crackdowns or repressions were carried out against political opponents despite record numbers of countrywide strikes, blockades and other forms of disruptive activities during the period by opposition political parties. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia's third tenure (2001-06) in office brought more dividends for the country in terms of socio-economic advancements. For the first time in Bangladesh's history, average GDP growth rate during 2002-2006 period remained above 6 percent. The per capita national income rose from 374 US dollar in 2000-01 to 482 US dollar in 2005-06. The foreign exchange reserve crossed the 3 billion dollar mark from a mere 1 billion in 2001. The flow of remittances almost trebled from 2001 to cross US dollar 5 billion at the end of 2006. Despite the abolition of MFA quota system in 2005, the readymade garments sector continued to thrive due to efficient handling of the situation. The strides made by Bangladesh in the field of industrialisation due to investment-friendly economic policies and strategies pursued by the Khaleda government attracted the attention of the foreign merchants. Foreign direct investment amounted to a remarkable 2.5 billion US dollar during 2002-2006 period; around 9 thousand industrial projects worth 62 thousand crore taka were registered with the Board of Investment in four and half years up to March 2006, which was more than double compared to the previous five years. As a result, the contribution of the industrial sector to GDP exceeded 17 percent and the growth rate in the sector crossed 10 percent during 2005-2006 fiscal year. A new EPZ was set up on the compound of Adamjee Jute Mills in 2004-05 after paying all outstanding dues of officers and employees of this loss-incurring state-owned enterprise.

A Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper was formulated by the Khaleda government as a medium term plan document in line with the Millennium Development Goals declared by the United Nations. The budgetary allocation for poverty alleviation programmes was gradually increased each year and its share stood at 56 percent during 2006-07 financial year. The government expanded the social safety net programmes for direct poverty alleviation of hardcore and underprivileged people in the rural areas. A fund worth over taka 50 crore was created for generating employment opportunities in the country's Monga-infested (famine-like state) northern region during the lean season. A taka 500 crore Char Livelihood Programme was launched for improving the livelihood of poor people living on shoals. The population below poverty line in the country diminished by around 9 percent during the third tenure of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia. Numerous measures were taken for the welfare of backward and neglected segments of society. The monthly allowances received by the widows and distressed women were raised and their numbers increased. Arrangements were made for providing them with training and micro-credit, so that they could become self-reliant. The amount of old age allowance and the number of beneficiaries in the programme were also increased. The Khaleda government also took some notable measures for environmental conservation in the country. 20-year old buses and trucks were withdrawn and CNG driven 4-stroke baby taxies were introduced on the roads in place of 2-stroke diesel-driven ones. Production and marketing of harmful polythene bags were banned throughout the country.'

The Khaleda government also achieved some successes in the education sector. The net enrolment rate in primary schools was raised to 97 percent, education for female students was made free up to class twelve, and gender parity was achieved among boys and girls in schools. Besides, two new girls' cadet colleges and three new polytechnic institutes for women were also set up. Initiative was also taken to establish an Asian University for Women in Chittagong with assistance from the USA. Side by side with modernising the madrasa education system, the Khaleda government decided to recognise the 'Dawra' certificate of Qaumi madrasas and made Fazil-Kamil degrees equivalent to bachelor and master's degrees. A number of new public universities were set up for expanding the opportunities for higher education, which mostly comprised of universities of science and technology. Many new private universities were also allowed to go into operation. Effective steps were taken for promoting vocational education. Existing vocational institutions were upgraded into colleges and their number was raised to 64 from the previous 51.

The Khaleda government also implemented many programmes to reach healthcare services and concomitant infrastructural facilities to the doorsteps of the common man. The number of beds was raised to 50 from 31 in upazila hospitals, from 50 to 100 in hospitals of new district towns, and from 100 to 250 in hospitals of greater district towns. Besides, some new medical colleges and hospitals were set up. Infant and maternal mortality rates decreased in the country due to measures taken by the government. The rate of population growth came down to 1.47 percent due to strengthening of the family planning programme.

The Khaleda government also attached much importance to the development of the telecommunication sector. The number of fixed telephones in the country was increased to 12 lakh 20 thousand from 6 lakh 85 thousand at the time of her assumption of office. The number of fixed-phone subscribers of private telephone operators also crossed 150 thousand in 2006. Digital telephone exchanges were set up in 64 districts of the country and the upazilas were also gradually brought under digital telephone network. The total number of fixed and mobile telephone connections in the country crossed the one and a half crore mark during Khaleda's tenure. 17 private companies were given permission to provide fixed-phone services in order to make fixed telephones more accessible to the common people. Side by side, government-owned Teletalk Bangladesh was also providing mobile phone services to the public. Bangladesh was connected to the information super-highway through linking up with a submarine cable. As a result, overseas communication, data exchange and internet connections became speedier, cheaper and easier.

Although the Khaleda government did not do much to raise the power generation capacity in the country, a network of 89 thousand kilometres of new transmission lines was installed during the period for supplying electricity. Because of stringent measures, system loss in the power sector was reduced to 22 percent from the previous 28 percent. It was also possible to bring almost 50 thousand villages under the purview of rural electrification programme. Fifteen new upazilas were created by the Khaleda administration, thereby raising their number to 480. The post of a Tax Ombudsman was also created by the government for the first time in the country.

It was during the third tenure of Khaleda Zia that the direct bus service between Dhaka and' Agartala was launched and the direct railway link between Dhaka and Kolkata was finalised. Besides, railway service between the eastern and north-western part of the country via the Jamuna Bridge was also started during the period. Some notable road-bridges constructed during this period were: Shikarpur and Dwarika Bridges on Dhaka-Barisal highway, Fakir Lalon Shah (Pakshi) Bridge on the Padma, Khan Jahan Ali Bridge over the river Rupsha on Khulna-Mongla highway, Haji Shariatullah Bridge over the river Arial Khan on Dhaka-Khulna highway, Dhaleshwari Bridge on Hemayetpur-Singair road, Mollarhat Bridge over the river' Modhumati, the second Buriganga Bridge at Babubazar, the Dharla Bridge on Kurigram-Bhurungamari road, the Chandpur Bridge over the river Dakatia and the Fenchuganj Bridge over the Kushiara. Another notable project undertaken with assistance from the Kuwait government was the construction of the Third Karnaphuli (Shah Amanat) Bridge at Chittagong.

It was the Khaleda government which constituted an Anti Corruption Commission through an Act passed by the Jatiya Sangsad as a successor organisation to the erstwhile Bureau of Anti-Corruption. Another notable administrative measure taken by the Khaleda government was the introduction of a new national pay scale for government servants in 2005. However, promotions given to higher echelons of bureaucracy during her tenure were not always above controversy and there were many allegations of juniors superseding the seniors on political grounds. The role and influence of Hawa Bhaban, the Banani office of the BNP chairperson, in administrative matters and governance drew flak from many quarters and allegations of corruption against the Bhaban functionaries were quite rife.

During the third tenure of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, Bangladesh was elected to 13 UN bodies, including the United Nations Human Rights Council, Peace Building Commission and ECOSOC. Besides, Bangladesh became a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum. She also discharged the responsibility of SAARC Chairperson after hosting the 2005 summit. Bangladesh also played a crucial role in global peace initiatives during the period by sending the highest number of troops to the United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. The government lent its whole-hearted support to the West in the war against international terrorism, but at the same time the Khaleda regime strove to reinforce mutually beneficial and cooperative relationships with the Muslim countries of the world. [Helal Uddin Ahmed]