Wednesday, December 31, 2008

People's Victory

The results of the 9th parliamentary elections have been clear and decisive. The voters have overwhelmingly rejected the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led Four-Party-Alliance (FPA), opting for a change that the Awami League (AL) driven Grand Alliance promises to bring about. This victory is also the victory of the spirit of the liberation war, which is evident in the routing of the anti-liberation forces in Monday’s elections. As the country is on the verge of a historic transition to democracy we analyse the results that have given the AL, the vanguard of our Muktijuddo, a chance to rebuild the nation. The country has vested all the power to Sheikh Hasina and her allies to materialise the dream of golden Bengal that the three million martyrs of our liberation war had dreamed of. In her election speech she has said, “Boat (the AL’s election symbol) has brought you independence, repeat your choice this time too, it will give you economic freedom.” The people of Bangladesh have answered her call; now is the time to show brinkmanship and steer the nation towards a happy and prosperous future.

The BNP’s Downfall

There is no denying that the immediate past FPA government, which ruled the country for five years, was thoroughly corrupt. In Khaleda Zia’s last term in office an alternative centre of power was created in Hawa Bhaban by Tarique Rahman, Khaleda’s first-born. From 2001-2006, the 42-year-old son of the then Prime Minister was the epicentre of corruption and nepotism that plagued Khaleda’s regime. Since his entrance into the BNP, founded by his father, former military dictator Gen Zia, Tarique had involved himself in unlawful influence and businesses at home and abroad. As allegations of corruption against her son became louder, Khaleda turned a blind eye, even occasionally calling it “a conspiracy to tarnish the image of the nationalist forces.” From the broken suitcase that he had left for his widow when he was assassinated in a failed coup in Chittagong, Zia’s two sons became the owner of a textile mill, numerous cargo ships, and a private television channel, not to mention investments worth millions of dollars that Tarique is believed to have secretly made in countries as diverse as Malaysia, Australia and South Africa.

In Khaleda’s regime Tarique, his brother Koko and a coterie of thugs that surrounded them ran amuck. Driven by a get-rich-quick lifestyle, they plundered the country and its fledgling economy. A syndicate was created which was widely believed to be behind the price-hike of essentials like rice and baby food. This was a time when no business deal was made without the prior endorsement of Mr 10 per cent, which remained Tarique’s nom-de-gruerre. Besides business transactions, his long hands were stretched to government tenders and the recruitment of civil servants. Even things as banal as electric poles did not escape his clutches. A recent investigation by the Singapore government has found that Arafat Rahman Koko, Khaleda’s other son, has taken bribes amounting to Tk 11.43 crores and siphoned it off to invest in his own company that he has founded abroad.

Tarique and Koko were good enough to bring the most ignominious defeat an outgoing ruling party has ever suffered in the political history of the South-Asian sub continent. Worst still, together, both the brothers gave given birth to a culture of impunity and degeneration where merit did not matter, the Crown Prince’s blessings alone were enough to hit the jackpot.
Armed with this, some members of the BNP, in the party’s last term, unleashed a reign of unbridled corruption and mafia-like terror where it is justified to gobble up goods meant to be used for victims of flood or other natural disasters.

All the democratic institutions were systematically destroyed; it seemed as though the BNP had held some grudge against the country and its polity and now that it had got the chance it was obliterating everything the country stands for. Known war criminals were made ministers; Zia helped Razakars to be rehabilitated in independent Bangladesh: his widow made the country their fiefdom.

Patronised by Khaleda’s cabinet members, several militant outfits crept up in the north and northeast. When Siddikur Rahman alias Bangla Bhai and his Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh were unleashing a reign of terror on innocent people in the name of wiping out Maoist rebels, Khaleda and Matiur Rahman Nizami were in denial about their presence, with the latter calling it “a figment of media’s imagination”. When in one of the ghastliest terror attacks militants lobbed grenades at a meeting of the then opposition leader Sheikh Hasina, Khaleda’s colleagues were quick to find the culprits in the fold of the AL leadership; the subsequent probes were deliberately misled to save the real culprits. It took a couple of years and near simultaneous blasts in 63 districts, marking the début of the birth of terrorist group Jamaat-ul- Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB) to make Khaleda swallow her words. The JMB was banned, but their abettors remained close to the BNP leadership.

Like her infamous Roman predecessor in history, Khaleda fiddled when her subjects starved due to a price-hike of essentials. At the fag end of her regime, the BNP leadership tried to go on with a fake voter list that had over 1 crore fictitious names. In the run up to the elections, when news of her son’s corruption has hit the headlines, Khaleda has cried innocence, which has not boded well with the voters. To make matters worse, in several constituencies the party has nominated party members who are widely believed to be corrupt. With this add the vision and maturity that its opposition, the Grand Alliance, especially the AL, has shown. The BNP has, in fact, sealed its own fate; the people of Bangladesh have just written it aloud.

Bangladesh has Voted for Change

Compared to Khaleda’s last term in office, prices of rice and dal in Hasina’s rule was within the reach of the toiling masses thanks to a flurry of bumper productions of crops. Voters, especially the women voters who directly bear the brunt of price-hike, have kept it in mind while voting for ‘boat’, the AL’s election symbol.

This year’s polls, besides the corruption of the BNP’s last term in office, the rise of extremism as an issue has played a crucial role. Even though the country has witnessed several terrorist incidents, including a couple of suicide attacks, ordinary Bangladeshis have never entertained extremist beliefs. The BNP’s flirting with the extremists has left the voters with no other option but vote for the AL-led Grand Alliance, which has shown the non-communal alternative.

Throughout the electioneering, Sheikh Hasina has shown brinkmanship. Her ‘Vision 2021’ has been welcomed by the young voters, who constitute 32 per cent of the electorate. Unlike her BNP counterpart, Hasina shunned character assassinations and mud slinging during electioneering. The manifesto that she has presented before the nation has shown her maturity as a politician, she has simply steered her party and the alliance towards one of the biggest election victories since independence.

In fact, this is for the second time in Bangladesh’s history that in a free and fair election a party has been voted to power with an absolute majority, the first being the AL-led government by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. This is a huge responsibility, which the party has to shoulder, especially at a time when the global economy has entered a recession, which might affect the country’s export and remittances.

The next government has to deal with extremism with an iron hand. Instead of taking the traditional approach, the next AL-government should exterminate the causes that drive young men towards the world of suicide bombing. Computer and vocational trainings must be incorporated in the religious education system; secular education system must include the proper teachings of Islam, a religion the literal meaning of which is peace. At the same time, the government must reign in on the terror outfits and bring their patrons to book.

The next government must pursue the cases of Bangabandhu murder pending with the court. It must also immediately set up a tribunal to try the war criminals of 1971.

The whole country is now united behind the AL and the Grand Alliance, and its leadership must create a platform of broad national unity to take the nation forward. The last two elections’ voting trend tells us that Bangladeshis do not forgive their leaders for making mistakes. The AL was humbled once by the voters in 2001; the BNP, it is obvious from its last term in office that the party has not learnt anything from it. One hopes that it will be different this time round. Everything that the next government needs to do is to closely scrutinise the mistakes that its predecessors have made and make sure that it does not make them.

From Sheikh Hasina the nation expects the vision and magnanimity that she has shown during electioneering. She should also carry on the institutional reforms that have been initiated in the last two years and must ensure the freedom of judiciary and press. Civil service needs to be made free of the remnants of politicisation that took place during the FPA government’s rule.

These elections have given Bangladesh the opportunity to have a fresh start after years of misrule and abuse of power. The country is at a crossroads now. One path is going to lead us to tolerance, economic development while on the other lie violence and poverty. The situation eerily resembles that of 1972 when a new era dawned on us. We could not build the nation at that time for the sabotage of the anti-liberation forces, our ineptitude in governance and the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the four national leaders who led the nation during the Muktijuddo. This time Sheikh Hasina and the alliance must seize the opportunity and materialise the promises that they have made in their manifestoes.

Politics in the New Era

In these elections the voters have also overwhelmingly voted out war criminals, most of whom have been vying for seats in the FPA’s banner. Some recent comments made by Jamaat leaders Matiur Rahman Nizami and Ali Ahsan Mojahed have proven that the party still does not feel repentant for the crimes they have committed against the nation and its people in 1971. Like an albatross on the neck, the JI and its past has become a liability for the party’s alliance friends.

To do politics in Bangladesh, the JI must believe in Bangladesh’s sovereignty and everything that it stands for. It has to clean its leadership of war criminals. The BNP has to rethink its relationship with the JI as the elections have proven that in the new scenario frolicking with those suspected of war crimes may not yield dividend on Election Day. The BNP leadership has to start from the scratch. The party has to reform itself, which can be started by removing the corrupt from its leadership. The party has to come clean before the nation and given that a vacuum is created in the centre right politics, the BNP will be able to fill it if the party can come up with the right cause and shuns the politics of violence, anarchy and corruption.

The Jatya Party (JP) led by deposed President HM Ershad has gained significant grounds in the elections. It has made inroads in Sylhet and Chittagong. Till now JP has restricted itself in the north and the popularity it enjoys across the country centres round Ershad’s personality. These elections have given the party 27 seats, which is the party’s second best performance in any elections. The JP, whose politics is centre to the right, is capable of claiming the BNP’s votes in the next elections if it can go beyond the personality cult of Ershad and comes up with its vision of the country’s future.

The last parliament did not have any Left MPs. This time five MPs, three from the Jatya Shamajtantrik Dal and two from the Workers Party of Bangladesh, have been elected. They, however, have ridden the ‘boat’ to cross the shore. The country’s left has to work hard to fare well in the next elections. If they get ministries it will be for the first time that Bangladesh is going to have Left ministers; so much so for a country where two years ago two known war criminals adorned the cabinet.

Last week’s general elections are going to make a long-lasting impact on the country’s politics. A bright new beginning lies before us. The nation’s expectations will be high, as they, in a rare display of unity, have ousted the FPA. The people’s verdict we now know. History tells us that the masses never make mistakes in choosing their leaders. So far, Sheikh Hasina, the AL and Grand Alliance leader, has shown the leadership ability that the country is in need of in the new era. She and her colleagues have to keep in mind that with power comes responsibility. Bangladesh has produced leaders like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Maulana Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani and Tajuddin Ahmed, leaders who led a life of sacrifice, leaders who were capable of reading the pulse of the people. Last Monday Bangladesh has voted for change, it is now time its leaders rise up to the occasion to build a modern, prosperous country free from poverty and exploitation.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting the Impossible Done

In an exclusive interview, Major General Md Shafiqul Islam, ndc, psc, Military Secretary of the Bangladesh Army, which has co-managed the Bangladesh Voter Registration Project with the Election Commission, talks about how the dream of a flawless voter list has come true. This year the ID World International Congress has honoured Major General Islam with the ID Outstanding Achievement Award

Can you please tell us about the process in which the national ID card project worked?

Before explaining the process, I would like to touch up on the events that led to this project. The events of 11 January 2007 created a widespread national expectation for an accurate voter list with photographs. Considering the significance of the task, Bangladesh Army, under the direction of the Chief of Army Staff, proposed an integrated task, which would produce not only a voter list, but also National ID cards and a biometric database for the citizens above 18 years of age. The model for the process was deliberated by a national committee and then was put to test through a pilot project at Sreepur Pouroshobha on June 10, 2007.

At the same time, Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) approved this project for nationwide implementation with the assistance of UNDP and requested Bangladesh Army to provide the necessary technical and logistical support required for implementing the same. Hence, a group of dedicated officers along with local software firms developed a customised software and set-up a control and monitoring network for undertaking the job. An operation, code named ‘NOBO JATRA’ was launched in late July 2007. A central control cell at Dhaka cantonment and divisional and district control cells were established to coordinate the project, with the aid of BEC and local administrations. The registration form contained all relevant fields required for the voter list and National ID cards. Registration on paper was accomplished through door-to-door visits by data enumerators while the digital registration was done at the registration centre under the direct supervision of the Army. In the coastal areas of the country, Bangladesh Navy supervised the task. Operators and technical managers were recruited and trained throughout the country by Army personnel. After the digital registration and proof checking of the data, the draft voter list and National ID cards were prepared by the Army.

The voter lists were then handed over to the local election offices and the National ID cards were distributed through the local administrations. An ordinance was also enacted by the government under which a new organization named National Identities Registration Authority (NIRA) had been set up to manage ID card issues in future. For registering and issuing ID cards to approximately 80.11 million voters throughout the entire country, an elaborate time and rotation plan was chalked out considering the topography, communication network, population distribution and socio-cultural sensitivity. To eliminate chances of duplicate registrations by an individual physical and biometrics digital checking were done rigorously. Following all these processes the National ID cards were prepared and distributed to all citizens by 30th October 2008. Throughout this process the citizens of Bangladesh as well as the media proactively helped the Army in completing this widely recognized task.

How challenging was the task?

The task was mammoth, the timeframe was tight and the challenges were many. Some of the challenges were:
The first hurdle we encountered was the selection and customisation of appropriate software. When the news became public that Bangladesh Army was going to enrol and issue ID cards to approximately 90 million people, both local and international software and hardware companies flooded in. Their whole intention was to grab this lucrative contract for business purposes ignoring our national requirements. They projected that a single international standard ID card would cost around 3 to 4 US dollars (amounting to a total of 270 to 360 million US dollars for 90 million voters). This cost projection was for ID cards alone, excluding the costs for voter list with photographs. Their predicted timeframe for the project outdid our expected time limit of 12 to 18 months. Moreover they would not handover the exclusive rights of the software. So we individually searched for and found a few software SDK sources and linked them with several willing local development partners. They took on the challenge and developed enrolment, server and matching software integrating multiple biometric features. Thus the entire technology gamut became solely a Bangladeshi affair.

The second challenge was the selection and procurement of appropriate and cost effective hardware. The huge amount of hardware required (11,000 laptops with webcams and fingerprint scanners, 600 desktops, 550 laser printers, 3000 generators to name a few) drew tough competition from various firms. These firms also tried to push low quality items taking legal advantage of PPR 2003. After much delay UNDP’s direct procurement of hardware saved the day. At one point we were stuck with digital signature capture devices. After much experiment with various digital signatures, we finally decided to capture the signatures from paper through webcam snapshot. It saved money and logistical hassle. Otherwise for the digital signature additional USB port was needed in the laptops. Another innovative decision was to add low-priced keyboard to each laptop so that the novice operators do not damage the integrated laptop keyboards. An additional challenge in the project was to establish an effective troubleshooting chain throughout the country so that technological glitches would not affect the operating state of the equipments.

The procurement, distribution and maintenance of a huge quantity of items like 1,60,000 reams of paper, 100 million laminating pouch, 6300 toner of 720 laser printers, 3500 generators and their spares posed a huge problem. Sometimes the foreign factory production line could not meet the running requirement on the ground. On many occasions, items like toner, laptops, laminating pouch, fingerprint scanners had to be airlifted directly from the production site to Zia International Airport. From there we directly dispatched them to the field of operation. In fact the slow pace of logistics procurement prolonged our field level registration time by about 2 months.

We came across various kinds of social challenges during the project. The most troubling was the use of individual’s title before his first name. It was decided in a high level meeting that names to be written as per each person’s SSC certificate. But many educated people wanted to reflect their professions before their given names with titles such as Lawyer, Physician, Professor, Teacher, Judge, Government Official status, Freedom Fighter etc. Managing these became difficult. The second issue was photographing women with veils. We organized a secluded corner for them with female operators. Another issue was the quality of photographs. Some of the operators could not capture the photographs properly. Other issues like determining age and date of birth of illiterate people, understanding the language and social customs of rural areas like that of Sylhet, Noakhali, and Chittagong posed considerable difficulty for us.

Skilled data entry operators and technical managers were the key to success of the project. Initially these tasks were performed by Army personnel. Gradually we trained students and local people in these fields. However in the coastal and bordering areas, suitable male/female operators were not available. So, on many occasions we transported operators from one district to another, organized their travel, accommodation, food etc so that the job could be completed in time. The nature of the job sometimes required female operators to work graveyard shifts and their safety became a point of concern. We had to organized police escort for them. A handful of operators even tried to beat the system with malpractices. For instance, instead of writing the full name of citizens they would type one alphabet and then move on to the next field. Some operators even copied their own fingerprint for individuals whose fingerprints took considerably longer time to capture. To prevent such incidents we had to take a number of technical and administrative actions.

These factors became critical for coastal, hilly, haor and char areas. We had to complete the registration of these areas keeping an eye on cyclone, monsoon, norwester and flood timing. In some areas like chars and haors it was more convenient to conduct the registration during flood than dry seasons. To meet the requirements of coastal areas, naval vessels were used. For Chittagong Hill Tracts, helicopter sorties were used to transport operators and equipment.

Many have voiced concerns about the issue of privacy. How do you perceive the issue?

For many nations, privacy is a controversial issue when it comes to ID cards with biometrics. However, more and more countries are resolving this problem and national ID cards are being introduced. In our case, we looked into the problem quite critically and took adequate administrative and legal measures to prevent the exploitation of sensitive data. For example, under no circumstances hard or soft data are handed over to wrong/ unauthorized recipient. Also, when data is given to public domains, biometric data is not released. This is the reason why contesting candidates in the forthcoming elections will be given electoral roll “without” photographs. Moreover, an exclusive organization (under the Ministry of Home Affairs)--the National Identities Registration Authorities (NIRA) has been set up to be the owner of the data relating to national ID cards. Most importantly, the enacted ordinance on national ID prohibits handing over of any biometric data without a court order. In the same ordinance, strict punishment has been mentioned for any unauthorised release or leakage of individual citizens’ data.

Will you share any personal experience centring on the project?

There are countless events of the two-year long project that are worth mentioning. In fact every day our team was enriched with new experiences. However, I shall share two small incidents from our pilot project at Sreepur Pouroshobha. To capture fingerprints we kept open-ended options so that a person could be registered with any of their ten fingerprints. We even anticipated that there would be few people (farmers, for example) for whom none of the fingerprints would be captured by scanners and therefore kept an ‘Unreadable Fingerprint’ option. However, at Sreepur someone showed up for registration who unfortunately didn’t have any of his hands and consequently the software didn’t allow his registration. We immediately sat down with the programmers and incorporated a NO FINGER option and then registered the person. In another incident an elderly woman, approximately of 90 years of age arrived for registration. She could barely walk or even raise her head for photograph. The operator’s helper held her head up so that she could be photographed. It was not mandatory for her to come to the registration centre since we would visit her home to register because of her age. So when asked why she had come she replied ‘amarta ami nibo”.

I predicted in my concluding remarks during the Sreepur Pilot Project concluding ceremony that probably these indomitable spirits would be our inspiring light for the uncertain future ahead. Now at the end of this journey I am convinced that their spirits and prayers have helped this challenge to come out with flying colours.

How do you feel after being awarded such a prestigious award?

I feel that through this award, the capability and hard work of Bangladesh Army have been recognized and every Bangladeshi all over the globe has been honoured, because every bit of this mega achievement is the result of the dedication, commitment and belief in the ability of self of all the Bangladeshis. And when this was recognized by a congress, which is the champion of ID technology, it was recognition of the synergic efforts of a nation thriving to identify itself with the progress of the advanced countries of the world. I echoed the same sentiment in front of the audience when I was requested to give my instant feeling in Milan on November 18, 2008.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Bay of Wonder

A wildlife photographer turned conservationist and his organisation are fighting for a protected area in the Sundarbans for Bangladesh’s threatened dolphins

Rubaiyat Mansur, fondly called Mowgli by his friends and family, was charmed by the magic of the Sundarbans. In fact, in the early and late nineties he was on board different tourist vessels of Guide Tours, which his father owns, as a tour guide and a wildlife photographer. It was on a visit like this that he met Brian Smith, zoologist and Asia coordinator of IUCN Species Survival Commission, who frequents the shores of Bangladesh and was on a trip to find more about the Irrawaddy dolphins. “The dolphin survey, which held in 2002 and went on for 20 days, was for the first time in our history that we have come to know that along with Ganges River dolphin, commonly known as shushuk, Irrawaddy dolphins also exist in the Sundarbans in a large number,” Mowgli says.

After that, he along with the captains of the Guide Tours ships, have done a lot of small researches on their own. In 2004 they trekked the entire coastal belt and 50 kilometres in the bay to find out the varieties of whales, dolphins and porpoises that grace our waters. After seeing the photos that he had taken of the marine life in the coast, Brian told him to start working on the dolphins, telling him that young Bangladeshis like him should come forward to preserve the natural diversity of the country.

There has been no turning back since then. In the winter of 2005 he and his organisation Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project (BCDP) started a project on photo-identification of the bottlenose dolphins of the Sundarbans. “We have found that a huge swathe of water, which spans about 40 kilometres near Mongla is a hotspot of bottlenose dolphins. Because these dolphins come in close proximity with fishing trawlers, they bump into accidents; sometimes their fins get cut off by the blades of these vessels,” Mowgli, who has been at sea in the last three seasons, says.

This water, known as the Swatch-of-no-ground is, in fact, a thriving ground for the whales and dolphins for its unique makeup. “Situated on the south of the delta the Swatch-of-no-Ground is a trough-shaped marine valley or underwater canyon. With a flat floor that is 5 to 7 km wide, depths in the trough at the edge shelf are about 1,200m. It has been suggested that the Swatch-of-no-Ground has a seaward continuation for almost 2,000 km down the Bay of Bengal,” an officer in the Bangladesh Navy explains.

But the menace that this 120-kilometre coastline, including the Swatch, poses for the marine mammals is manifold in nature. At risk is not only the survival of bottlenose, but also around 6000 Irrawaddy dolphins, which live in the estuary and consist the largest population of such dolphins in the world. Even though the fishermen do not target these animals, some get entangled in their nets, meeting painful deaths for these mammals need to breath like humans. “Besides incidental killings,” says Elisabeth Fahrni Mansur of the BCDP, “toxic contamination and the use of gillnet fisheries are rampant in this part of the sea’. Another reason why the government must take urgent measures is that the prey of the cetaceans are depleting fast due to massive catch of fish fingerlings. Elisabeth and the BCDP propose a network of protected areas in the mangrove channel and deep-sea canyon waters where whales and dolphins habitat in all seasons.

Mowgli thinks the protected areas should not exclude the fishermen who go there for their bread and butter, or rather, for their fish and salt. “We want a participatory, sustainable development, which will include all the stakeholders,” he says. His organisation proposes three protected sites for shushuks and Irrawaddy dolphins centring on Katka. Another protected area he proposes for the Swatch, where four species of cetacean population can be found, of them three are dolphins and one is a whale. The first protected area that he proposes is a 12ikilometre channel from Ghagramari Forest Department Patrol Post to the Karamjal Patrol Post through Dhangmari creek on the Passur. The second area will stretch 15 kilometres from Jongra patrol post on the Passur to the confluence of Urubunia creek. The third protected are in the Sundarbans will be 5-kilometeres long, starting from Dudmukhi post to the confluence of the Bhola River.

Besides monitoring the killings of dolphins, the government must also provide the fishermen with global positioning systems and depth sounders and train them their usage so that the fishermen can navigate safely. For their turn, the fishermen will safely release live dolphins that get caught up in the nets and collect samples from the dead animals to pass them on to the authorities concerned.

Creation of a protected area for the whales and dolphins seems a far cry for Mowgli and his team who have continually got the cold shoulder from the government. Apathy remains high. It so happened that many fishermen in the Sundarbans laughed at Mowgli and his crew when he asked them whether they had seen any whale in the water. Their laughter turned into smiles of recognition when he showed them some photos of Bryde’s whale. He says, “Suddenly they screamed, ‘We have seen it many a time’; imagine if this is the case of the people who live half their lives in water how apathetic the townies will be to the plights of the dolphins?”

To save the threatened life of the marine mammals the BCDP is organising an exhibition titled ‘Introducing Whales and Dolphins of Bangladesh’, the aim of which is to make people aware of the plight of these animals. “The interactive exhibition aims at introducing Bangladesh’s cetacean diversity and the ongoing conservation efforts. Through photographs, film shows, games, and models we hope to create a sense of pride and foster support for the conservation of these unique aquatic animals,” Mowgli says.

Introducing Whales and Dolphins of Bangladesh
Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project
Bangladesh Shishu Academy, Dhaka
October 9-12, 2008

A group of Bryde`s whale at the Swatch-of-No-Ground.
Bottlenose dolphin at the Swatch-of-No-Ground.
Bryde`s whale at the Swatch.
Spinner dolphin.
Spotter dolphin.
Shushuk or Ganges water dolphin
Depth Difference in the Swatch

Monday, September 22, 2008

Made in Bangladesh

Locally made Products can make the Dream of Autarky come True

Abandoned by her parents, twelve-year-old Masuma sleeps under the awning of a foreign bank, the latest to enter the country’s burgeoning capital market. Masuma does not know how to read and write, neither has she learnt the hidden laws of probability, according to which the stock exchanges work. She sells flowers at the intersection in Motijheel, near the DSE, as it is called by those who invest in the share market. She has remained outside the steady growth of 5/6 percent that Bangladesh’s economy has enjoyed over the last few years. Her father left them, she and her mother, in 2005, the year in which Bangladesh was listed with South Korea and nine other countries as ‘Next Eleven’, eleven emerging economies, by Goldman Sachs investment bank. Her mother ‘disappeared’, as she calls it now, a year after that. Her mother has got married again, Masuma found out later. Left with no other option, Masuma, barely in her teens, started to beg; with the hundreds that she had saved, Masuma bought a few bouquets of flowers to sell it to the commuters who halted at the crossway. Since then it has been her only source of income; “It’s better than begging,” she, who goes hungry on every alternate days, says proudly.

Over the last couple of decades Bangladesh’s economy, considered the 48th largest in terms of its total Gross Domestic Product, has grown. It is difficult to tell to what extent locally made products are contributing to its overall growth, but the advent of Bangladeshi consumer products has become one of its prime contributors. People belonging to the middle-income group are flexing their financial muscle, generating an ever-increasing demand.

The irony, however, does not escape us: Bangladesh’s booming economy is based on a system that forces its own children to go hungry year in and year out. Millions live on subsistence income; hundreds and thousands of children grow up stunted and malnourished. The law of capitalist economy requires growth and development to be heterogeneous-- while new shopping malls are being built and are quickly crowded with the overfed rich, jostling over gaudy, glitzy expensive clothes; we still have to live with the sight of famished, bone-all Masumas sleeping in the footpath. In this cruel city of over one crore, they are the silent, invisible majority. The path to free them from the clutches of the double-headed monster of poverty and exploitation remains a long and treacherous one.

“The boom has taken place because of the small and medium enterprises (SME), the growth of the garment industry and the remittance sent from abroad by migrant workers,” says MM Akash, economist and teacher of Dhaka University. The consumers of these locally made products belong to the lower and middle classes, who, he says, if are given proper government help, can work wonders. One reason why the SMEs have flourished in the country is because certain import restrictions are in force. “All the SMEs produce goods and commodities are import substituting, or they supply the raw materials to small agro-based industries,” he says. If these small enterprises are given the driver’s seat, they will generate more growth and the benefit of it will trickle down to the bottom. “The government should make bank loans cheap and easy for local small industries. It must also create cooperatives of small farmers and weavers and the government has to take the responsibility of marketing their products so that middlemen like big retail stores cannot exploit them,” Akash says.

In fact in an economy like ours cooperatives and guilds owned by the farmers and small investors are necessary to relieve the burden of import expenditure. As their produces are primarily import substituting, encouraging their growth will mean more employment opportunities, which for its turn will generate demand.

Akash has made scathing remarks on the outlets that buy products from small producers only to sell it at a higher price. “They add value to the products that the poor weavers produce and market them at a higher price,” he says, “In the long run this process leaves the producers exploited.” He thinks it is high time that these outlets give up its ownership to the weavers and small producers who produce all its products. “Grameen Check is owned by the weavers, if Grameen can do it, why will other such organisations will remain an exception?”

To strengthen the growth and sustainability that our economy has been enjoying over the last couple of years, the government must take concentrated steps. One wrong decision can ruin everything. “If now,” Akash says, “the government lifts the restrictions following some dictums of the World Bank and open our market to cheap substandard Chinese goods, our SME-based growth, which has so far grown steadily, will not sustain.” Inflow of remittances, on the other hand, does not go to the productive sector. The government can take certain measures that will increase non-resident investments.

Taking the right steps in the right direction to sustain the demand for Bangladeshi products can be the first step towards autarky. It means that Masuma's freedom from hunger and poverty is entwined with Bangladesh’s economic independence.

This article was first published in the September 12 issue of the Star Magazine

Building Bangladesh

Operated by the Navy, Khulna Shipyard Limited, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary, is a rare example where a government-run industry is actually making money

In a country where government-run industries are synonymous with corruption and mismanagement, Khulna Shipyard Limited (KSY) has been making a profit for the last eight years. Located around 300 kilometres away from the capital, the KSY was built on over 68.97 acres of land in Khulna by a German firm called Stulcken Sohn in 1957.

It was handed over to the Bangladesh Steel and Engineering Corporation (BSEC) in 1972. The decision soon turned out to be a bad one, for the shipyard, which can repair 16-20 medium size ships at a time, has suffered occasional bouts of loss and had hardly seen any happy times. As the sad state of the yard persisted for 15 consecutive years, Bangladesh Navy (BN) has been given the responsibility of running the KSY on October 3 1999.

For the shipyard, there has been no turning back since then. Manned by 813 people, of whom 36 belonging to the BN, since then it has built 30 new ships, earning the government exchequer millions. “This year, up till April, our sales have reached an all-time high with a profit of TK 6.89 crore,” says an official of the yard. He believes the quality of its products, competitive price and timely delivery have earned the KSY the trust and admiration of local and foreign buyers.

As far as history is concerned, Bangladesh, a riverine delta that it is, has been a hub of shipbuilding. Our country is endowed with the beauty of nature; hundreds of rivers crawl through the lush green landscape of our motherland. We have always been seafarers, but the tradition of using the waterways for ferry goods and people has died away slowly as the subsequent governments have put more emphasis on constructing roads and bridges. Given that inland transportation of goods and commodities is cheaper, if proper attention is given to it, our water transport can do miracles for our economy.

The KSY can play a decisive role in the growth of water transport sector, which in turn, will foster growth and economic development. The official says his company is ready to take up the challenge. “We are doing phase-wise modernisation by introducing modern technology. We also have plans to reduce overhead cost and explore domestic and international market,” he says. A joint venture project to build a slipway is in the offing; construction of a medium size ship should be underway.

Another official says that what sets the KSY apart from other companies is that its products--the ships--are designed and tailor-made to meet the operational needs, and while striving to create effective business development, the KSY management places outmost importance on relationship development with its customers and suppliers. “Satisfied customers,” he says, “are a business's best investment.”

The government has its role to play to help the KSY materialise the dream of making it the best shipbuilding yard in Asia, which its relentless managers and workers have been trying to materialise. The company has achieved a quality management system as per as per ISO 9001: 2000 and is maintaining it in style. “It has also increased its production turnover in allied production sector,” the official says, “man-hour loss has been reduced.”

Inland water transport, as a sector, should be prioritised; the KSY needs to be armed with state-of-the art equipment and machinery to meet the challenges of the new millennium. The story of KSY shows us that if discipline and honesty are guided by innovation, local industries can flourish and can make industrialisation come true.

Our country has become independent through a bloody war. The dreams of the three million martyrs of our liberation war have been a society free from all forms of exploitation, an industrially developed country with a steady economic growth. Ventures like the KSY will surely bring the dream of golden Bengal a little closer.

This article was first published in the August 8, 2008 issue of the Star Magazine

Life Lost in Living

Spiralling price of essentials means that the health of the ordinary masses is at risk

For 55-year-old hawker Ahmad Ali, father of three, life in the last few years has been a miserable journey. The prices of essentials are rising sharply; but his income is proportionately decreasing. “People do not buy old books like the way they used to,” Ali says, as he sits near his makeshift stall in front of the Institute of Fine Arts at Dhaka University. Meat and fish have gradually evaporated from his shopping list as the price of rice has skyrocketed over the last few months. This trend, however disturbing, has repeated itself in the households across the country. In a situation like this, when 'silent hunger' stalks the bazaars, people, especially the poor ones, have to make a choice between going hungry and having food that is low on micronutrients.

“Micronutrient deficiency in a society takes place slowly and silently,” says a professor at Institute of Food and Nutrition at Dhaka University. She says that as prices increase, the poor make a conscious decision and go for food items that are cheap. “And we all know that these things, which do not have the right micronutrient may cause a whole lot of diseases,” she continues, “We call this micronutrient disorder. It gives birth to diseases as ghastly as night blindness, which happens because of improper Vitamin A intake; Iodine deficiency disorder and anaemia--diseases that cripple the human body and are capable of killing the productivity of an entire nation.”

What is particularly telling is that this silent hunger remains unnoticed till a large number of people fall victim to it, drastically decreasing the growth of an entire economy. “Contrary to famine or famine-like situations, there is no drama involved in it. People do not die en mass, the rich and the mighty hardly notice it until an entire generation is wiped off,” she says. She believes the root causes must be addressed; “Here,” she says “we are talking about things as basic as providing the masses with cheap cereal and non-cereal food items.”

For that to happen prices have to dramatically go down, which, as the Ramadan has come, seems to be a remote possibility. “The situation is strange,” says economist MM Akash, “because even though wholesale prices of the essentials are decreasing on both local and international markets or have remained constant, prices have been spiralling out of the reach of the ordinary people at the retail market.” This means that a nasty form of speculative trade is at work and the middlemen are reaping extraordinary profit from this unnatural situation.

It also means that some people, a minority of the entire populace though they are, have remained outside this so-called price hike--they can spend hundreds on trivialities such as having burger a at one of the many up scale fast food joints that have mushroomed the claustrophobic landscape of the capital. “This wrong demand effect is coming due to a very high-income inequality,” Akash says, “It's driven by cheap unearned income and black money.” This trend contributes to further price hike, which for its turn gives birth to inflationary pressure.

The supply of the essentials has remained vigorous, there is no scarcity of pangash or beef in the bazaar, some customers are buying beef at 200 tk a kg, or will still buy it if prices increase to 500 Tk a kilo, the silent majority of the country are finding it difficult to find their day's meal.

The solution, Akash thinks lies in the creation of an alternative supply channel. He says, “You can never expect private profiteers to run their businesses on an ethical basis.” The alternative supply channel, he says, can take the form of rationing; the fledgling Trading Corporation of Bangladesh, which has been rendered ineffective by flawed policies of the subsequent governments, can be reinvigorated. The government can set up small stores and Operation Dhalbhat of the Bangladesh Rifles has to be extended to the remote areas of the country.

Ahmad Ali, meanwhile, slaves away another day. He has earned around 200 Taka today, he needs to pay a toll of Tk 20 to the police and 10 more to the 'owner of the footpath', still it is enough to buy home a kilo rice and some kachki fish. “My wife cooks kachki fish well with potato,” he says, “it tastes superb if in the curry the potato is one third of the fish. But with what I have earned today I won't be able to buy more that 250 gram of kachki.” A hard choice here, too.

This article was first published in the September 5, 2008 issue of the Star magazine

Revolution Calling

Since its founding as the Communist Party of India, a part of which later formed the Communist Party of Pakistan on March 9, 1948, the communist movement of Bangladesh has gone through a tempestuous time. Almost throughout the Pakistani era the Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB), which spearheaded the independence of Bangladesh, was banned. During Bangladesh's independence war the party formed several guerrilla groups that carried out armed resistance against the occupying Pakistani army. After the liberation, it gave support to the Sheikh Mujib-led Awami League government, which Mujahidul Islam Selim, who has just been re-elected general secretary of the party in the Ninth Congress, thinks was a mistake. “It is indeed true that we have lost some golden opportunities. We should not have given a blank support to the AL; we should have tried to consolidate our independence as a nation, at the same time we could have tried to project ourselves as a real alternative to the AL,” he says.

Selim admits that it was right to support Bangabandhu's progressive policies like nationalisation and non-aligned foreign policy but adds that it was unwise to not criticise his weaknesses and mistakes, such as his backing off from land reform, his giving himself up to imperialism, his party's mismanagement and corruption. It actually has taken a lot of hard work for the party to shed the image of being a stooge of the AL. Since the mid nineties, the CPB has been following the policy of creating what the party calls 'a left alternative', Selim says, “A left alternative is the only viable option to come out of the present crisis. And the leading role of the communists is essential to build up such an alternative. It not only has a future, it has eternity in front of it.”

But the creation of a left force parallel to the two big bourgeoisie parties is turning out to be a difficult job, as the other small left parties, whenever the elections come, form alliance with the AL. Another difficulty that the CPB faces in furthering its goal is the threats of terrorist attack that have been plaguing the country for the last couple of decades. In fact, the party was one of the first targets of bomb blasts. Six people died in twin explosions at a CPB rally in downtown Dhaka on January 20, 2001. Seven years after that grisly incident, the killers are yet to be brought to justice. A government led by Sheikh Hasina was in power, and some leaders of the ruling AL summarily blamed it on the internal feud of the CPB. When the party protested such foul play, the party's rally was attacked by goons belonging to the AL, and Selim, along with his comrades, was assaulted on the streets of the capital. It is indeed ironic that when five years later grenades were thrown at an AL rally and assassination attempt was made on the life of Sheikh Hasina, the BNP government blamed it on the AL leadership, saying the attack was an outcome of an internal squabbling of the party's top leadership.

Selim believes a bright left future is awaiting the country. “Bipolar politics is a total failure,” he says, “The bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie has been proven.” He thinks the ruling classes, especially the plundering capitalism, have established their domination over the so-called big parties. He says, “They want to establish such an arrangement that there will only be alternations of governments between the two parties, the reactionary polices of the state will continue to remain the same.”
But experiences, he says, tell us that these two parties are not civilised enough to share the plunder in a peaceful way and this culture has precipitated the anarchy centring around power, because power is so lucrative that the holders of it will not hesitate to do anything to come to power by hook or by crook. “But this arrangement,” he says, “having failed the ruling classes, is now seeking to dominate over not only the two parties but also wants to set up their own alternative.”

The party in its Ninth National Congress has called the present crises a systematic problem, saying the problems that the country is infested with cannot be done away without a total revolutionary change. Selim explains: “At the present moment there is a free market economy and a dependence on imperialism; even if we go to power and pursue the same policies no change will take place in the lives of the masses. Revolution is a must.”

The party thinks the country must reinstate the constitution of 1972 and the founding principles of secularism, democracy, socialism and nationalism should be re-established. Selim sees no contradiction between revolution and Islam, the religion that the majority of Bangladeshis practice. “If one puts it in proper context, one has to admit that Islam has brought about the biggest revolutionary change in human history. There is no contradiction between Islam and revolution or the issue of emancipation of the people,” he says.

The country, however, is still far away from a revolutionary change that will shake the base of its polity. The CPB has 30, 000 members in total; of them there are 7, 000 red card holders. Even though the party has bagged five seats in the elections of 1991, its support, as far as the arithmetic of popular votes is concerned, has slumped over the decades. A thriving left force in the country's politics, however, is a must for democracy to survive. Only time can tell whether the CPB can build a third alternative of like minded left parties that will bring about revolutionary change in the lives of the toiling masses.

World's Window

The terrorist attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 has changed the course of world history

Seven years after 19 young Muslim men belonging to a then little known terrorist outfit hijacked four commercial airliners to launch one of the ghastliest terror strikes in history, the mark that the event has left on world psyche can still be felt. The world knew little about al-Qaeda (Arabic for the base), which masterminded the attacks, but the Muslim world at that time was brimming with angst, especially because what the Muslims in the streets of Cairo and Quetta saw the United States' unjust support of Israel and the latter's occupation of the holy land.

The history of terrorists using Islam, which literary means peace, to further their political agenda is not old. It dates back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a time when the US, alarmed by the communist invasion of the Central Asian country, supported the Afghan guerrillas with arms and military logistics. Not only in Afghanistan, which has always had a strategic importance as a gateway to Central Asia, the US used Islam in Indonesia, Iran and parts of Africa to fend off the red flag. It supported brutal dictatorial regimes in the developing countries, gave them military hardware, which the juntas used against its own populace. From Gen Augusto Pinochet of Chile to Saddam Hussein of Iraq, the US, the champion of the free world, found friends in the men who 'gassed their own people', who butchered thousands-- all this with the weapons made in the US.

This trend, however disturbing, came to a welcome halt after the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent end of the so-called cold war. Even before that, long before Lenin's statues were dismembered by angry mobs in Moscow and Budapest, a silent but quick change was reshaping the world politics. Only chaos ensued when the Red Army was withdrawn from Afghanistan--different factions of the Mujaheedins fought with each other; corruption was rife, mismanagement was the order of the day. At a time like this, a group of Afghan students belonging to different madrasas formed the Taliban, and within a short span of four years overran the capital Kabul. The country's beleaguered communist President Mohammad Najibullah, who was hiding at a UN compound in Kabul was beaten and castrated before he was hanged from a traffic light in the downtown capital.

The arms that the Talibs used to kill were made in the factories of the free world. By 1996 the table were turned, the Taliban and its friend al-Qaeda had arrived the scene. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US-led Gulf War I, which drove Saddam's men out of the oil-rich kingdom, polarised opinion and the US presence in the Middle East fomented discontent in the Muslim world. It only reconfirmed an idea already engrained in the psyche of the Arabs, that the US, the plunderer of the natural resources of the region, favoured the fat old kings of the Middle East. The latter remain unpopular in their countries, and the US support has made it even worse. It is not difficult to imagine what can happen when disgruntlement is coupled with vengeance and brute force. Osama bin Laden, a former Mujaheedin ideologue, soon hit the headlines, becoming the US's enfant terrible: on August 8, 1998 hundreds of people were killed in simultaneous car bomb explosions at the United States embassies in the East African capital cities of Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. In response, the US launched 'Operation Infinite Reach' to strike a series of cruise missile at different targets in Sudan and Afghanistan.

It is in this back drop that the attack on the US on the fateful morning of September 11, 2001 has taken place. Since then, the world has witnessed two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and numerous big terrorist attacks in London and Madrid. The wars and attacks have predictably polarised opinion, with some Muslims considering the war on terror an attack on the Islamic world, calling it a ploy to destroy Islam. Terrorists, on the other hand, are indiscriminate in their targets--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine hundreds die every month in terror attacks of different colours and hues, in almost all cases the victims are unarmed women and children.

Seven years on, the war that has been waged on the US, and is now being compared with the Japanese air raid on US naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, is showing no sign of abating. On the contrary, the war on terror has alienated the majority of Muslims from the western world. The gulf between the east and the west has widened even dangerously. The logics behind the Gulf War II and the occupation of Iraq have increasingly been questioned in the west itself, as the photos of maimed Iraqis, especially children are shown in the television.

And yet Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11, as the media has abbreviated the event, remains at large. The string of operations that has been launched to capture him has embarrassingly failed. Winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses, which is the bigger battle in the war on terror, has remained neglected. The price of this neglect is going to be higher, there is no denying it.

The 2993 men and women (including 19 hijackers) did not know that their death would change the lives of millions. Their deaths have left the world dangerously divided, perilously close to the end of the old world order.

The Unpunished Crimes

Three years ago, on August 17, 2005, 63 near simultaneous blasts rocked Bangladesh. One rickshawpuller died from his injury and many more were wounded; Bangladesh woke up to the terror of extremism the presence of which its government had been so vociferously denying. Even though Bangladesh has otherwise been known for religious harmony and tolerance and has always taken pride on its Sufi past, religious extremism on a large scale was first introduced to the world's third largest Muslim population during the Afghan war.

The war, funded by the west to fend off an infiltration of the Soviets in the South asian sub-continent, saw the arming of the Afghan Muslims; the word Mujaheedin reached an iconic status with the photograph of a rocket-propelled-grenade wielding bearded Muslim hitting the cover of the Time magazine and Sylvester Stallone in Rambo joining a gang of Mujaheedins on behalf of the world's 'freedom loving people.' The hills of Kandahar and the lush vales of Herat were soon flooded with angry young Muslims from all over the world. These 'foreign fighters' also included Bangladeshi students who went to study in Peshawar, Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan and especially known for the Afghan refugee camps that dotted the treacherous terrain of the country.

The war eventually ended, the Red Army went away defeated. Interestingly, even before the last Soviet tanks left Kabul, a new ideology was sweeping over the shore of Karachi, Bombay and Chittagong: the gun was about to be refixed at a new enemy--the US and what it stood for. A new front opened and splinter groups, quite independently, started to launch their own little battles--in Kashmir, Ahmedabad and Dhaka. Jamaat-ul-Mujaheedin Bangladesh (JMB), which accepted responsibility for the August 17 blasts, belongs to the latter.

The blasts have been significant in the political history of the country. “Firstly,” says Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan ndc, psc (rtd), a national security expert, “no such large scale near simulations blasts have ever taken place in the country before. It has also proven the organisational capabilities of the extremists.” In fact, that the JMB, through these attacks displayed their strength and agility to carry on with their grisly acts, the group later masterminded a string of suicide attacks on the judges in different court buildings of the country.

The 17/ 8 attacks also brought an end to the state of denial that the Four-party Alliance-led government was in. The then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia cried foul when newspapers carried numerous stories on the presence of extremist outfits, terming it a ploy to malign her government's image abroad. Her Industry Minister Matiur Rahman Nizami, at the height of arrogance, called the news of the atrocities committed by Bangla Bhai, a criminal who led a marauding gang of miscreants in the country's northeast, a figment of imagination of the media. The simultaneous blasts of August 17 put an end to that stance, the wheels of the law, however slowly, started to grind. At the fag end of her government's rule, Khaleda's police arrested the top leaders of the JMB and lodged cases of murder.

The lynchpins of terror were hanged last year. The strengths of the JMB have been reduced significantly, but recent newspaper reports suggest that the group is regrouping itself and its members have recently met a number of times to form new committees in different remote areas. Brig Anam agrees; he says, “They have been significantly weakened. But whether their organisational capability has been blunted is a matter of conjecture. The fact that they could manage simultaneous blasts means they have some core members who propagated the acts and are lying in suspended animation, which in an opportune moment may spring into action.”

In fact, out of the 169 cases filed against the JMB members, the trial of only 37 cases has been completed; investigation of 34 cases is yet to be finished; trial is continuing in 98 cases and all five accused in one case have been given release order by the court.

The literal meaning of Islam, the second largest religion in the world, is peace, it also means submission or total surrender of oneself to Allah. Throughout its history Islam has never propagated violence, on the contrary, the Prophet (Peace be upon Him) always used war for defensive purposes. Islam, which has liberated millions across the five continents from the clutches of feudalism and slavery, abhors violence of all kinds. Extremism of the kind that the perpetrators of August 17 blasts preach, has no place in Islam.

The real war on terror needs be fought on all fronts; the key lies in winning the hearts and minds of the toiling masses who live in abject poverty and deprivation. The imams of different mosques and other Islamic scholars can play a pivotal role in making people aware about the evil of terror. At the same time, the government must make sure that the cases against the terror suspects are dispensed quickly; keeping in mind, too, the universal standards of respect for human rights and rule of law. The new terror cells, which are stemming up need to be nipped in the bud to ensure our development as a free, progressive nation. Bangladesh has never been a hub for terror; we have to be on our guard to make sure it does not become one in the future.

For a Free Election

Even though the government and the Election Commission have carried out some reforms in the electoral process to make it free and fair, honest, competent candidates are still difficult to come by

In the last 16 years of quasi-feudal democracy Bangladesh has witnessed three parliamentary elections in which power has swapped hands thrice. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, who ruled the country and their parties with an iron fist, led Bangladesh’s politics into a new level of violent confrontation, making the national parliament Jatya Sangsad ineffective. Even though both the parties bowed to people’s demand and established parliamentary democracy in 1990 after the ouster of Ershad’s dictatorial rule in a mass upsurge, the post of the Prime Minister (PM), in the hands of Khaleda and Hasina, quickly replaced the power of the president. Everything remained in the hands of the PM; it was she who called the shots; she could hire and fire anyone she deemed fit. Whereas in other Westminster democracies, the PM is only the first among the equals, in ours the PM has enjoyed absolute power. A new law has been promulgated to bar floor crossing; the standards of the MPs, in any case, have never been up to the mark. Buying and selling of party nominations have been rampant as some businessmen have seen the election as an opportunity to earn a quick million, a venture in which a one-time investment of one or two crore (paid directly to the Madam or the Netri) could bring both money and power, for the sheaf of paddy or boat has always been good enough to make a few thousands butterflies flutter in the stomach of the voters.

The aborted parliamentary election of the immediate past is a case in point. Both the parties have compromised with their political belief. A bad precedent has been set in which the Awami League has given nominations to shady businessmen who have discovered a new-found love in the ideology of the party, ignoring its own trusted leaders. A vulgar tussle has ensued between the party and Khaleda Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party for the support of deposed dictator Gen HM Ershad with the latter promising to withdraw cases of corruption against him and the former agreeing to make him President for six months. It was, actually, the possible jail term of the former military ruler, who had already aligned himself with the AL that prompted the AL-led Grand Alliance candidates to withdraw their candidatures from the elections, which paved the way to the emergency; Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed-led caretaker government assumed office in the backdrop of a possible civil war-like situation, the dress rehearsal of which had taken place in October 2006, in which the capital witnessed a flurry of pitch battles between AL and BNP loyalists.

After assuming power in January 11 last year, the current caretaker government has set before itself the task of reforming the country’s politics. The Anti-corruption Commission has been revitalised; most major corruption suspects have been arrested; institutional reforms have been carried out. But the fact of the matter is these reforms are turning out to be inadequate and the risk is there that the country and its politics may slide back to the heydays of quasi-democratic dictatorship of the last 16 years.

The Representation of People Order (RPO) has rightly incorporated many changes that the people have been eagerly waiting for. While the new RPO empowers the Election Commission (EC) to scrap the candidature of any candidate, the system has some loopholes, through which the thugs and goons can resurface to influence the people’s verdict. The RPO makes it mandatory for the political parties to get registered with the EC to participate in the election, it also requires the parties to have in their constitutions that they do not have auxiliary organisations of students, teachers and workers, or overseas chapters. A good move though it is, it has drawn criticism from the parties, who call the provision undemocratic and unconstitutional. Even if the parties agree to this clause, chances remain high that their possible declarations will remain on paper; they will never sever their ties with these professional bodies. Implementation of this clause is going to test the patience and prudence of both the EC and the political parties.

Any person who is declared a war criminal by local or international courts, according to the new law, has been made ineligible for contesting the polls. But, the government has done nothing to probe into the war crimes, and bring the criminals to justice to make the upcoming election more meaningful.

The provision for a ‘No Vote’ is exemplary, 30 percent of it cast in an election, unlike the existing provision of 50 percent that the RPO has, should be good enough to scrap the election in a particular seat.

Another prerequisite for the parties that the EC has made to get registered with it is that they must maintain bank accounts in any of the banks and electoral donations of Tk 20,000 or more must be made in checks. The provision of fining the parties for violating this clause is set at Tk 10 lakh, which, given the magnanimity of the crime, is too meagre.

The toughest task of all, is, perhaps, to find honest competent candidates, something, as the political history of the region suggests, has to come from within the political culture of the country. The government has a lot more to do to create a level playing field for everyone, so that a free and fair election can take place at the end of the proposed road map. What lies between now and the peaceful transition to democracy is an abyss of darkness the kind of which we were mired in during the gory days of late 2006.

It is not expected to see the country, after all the efforts that the government has made, to go back to the days of anarchy and lawlessness. The current government is a constitutionally mandated one; its prime responsibility is to hold a fair election, which will be free from the power of money and muscle; a new parliament will rule the country where the presence of the corrupt and war criminals will not be dominant. The next election will be flawed if the corrupt and war criminals make their way to the parliament, like the way they have done in the previous ones. Our democratic future is hanging in balance; one only hopes that in the next four months the government will be able to sweep clean the junk that the others have made in the last three decades.

Monday, August 18, 2008

United We Stand

Saarc leadership must show brinkmanship to make the region an economic powerhouse

While its counterparts in Europe, the Far East and Africa have made viable economic unions, South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (Saarc), which is going to celebrate its 23rd birthday this year, eerily resembles a paper tiger. Though the regional forum has a total landmass of 5,130,746 square kilometres, making it the seventh biggest region in the world, the eight countries of Saarc, which share the same culture and history, have not been able to come close enough to form a Union. Bilateral disputes are rampant, so much so that they at times taint the spirit of co-operation of the organisation.

The summit meeting of the Saarc that has ended in Colombo last week has taken some steps to bring the gap that exists between its members. The Colombo declaration has rightly incorporated two important issues that its leaders have said Saarc will handle--the creation of a food bank or expressing the desire to fight terrorism together.

The question that, however, remains unresolved is the challenge of translating the resolves into results. History tells us that the Saarc has been one of the most poverty-stricken regional groupings in the region despite the fact that its Gross Domestic Product is the 4th biggest in the world; from Kabul to Kolkata one comes across an army of poor, most of whom do not even earn two meals a day. This has been exacerbated by violence and extremism of a different hue that South Asia is littered with. Poverty breeds terrorism, and it is no wonder that the region has witnessed so many terrorist attacks in the last couple of decades. The biggest impediment to self-reliance is perhaps the air of mistrust that the leaders of the group are dogged with. While it is well connected by air to Europe, up until this year there has been no direct flight link between Dhaka and Colombo. An Indian may get a visa to a European country without any hassle, but to get a Pakistani one she will face a wave of difficulties, the rejection rate, it is said that, is an all-time.

Trade barriers are yet to be removed. Footballs made in any western country may be as easily available in Bangladesh as a slab of molasses, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to get one made in Sialkot, which is famous across the globe for producing fine quality footballs. So, economy suffers, and in spite of an economic boom that South Asia has seen in the last couple of decades the number of poor is increasing fast.

To begin with, the leaders of the association should think beyond and start the process of forming a South Asian Union à la EU. A common passport can be introduced, and more importantly, interconnectivity, of all forms, should be thought of to foster development and increase people to people contact. For the Far Eastern countries, South Asia can become the gateway to Central Asia; Nepal and Bhutan can take benefit of the Chittagong Port. A rail and land route can be laid down to connect all the big South Asian cities.

Sharing of energy and water resources is also a must for the region's growth. The countries have to open up their borders and markets to each other for the common good. The regional leaders must not forget that the only way to slay the two-headed monster of poverty and terrorism is through economic development and social connectivity. The Saarc has a long way to go to achieve a poverty-free developed South Asia, the path to South Asian Union is slippery, there are risks at its every turn, but the risks are worth taking for the 1.5 billion South Asian definitely deserve a better future.

Bangladesh's Unfinished Revolution

With the general elections in the offing, the demand for trying the war criminals is gaining momentum

The trial of those who actively opposed Bangladesh's liberation by taking up arms to fight for the occupying Pakistani army has been one of the unfinished legacies of our history. In 1971, Jamaat-e-Islami, Muslim League and the Nejam-e-Islami -- formed different paramilitary groups such as Shanti Committee, Razakar Bahini, Al Badr and Al Shams that killed hundreds and thousands of innocent Bangalis and raped hundreds. Siddiq Salik, who was serving the Pakistan army as a major in Bangladesh in 1971, in his book 'Witness to Surrender' recounts, (TheDaily Star, 2007-10-28) “The only people who came forward (to help the Pakistani army butcher and rape innocent people) were 'the rightists like Khwaza Khairuddin of the Council Muslim League, Fazlul Qader Chaudhry of the Convention Muslim League, Khan Sobur A Khan of the Qayyum Muslim League, Professor Ghulam Azam of the Jamaat-e-Islami and Maulvi Farid Ahmed of the Nizam-i-Islam Party.”

The Al Badr is thought to be behind the massacre of the intellectuals on December 14, 1971 when a hundred intellectuals were picked up to be slaughtered. As the newspapers suggest, the top leadership of the Jamaat has been involved in the rape and killing during the war of liberation, and the party was banned immediately after the country's independence. In fact, the process of trying the war criminals has started as early as January 24, 1972 when the Collaborator's Act was promulgated. Lieutenant General (rtd) M Harun-Ar-Rashid, a valiant freedom fighter and former chief of Bangladesh army recalls: “The act was later changed twice to make the process easier. By October 1973, over 37, 000 collaborators were arrested.” Contrary to the misconception that all the war criminals have been pardoned, he says, “That year a general amnesty was declared in which the accused against whom there was no clear evidence of killing, rape and arson were given clemency. There was this clause that even those who were pardoned if new allegations of killing, rape and arson turned up against them they could be tried.”

There were 11,000 prisoners against whom there was clear evidence of killing, rape and arson. By December 31, the trials of 752 war criminals were finished, even death penalties were handed down, and one war criminal walked the gallows. Actually, the first death penalty that has been executed in the history of Bangladesh is in fact that of a war criminal.

The situation turned upside down after the murder of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. “In December that year, the Collaborator's Act was repelled and the trial and investigation process was stopped. Even those who had been punished were freed. The Fifth Amendment of the constitution ratified it. When democracy was established in 1991, a movement was launched to try the war criminals; a people's investigative commission was later formed under the leadership of Sufia Kamal,” Harun says.

Harun coordinates the Sector Commanders' Forum (SCF) that has brought the long-standing trial of the war criminals to the fore. This year the organisation has held a convention in which the demand was raised. It is significant for the caretaker government has launched a war on corruption and is set on reforming the country's politics. Many like Harun believe the government should form a commission to start the trial of war criminals. Harun says, “Corruption is related to the looting properties of the state and its citizens. War crime is an even bigger crime for it is done against the state. If a society that allows the war criminals to roam around free for so many years, it is not at all surprising that such a society will become a breeding ground for criminals. Until we are able to try the war criminals, anarchy and lawless will remain pervasive in our country. Moreover, those who have been affected during the Liberation war, those who have been raped, killed or lost their property, have suffered because of the birth of this state. We are now the members of the army of a nation or the journalists of an independent country, and those who have sacrificed their lives or suffered for the birth of the country, we have some responsibilities towards their souls. The most important thing is, it makes no sense at all that we will try the petty criminals, and form different bodies to try the corrupt whereas we do not want to do anything against those who have actively opposed the independence of this state.”

The Chief Adviser of the current Caretaker Government has already termed the participation of the war criminals in the next general election unacceptable. The current chief of the army has also supported the move of bringing the war criminals to justice. Air Vice Marshall (rtd) AK Khandker, former air chief and the deputy supreme commander of the Muktijuddo also thinks that as “We are going through a very important phase of our national life, and from that point of view the coming elections at various levels are going to be of tremendous importance. “ Khandhker, also chief of the SCF thinks that only honest, able and patriotic people should come through the elections. “We want those who committed crimes during the liberation war and those who opposed the very independence of our country to be barred from participating in the election. It is the expectation of the entire nation that the present government starts the process of trying the war criminals and also bar those who opposed the independence of our country, from all elections,” he says.

It is high time that the government sets up a fact-finding commission to probe into the war crimes of 1971. Our new journey towards a bright democratic future will lose its proper direction if war criminals make it into the next parliament.

A Home for Literature

In an interview, Richard Logsdon, editor of Red Rock Review talks about his work

What are the ideas behind your journal?
Many ideas have shaped Red Rock Review. First and foremost was the intention to publish the very best poetry and fiction available. This stated intention, while a bit generic (What journal doesn't try to publish the best of the available literature?), helped us establish a very high standard for writers who wished their works to be considered for inclusion in Red Rock Review. (The stated intention, too, gave us the right to reject local writers who felt some sort of entitlement to get published by a Las Vegas journal.) Vague as the guideline sounds, we did succeed in attracting works by very good writers by as early as the second issue Ron Carlson and Alberto Rios come to mind and from then on the quality of our submissions skyrocketed. Beyond this, in setting a lofty standard for our magazine, we contributed to the on-going cultural redefinition of a community Las Vegas that is notorious for creating its own decadent art as a standard of perfection.

But we had something else in mind another idea when we started our journal. Twelve years ago, when we published the first issue of Red Rock Review, Las Vegas was in the midst of a crisis of identity. The city couldn't decide who or what it is: fighting against the desire to become a more or less normal city was Las Vegas's notorious gangsterish past (Something some locals still try to deny). Red Rock Review took advantage of this cultural identity crisis, launching a journal whose works rivaled those in the very best journals in the country and that indicated to the public at large that Las Vegas had a serious interest in taking on an identity that would include a genuine love of the arts. By the way, I don't think that Las Vegas will ever resolve its identity crisis but that makes the city a fascinating place to live.

Along with the desire to help reshape the city's image was the desire to give our college Red Rock Review is published under the auspices of the College of Southern Nevada something of cultural worth.

While making an editorial decision, what do you look for in a write-up?
I'd like to say that we're open to all kinds of literature, but that may not necessarily be true. As far as fiction is concerned, we're generally drawn to well crafted stories that are built around a conflict that provides the moral centre to the piece. Accordingly, the plots of the stories that we accept for publication are generally character-driven. Two, we look for full development of character and situation. Of course, there are exceptions: occasionally we'll accept a story that takes liberties with the conventions of story telling and that may fall into the post-modern category. Still, I think as far as short fiction is concerned, the editorial staff of Red Rock Review is pretty traditional.

As for poetry, while we're certainly interested in well-crafted pieces, we're just as interested in different voices, in poems that provide a fresh perspective of something very familiar. To provide an example, I'm currently working on a review of local writer Jarret Keene's latest collection of poems, A Boy's Guide to Arson (Zeitgeist Press, 2008).

How important do you think it is for a writer to know her audience/reader?
It's almost impossible to answer this question, which I shall nonetheless try to take in a couple of directions. For one thing, the question suggests that the writer's knowledge of his/her audience has something to do with the content and success of the submitted work. We run into problems here. Heightened awareness of the audience's needs may lead to a hyper-consciousness that has its parallel in the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. You may recall that the narrator referred to hyper-consciousness as a disease. The narrator's propensity to think too much about others, about himself leads to a kind of inertia, a kind of paralysis, and I think the same may happen with the writer whose acute awareness of his /her audience stifles the creativity, leads the writer to compromise his/her vision, and results in a watered down version of what the writer originally intended. Keep in mind, however, that I am not suggesting that a knowledge of audience is not important for the writer. Your question is so open that it leads me to other speculation. To get to my second point, it could be argued that the writer creates his audiencejust as the audience may help shape the writer. Several years back, I recall reading some essays by Umberto Eco, who made the rather intriguing point that the writer, while aware of the audience, creates with the very act of writing a unique voice that, in turn, actually shapes the audience. I like the point Eco made, because he touched upon the existence of an on-going dynamic between writer and audience, neither one of which was necessarily fixed in place.

Do you think every novelist writes history, both at a personal and a social level?
What you're asking, I think, is to what extent the novelist engages in the writing of history, both on a personal and social level. It's a difficult question and calls for a moving away from the traditional concept of history as a body of writing distinct from the world of fiction and an acceptance of the fact that the writer of fiction can somehow participate in the writing of history. Clearly, the Bengali writer Ahmed Faruk writes a very personal fiction that can be fully understood only within the context of socio-political realities. In his case, the personal and the socio-political become almost one and the same. The question, however, is not merely applicable to contemporaries who write within and about a volatile socio-political situation. I'm thinking of Tolstoy's War and Peace (You see what a traditionalist I am.), which is about several characters' participation in the Napoleonic Wars. In the case of this magnificent novel, the personal cannot really be separated from the social/political/historical dimension that constitutes actual reality of the novel. In fact, doesn't Tolstoy end with a lengthy section in which he argues, among other things, that in the case of his novel the fictional, both on a personal and social level, becomes one with the historical?

But then again, the question may be more applicable to those writers whose fiction compliments or illuminates the volatile social and historical realities of their particular countries. If this is so, then the question may have little to do with those Western writers who, composing from a safe place, do not think of their characters and novels as somehow reflective of larger social/political/historical realities. Of course, even as I write this, I can think of a glaring exception to my implied generality concerning Western writers.

Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
One would think that globalisation would have succeeded in making the world a lot less dangerous, a lot less hostile, that inventions like the Internet and cell phones would have dissolved the barriers of hostility separating people. How very naïve. While barriers do come down, new problems emerge: Internet predators, identity theft, global terrorism, etc.

But let's not ignore the larger and more obvious question: when has the world not been a dangerous place to live? History shows the world embroiled in a never-ending series of conflicts. Sometimes the conflicts are civil, sometimes national with country pitted against country. Sometimes -- perhaps most often -- it's the good guys vs. the bad guys. Of course, I'm over-simplifying -- and I'm writing from a place (Las Vegas, Nevada) where the security that I enjoy is balanced against city crime that includes shootings -- in the high schools, on the streets, in the casinos -- are not a rare event. Even so, I recognise that far more dangerous places exist than Las Vegas. Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Israel come to mind as examples of such places. Too, the ever-present threat of terrorism can make even an Idaho farmer a bit edgy.

But then, again, I don't think the question necessarily requires an answer that categorises countries/regions on the basis of danger. The question concerns the world and brings to my mind the famous poem “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon does not hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold etc. etc.

We all inhabit the same planet, and all will be somehow touched by those smaller and larger apocalyptic events that occur throughout history. Not that we're heading towards some kind of Armageddon. I'm not suggesting that we're creeping towards the end times even though I do admit that the U.S. has so embroiled itself in the politics and warfare of the Middle East that it's sometimes difficult not to imagine that we're headed toward something of cataclysmic proportions. (Of course, the same thinking, that we're all headed toward an international showdown, characterised the Cold War; when I was growing up, the question was not if but when the United States was going to war against the Soviet Union?)