Monday, August 18, 2008
The Invisible Barracoon
Income disparity is rising in the country, and what is ominous about it is that it is rising fast. In real terms it translates into a growing number of poor and the diminishing purchasing power of the middle class. Thanks to spiralling prices of essentials, three and a half crores people in Bangladesh find it impossible to earn three meals a day. It means when a group of fellow citizens is buying designer clothes (say at Tk 7000 apiece) for a friend's wedding (where the price of a bouquet costs Tk 200), there exist another set of citizens who go hungry every night, the price of a bouquet is a family's three days income. It can come down to something as trivial as 'hanging out' or having dinner at one of the designer restaurants that have dotted the landscape of this cruel city. The poor, who remain forgotten and made their presence known only at the traffic lights, begging or selling pirated copies of Da Vinci Code, are the invisible majority. They live in the slums, deal in illegal drugs or become the henchmen of one of the local political leaders. Their children grow up famished, uneducated, abandoned; theirs is an army of poor in waiting and the future that the society holds before these children is of hunger, poverty and violence.
Being poor in this city is a difficult business; it means one will have to embrace the fate of being born poor and live a life in poverty and exploitation. The rich in the country, most of them, have earned money through illegal means. It sets an example, a wrong one indeed. The get-rich-quick lifestyle that is so pervasive in the country tells the poor that the only way in which they can change their situation is through unfair means. So something as basic as a bowl of rice or a plate of vegetables makes them commit crime. Hunger, after all, knows no law.
The state does not give them any healthcare facility, for there is very little to speak of. They die, and they die silently; their death does not make it to the obituary page of the newspapers. No tribute awaits them after death; their departure from this world is as ignominious as their birth. The irony must not escape you: here in this country at the price of a bottle of designer water a mother has to sell her newborn, for she could not feed it, here in this city parents send their children to work as domestic workers, as modern day slaves, only to be raped or scalded with hot iron; and in this city, too, people go to foreign countries, spending thousands of taka, to get a nose job or just to have a vacation. Their conscience, perhaps, too, takes a vacation with them.
It may not sound good, we may find it difficult to digest, but ours is a poor country. The millions we spend on buying foreign shoes and cosmetics, if properly spent, could have contributed to the growth of our economy. With that we could have built hospitals where people would get proper treatment, irrespective of the thickness of their purses. We could have built schools, colleges and universities; millions of children who know only a life of penury and injustice could have been able to break the shackles of poverty, making Bangladesh a middle-income country. That sadly remains a far cry. Our economy is not production oriented, neither is it import substituting.
In the olden times, the slaves were kept in a barracoon before they were shipped off and sold. Neglected and maltreated as they were, many died in confinement; the slavers could not have cared less. Our apathy has made the country an invisible, overcrowded barracoon, in which millions are slowly dying of hunger and malnourishment. It is told that Nero, the tyrannical Roman emperor, played with a violin when Rome burned. We have a thousand Neroes in our midst; when the stomachs of the billions are burning these few thousands are fiddling happily. History teaches us that apathy always leads to disaster. We can afford to ignore what history tells us only at our own peril.
This article was first published in the May 30, 2008 of The Star magazine