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 d├ębut 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.