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March 26 , 2004

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Taking Stock

Thirty-three years of

Where are we at?

We are celebrating our 33rd birthday, a birth that came at a very high cost but one that was inevitable. The founders of our nation were not just the politicians who captured the whole limelight of glory, but the millions of Muktijodhas --- men and women, some known, many unrecognised, who spontaneously gave their lives for a dream. The dream was quite simple, the aspirations quite reasonable. It was to build a nation free from the racism, bigotry, exploitation and hunger meted out by the existing power. A country where one would be free to speak one's language, to get equal opportunities to work, where basic needs of food, shelter and clothing would be met. After thirty-three years we still stand proud to be Bangladeshis but have we come any closer to the original dream called Bangladesh?

Stuck at Zero


When Bangladesh became independent in 1971, after nine months of brutal war with the Pakistani army, a society based on democratic principles and social justice was promised. In fact, during our liberation war, Bangladesh became a by-word for people's resolve to fight injustice all over the world. The country's independence coincided with the liberation of several colonies across the continent. But the situation has turned sour within years. Democracy has remained in the paper; while a few have been enjoying an economic boom, most of the citizens still live far below the poverty line; economic injustice coupled with lawlessness and corruption have put the country on the brink of a total chaos. Thirty-three years after our glorious independence we try to find the answer to a fateful question; where are we at now?

Democracy was under the guillotine by our founding fathers at early infancy. Within three years of independence Bangladesh Awami League (AL), which led the country towards independence, made Bangladesh a one-party state. Every political and administrative power was personally vested in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Mujib and his party, armed with absolute majority in the parliament, amended the constitution for the fourth time. It was bombastically called Mujib's second revolution, but in effect it gagged any dissident voice, if there remained any at all.

Dissident voices were silenced. Political killings and repression on opposition had isolated the party, which all through its existence had fought for people's political freedom and economic emancipation.

“Bangladesh would never have been brought to such straits in so short a period had it not been for the unbelievable sycophancy, which filled the Gonobhaban and Bangabhaban like the clouds of intoxicating vapours in an opium den. Sycophancy is on a par with mal-administration, corruption and smuggling as the prime cause for the decline of Mujib and Bangladesh," Anthony Mascarenhas, who broke the news of our liberation war to British daily the Sunday Times, writes in his book Bangladesh A Legacy of Blood.

Mujib's economic policy and brutal squashing of the opposition members led to a looming disaster; and then the worst happened. On August 15, 1975, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was killed, along with 13 members of his family, by a bunch of ambitious mid-ranking army officers led by Major Faruque and Major Dalim. Khandakar Mushtaque Ahmed, Mujib's long time ally and one of his ministers, declared himself president after the mayhem. September 26 that year Mushtaque and cronies promulgated the infamous Indemnity Ordinance, indemnifying the killers. The indemnity, later on, encouraged several successful and unsuccessful coup attempts in the army.

President Ziaur Rahman's five and half years in helm, according to Mascarenhas, was plagued by 20 mutinies, attempted coups and assassination attempts; in fact Zia got killed in the 21st attempt. "It is ironical that the troops who literally carried Zia to power on their shoulders during the Sepoy Mutiny in November 1974, would later try so many times to kill him," writes Mascarhenas.

Meanwhile in November 1976 as a CMLA, Zia used a frail and inept president Sayem to call off the elections that the government had so solemnly promised the nation. Then Zia unceremoniously stripped the president of authority and grabbed power for himself.

Zia then called on presidential elections in 1978, expertly tailored to effect his transformation from the military President to the military president in mufti. Zia promulgated the Proclamations (Amendment) Order in 1977, immediately after he got rid of Sayem. He replaced Secularism from the preamble of the Constitution with “Absolute trust and faith in Almighty Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful”; Socialism was dropped, and "economic and social justice" replaced it. The cosmetic surgery was meant to woo the voters most of whom were practising Muslims.

No one disputes that Zia was incorruptible as far as money and wealth were concerned. He didn't own a house in Dhaka, as did almost everyone in the higher echelons of government. It has been recorded that on one occasion he took an advance against his salary to buy furniture and paid it back in instalments. He didn't gamble nor have any of the social vices. But he turned a blind eye towards the corruption of those around him.

Zia opened the economy to some extent; though he wasn’t able to check the rising inflation and unemployment, his economic policy had somewhat gained popularity among the masses. Billions of Takas were spent into the General's much-hyped “Canal Digging Programme”; there is no real count of this wasted effort because the money was requisitioned from different ministries and government organisations.

Meanwhile the 21st attempt to kill the General was brewing in Chittagong. Zia went to the port city to settle a local feud in the ruling party on May 29, 1981. In the early dawn the following day Zia was killed at the Circuit House, where he had been staying overnight, by an ambitious bunch of army-men led by Gen. Abul-ala Manjur.

Only chaos followed; actually the then army-chief Gen. HM Ershad became the sole beneficiary of the disorder. Within days after Zia's killing, Ershad removed an inept and feeble Sattar--who succeeded Zia-- and declared himself the president. Only deep darkness followed.

Ershad was one the most corrupt dictators any Third World country has ever produced in modern history. To remain in power he institutionalised corruption. When Ershad was ousted in a mass upsurge in December 6, 1990, there was nothing left in the government exchequer for the salaries of the civil servants.

BNP unexpectedly won the general elections in 1991 that came after the fall of Ershad. The scale of corruption and repression remained markedly low during the BNP's new term in office. The party, however could not able to finish its five year term. Anti incumbency factor ran high during the elections, and with its long-term ideological friend, Jamaat-e-Islami, running the elections alone, the BNP had lost power to Bangladesh Awami League.

Before coming to power, in an address to the nation on the state run national television, The AL chief Sheikh Hasina sought mercy for the sins committed by her party-men during its three and half years rule after independence. But the AL's five-year-term that followed outmatched even its first term in office in misrule and corruption. The party politicised everything; even the committees that ran primary schools were not spared.

Hoodlums belonging to the AL ran the country; state run tenders were given to members of the ruling party flouting rules and regulations. Most of the ministers, after years outside power, saw this as a god-sent opportunity to make a fortune. Rules regarding promotions even in the army, in most of the cases were ignored; thugs belonging to the AL maimed journalists across the country. Several AL MPs became infamous for their blatant terrorism in their constituencies. Joynal Hazari for instance, an AL MP from Feni, soon became a godfather, controlling businesses, terrorising all those who opposed him, especially members of the opposition. Other goons of the cabinet included MP Shamim Osman from Narayanganj, Haji Selim of Dhaka-- all of them established their mafia-dom in their respective constituencies without any kind of obstacle from their leader Sheikh Hasina.

Hasina, in fact, has been the biggest disappointment for even AL supporters. Throughout her term she showed incredible tolerance to her party-men, who virtually unleashed a reign of terror all over the country. She did not ask any of her cabinet members to resign even after knowing about their criminal activities. The student wing of AL the Chhatra League carried on the legacy of their predecessors, the Chhatra Dal, with equal zeal, occupying the university halls, controlling tenders and spreading crime across the country. One group became famous for their serial rape spree in Jahangirnagar University where a Chhatra League (interestingly former Chhatra Dal) leader celebrated his 100th rape on campus. Again Hasina remained silent.

The situation has not changed since the AL was routed in the general elections of 2001. In fact, it has deteriorated further; sheer lawlessness, coupled with cronyism and corruption, has made the country the most uninhabitable place on earth. Incidents of attack on religious minorities have become rampant. Both the BNP and AL have been using religion for their own petty political interests; rising unemployment along with the government's inability to crack down on extremists religious outfits have resulted in several bomb blasts, and the attack on writer Humayun Azad.

Repression of opposition members has reached an all time high in this regime with Chhatra Dal coming into the forefront to brutally clamp down on all opponents with of course the help of the completely politicised law enforcers. In just a few weeks, when the opposition started its 'the government must step down' programme, several violent incidents took place such as the beating up of AL leaders including Saber Hossain Chowdhury and Ahsanullah Master MP, beating up of students protesting attack on Dr Humayun Azad, beating up of journalists during the general strikes, and finally, the latest attack on Dr.Badruddoza Chowdhury, Maj (Rtd) Mannan and their supporters.

Immediately after Major Mannan resigned from the parliament and joined Dr Chowdhury's 'Alternative Platform', thugs under the shelter of the ruling party vandalised different industrial compounds owned by the businessman turned politician.

As the newspaper reports suggest, the attacks were, in fact, backed by the ruling party's high command. Mannan's bank accounts with five financial institutions were seized. State's repression on opposition leaders has never reached this height before.

Dr. Badruddozza's new stance to create a third platform with the support of Dr. Kamal Hossain, has been met with some enthusiasm from the public although many cannot quite believe how a staunch supporter of a party can suddenly become its biggest opponent. But the way the BNP thugs are steamrollering him and his supporters it is uncertain whether the doctor's prescription will prevail.

After much dilly-dallying and to utter dismay of different human rights organisations, the government has recently sent the proposed 14th Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2004 to the parliamentary standing committee on law justice and parliamentary affairs. The bill, which has sought to introduce 45 reserved seats for women, has come as a slap in the face for different rights groups; for they have been demanding a direct election to these reserved seats. The government, meanwhile, remains as indifferent as ever.

All our main political parties, are shamelessly male dominated. Though the BNP is led by a woman, the party has only one female member in its 14-member National Permanent Committee, according to a Democracy Watch report. The AL on the other hand has only 5 female members in its 36-member Presidium and Secretariat; Jamaat-e-Islami has 20 female members in its 200-member Majlish-e-Shura, the report continues.

Thus the story of stagnant politics continues. The overwhelming intolerance for the opposition in the streets has created a stalemate in the parliament where the ruling party continues to play by itself. Meanwhile Sheikh Hasina can only harp on the misrule of Khaleda Zia and how her government must step down. She has nothing really new to offer. Certainly the public's memory is not so short as to forget the mess she and her party had made before. Both parties seem to think that the vote bank's leanings depend on how badly the previous government has failed, which no doubt has worked so far. Whether Dr. Badruddozza and his supporters will create any significant ripple in the inert waters of politics, remains to be seen.

In the name of free market economy the BNP has created a situation where trading has become more profitable than establishing industry. A new class and culture have been created; goons belonging to the BNP and AL, driven by get-rich-quick lifestyle and blessed by both the parties' politics have been running amok. Democracy could not be more threatened.

Can We Remove the Road Blocks to Progress?

Shamim Ahsan

What is the economic condition of our country? What have we achieved, if we have achieved anything at all, on the economic front over the 33 years since our independence? And what will be the state of our economic health, say, in 5 years time? These are intriguing and no doubt crucial questions. Economic indicators like GDP growth or income per capita alone (often made controversial by over-zealous policy makers) do not necessarily reflect the exact picture. Data besides, cannot always help us reach any decision as precise as 'good' or 'bad', because who will decide how much good is really good or how much good makes very good. So there is bound to be differences of opinion among observers regarding our economic status.

Dr Atiur Rahman,a leading economist of Bangladesh and Senior Research Fellow of BIDS , thinks that we have had moderate success on the economic front. "Especially if we consider the economic situation we were in right after our independence certainly we are now much better-off. Things were in extremely bad shape throughout the early seventies. Just born of a bloody war, which had left the country ravaged in every possible means and a sickly economy that we inherited from the oppressing Pakistani regime, Bangladesh was indeed in dire straits. It was not only the then US Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger, who arrogantly painted Bangladesh as a 'bottomless basket', many others also expressed their apprehension that Bangladesh was heading fast towards becoming 'a failed state' while some found in Bangladesh an ideal 'Malthusian case'. Economists like Faaland and Parkinson thought Bangladesh to be a 'test case' of development and were not sure about its socio-political viability.

Bangladesh has come a long way since the early trying days proving that such wide spread fear was unfounded. We have even had some mention worthy success in some key areas. Agriculture is one of them. Production of various agriculture products including rice has multiplied at a reasonably good pace over the years. "Not many people thought things would come to this stage after they saw the terrible famine in 1974 raging across the country. Now we are almost on the point of achieving food self-sufficiency and I am tempted to think it a great achievement even though there have been some setbacks in recent days", says Dr Rahman who is also Chairman of Unnayan Shamannay. Poultry and pisciculture are two other areas where we have done very well. Every village now has a number of poultry farms and fish ponds. The Mymensingh region alone has nearly one hundred thousand fish ponds. The progress in horticulture has also been significant. We are also moving confidently forward in the field of agro-processing. "Importantly, a huge number of people who have little or almost no capital or specialised skills have been mobilised in these areas and this has tremendously vitalised our economic activities specially among the rural populace," Rahman believes. Our success in micro-credit industry has created a solid ground for moving into these sources of pro-poor growth.

We have also made reasonable progress in the field of human development, which, both directly and indirectly, has contributed to our overall economic growth. Social progress engineered by both government and non-government organisations improving the agency role of women has been contributing significantly in making this happen. Population growth rate has come down from about 3% in the seventies to 1.5%, literacy rate has increased from a paltry 20% to 65%, women literacy rate has also improved significantly infant mortality rate has decreased, child malnutrition, though still very high, has been at least declining.

Though our success in agriculture has contributed greatly towards steady economic growth (five per cent plus for almost a decade), Dr Rahman does not think this alone is capable of giving our present economic state the needed momentum if we are targeting rapid economic growth, say around seven per cent per annum. We need to go for tradable items to further boost our economic growth. Agricultural items for example are not tradable as, but ready-made garments (RMG) are. It is the tradability of RMG that makes it such an important item. Our ready made garments account for 76% of our total export earnings. It is evidently clear how big a role RMG is capable of playing both in the external and domestic sectors. Already it is providing direct employment to one and a half million women workers plus many others in the related commerce and industries. The banking, insurance, shipping, courier, packaging, transport and a number of other sub-sectors are fully or partly dependent on this sector.

Foreign exchange aside the garments industry has created thousands of jobs. "This industry has employed thousands of mostly unskilled and semi-skilled women and in doing so has transformed a huge but formerly--unused workforce into productive manpower," he says. But tough times are ahead as the quota system that has so far favoured Bangladesh heavily may become non-existent from the beginning of 2005 (when the Multifibre Agreement MFA will be phased). Since 1974 world trade in textiles and garments has been governed by the Multi Fibre Arrangement or MFA. This provided the basis on which industrialised countries have been able to restrict imports from developing countries. Every year countries agree quotas - the quantities of specified items, which can be traded between them. Bangladesh is the clearest example of a country which developed a garment industry as a direct result of the MFA and other trade agreements. Bangladesh has had free access to EU markets and the US also gave Bangladesh sizeable quotas so that it became a major supplier to both the American market and European markets. Once quotas are removed Bangladesh is expected to suffer from its lack of textile industry and poorly developed infrastructure.

"This is going to be a great challenge and the only way we can survive in the post quota-free era is by becoming more competitive," he explains. One reason that helped our garments industry to come to this stage is cheap labour, but labour is only one factor as far as production is concerned. We have been lagging behind in terms of cost of production and delivery. The comparative product competitiveness is today's buzz word, and we are still behind in this sphere. We can no more compensate the absence of modern technology and hence productivity of labour in the changed circumstances. Most of the garments workers are unskilled at the entry level in the absence of any institutional training arrangements. We also need to develop backward linkages (producing the raw materials like thread and dyes) and forward linkages (such as designing and packaging) if we want to make the most out of the ready-made garments industry.

South Asia will probably still be a major source of RMG for the West vis-à-vis China. But we still need to compete with our South Asian partners to remain accessible by the US and European buyers. Bangladesh, given its early entry in those markets and presence of so many hardworking and forward-looking young entrepreneurs, will be able to face the challenges of post-MFA phase provided they get the needed policy support. This means flexible financial services, sorting out of accumulated complications in the SAARC countries and positive economic diplomacy.

But these are the positive aspects, which unfortunately are overwhelmingly outnumbered by negative aspects. There is no denying the fact that whatever economic growth we have attained falls much short of what we could have made. After 33 years since our independence more than forty per cent of our total population still live below the poverty line. Therefore, unlike China or India our home market is still very small in size. Unemployment has skyrocketed - about ten million educated youth do not have jobs. While mills and factories in the public sector are being closed down and people are losing jobs in the thousands, the private sector industries are not coming up at a higher pace to provide employment to the job seekers. This year's industrial growth is anticipated to be around 3 per cent only despite some increase in the flow of industrial credit. The high jump in the inflation rate from 2% to 7% has resulted in maddening price hikes in recent

days. The gap between the rich and the poor has become wider. While the bottom ten per cent of population control less than 2 per cent of national income, the top ten per cent controls more than 40 per cent of it which is 20 times more than the former. This burgeoning inequality of income is the most important challenge for us as it is at the root of all kinds of violence in the society. Both local and foreign investors are hesitant to make investment mainly because of prevailing malgovernance in Bangladesh. It may sound cliché, but economy and politics are inter-dependent and complementary to each other. "Good governance or just governance whatever we call it is a must for a healthy economy and I believe bad governance is the chief culprit if not the only one, for our sluggish investment," Dr Rahman says.

Referring to the recent closure of Adamjee Jute Mills, Rahman points out that it is not the 'job-shedding growth' we should go after, but 'job-creating growth'. The foreign aid agencies' prescriptions won't do us any good if we are lacking in commitment to the cause of the general masses, he adds. Again it is the government's responsibility to provide the physical infrastructure like roads, power as well as developing skilled manpower by providing them with education, health service, etc. Unfortunately we have miserably failed in this regard. Petty political gain, an absolute disregard to the masses' cause, and free style looting in every possible means on the part of our leadership who are supposed to ensure good governance have paralysed our economy. Deep-rooted bureaucratic corruption and dilly-dallying in decision-making have also had its share to destroy our economic potential. "Why would foreign investors come to our country if they have to bribe every time to get across a file from one table to another and still have to go to a dozen offices and wait for an indefinite period to get their things done?" Rahman asks. There is no substitute of just governance, a government that is sensitive to people's cause, and a political culture where politics is guided and shaped for economic emancipation of the masses, he adds. A politics which is not at all tolerant to differing views can indeed be suicidal, he predicts.

A close reading of our economic history makes one thing quite clear. It is the small and medium enterprises that have brought about whatever economic progress we have achieved so far. They continue to contribute about 70 per cent value additions in the industrial sector. Be it the vast garments industry or poultry farming or the case of an entrepreneur named Ershad who has been producing hundred types of paper out of grass, jute, hyacinth, etc. and is exporting them, it is invariably the individual entrepreneurship or individual initiatives that has done the trick. The Daily Star and Prothom Alo have been regularly projecting these success stories of late. Almost all of these heroic entrepreneurs have no access to institutional capital nor do they receive any extension support from the public agencies.

"Significantly, they have done it on their own and without any sort of government help whatsoever. And that is what I am extremely optimistic about. Personal initiatives and hard work are the only things by which these small and medium entrepreneurs have changed the face of our economy. What we can do now is to help them grow and encourage and assist others to follow suit. And for that to happen we need to have an overall plan to address their problems, redesign the existing credit programme and extension services to give them the best possible support. Western experts cannot lift us from the economic quagmire we are now in; it will have to be home-grown development strategy. And we don't need to look for any magic lamp to work out that strategy ¯our very own small and medium entrepreneurs have shown it by example. We can learn from our own success stories. We need to have confidence in ourselves and help the creative Bangladesh move ahead. Removing the road blocks put up by the vested interest groups can ensure that the social peace for 'this Bangladesh' will thrive.

Bangladeshis are Not Any Happier

The Quality of Life After Thirty Three Years of Freedom


Life for most people in Bangladesh seems to be getting harder each year. The endless traffic jams, dust pollution, roads always under construction, bad food, substandard medical facilities, vanishing greenery and the overwhelming lack of any security has been exponentially increasing over the decades since Independence. People in their thirties and older can clearly remember better days when food was not so expensive and adulterated, when the air was breathable, when there was a whole lot more space to walk around, basically when life was not so much a struggle. So what is the quality of life in Bangladesh after enjoying 33 years of independence? Just by looking at a few barometers that determine the standard of living one is forced to see reality: Bangladeshis, in general, are not getting any happier.

A ‘Quality of Life Survey' by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, an international consulting firm, gives Bangladesh a poor ranking of 46 points as compared to Singapore's 101. The survey takes into account around 39 key quality of life factors that include political stability, crime, law enforcement, health care, public services, consumer goods and recreation. A 2003 report by Virtual Bangladesh gives another low-down on the quality of life indicators. With a population of 122.7 million, life expectancy is as low as 56 years (compared to India's 61, Pakistan's 62 and Sri Lanka's 72). This can be attributed to low calorie intake, high incidence of disease and lack of access to medical facilities. A BBS (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics) survey of 2000 says that 49.8 percent of the people are below the upper poverty line (an improvement from 58.8 percent in 1991) According to BBS, life expectancy stood at 59 years in 1999. An American Red Cross report says that 'every hour of every day around three women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth', that around 68 infants die for every 1000 live births. And this does not even include the thousands of women and children who die from violence against them.

But we do not need numbers to tell us that most Bangladeshis are struggling to survive; that their lives have not improved but rather deteriorated over the last three decades. Fifty-three year old Nurjahan Begum, who works as a cook in Cantonment, constantly worries about money and how she and her son will bring up her grandchildren. Even with Tk 2000 per month and an additional Tk 5000 from her son's salary, the family can barely make ends meet. The family lives in a cramped room in Kafrul with a makeshift partition at a rent of TK1500. Then there are other essential expenses such as school fees, tutoring fees, books for the three kids, clothes and transport. Often, by the end of the month the family has to borrow money from the neighbours to get through until the next pay check, which puts them back into accumulating debts and further financial insecurity.

With very little money to spare, food is very basic at Nurjahan's household. It consists of a breakfast of a wheat flour chapatti and tea, lunch with rice, lentils and vegetables (potato being the most common) and dinner almost the same diet as lunch. Chicken and meat are cooked only on special occasions such as Eid. Eggs are also too expensive at TK. 45 a dozen and even fish is out of reach. In the seventies Nurjahan's monthly salary was only Tk. 60 but even with this small amount food was not a problem for her household. A monthly ration card allowed her to get 12 kg of rice, 19 kg of wheat and 2 and a half kg of sugar. A hilsa cost about Tk 10 and spinach around Tk 1. In the 80s her monthly salary went up to Tk.200 but the cost of living was much higher. Nurjahan is much better off compared to the almost fifty percent who are below the poverty line and get to eat only one, that too not nutritionally balanced, meal a day.

The nutritional level of most people has significantly gone down over the last three decades leaving them weaker, with lower immunity to combat disease and illness. Studies show that about 700 children die each year from malnutrition. A United Nation report states that the average height of Bangladeshi youths have decreased by 10cm in less than 50 years due to malnutrition. Vitamin A deficiency (causing 30,000 children to go blind each year) as well as inadequate amounts of iron and iodine in the diet has caused physical weakness and reduced people's productivity. A Tk 640 crore National Nutrition Project launched in July 2000, aiming to reduce malnutrition in 105 upazilas could not start even after three years because of 'bureaucratic tangles', says a Daily Star report in September 2003.

But it is not just that food has become more and more expensive for ordinary people. It has also gone down in terms of quality. Thanks to weak government policies accompanied by conventional apathy, widespread adulteration of food has meant that even those who can afford to buy basic food items are deprived of nutrition due to poor quality. A survey conducted by Consumer Association of Bangladesh (CAB) reveals that 50 percent of products in the market, especially food items, are tampered with. Toxic colours and carbide, usually used in fabrics, are mixed in food such as beguni and jilapi (hot items during Ramadan) and carbide is used to ripen fruits such as papaya, banana and wood apple. Even rotting fish is being injected with formalin to make it look fresh. There are allegations of cheap cooking oil used by roadside restaurants being mixed with kerosene or gasoline. These chemicals, say health experts, lead to gastro-intestinal diseases and may even cause cancer if consumed for prolonged periods. The Pure Food Act of 1959 is too lenient on unscrupulous traders to have any preventive effect. The penalty of a violator by the Dhaka City Corporation can be at best be a fine as low as TK400. A Daily Star Report in November 2003, quotes a DCC official whining that 22 cases were filed in 2003 against violators who mixed carbide powder in fruits but they all escaped after paying the fines. Without a proper consumer law and the indifference of government bodies like the Bangladesh Testing Institute (BSTI), the hope of a minimum standard of quality in food, is quite slim.

Health care is a major area that has gone down hill over the years. The ratio of physician to population is 1: 4,521 (Bangladesh Country Health Profile 2000) and one hospital bed for every 3,063 people (Bangladesh Country Profile 1999). Government hospitals are too few to cater to such a huge population. Moreover, they are plagued with widespread corruption and lack of maintenance. More often than not ordinary folk are forced to turn to private clinics and practices which are in plenty but extremely expensive. Without any health care benefits the doctors, fees, diagnostic test fees and hospital bills are the same for the poor and the privileged. Nurjahan's grandson has always been a little weak from birth. A recent eye injury required a medical bill of Tk11,000 in tests, doctors visits and medication. Nurjahan herself suffers from various ailments but she is reluctant to get herself checked because she simply cannot afford to.

There are other factors that affect the health and wellbeing of people. This includes the air we breathe in and the water we drink and the sanitation facilities we use, all of which have taken their share of contamination due to the evils of urbanisation - overcrowding, traffic congestion, indiscriminate construction and corruption in the institutions that would have controlled quality of these basic requirements of life. Even the LGRD and Cooperatives Minister Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan admits the frustrating state of affairs. At the launch of a month-long National Sanitation Campaign (in October, 2003) to improve sanitation and bring 57 percent household under its coverage, Bhuiyan said that "around 57 percent of the people pass about 20,000 liquid waste from their bodies everyday in open space spreading microbes of diarrhoea, cholera, jaundice and other diseases". One can only imagine the havoc wreaked by the tonnes of solid human waste on the environment. Open defecation pollutes the surface and sometimes ground water. Slum dwellers use surface water for washing, bathing etc. and so are exposed to the microbes.

For the better off citizens, the situation is not much sunnier. With indiscriminate construction of high rise apartments all over the city without corresponding expansion of sanitation facilities, Dhaka may be a sitting volcano of waste products. Already water shortages are common in these flats echoing the general crisis all over the city. Illegal constructions to extract water from the distribution system has only added to this.

But people defecate and urinate in open spaces not just because of lack of awareness (a major failure of successive governments) but because the existing civic amenities are intolerably insufficient. Take Dhaka for instance with a population of over 10 million inhabitants and only 29 public toilets run by the Dhaka City Corporation. Garbage dumps, open drains, manholes, small ponds are turned into public toilets causing unbearable stench, not to mention the unsavoury sight of having to witness such embarrassing scenes at public places. The existing public toilets, moreover, have become popular refuges for drug-peddling and criminal activity. The DCC leases out each public toilet for Tk10,000 to Tk5 lakh to local businesses but basic facilities such as water are often absent. "In any case the stench and mess make it impossible to use them," says a young salesman of New Market.

This spells disaster for the forty percent of Dhaka's population who are slum dwellers. According to a Planning Commission Report the health conditions of urban slum settlements are terrible with 30 to 46 percent of the population suffering from diseases due to water and air pollution. The DWASA ( Dhaka Water and Sewerage Authority) provides sewerage service to only 20 percent of the city dwellers and 35 percent of Dhaka residents do not have any sanitation service.

As for air quality, Dhaka has scored the lowest in a survey on air quality management (AQM) carried out jointly by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and WHO( World Health Organisation) in 2003 on seven major cities of Asia. While the phasing out of two-stroke auto-rickshaws reduced the average particulate matter level, it is still high by UNEP standards. High concentration of carbon monoxide, hydro-carbon, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emitted by vehicles, brick kilns and industries still make the air hazardous to health. Perpetual construction and denuding of trees (not only in Dhaka but all over the country) have made dust levels in the air soar, making the air even more unbreathable.

And if we're talking about electricity, here’s an eye opener: even after 33 years of being independent, less than 25 percent of people in Bangladesh have access to electricity. Although the current capacity meets the existing demand of 3,3300 MWs (excluding the 75 percent living by candlelight or kerosene lamp) poor maintenance of power plants and redundancy cause frequent load-shedding leading to immense suffering for those who are 'lucky' enough to have electricity connections. Even Dhaka's demand for 1,300 MWs of power is seldom uninterrupted.

A large part of our general ill being is the lack of eye-relief in our surroundings. Trees are chopped to make way for urbanisation without any regard for aesthetics of a city. Once- elegant residential areas such as Gulshan , Banani and Dhanmondi have faced the onslaught of over construction with one and two-storied bungalows with pretty gardens being replaced by concrete and more concrete. The tranquil lanes are filled with traffic, avenues strewn with commercial establishments and open garbage dumps and pot-holed roads are the norm. The serene lakes are filled up to make way for more encroachment. If this is what the rich have to face everyday, what can be expected of the middle-class citizen in the rougher part of town? The river Buriganga is a prime example of how decades of neglect has been killing the very lifeline of ordinary people.

The beauty of the countryside has been marred by unattractive urbanisation, disappearing greenery, brick kilns or factories replacing crop fields and the general onslaught of overpopulation. "When I was a girl", says Nurjahan from Faridpur, the ponds and rivers were full of fish, so much that we got tired of eating them. Now the ponds are all dried up and fish is too costly to buy. The vegetable fields have been taken over by brick factories. It is no longer a village".

Perhaps the biggest threat to people's wellbeing is the lack of security, compounded by political violence. Crime rates around the country have risen with killings by hired assassins, kidnappings and political murders are the latest threat to security. Last year, for instance, according to a Odhikar report, a human rights organisation, a total of 3,323 people were killed. Between 2001 and 2003, 3,309 women were raped and 351 were raped and murdered and 29 women fell victim to acid attacks, says the report. Insecurity has been most perpetuated by the politicisation of the police leaving the public at the mercy of corrupt, often sadistic law enforcers.

A round table discussion on ‘Diagnostic Study on Police Stations’ held on 4 March, 2004 under TIB (Transparency International, Bangladesh), revealed that about 98.5 percent residents of metropolises and vast majority at district and upazila levels are equally dissatisfied with the service of police. Police should be at the service of people and act as a friend and service provider, but the law-enforcers have now emerged as "repressors, corrupt, human rights violators", it added. With acts such as the Special Powers Act (SPA) and laws like Section 54 of the Code of Criminal Procedure that allows for detaining someone without an arrest warrant, the police have had a field day to arbitrarily arrest people, place them on remand, torture or even kill them. In 1995, reports Amnesty International, seven people were killed in custody. In August 1995, 14 year old Yasmin Akhter died after police officers in Dinajpur raped and injured her and left her dead body on the roadside. In February 3, 1994 photojournalist Amran Hossain of The Daily Star was severely beaten up with clubs by police when he was trying to take photographs at a rally. In July1998, Rubel, a young university student was tortured to death by police while taken into custody. In 1999 Amnesty reports 3 rapes in custody plus the rape of a ten-year-old by an off-duty policeman. In 2002, Simi, a bright student of the Fine Arts Institute, was forced to take her life after being sexually harassed by neighbourhood goons. A police officer instead of helping to protect her, vilified her and hence encouraged the culprits.

During the Army-led joint forces' 4-month-long 'Operation Clean Heart' in October 2002 to make Dhaka a safer place, around 44 people died in police or army custody. The practice of picking up innocent youths and locking and beating them until their families pay a hefty sum has gone unabated during both the AL and BNP's rule. "It's funny, when I go out of my house, I do not know what I fear more," says 20 year old Dulal, who works at a car workshop, " the hijackers or the police".

Corruption, which is present at every level of Dhaka society, whether it is a public official, a policeman, or an orderly in a public hospital, it is something that eats into people's sense of well-being. In 2001, 2002 and 2003, Bangladesh ranked first in TIB's list of top ten most corrupt nations. The latest report by the TIB, entitled ‘Corruption in South Asia - Insights and Benchmarks from Citizen Feedback Surveys in Five Countries’, identifies high levels of corruption encountered by citizens attempting to access seven basic public services. In Bangladesh, 84% of respondents that interacted with police during the past year, encountered corruption. Judicial corruption was also significant in Bangladesh (75% of users). The survey, conducted in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka between November 2001 and May 2002, was carried out on households, both urban and rural. In Bangladesh 3,030 households were surveyed.

"The survey results show that even when public services are meant to be freely available, bribes and delays keep many from receiving them, and it is most often the poorest in society that suffer most," said Gopakumar Krishnan, Asia Programme Manager at the TI-Secretariat.

The survey shows that bribes are a heavy financial burden on South Asian households, both due to the high frequency of bribes and to the large sums paid. More than half of the users of public hospitals in Bangladesh, for example, reported that they had paid a bribe to access a service, with bribes averaging TK 1,847. When asked about the source of corruption, most respondents answered that bribes were extorted by public servants. Middle and lower level civil servants were identified as the key facilitators of corruption in all sectors probed.

The deterioration of the quality of life has been largely artificially created by bad policymaking, indifference and selfish governments and most of all by the culture of corruption. Yes communication has expanded with many bridges and transport systems making travel a lot more convenient (though not necessarily pleasurable) than before. There is cable television, a few private channels and more and more people are using the Internet and mobile phones. But these fortunate souls represent a minuscule percentage of the population. The average citizen is always being ripped off and deprived of basic needs of life adequate and quality food, access to health care and sanitation facilities, support from law enforcers, to name a few. This makes him paranoid, unhealthy and therefore unhappy. The cost of living is rising much too fast compared to incomes, stress levels are skyrocketing.

Yet with all this we have continued to survive for more than three decades. As a people, Bangladeshis tend to be too accepting of subhuman standards, too resilient and much too tolerant of self-gratifying governments. Maybe that's just the problem.

Of Beliefs and Backlash

Mustafa Zaman

The casualties at the final hour of the War of Independence, in the hands of the collaborators of the Pak junta, were the intellectuals. Those who fell prey did so because of their belief in an independent nation for the Bangalis. These were not only the most illustrious intellectuals of the soil, but also the most brave, otherwise they would not have remained in Dhaka at that crucial hour when the Jammat-e-Islami of Bangladesh were determined to do whatever ill to the sphere of knowledge that might go to shaping a new nation. December 14 is marred forever by the murky shadow of an enemy within, who, out of sheer rage, sunk its teeth as the last resort to vex the course of an emerging nation.

Later, what people were served in the platter in the guise of democracy in independent Bangladesh, was a far cry from what they ever expected. Thirty-three years have passed, yet the culture of moratorium on thoughts, beliefs and creative expressions thrives. The British provided the legal framework for such practices. As the environment of tolerance goes against the ruling class, it often finds a solution in freezing the birth of ideas that may lead to dissent. The Pakistan era saw the culture of moratorium on intellectual freedom in its worst composition. But one should also keep in mind that the other side of the coin provides no rosier picture. Freedom of expression, the phrase of the so-called democratic west, often is a mere rhetoric to give a semblance of a democracy. Same is evident in independent Bangladesh, which has a western frame of government.

The persecution of dissent is considered undemocratic, so are verbal assaults aimed against a particular community. In the first constitution of Bangladesh, both the acts were earmarked, the first as the right of every citizen and the second as a form of attack on other's right. However, history of Bangladesh in one hand is rife with persecution of the freedom of expression and on the other hand malicious voices are often heard from one end to undermine the other. Humayun Azad, the literatary exponent was the latest victim, who was attacked as he spoke against the quarter that played the role of the quislings during 1971 war. And the community that has most recently been stolen of their right to practice their own religion is the Ahmedyias. The government was forced to ratify a ban that strive to mum a minority who never had any strength to fight back.

It all started at the onset. The Bihari writers and journalist were the first victims of mass paranoia in independent Bangladesh. Bangalis retaliated as the Bihari community, at least the majority of it, aligned itself with the Pakistani junta. But the writers community inside the Bihari community, which Illias Ahmed refers to as "a microscopic community among a microscopic community, was a progressive front. "The general Urdu-speaking Biharis played in the hands of the rulers. But a few progressive voices, mostly of writers and poets, even demanded both Bangla and Urdu to gain the status of National Language," recalls Illias. Anjuma-E-Taraque-Urdu was the platform that promoted Urdu literature. "Back in the tumultuous time of the Language Movement, the East Pakistan branch seceded from their mother organisation in the western wing on the issue of Urdu being the only state language," reveals Illias.

The Stalwarts like Nawshad Nuri, the poet who even wrote a forcefully expressed poem in Urdu to press home the demands of the Bangalis to have Bangla as the sate language, along with Illias were at the helm of their organisation. These two, as editors of an Urdu daily, even helped spread the political beliefs of the Bangalis. Nuri Translated the 'six point' demand of Awami League during those boiling days. Yet the office and the Library of the Anjuman-E-Tarique-Urdu, where most of the influential writers and poets were Nap (Bhashani) sympathisers, was destroyed right after the independence. "All the books along with valuable manuscripts were burnt, and later the building at the Bongobondhu Avenue was evacuated to facilitate a handful of businessman to run their affairs," testifies Illias, a journalist and a poet in his late sixties.

Illias had a harrowing experience right after Bongobondhu was released and was about to give a public address on January 16, 1972. He and his friends, who were instrumental in raising funds for the Muktibahini in the observer house, where they all were employed, wanted to appeal to the government to help stop the retaliation against the Biharis. Although the Communist Party provided them with the ID card that declared them pro-Muktijodha activists, yet in the Observer house itself, Illias and his two other friends were attacked by the workers of the Observer house, who soon blindfolded them, as if to ready them for execution. Later they were saved when KG Mustofa and other peers intervened. "We never got any recognition for what we did for Bangladesh," laments

Illias who chose to remain in Dhaka, though many of his friends who came from Kolkata went back to India or set out for Pakistan.

The Bakshal regime was of a unique constitution. Whatever its ingredients were on the surface, deep down the most salient feature was to gag dissent. Poet Al Mahmood, who hates to hark back to those traumatic days, says in retrospect, "I was kept in the Dhaka central jail for nine months, during which time I was taken to the court only once, which was a farce anyway. And the government could not bring any charge against me." He was picked up from Minto road with many others, among them Nasir Ali Mamoon, who is now a renowned photographer. "The Rakhhi Bahini picked up more then a hundred of us on March 18, 1974, and we were sent to jail without trial or anything," recalls Mamoon who fears that ten were killed during that incident when people were fired at. Al Mahmood, the poet, who was the editor of Gonokontho, a daily that was a fearless critic of the bourgeois rule, was released after nine months, by then Gonokontho met a forced demise as did all the other news dailies except four that the government favoured.

When Bongobondhu was murdered, and army rode power, poet Nirmolendu Goon was picked up by the military intelligence in 1975. Before that, right after independence, writer Humayun Kabir, who was associated with a radical left wing political group, lost his life in 1972. Daud Haider had to leave the country after enraging the theologically inclined quarter and Rafiq Azad's piece, Bhat De Haramjada, was slapped with a ban because of its vehemence of angst against the ruling class.

During the rule of Ershad, the Shishu Acedamy's publication of an encyclopedia was impeded, as it could not meet the demands of the Islamic Extremists who antagonised the chronological portrayal of the Prophets and Messiahs. Ershad spawned varied strands of Islam, by passing the 8th amendment, which made Islam the state religion.

In the cultural field of the Nation, a swath was made clearly visible in the late eighties. Jatra, Palas were the cultural traits of the Bangla-speaking mass for a long, long time. These forms first came under attack from the British, who promulgated a black law banning Jatra forever. To this day, in independent Bangladesh, the law stays. This kind of performances, which sometimes verges on the prurience, became the softest target of the puritanical Islamic outfits that often Jamaat was backing. In fact, the followers of Moududi, that makes up the whole spectrum of Jamaat-E-Islami, have marshaled a leap, a political comeback of sorts in the mainstream politics courtesy of BNP, AL and Ershad during the eighties. Books like Satanic Verses had strengthened their position, made them even look closer to the truth and divinity, as this is the kind of book that interiorises a strong dose of malice that often serve the agenda of the western super powers.

However, when creativity is obstructed to facilitate the sanctimonious voices to pick up the decibel, the result is a wholesale demolition of the idea of tolerance. During the military rule of Ershad, poet Syed Atikullah lost his job from Janata bank for writing a poem. And Shamsur Rahman's name was dropped at one fag end of the military rule. The poet's name suddenly disappeared from the printers' line while he was still serving as the editor of the government owned Bichitra, the defunct legendary weekly. This led to his resignation.

Then came the so-called democratic surge. Many, who hoped to see a sea change, saw only a continuation of the past. In the creative field as well as in the field of information, the 'changes to be' remained just that. It was during the first term of BNP, the first bout with democratically elected government after two consecutive military rulers, that brought on the blight of ban on Taslima Nasrins' somewhat footloose writings. Before the ban on 'Lajja' in 1995, the Taslima controversy brewed only in the verbal front. Her colic comments regarding society made the Islamic extremists insecure. Though, in 'Lajja', the first book of Taslima for which she was smacked a ban, deals, in most part, with Jamaat and BNP on the role of the moral watchdogs. Year 2002, saw another of her book 'Ka', that deals with excesses of our intellectuals in the sexual front, getting a ban. And luckily for her, these bans keep knocking her books out of the bookstores to be sold out in the street in the hands of mass book sellers, a newly germinated tribe in Dhaka.

While the educated middle class remained all-entangled in the Taslima affair, crimes aimed against lesser known writers and poets remained unexamined. Moslem Uddin, a wandering minstrel, was clubbed to death at Dhunat, Bogra in 2002. A local political activist testifies that Moslem was a poet who wrote on all sorts of wrongdoings.

At Dhunat a Muslim sect who practiced Zikre, a form of meditation based on repetitive chant from Koran and Hadith was attacked by pro-Zikre group. Moslem wrote a poem condemning this attack. This led to the heinous attack on this wandering poet. He was mercilessly beaten in April, 2002, and died after a month long struggle with death.

This is not the only incident of persecution. Examples abound in both the rural front and within the front of the corridor of power. The government lends impetus to this growing intolerance by trying to gag voices pitched against them. Incarceration of Shahrier Kabir, and Muntasir Mamoon boosted the spirits of all the self-styled guardians of public moral and custodians of religious sanctity.

Saimon Zakaria, a playwright ran into a whirlpool of trouble when back in 1994, he wrote a play Gosto-Chakro for the village youngsters to stage. The chairman of the village intervened on the pretext that without his consent, how can a play be staged? Simon, who is now a regular contributor in the daily Prothom Alo, says, "We left our village in 1996, when we could not brave the threat any more." The family and the play wright left their ancestral home living in the city ever since.

However, there are agent provocateurs, who contribute to making things worse. Shambit Shaha wrote a play depicting a Pir monopolising everything and every situation to serve his own end. The same play was turned into a scathing depiction of the life of the Prophet, when the director, who staged it in Faridpur, doctored the script to suit his own intentions, without the consent of the writer. This sly attempt landed the playwright in Jail, where he remained for two years. These intentional vilifications of Prophets bring into focus the elements that are active in the guise of freedom of speech.

Farhad Mazhar, who himself was jailed for the article he wrote in the daily Bhorer Kakoj in 1995 on 'Ansar Rebellion' that was mercilessly crushed by the then BNP government, believes that freedom of speech is a vacuous term without a sense of responsibility. Mazhar was accused of "Inciting Rebellion" in July, 1995. He was released after the issuance of a court order one month later. He also says, "You can't be responsible unless you are free." And then hastens to add, "I can't agree on personal freedom. Freedom in the capitalist society is perverted. In the name of the writers' freedom you cannot hurt a community."

He is of the opinion that every community has backwardness, and in the name of fighting that backwardness, we often consciously or subconsciously become a tool in the hands of the exploiters. Mazhar, as a social analyst, is known for his polemics aimed at the real targets in the greater political chessboard. He is not against the right to criticise the community. "You can write to enrage a community, unless you are a part of the internal struggle that goes on inside every community, you cannot play the part of the critic if you don't belong there, you would only be an agent provocateur," affirms Mazhar.

It is true that even the most sincere critics often become a target of the people at the helm, as did Mazhar. But it is equally true that the fire of intolerance is often stoked by a number of writers who never aligned themselves with the masses. Abu Sayeed Abdullah, while reflecting on writers' freedom opines, "As the writers have freedom, so does the man that the writer is writing about. As Voltair said that you can wield your scimitar, but you will have to do it keeping a distance from my nose. So, the writer cannot simply attack others through his writing." "This leads to anarchy, not democracy," he adds.

The last victim, --- Humayun Azad, had no political clout. That made him an easy target. Police so far have provided no clue as to who were the attackers. If persecution of this nature continues, as a nation, we will lose all elements of critical practices that make a populace see its past and present mistakes in a clear light. "The attack on Azad brought the writers community closer. It made us realise our strength," opines Abdullah Abu Sayeed. He adds that if a writer's criticism is sincere than it may contribute to society's advancement. He concludes, "We must realise that the solution doesn't lie in one particular belief or opinion. So we must let every flower bloom."

Back to Basics

An Interview with Farhad Mazhar

This poet, with his novel imagery and fresh concept, re-ignited a passion for poetry in the new generation, during a time when this form of art had almost been lost in the flux of too much dross. Farhad Mazhar, has come a long way as one of the heavy weights of our literary domain. He has been at helm at UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative), a platform that promotes 'Naya Krishi Andolon', among other development activities. Nayakrishi is a new concept in biodiversity-based ecological farming practice that brings indigenous knowledge and the historical wisdom of Bengal into the mainstream.

While talking to SWM, Mazhar brought into sharp focus the core idea of his organisation, the new concept of development and the agenda of the superpowers that mars the agro-based economy of this deltaic region.

SWM: Since agriculture still is the core of our production activities, lets start with the alternatives that UBINIG has been instrumental in introducing in this sector. These alternatives have been developed against so called scientific or modern method of agriculture. How do you plan to make these practices widespread?

Farhad Mazhar (FM): What we are practising is science, and not alternative. The dominant institutionalised 'science' of industrial food production is mostly propaganda -- propaganda of the agribusiness and corporate profit. The so-called modern agriculture has basically lost the spirit of science, knowledge and wisdom. It also has a bad history.

Take for example, the case of pesticide and chemicalisation of our environment since Second World War. Chemicals and biocides were developed as weapons of mass destruction. After the war these killer chemicals were needed to be dumped as pesticides. Study the history of Ford and Rockfeller Foundation you will easily discern how they fostered American Foreign Policy in the name of 'Green" Revolution. The net results are destruction of the environment and the bio-diversity based production systems around the world, particularly in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s agriculture has a very unique characteristic, it is not 'subsistence agriculture', as often coined by economic idiots lacking education in ecology, environment and biodiversity. It is a farming practice evolved through hundreds of years of trial and error in a geographical space identified as the bed for the origin of diversity. Therefore, it is characteristically biodiversity-based, based on the diversity of species and genes.

In Bangladesh, we had something like fifteen thousand varieties of rice. We are richest in the world in the species and genetic diversity of aquatic resources, such as fish, for example. To stabilise the trait in one variety of rice you need not less than five hundred to seven hundred years.

North America is no match for the bio-diversity of our agriculture. They had to resort to colonial style bio-piracy. They keep these seeds under strict military security, in military bases like Fort Collins and Fort Knox. They guard the seeds and germplasm as they guard the oil in the Middle East. We are in an era where fierce battle is fought on three fronts: oil, seed and water.

In this global battlefield what we did was simple. First of all, we thought that the uniqueness of Bangladesh’s agriculture should first be recognised. In technical term this uniqueness is now recognised by scientists as bio-diversity based production system. It is a precious wealth that must be defended by life. To understand the ideological intensity of the battle, you must understand racism very squarely.

I will give an example, as they point a finger at us and say you are black, short, brown, savage, etc. the same happened with the local variety of rice, or for that matter all crops. You have a very unique characteristic, which is very specific to the unique environment, but they said yours is inferior, local varieties are no good. Who did the study on local varieties? It was simply propaganda. Your fifteen thousand varieties are inferior compared to what Ford Foundation and Rockfeller Foundation has been distributing to you saying it is high yielding. And you accept it, and you never did any study on your own varieties. You internalised the racist propaganda and believed that you are indeed inferior and so is your rice varieties and your agrarian civilisation. Once you give in they could cross indica and japonica to produce dwarf varieties and rice and completely change your rice production systems bringing package technologies of pesticides, irrigation and consequently homogenised rice fields. When you wake up from your maze you find multinational agribusiness has taken over your land and food chains.

SWM: So you are turning against an ideology, the ideology of modernism?

FM: Yes, the ideology of race and racism, against colonisation, against monoculture of lifestyles, the fascism that demands that we all must be like Europeans and must behave like Europeans, or else we are savages. With Nayakrishi, the agriculture we practise is so sensitive to life, all life forms. We desperately need a moral victory. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan for oil, the biopiracy of our seeds and germplasm and privatisation and commodification of water, including the plan of India to divert water through river linking, are absolutely inter-linked. It is the old colonial war, unfolding globally with massive power of destruction and ceaseless delivery of death. It is not a "developmental" issue, it is a question of survival. It is now turning into the question which race, which people are going to survive in the world? The white civilisation is telling the blacks, brown and yellows that you are disposable. We are disposing you unless you are like us. They are constantly telling you are not useful, you are culturally inferior, you look inferior, and you breed like rats, your religions teach you to be killers. Either you obey us or you are our enemies. If you protest, you are a terrorist, you are Al Qaeda. How do you fight back? The primary and absolutely essential first step is demonstrated that morally and ethically you are superior. You must prove that you nurture the seed of human survival and the white world is included in your global project. You cannot respond to racism with racism and that must be reflected in your values, in your idea of social and economic organisation, your concept of power and collective decision making processes. I refuse to be a 'development' practitioner. I am against so called 'development' trick that lacks ethical, moral or spiritual direction needed for our epoch.

SWM: It is a political struggle in the end...without which you see no solution in sight...

FM: Definitely. Absolutely. Politics of ethics, morality and respect for the sanctity and integrity of life. Politics of life. If we internalise so called 'modern science', without ethics, morality and social responsibility, which in practice is simply corporate propaganda in the name of 'science'. Corporate research and technology inevitably fails to be the science for our emancipation, because that was never its goal. It is merely a propaganda for making profit for the corporate giants. Serving the interest of oil companies and others is as same as serving the interest of Syngenta, Pharmacia (Monsanto), ACI, Du Pont, Aventis, Dow etc. in the name of modern agriculture. A number of companies are monopolising the whole food supplies to the world, 7 to 8 companies. And we are allowing them to plunder our seeds, genetic resources allowing them to destroy environment, putting the age-old bio-diverse farming practices at stake for profiteers. A community can not survive with this kind of strategy.

SWM: So, you do not subscribe to the word or the idea of an alternative development?

FM: No, I do not subscribe. My idea and practice are not bases of alternative development. I question the paradigm of 'development'. UBINIG is what we call policy research for development alternative. The so-called ideology of development is nothing but a continuation of colonisation. We reject this concept of development. That doesn't mean that we are proposing to go backward. We also equally accept that there are a lot of positive historical achievements, for example, in European history. What we are really fighting is racism that always points a finger at you and tells you,-- you lack science and technology. If my forefathers and foremothers have been able to produce fifteen thousand varieties of rice, that makes them highly advanced. Not only that, even when I started in agriculture, I started with only seven to eight varieties of the so-called modern varieties. In the Tangail area, where we started working, it took us only five to seven years to reintroduce again not less than two thousand varieties of aman rice. Imagine the ingenuity of the farming communities, even today. Unbelievable. Not only that, the farmers documented the characteristics of all these varieties. If we would hire scientists, we had to spend millions of dollars as consultant fees. They have been experimenting with all these varieties, and have many varieties that have yield of not less than 5 ton per hectare. The average yield of modern variety in the farmer's field is not more than 3 to 4 tons. There are at least 40 varieties that produced between 7 to 9 tons per hectare. So, why did you lie all these years that local varieties do not perform well in terms of yield. Isn't the essence of the debate with the so-called 'high-yielding' varieties'?

SWM: You have set an example by returning to the original reserve of seeds as far as aman crop is concerned. What else are you contemplating on?

FM: Agriculture is only one of our activities. We are active in many other fronts -- weaving, culture, health, trade and development issues, politics and constitutional issues, etc. I will rather come to the pragmatic aspect of our agenda. Our firm stance is that, the western civilisation, as we are habituated in imagining it, can not be the ideal for the futuristic global project. It doesn't mean that we don't believe in enlightenment. It doesn't mean that we don't believe in the best of what the other communities, Europe or West, for example, have achieved. We are reminding every one that there is something very unique in agrarian civilisations and lifestyles and that must not be lost and destroyed. In that context, agrarian civilisation of Bangladesh community, has a very unique contribution historically and still retain the capacity to contribute globally. It is not a kind of practice known as 'mono' culture, which means simply to plant only one particular crop. So, Bangladesh’s agriculture has been diverse in terms of the species and in terms of the organic varieties as well.

Number two, agriculture is not a kind of sector, which is like a factory, and agriculture is not a field where the communities will go and buy food. It is not a food industry. It's a way of life. Agriculture has a particular lifestyle, a particular attitude to the environment. Agriculture is an attitude to the ecology. Agriculture emerged from the relationship, for example, with the land, with water, with soil. What we first did, we started practising very simple principles. One such principle was, not using any pesticide. Anything that kills the life form, we have to stop using, not only chemical but also biological biocides. Similarly, no use of chemical, in terms of fertiliser or anything imported from outside to the system. The most important principle was that, learning how to manage the soil. And the farmers started to learn how to manage the soil. They learnt and invented to produce the compost out of biomass. The water hyacinth is known as a kind of pest, the farmers started harvesting the water hyacinth, with which after mixing a few banana trees, and cow-dung, and with a lot of other biomass, for the production of the compost. And this compost takes only forty-five days to mature. You don't need any fertiliser in Bangladesh, if you know how to use the 'producers'. In ecology the trees or greens are the producers since they are capable of producing their own food by photosynthesis. In this tropical environment with so much sunshine and water. It is a complete nonsense to go for fertilisers. In a biodiversity production system you can't have pesticide. I will be willing to prove this to any scientist in Bangladesh. The soil is so rich here, in Bangladesh, you need to ensure only two things for the pest management. One--- the local seeds that are pest resistant, and the other is mixed cropping, crop rotation, etc.

SWM: How many areas do you have in Bangladesh where this method has been applied, and how many farmers are working according to this method?

FM: We are working with more than two hundred thousand households, two lakh families, that we can keep track directly. It is spreading and since it is economically viable, farming households are adopting Nayakrishi. There are many villages and one entire union that are known as Nayakrishi village or Union. We are a small organisation, a small research organisation. We took our ideas to farmers; that's all. All the support and subsidies that the Bangladesh government is giving to the modern varieties, imagine what would happen had this support been given in the ecological agriculture. Bangladesh would be rich by now; perhaps could capture the growing global organic food market by now. There is a big market for ecological products. It is criminal to destroy our ecological capacity and ingenuity and clear competitive edge in the global scenario. It is criminal to pollute our surface water, food chains and environment.

SWM: You are fighting an ideological war. So, how do you plan to align others in this Naya Krishi movement of yours? You are setting examples, but that is not enough...

FM: I will ask the scientists and policy makers to come and see in order to realise that it should be taken up as a national policy...

SWM: And what about the government...

FM: Government is responsible. Why should the government give subsidy in electricity to run deep-tube wells around the country? You don't need deep-tube wells in Bangladesh unless you force to introduce destructive technologies. It is a country rich in fresh and sweet surface water. This water is more expensive than milk, oil or wine. Why are we destroying our water resources? We can even sell fresh water. Imagine how much money you are spending if you calculate the value of water used in the production of modern variety of rice? A small bottle costs you at least 10 taka in the market. How much money you are throwing away for what? I think you need to take them to people's court who formulates such criminal agricultural policy that destroys our natural resources. They must be made accountable for their policies that have destroyed our fish, our environment, and the livelihood of our farmers. All these years they have spent destroying the land, they did not study the soil, now it has lost its capacity.

SWM: It is not a question of resisting modernism, it is about restarting the whole business of agriculture from its original form.

FM: Yes, but original does not mean the past, but the principal of origins that supports life. What we are practising is rather 'modern', because we are futuristic and holistic, because we are enlightened with ethics and morality, because we are scientists not marketing agents of transnational companies. We nurture both the spirit of science and wisdom. True modernism is based on scientific spirit, it is not about the big companies trying to sell their product, it is not about simply going for propaganda to sell their product. We cannot allow these people to destroy everything in the name of 'science'.

SWM: What sort of plan do you have to involve the government in all this?

FM: I always try to involve the government. I work very closely with the Ministry of Environment; I work very closely with Ministry of Agriculture, whenever they ask for my expertise. Whenever they seek our assistance, we respond. We are open to all sorts of discussions. I use the same language while trying to convince the government. I say if you have any scientific evidence contrary to what I say, let's compare that with what we have achieved. But you cannot carry a corporate agenda. You cannot work for someone else. That should be the line of demarcation. The present State Minister for Agriculture, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, tries his best within his capacity to make our voice heard in his Ministry. The previous secretary of Ministry of Environment Mr. Sabihudin Ahmed was a wonderful friend, and he always tolerated my critical comments of government policies related to environment. I hope I will enjoy the same understanding with our present Secretary in the Ministry of Environment. We should interact on a more regular basis. But at the national level and also at the level of the media we have to draw a line between people who carry a corporate agenda and who don't. I am not saying that the corporate sector does not produce anything good, but we cannot reduce our social agenda into the agenda of greed and profit.

The Idea of Nationhood and the Culture of Intolerance

Mustafa Zaman

At around 8.30 am, the Ramna Botomul was rocked, -- a blast ripped apart bodies of several attending audience. For the rest it was a few minutes of bafflement. Then it dawned on them that a bomb has been detonated to mar a cultural congregation. The knowledge was unsettling. As they gathered only to mark the Pahela Boishakh, the first day of the Bangla New Year.

A festival that turned into a calamity courtesy of humans with ill intention stole eight lives and left about twenty injured. It was not something that the Noboborsho enthusiasts ever could envisage. In fact the rift that runs deep into the national consciousness, before that cataclysmic moment, was a thing that no one ever gave a serious thought to. Later, the investigation revealed that two men were carrying the bombs in a plastic bag, and it had gone off in their hands. What could have led to so much hatred to cause an atrocity of such a scale?

Every year, as Pahela Boishakh draws nearer, there begins another form of ritual of vituperation against the Baishakh enthusiasts. In the Baitul Mukarram, the central mosque in Dhaka, the Khatib, who is the theological head of the nation, hones on his antic of sermonising his attending devotees not to take part in any activity celebrating the Bangla New Year. The words mirror a mindset. The mindset is not the problem. Anyone has the right to express dissent. If one finds it problematic to have aligned oneself with the Pahela Boishakh enthusiasts, one must turn away from being a party to it. But what spurs someone to take a political stand against a festival that is linked with the geological reality of the country and that has become a historical reality, is a thing that gnaws at our psyche. Our history may not be replete with events of persecution, but there were occasions when intolerance got the upper hand.

After Lalon's demise, his followers fell victim to progrom and persecution. Although, in most part, the masses were tolerant of their practices that were based on spiritual quest and reasoning. For this very fact, occasionally they fell victim to those at the helm of power and who resented their polemics and philosophising. Bauls' antagonism of institutionalised religion threatened their very existence. The Bauls as a sect was declared unIslamic during the Islamic revivalist movements of the mid eighteenth century. The puritan upsurge, though primarily directed against the British occupation, later it found it comfortable to direct its attention towards marginal people.

It was a political and cultural clash that brought one strong strand of Bengal to stand against another intellectually-inclined sect. Bauls are not exclusionary in nature. Perhaps in the domain of culture they cultivate exclusivity, but, not in reality. They were incusionary, as was Sufist Islam in Bengal. They laid down the basis of the cultural practices (which include theological practices of all sorts) that thrived in tolerance as reasoning played a part in the make up of these ideologies.

It was the division between the middle-class Hindus, who were hell-bent to beat every other community in grabing the power, and the Muslims, who were lagging behind in their pursuit of material success, found it comfortable to slip into the newly defined labyrinth of the separate motherlands. The riotous end that led to the birth of Pakistan, a separate nation for the Muslims, was only a reflection of the animosity between the two major religious groups of undivided British India. The cultural integrity of the Bangalis received a fresh threat from this newly emerged nation when the rulers, who were predominantly Urdu speaking, declared Urdu the only national language. It is at this point that the Bangalis, out of sheer fear of losing their language and culture united to seek refuge in a language-oriented identity. this led to the birth of Bangladesh. As a new nation based on the identity of language had emerged, the threat seemed to have withdrawn. Yet, the bomb that went off at Ramna Botomul, brings back the question of having felt threatened, back on the table.

"What is political? Political means a kind of distinction that we make between friends and foes, it has nothing to do with culture and religion. Religion becomes political when we distinguish friends and enemies on the basis of it, otherwise religion is not political," says Farhad Mazhar. "Likewise, a Chakma, Bangali, a religious or even a secular person's identity is not necessarily a political identity until he or she makes a distinction between friends and enemies on the basis of this cultural identity," adds Mazhar.

This distinction will serve to clear a lot of cloud that gathers in our collective consciousness. According to Mazhar, cultural identity can be perceived along religious and racial lines. He also elucidates that the belief that culture can be secular is nonsense. "It can never be secular as religion plays a part in the very constitution of what we call culture," assures Mazhar.

Culture is the core of any community. And as far as personal beliefs and traits are concerned, it is usually a mirror reflection of the society he or she lives in. Therefore, whatever goes on in the personal domain, is linked with the social milieu. One nation houses many cultures both in the form of a few individuals or clearly defined but interactive societies living in harmony. Bangladesh, though has predominantly been a Muslim country for many centuries, in most part, used to be a place where Hindus, Chakmas, Murongs, Garos and myriad of other social or racial groups lived in piece, if not with ease creating a culture of fraternity.

Yet, the status quo was marred from time to time by intrusion of intolerance. It is the culture of intolerance that always pitches a band of Muslim against the people whose

signature Bangaliness is, in recent times, manifested only in festivities and other sprees of celebration. This conflict often remains confined to verbal polemics and at times manifested in abuses aimed at each other. What lies underneath is the plain and simple truth, the effort from both sides to distinguish themselves as the true claimants of the culture of this populace (the majority) that is Bangali in race and Muslim in religion. The theologically inclined sect, represented by the Islamic thread of politics, is more of a sacrosanct nature and sees itself in the role of the moral watchdog. The Bangalis, though have been oblivious to the past traditions of what quintessential Bangaliness stands for, are fighting a ideological war in favour of progressivism, frequently defined by secularism. Both the parties strive to overpower one another, and the national politics often is geared along this line.

The widening rift between the Muslim extrimists and the Bangalis is not of a cultural nature, nor is it a mere expression of hatred of one community against another. As the two strands of thoughts represent one society, a society divided along the line of beliefs. It is a power struggle between ideologies veiled in cultural or theological fog. The animosity that developed over the years is mostly born out of ignorance and a lack of the will to taking into account the whole spectrum that make up the society. When the Islamists targets their opposition it is seen as an attack on the integrity and existence of the Bangalis. When the Bangalis kill the Chakmas and other minority races on a regular basis, they are not bothered. As Bangalis we don't raise the question of annihilation, when the crime is ours.

Therefore, if the whole spectrum is brought into the light, it becomes clear that the people who take pride in being Bangali, too, share the blame for cultivating a culture of persecution. While given to the habit of evasion, we often avoid confronting facts that may show us in a poor light. We quickly point our fingers when the crime is someone else's. In fact, in this multi-layered society where residues of feudalism mingles with quasi-capitalist structure, the habit of seeing a common enemy is more and more gaining ground. Following any man-made calamity, one group points a steady finger to the other. Our government, in occasions of consecutive human disasters, tends to point to whatever or whomever they may find psychologically and politically comforting in turning into a scapegoat. The two politically seemingly well-defined groups, one that is aligned with the concept of Bangali nationhood and the other that conforms to a religious identity, too has developed a sinister habit pointing fingers at each other.

Before contemplating the question of a national identity, all this must be taken into consideration. The paradigms are varied, and simplification simply excludes any possibility of finding a solution. Are we Bangalis, or are we just plain Muslims, this question is only a fragment of the greater puzzle that is the crisis of identity. With the majority of people left out from having a share of the greater pie, without right to education, health and economic benefits, the question of identity that pitch one cultural-ideological element against the other is nothing but a farce. Being proud of who we are can only lend real meaning to our existence, when as a society we would be able to create a congenial atmosphere where raising the question of identity itself will not be the prerogative of only a chosen few.


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