Thirty-three years of
Where are we at?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
We Remove the Road Blocks to Progress?
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.
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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
"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'
Bangladeshis are Not
of Life After Thirty Three Years of Freedom
AASHA MEHREEN AMIN
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
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beliefs and Backlash
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
who chose to remain in Dhaka, though many of his friends
who came from Kolkata went back to India or set out for
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.
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
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
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
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
with Farhad Mazhar
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
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
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.
So you are turning against an ideology, the ideology
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.
It is a political struggle in the end...without which
you see no solution in sight...
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
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'?
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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,"
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
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.