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     Volume 4 Issue 34 | February 18, 2005 |

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Teach us

Ekram Kabir

So, the top opposition politicians and intellectuals have at last been provided with armed security? In a situation of deteriorating law and order, it was exactly what the government needed to do. Actually, it should have been done a long time ago. These are really not good times for Bangladeshis, especially for the politicians. We had to mourn the deaths of quite a few of them in a short period of time. The spectre of bomb attacks has not only made the politicians vulnerable to extreme insecurity, it has also led the people at large to suffer a deep sense of insecurity.

Let's assume that politicians will now more feel secure, for armed guards will accompany them. But what would happen to normal citizens without whose participation gatherings and rallies of politicians would never succeed? The gunmen will protect the leaders and eminent persons of the country, but what will happen to those people who look up to those leaders for their well-being? The commoners would still be risking their lives to unknown assailants who will explode bombs, say, at rallies, at jatra stages, at fairs, on the streets, at cinema halls and, who knows, even at educational institutions. Maybe from now on, helicopters will remain ready to take the leaders to hospitals when they are injured in any incident. But what will happen to the commoners? What would happen when "they" are dead or injured? Their families would not have the means nor the courage to organise protests rallies or press briefings like the family of late Shah AMS Kibiria. A token monetary compensation from the government is the only bit of retribution they can expect to get.

We the common people don't have the slightest idea of what to do in times of crises such as bomb attacks, mugging, robbery etc. We don't know how to defend ourselves in times of emergencies. Not just bomb threats and attacks, the same can be said about crises such as floods, earthquakes, fire, and even diseases like dengue or any other disease. Apart from some television footages on 'flood' and 'dengue', there are absolutely no civil defence mechanisms in place to make the people aware of emergency-time "dos and don'ts". For example, no one really knows what to do during an earthquake, or a tornado, or even when a mugger assails. One can only use common-sense during an emergency to avoid danger. The only exception here may be 'arsenic contamination' due to UN's involvement in the issue.

One can surely ask why bother with civil defence? What would you accomplish by introducing civil defence mechanisms? Asking these questions would sound similar to the question 'Why bother with fastening a seat belt in a car?' Well, because a seat belt is believed to lessen the chance of serious injury in a crash. Similarly, civil defence, in its simplest term, is preparing in advance the protection we will need when disaster or danger strikes. In emergencies, civil defence has goals such as: a. to prevent loss of life; b. to help the injured; and c. to relieve personal suffering and distress. In most circumstances the emergency services like police, fire service, ambulance etc., deal with emergencies. Where they are unable to cope, because of the scale of the event or where the extraordinary powers are required, then civil defence measures are used.

In most of the countries, civil defence means "to provide protection to the people and national assets from peace time disasters and war eventualities". In those countries, there are civil defence administrations that deal with civil defence matters. Their main objectives are to minimise the number of casualties, reduce damage to essential services, to ensure uninterrupted production in industries, to provide active civilian support to war efforts and to maintain the morale of the people in case of any emergency.

Likewise, we in Bangladesh do have a thing called 'disaster management'. Here, no disaster is managed before it takes a hellish toll on humans and their properties. Well, we need to understand that disasters may take many forms, and may occur as a result of one or more of a wide range of events, both natural and those induced by man. Acid violence is certainly an emergency to a victim. Or ask a father who couldn't take his child to the hospital during a hartal. Or ask a girl who has been subjected to eve-teasing. 'Disaster' means not only the commonly perceived effects of sudden natural events; earthquakes, tropical storms, floods, volcanic eruptions, and so on, but also the effects of drought, crop failure as a result of blight or infestation, and other events which are slow to develop. Disaster also means accidental damaging or destructive effects of our normal activities.

Here, in our lives, these include, but are not limited to, atmospheric contamination, transport accidents, acid violence, diseases, hartal violence, mugging, robberies etc. Actually, the civil defence that we need in Bangladesh is common sense. If people's commonsense can be kindled by knowledge, it would be possible to save many "common" lives. Imagine that about 5,000 Bangladeshis die every year in road accidents. These were essentially due to reckless driving. If passengers knew what to do or how to stop the irresponsible driver from reckless driving, at least some lives could have been spared. All they need is a basic knowledge on how to act when they are in danger or distress.

So, what would civil defence do? It will, we expect, simply make people aware about what they should, and can, do when their security is in jeopardy. An informed person can prepare him/herself on how to avoid danger or threats much better than an uninformed person. A well-informed population can also reduce the responsibility and tension of the government itself.

A process needs to start immediately. It doesn't have to involve the law enforcers; the non-government organisations can easily take this up on their agenda to educate the population on civil defence techniques. But before that, the government needs to spend money and reform the country's Fire Service and Civil Defence department, making it "really useful" for the people. This department should be capable enough to educate us on these matters. The government must not see this it as a waste of money. It would be money well spent if the government can show people how they can safeguard themselves and their families.

Ekram Kabir is a journalist and a researcher.

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