Remembering Our Responsibility
AASHA MEHREEN AMIN
If there is anything to celebrate this Eid very few Bangladeshis will disagree that it would be Professor Yunus's winning the Nobel Peace Prize this year. There is much reason for our euphoria. Although the enterprising, innovative Professor has for quite some time, been able to show a positive image of Bangladesh to the rest of the world, as the first ever Bangladeshi to win the Nobel, he has given his country a much-needed confidence boost. After being branded as a poverty-stricken, disaster-prone and with the worst record of corruption, Bangladesh has finally something to boast about. Ironically it is poverty that has brought the laurels; this time not because of its pervasiveness but because of people's ability and determination to break the cycle of poverty with the vision of someone like Prof. Yunus.
But there are important lessons to be learnt from this momentous event in our history. When Yunus was asked rather crassly by some journalist moments after the news reached the country, the connection between peace and poverty alleviation, his impromptu answer was along the lines of the inevitable conflict and disruption of peace when there are huge economic disparities in society. If a handful of people are living and eating well while the majority stays hungry and deprived of very basic rights, there is bound to be a backlash.
This is the biggest crisis that this nation is now facing - the gaping divide between the rich and poor. Despite cosmetic changes in the urban landscape - more concrete jungles, glitzy malls selling unnecessary amounts of foreign goods, - in real terms are the majority of people better off?
According to recent research Bangladesh's poverty record is at its worst. But it does not require statistics to tell us what is staring at us in the face every single day. The grossness of this disparity is right here inside our homes. The people who toil all day to make our lives so comfortable and hassle-free - our domestic workers are treated like modern-day slaves do not have fixed working hours, decent pay, sometimes even proper sleeping arrangements. Most of all they are treated with contempt, verbally abused and physically assaulted. Why are they in such a dire situation? Who is responsible for their plight?
Outside our homes we are irritated by the knocking on the car windows of beggars - haggard women with malnourished babies, men and children with gross deformities, old, decrepit citizens who have no other recourse but to ask for alms. Then there are the thousands of rickshawallas who earn a pittance for back-breaking work, day labourers who risk death or life-long disability creating buildings they will never live in or visit, the little children who sort out garbage or sell things on the street, despondent women who have to sell their bodies to get a meal, garment workers who work in unsafe conditions. These are the faces we see or try not to as we go about our hectic, urban, meaningless lives.
Miles away in the pretty countryside are millions of more of our country folk slogging away to grow the food we eat. They too suffer untold hardships during lean seasons or when there are no jobs and no assets to sell off. Sometimes these people - mainly farmers and their families - do not get even a single decent meal a day. The women silently bear with their own hunger but break down when their children fall ill due to lack of food. People like Dr. Yunus have seen these faces and have the ability to understand their pain. His innovative approach to help rural people to stand on their own feet with small loans has taken thousands of people out of abject poverty. Others too are trying to do the same through various approaches.
But why is it that they are only a handful of individuals? Why are there not more Prof. Yunus's or Fazle Hasan Abeds, more Abdullah Abu Sayeeds or Angela Gomes's or the likes of a few other individuals who have made it their business to improve the lives of the poor?
The reason is that our society has become too egocentric, selfish, greedy and - yes - too miserly. We happily spend a few thousand takas on a single restaurant meal but when it comes to paying the home worker we will not give them even half of that amount as a monthly salary. We buy the flashiest, the latest, most sought-after cars for lakhs of takas but do not give a single taka for those hapless souls who appeal for financial help through the newspapers, so that they can live a little longer.
Our identity as human beings badly needs redefinition. Those who are blessed with wealth and better opportunities in life must share them with their less fortunate compatriots. All it requires is a little more generosity and a little less self-aggrandizement, to contribute to making the dream of people like Prof. Yunus come true - to create a Bangladesh where it will be hard to find a poor person. Starting from our very homes to the most public of institutions - government - people individually, collectively and in whatever capacity they hold, have the ability to take the responsibility of making our society more egalitarian and hence democratic. Unless we do this we have no business in taking any credit for honours bestowed upon our better countrymen.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006