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    Volume 9 Issue 5 | January 29, 2010|

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A Fair for the Rights of Citizens

Audity Falguni

Letting people know of their rights.

Citizenship is a concept that is universally familiar but neither is it unequivocally interpreted nor uniformly experienced. A citizen is generally seen as an individual member of a political society or state and by extension, one who owes allegiance and may lawfully demand protection from the government of that state. `Citizen' is also loosely synonymous with resident or inhabitant.

In ancient Greece, citizenship was conferred on a minority of the population, and only citizens had the right to participate in governmental affairs. Although classical liberal notions of citizenship focused principally on civil and political rights, social-democratic welfare regimes extended the definition to enumerate social and economic rights. Finally, social movements, via prolonged struggles for intensifying democracy have redefined citizenship by the notion of 'the right to have rights.'

Article 27 of the 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh embodies the principle of equality for all of its citizens. Our Constitution further prohibits discrimination by the State on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth in article 28 (1). But, are all citizens really equal in our state? For example, those ten percent of Bangladesh's total population who live under such a yoke of poverty that the average monthly food expenditure for each person is less than Tk. 554 and whose expenses for matters of survival other than food is zero (source BBS Report 2005) surely cannot be said to be equal with the middle-class urban and educated segment of society. Or what about around 4.5 millions `Dalit' or so-called 'untouchables' like sweepers, sewerage cleaners and scavengers, tea garden workers, cobblers and shoe-makers, who were brought to Bangladesh for menial work from different regions of India during the British regime? Are they at all equal with the mainstream people of Bangladesh? Or, think of a tiger widow (a woman whose husband has died of an attack from a man eating Royal Bengal tiger) living in the disaster prone coastal areas near Sunderban. A child worker in the ship breaking yard, a street-based child prostitute or a Khasi indigenous woman in her betel leaf yard in fear of eviction...are they aware of their equal rights as citizens of the state?

It is to clearly outline and delineate the fundamental concept and adjoining rights of citizenship, that a two-day long Nagorik Adhikar Mela (Citizen Rights Fair) was held in the Shilpakala Academy on January 22 and 23. Around 57 non-government organisations including reputed NGOs like BRAC, Nijera Kori, Ain o Shalish Kendra, Media Nagorik Forum, Karmajibi Nari or Steps Towards Development, civil society organisations and research institutes jointly organised and participated in this fair. A number of national and grassroots organisations from all over the country were represented in the fair showcasing their work on rights, participation and citizenship. Justice Mohammad Habibur Rahman inaugurated the event and Simeen Mahmud, Lead Researcher at BRAC Development Institute (BDI) chaired the inauguration ceremony. The event was, in addition, graced by a distinguished panel of guests inclusive of noted economist Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud, BRAC Chairperson Sir Fazle Hasan Abed or grass-root indigenous activist Jostina Nokrek.

"Political leadership, strong democratic institutions and citizen's consciousness are three basic ingredients to strengthen democracy" said Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud. "Countries of the west so far have been successful to establish a strong democracy ensuring citizens' rights and accountability of public institutions although we are lagging far behind."

A performance depicting the plight of domestic workers.

Former chief adviser to a caretaker government Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman recommended stronger local government system as a pre-requisite to establishing a solid foundation of democracy and claim citizen's rights in a proper way. "The Prime Minister, leader of the opposition and three important ministers of the cabinet are women. Among them there are the Ministers for Home and Foreign Affairs. These are sheer successes, but till today acid is thrown on women," he observed.

BRAC Chairperson Sir Fazle Hasan Abed highlighted the deprivation of basic rights to the ultra poor people of the land, particularly the women, children and indigenous people.

Apart from speeches by distinguished personnel, the main enjoyment of the fair was roaming in the stalls and going through a number of souvenirs, magazines or books on a wide range of rights based activities by different organisations. If a stall of the Dustha Swasthya Kendro (DSK) informed you about the total number of five slum dwellers in 3,000 slums of Dhaka city, the stall of Rupantar, a Khulna-based NGO would tell you the plight of near about 25,000 women and children trafficked to India and other neighbouring countries per year from Bangladesh en border routes.

"I belong to the trans-gender community" said a hermaphrodite preferring not to be named "common people hate us but a right-based fair like this enables even us to go around freely within this elegant Academy premises and obtain knowledge and information on the HIV/AIDS issue." S(he) was watching a documentary on the laptop screen in stall of HASAB, an NGO working on the HIV/AIDS problem.

"I am a student of law and I needed some basic information on condition of the garments workers and relevant labour laws which the stall of BLAST is sufficient to provide," said Abhro, a law student from a private university.

Again, the stall of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) exhibited important books and posters on Phulbari coal mine or tea workers while Steps Towards Development had its show of DVDs of documentaries on gender and other human rights issues.

"In 2007, BRAC Development Institute carried out a research on the issues of citizenship and rights based on a survey of 2400 poor rural people in 7 districts of Bangladesh belonging to eight grassroots development organisations. The aim of the research was to understand to what extent these organisations contribute to building citizenship practices amongst their members. The research findings revealed that although most members of grassroots organisations think they are citizens, not everyone believes that all citizens are equal. Equality of citizenship is linked to equal access to rights and it is the poor, those having little education, women, children and elderly who do not have equal access to the rights that the constituion of Bangladesh guarantees its citizens,' said Simeen Mahmood, the Lead Researcher of BRAC Development Institute (BDI) while explaining the rationale of organising this fair.

"The research found that the most important rights identified by poor people are still related to the basic needs, of which foremost is the right to food. Therefore the struggle to establish rights is intrinsically connected to peoples' struggle for survival. This research programme was supported by DFID, UK and was carried out as a part of a larger research programme in 8 developing countries under the auspices of the Citizenship Development Research Centre (DRC) located at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Sussex University,"she added.

"One and half month ago, a land rights activist for landless people was deliberately murdered by feudal elite in Satkhira of South Bengal. His name was Saifullah Lashkar. Today male and female activists for marginal people like Saifullah or late Karunamoyee Sarder are pouring their blood to resist commercial shrimp farming, salinity and land grabbing process in vast tracts of South Bengal" said Khushi Kabir, Executive Director of Nijera Kori, an organization which works for landless people. This fair wishes to narrate their sacrifice and equally underscores the need of the movements to be launched in near future for claiming and exerting people's basic rights."

The fair, which was open to all and went on from 10:30 AM till 8 PM , included cultural performances by various participating organisations, stall displays, video screenings, photography and poster exhibitions on the theme of citizenship.


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