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Volume 2 Issue 10 | December 2007



Original Forum Editorial

Month in Review: Bangladesh
Month in Review: International
Exit strategies: The way forward- - Rehman Sobhan
Politics of 1971--Afsan Chowdhury
The continuing rape of our history -- Mashuqur Rahman
1970 Cyclone Special
Photo Feature Aftermath
Reverse Charges-- Jyoti Rahman
Betrayal and consequences-- Badiul Alam Majumdar
Captive market-- Mikey Leung
Sleepwalking nation-- Manzoor Elahi Choudhury
Imran Khan in his own words--Asif Saleh
Playing games-- Kaiser Haq
Science Forum


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Sleepwalking nation

What will it take for us to wake up, asks Manzoor Elahi Chowdhury

Maybe you notice it, but most likely you don't. It's like when you're in the kitchen cooking all day, at one point you don't smell the rich aroma of spices quite as much as someone who steps into your house from outside.

A foreigner visiting Bangladesh for the first time would certainly notice the apathy and indifference in every layer of our society. The signs of sleepwalking are everywhere -- people spitting on the streets without looking, drivers honking for no reason, trash piling up on the sides of the streets, lifeless government offices with stacks of dusty old brown files, robot-like teachers who hate questions from their students, a doctor prescribing medicine without even looking at his/her patient -- the list goes on an on.

Everywhere you look, there is no passion, no twinkle in the eye, and absolutely no desire to do things differently. Despite all the noise and commotion, it seems our whole nation is sleepwalking, taking one day at a time, occasionally waking up for a snack, and then going back to sleep.

Now, how arrogant of me to say such a thing when so many things are happening around us -- the anti-corruption drive, preparation for the upcoming election, the separation of the judiciary from the executive branch, our emerging private sector, and above all, the hard work of millions of individuals who are Struggling everyday to make a living, to say nothing of the on-going cyclone relief effort.

How can I label our country a country of sleepwalkers? To those who may ask me this question, I say two things. First, you can't take credit for doing a few things which should have been done many years ago. Besides, I'm just talking about the general attitude, which has become part of our national character.

Second, while criticising this attitude, I'm not blaming the majority of the people who are at the bottom of the food chain; they are sleepwalking because there is no hope and they don't have leaders to wake them up.

The blame must rest on our administrators and leaders, who are the soundest sleepers of all. In fact, if we all stop honking and stop talking on our mobile phones for a minute we could hear them snoring, sleeping so comfortably, as if nothing can wake them up.

A foreigner's first experience with this sleepwalking nation starts when he or she gets off the plane at the Zia International Airport. To me, an airport is like the foyer of a house where you make the first impression about the house you've just entered. Someone who is coming to a mega-city like Dhaka ,with more than twelve million people, would expect to see an airport with reasonably good facilities and services. However, as soon as you line up for passport and immigration clearance, your high expectation starts to fade away. While people stand in line for hours with carry-on luggage on their shoulders, wondering when this waiting ordeal will end, you watch our airport employees working at the passport counters, struggling with their computers as if they've landed here from a different planet. They never raise their heads to see how long the lines are. A crying baby, an elderly person's distress, our tired and annoyed looks, nothing can wake them up. I've been to our airport many times, and not even once did I see a supervisor walk by and ask his subordinates to speed things up.

Why don't the big administrators of the airport notice how passengers suffer, and how the image of our country is being tarnished everyday? Why don't they plan for staff training, system upgrade, and all the other things necessary to run things more smoothly? At the risk of sounding somewhat arrogant and inconsiderate, I'd say they have no clue about running an airport efficiently. If asked, they'll give you all sorts of excuses, excuses we've heard a million times. Training your staff and improving the system requires knowledge, planning, guts, and hard work, not just money. People who sleepwalk will not be able to fix anything, no matter how much money you give them.

A foreigner's next encounter with our sleepwalking nation takes place on the wild streets of Dhaka. Anyone who lives in Dhaka knows this is no exaggeration. If you put thousands of drivers without elementary school education behind the wheels then this is what you get -- a perfect mess and chaos of unlimited proportion. Along with the embarkation cards, I think airlines should distribute ear-plugs to travelers coming to Dhaka for the first time. The noise pollution from the honking can make you so mad that you'll feel like banging your head against a wall.

How did these drivers get their driving licenses? And why aren't the car owners, talking on the phone in the back seat, not saying anything to their rude, clueless drivers? As a policy maker, you have to be completely asleep not to notice the traffic situation. Which roads do they take when they travel in Dhaka? Don't they notice this embarrassing mess, and don't they ever feel that enough is enough and

ever feel that enough is enough and something needs to be done? Traveling in Dhaka has become so nightmarish that it is not only affecting our health, our economy, and our productivity, it is also choking our cherished culture of visiting friends and relatives.

A grandmother who lives in one part of Dhaka frequently postpones her plans to see her grandchildren in another part of town because she is terrified by the thought of sitting in traffic for more than an hour. An expatriate Bangladeshi who returned home with the hope of making new friends and reconnecting with old friends finally gave up socialising because the pain of fighting the traffic and dealing with obnoxious drivers far outweighed the pleasure of having a cup of tea with friends. In developed countries, there would be lawsuits; people would lose their jobs over traffic mismanagement, but not here, not in Bangladesh, because we cannot hold anyone accountable.

I think there should be peaceful demonstrations on the streets of Dhaka demanding fixing of the roads and the traffic system. No yelling, no brick throwing, no inflammatory speeches, just a peaceful walk with placards to wake some people up from their sleep. I remember seeing a picture in a newspaper where a traffic policeman without boots was directing traffic in the flooded streets of Dhaka, standing in knee-deep water and using an umbrella given to him by a mobile phone company. Policy-makers and high government officials in charge of the traffic department should be embarrassed, and should resign after seeing such a picture. On a related thought, do you know of any driver in Dhaka who ever got a traffic ticket? I can bet the answer for most is no. Most of these drivers never heard of a traffic ticket.

If our administrators and policy makers had not been sleepwalking for all these years, we would have had a driver education program by now, where every driver would go through a short training before getting a driver's license. The funding can come from the revenue from traffic violation fines. The main challenge is empowering our traffic police, and implementing it one step at a time. The requirements for successful implementation of such a program are vision, high level of awareness about the issues, willingness to listen to experts and a lot of passion and hard work to get something done. Do people who are running the show have these qualities?

I can go on and on, but why bother, and who is listening? There are hundreds of sleepwalking examples, starting from the state of the power sector, Bangladesh Biman, telecommunications sector, to internet infrastructure, and ac demic institutions. How did our country become like this? It didn't happen in one day. I think that the sleepwalking mentality is a by-product of the "go with the flow," "why rock the boat" or "why make new enemies" mentality, which partly stems from the British colonial heritage where our bureaucrats wanted to stay in power by being subservient to their bosses and by not demanding any changes. No changes served them better, so they embraced the auto-pilot mode of thinking.

For the poorer segment of the population, sleepwalking is the result of economic struggle, where inflation, unemployment, and hopelessness squeeze them so much that they lose all their passion about work and don't care any more. I remember Martin Luther King's famous saying: "If it falls to our luck to be street-sweepers, sweep the streets like Raphael painted pictures, like Michelangelo carved marble, like Shakespeare wrote poetry, and like Beethoven composed music. Sweep the streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth would have to pause and say … [h]ere lived a great street sweeper."

To have this kind of work ethic and pride, we need leaders and role models both at the top and at the bottom. I read someplace that the etymological root of the word "leader" comes from the middle English word "laed," meaning "path" or "road." "Ledere" was the term used for the person who showed fellow travelers the road to follow and brought them safely to the end of their journey. Thus, "leader" originally signified that special individual who took others into unfamiliar territory.

How do we create these leaders? The private sector can create leaders more easily because they are driven by the bottom line (profit). For the public sector, there is no magic formula for doing this, but common sense tells me that we need to start appointing bold and uncompromising people in key

positions of the government. These leaders will look for similar traits in people when they hire someone. They would promote and reward individuals not on the basis of seniority, but on the basis of hard work, accountability, leadership qualities, and passion for change. As we have more and more people with these qualities, our society will start to accept these character traits as the norm instead of the exception.

Like one candle lighting thousands of candles, or like bees carrying pollen to the next flower, a culture of work ethic based on accountability and hard work will start to emerge in every village, town, or city across the country. Sounds wonderful, but how long can we wait for the sunlight to push through this thick cloud of indifference and hopelessness? I suggest we start right now by doing whatever we can to bring a change in this "go with the flow" culture, because you never know when a trickle will turn into a flood.

So, if you're the headmaster or principal of a school, hire some passionate teachers who are true mentors and fire those who have no idea of what teaching is all about. If you're a high level government official attending a meeting to discuss relief operations for the cyclone affected people, wear a plain shirt or panjabi and sit next to your overdressed boss to show that there is no need to wear a suit unless you're meeting a foreign delegate.

If you're the captain of a sports team and your team has lost an important game, tell your coach that you take full responsibility for the defeat, instead of trying to blame it on the weather or another player. If you're a young journalist interviewing a politician or an administrator, make them fumble and stutter by asking tough, pointed questions. What do you think will happen? Is your boss going to fire you when he finds out you embarrassed his friend? Believe me, someone else will hire you in a heart-beat because that's the type of journalist they will be looking for.

Finally, I'd like to close by saying that in our culture, flattery and compromise are more appreciated than criticism. Because criticism is inconvenient and distracting for our rulers, they equate criticism with disobedience and arrogance.

I, on the other hand, feel that criticism (if it is constructive) is a sign of caring. People who criticise are not compliant little lap dogs that never bark back. They criticise because they're passionate about an issue and they demand change. United States Senator James W. Fulbright once said: "To criticise one's country is to do it a service .... [c]riticism, in short, is more than a right; it is an act of patriotism -- a higher form of patriotism, I believe, than the familiar rituals and national adulation."

Manzoor Elahi Chowdhury is Associate Professor, Independent University Bangladesh (IUB).

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