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     Volume 4 Issue 65 | September 30, 2005 |

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Cover Story

Four Years of
Living Dangerously

When the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led Four Party Alliance came to power on October 1, 2001, it promised a clean government that would "usher a new dawn in the lives of the people". Four years since then things have changed very little for the voters, most of whom have found themselves living under an inefficient and insincere government. The gulf between an ever-increasing number of poor and a few self-indulgent rich has touched a pitiable level.
The Alliance promised to curb corruption, but in its four-year rule, nepotism and corruption have reached a dangerous level-- some ruling party leaders and workers have interpreted people's overwhelming mandate as a license to get rich quick. Terrorism, which as an issue dominated the elections: the Alliance's rule has witnessed numerous ghastly bomb blasts, and the government, at the height of apathy, has so far failed to nab the masterminds behind these terrorist attacks.
As the government celebrates its fourth year in power, the Star Weekend Magazine tries to find our if there is anything to applaud.

Shamim Ahsan and Ahmede Hussain

License to Kill: RAB members are thought to have carried out innumerable extra-judicial killings.

September 22, 2005, Rupnagar Residential Area, Pallabi. A three-member unit of Rapid Action Battalion (Rab-4) enters the area's road no 20 riding Rab's trademark all-white motorcycles. The team, which comprises of Manjur, Zakir and Rafique, has been sent by the Rab Headquarters to arrest an alleged mugger whom an angry mob of around 20 people has just caught. Shujat, the alleged criminal, cries innocence and asks for mercy, as Rab members drag him down the street near house no 19. The mob gives a raucous roar of approval, when the Rab men, armed with the planks of wood that the crowd has supplied, start flogging the alleged criminal. Sheets of blood ooze out of the youth's shoulder. Asked why they are beating Shujat up, who can very well be vindicated, a Rab member replies, "People have caught him mugging; we have been trying to find out what has happened".

In fact, this is the draconian style with which the Rab has been fighting criminals. Around 200 people have died in Rab custody. Though the Rab blames them on the classic excuse --"crossfire", these are certainly extra-judicial killings, which in effect undermine the judicial process. Like the armed para-militia that used to saunter down the streets of the country immediately after independence, the BNP, it seems, has created an army of licensed murderers, who, given the flimsiest of pretexts, is ready to kill people. Some of the so-called listed criminals, have, in fact, died in the hands of Rab. But if these felons had been brought to justice, secrets might have come out, and presumably, some BNP and AL leaders would have to be punished for patronising terrorists and criminals.

Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia

When the Rab was formed over a year ago, the police had already been in disarray due to shameless politicisation and unbridled corruption. And the creation of a parallel force has, in effect, come as a final blow to the police's morale. Most policemen are ill--paid and poorly equipped. Instead of strengthening a traditional force like the police, the BNP government, it seems, is bent on undermining the police's role in keeping peace in the country. In his usual rodomontade, the State Minister for Home (SMH), has provided the Battalion with armoured vehicles; in a grandiose occasion, which can only outmatch the SMH's tall-talks, these tank-like contraptions have been handed over to the Rab. One wonders against whom Lutfozzaman Babar's boys are going to use these armoured vehicles.

The Battalion members are drawn mostly from the Army, Bangladesh Rifles and Police. Within days after its inception, some Rab members were caught extorting money from a businessman in the city. Over 100 Rab men, caught while extorting money, have so far been punished; the highest form of chastisement was - before a new law had been passed - to send the offender back to its mother organisation. The irony does not escape us: the Rab will save us from criminals, but who is going to save us from this so-called elite force?

Immediately before the 2001 general elections the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) published its manifesto, promising to rid the country of the menace of terrorism that the Awami League government had failed to root out. In fact, along with corruption, terrorism towered over other issues in the elections.

The government seems to be finally clamping down on Islamic extremists found guilty of terrorist attacks but has itself allowed them to grow and flourish.

After the BNP-led alliance won the elections in an electoral landslide, the law and order situation turned grave. Immediately after the elections, goons, in places BNP-cadres, attacked minority Hindus: women were raped, some of the Hindus were evicted from their houses, and their places of worship vandalised. Though newspapers ran numerous reports, Four Party Alliance (FPA) government claimed normalcy; with a characteristic bombast, the Prime Minister criticised the opposition for maligning the country's image abroad.

In fact in its way to keep the country's image clean, the government arrested Shahriar Kabir and Muntasir Mamun, who were making documentaries on minority repression in the country. Like religious persecution, religious extremism has remained a taboo subject for the FPA ministers until over 500 bombs exploded in 63 districts on August 17 this year. Wary of the AL's implicit indictment of its junior partner Jamaat-e-Islami's (JI) hands in religious extremism, the BNP has been summarily denying the presence of Jihadis in the country.

When grenades were lobbed at an AL meeting in downtown Dhaka killing 21 people on August 21 last year, the BNP and its intelligentsia fed several conspiracy theories. Of them one blames Sheikh Hasina, the AL chief, for planning to bomb her own rally. Detectives from British Scotland Yard were flown in to help local investigators find out the culprits behind the ghastliest terrorist attack in the country's history. The government's insouciance regarding the attack is the prime cause for the investigation's failure. A man, with petty criminal records, was arrested, and was coerced to confess to the attack. The government, one has every reason to believe, is waiting for public interest in the probe to die down.

During the so-called 'Operation Clean Heart' over 40 people died in army custody. The government later promulgated an ordinance indemnifying the army.

From the assassination attempt on British High Commissioner to Bangladesh, Anwarullah Chowdhury, to the killing of AL leader SAMS Kibria, the government has failed to bring the culprits to book. When it comes to curbing terrorism or hunting down religious extremists, the government lacks sincerity. According to a newspaper report 40 percent of the arrestees nabbed for carrying out the August 17 bomb blasts are members of the JI, most of who are being released on JI leaders' intervention.

In the Second Punic war, Roman dictator Fabius Maximus earned the notorious title of 'tortoise' for procrastinating the impending war with Carthaginian general Hannibal's force. Maximus the tortoise later struck hard and eventually had won the war. Except for the winning part, Khaleda Zia eerily acts like Fabius the great delayer. It has taken numerous bomb blasts to make Khaleda realise that enough is enough and now is the time to stamp out Islamic extremism.

In clamping down Jihadis the BNP faces an inevitable quandary: a no-nonsense approach to Islamic extremism will anger its allies, whose support the BNP heavily relies on to retain the 60 marginal seats in the parliament.

Apart from maintaining law and order, the government has failed miserably in curbing corruption. In the 2001 electioneering, one of the decisive blows that the AL took came from a report made by Berlin-based Transparency International (TI). That year, in the TI's annual corruption index, Bangladesh was rated as the world's most corrupt nation. The AL government was indeed corrupt - if not the most corrupt among all it had competed with - and BNP spin-doctors successfully made a big issue of it in the run up to the elections.

BNP has been steadfast in persecuting the opposition keeping up the practice of their predecessors.

In the following year, the country retained the infamous title, and the BNP blamed it on the caretaker government. But the government was declared the same in the next year too, and now the BNP started to criticise the Transparency International itself for lodging a smear campaign against the country's image.

But the fact of the matter is, while general people are getting poorer by day, a new class of lumpen bourgeoisie is flourishing, people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of a culture of unfettered corruption.

Though fingers are pointed to Hawa Bhaban and Khaleda Zia's son Tarique Zia's alleged back-room dealings, the government has not taken any initiative to prove the critics wrong. Khaleda routinely denies allegations of corruption against her government as a "conspiracy to tarnish the country's image". But what she does not elucidate how within a short period of time her followers have amassed such a huge fortune. Madam - as she is fondly called by the faithful - and her four-year-old coalition has left so many embarrassing questions unanswered.

No where is the government's failure more glaring than it is in the power sector. It might sound implausible but the BNP-led coalition government has, in the last four years, set up only one power plant in Tongi that has the capacity to produce 100 megawatt. It too was completed early this month. It has signed a deal for setting up a second power plant, at Fenchuganj, but it is scheduled to be completed in 2008.

What makes the BNP-led government's failure in the power sector almost an offence is the fact that power is directly related to production, not only industrial but also agricultural production, especially for irrigation purposes. Only 30 to 35 percent of the total population have access to power and due to deficit between demand and supply which stood somewhere at around 200 to 250 mw four years back and has now climbed up to 500 mw. As of August this year, BNP did not add a single mw power to what AL left in 2001. Thus the 35 percent of the population have to suffer frequent load-shedding.

In our country, corruption and the government go along inseparably. While every government since independence has outdone its previous government's corruption, both in terms of spread and depth, the present coalition government has taken corruption to a new high by their ingenuity. The power sector is a good example of it. The only power plant this government installed in Tongi with 100 megawatt capacity was done by Chinese company Harbin. The project was re-tendered thrice just to award Harbin the bid which finally got the contract in 2002, costing Tk 385 crore, though the first tender attracted a Malaysian company that demanded almost half the price, Tk 185 crore.

Interestingly the 100 megawatt simple cycle Tongi plant began commercial operation early this month. Moreover, the much publicised plant tripped only 12 hours after PM inaugurated it on September 3. Investigation disclosed that the plant had been regularly going out of order during its six-month test operation from March.

Despite such a miserable show in Tongi, Harbin once bagged the 90 megawatt Fenchuganj combined cycle project. Because the Chinese company reportedly enjoys the blessings of a certain bhaban, known as the alternative power centre. The project was re-tendered six times just to get Harbin win the bid. An especial committee formed during the third re-tender found Harbin's experience inadequate. The bid criteria wanted the winning contractor to have 10 years of experience of designing , inspecting, building, supplying, testing and commissioning at least one 90 MW power plant outside the country of its origin. Harbin disqualified in all those counts, but nothing stopped it from getting the contract.

Rice prices have swelled almost double over the last four years, putting enormous financial pressure on people in the middle and lower income groups.

The same pattern of awarding projects to disqualified bidders violating all kinds of laws and ignoring the country's interest was adopted in the gas sector too. That Niko, a Canadian gas exploration company was badly wanting in both experience and capability, was exposed beyond doubt after two huge blowouts in Tengratila at the gap of only six months, burning about 260 billion cubic feet gas. The fire at Tengratila is not expected to extinguish until December. According to news reports, the incidents exposed shady deals giving Niko undue benefits. The blowout in Magurchhara that burned 265 billion cubic feet of gas can also be remembered as another example of questionable deals that allowed Unocal, the offending company, to go without paying any compensation whatsoever.

The four-party alliance government is also guilty of giving the culture of politicisation a new dimension in its four years tenure. Starting from appointment of judges to the high court to the selection of 150 former JCD leaders as Upazila Elections Officers, the government has broken all records of politicisation. The opposition parties believe, and not implausibly, that these two incidents were done to manipulate the next general elections due in 2007.

Rise in the price of daily essentials is often the result of non-economic factors rather than the dynamics of supply and demand.

How has the BNP-led alliance government fared in the economic sector? With a steady five to six percent Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, a slow but consistent poverty reduction rate of .02 percent, and some progress in the areas of women empowerment, mortality rate, literacy rate, girls' education etc the economy seems to be on a strong foothold. But Abul Barakat, well-known economist and professor of economics, has little respect for those statistics: "Statistic economy always makes a good reading but these are mostly cooked up. The real economy is different." says Abul Barakat grimly. The first thing he identifies is the inequality between the rich and poor, which, he believes, has worsened under the present government. According to government provided statistics, income of the rich has increased by 14 percent while that of the poor decreased by four percent on an average in the last few years, Barakat says. It's natural that the number of poor people would rise along with the rise of population, but what has been happening in our country is, many who belonged to lower--middle class group are becoming poor, while many who used to be bracketed with middle class are being relegated into the lower middle--class fold, he elaborates. "The government has taken no conscious efforts to arrest this trend of ever-- soaring inequality," he says.

The country's economic activities, especially in the industrial sector, which Barakat terms as the "lifeline of economy", has suffered a major setback under the present government's four years' rule. As many as 3,000 big, medium and small--sized industrial units have been closed down. A good many heavy industrial units like Chittagong Steel Mill and the largest jute mill of the world, Adamjee Jute Mills, (which is not exactly a heavy industry, but can be grouped with them because of its size), sugar mills as well as small and medium sized enterprises like garment factories, poultry farms have been closed down over the last four years. The reasons for this include bad policy and lack of clear vision on the part of the policy makers as to which direction the economy would be led, he observes.

Refuting the government justification for closing down Adamjee, that it has been wasting crores of public money, Barakat says that inefficient management and vested political interest turned Adamjee into a losing concern. He accuses the government for being absolutely nonchalant about making the mill functioning, as, he points out, it never bothered to correct the ills, rather looked suspiciously hell bent on closing it hurriedly. The four-party alliance government crippled the heavy industry that had had the potential and prospect as the base for a steady industrial growth.

The government has also done precious little in the agriculture sector. "Our economy is still agro-based, but if anyone deserves credit for anything good that happened to the agriculture, it is the peasant and Allah; the government did nothing," Barakat emphasises.

Investment is another area where the BNP-led coalition government has utterly failed. When reminded of Tata from India and Dhabi group's investment in Bangladesh, Barakat said these are "registered investments, not real investment". Barakat cannot remember any major investment--foreign or local--coming to the country over the last four years. "There has been investment in unproductive sectors like real estate, but the productive sectors have been starving for investment all along," he points out. Investment has not been made in productive sectors, which means new employment opportunities have not been created and the unemployment rate continues to rise.

Barakat identifies the excessive high prices of daily essentials as the most alarming trend in the economy. Prices of rice, flour, oil, onion, milk, pulse have skyrocketed over the last four years. "In the last four years, prices of rice that sold at Tk 10 to 12 four years ago is now selling at Tk 19 to 20, that is a 18 to 19 percent rise each year," Barakat points out. He then gives another staggering figure: "The poor and lower--middle class people who constitute 83 percent of the population had to spend an additional Tk 75,776 crore only for rice in the last four years. The yearly figure that stands at around Tk 19,000 crore is more than the government allocates for Annual Development Programme."

Anu Muhammad, Professor of Economics, Jahangirnagar University, is equally critical of the government's inability or unwillingness to check reckless price hike of daily essentials, especially food items. Prices have long gone beyond the purchasing capability of the mass people while the government is trying to evade its responsibility by talking about free market economy. True, in a free market economy, prices are determined by the supply and demand relation, and the government is not supposed to intervene into it. But what the government is failing to register is that in our country prices of things often rise irrationally due to non-economic factors. "It's not the supply crisis but extortion and toll paid during the passage of a product from production to consumer point, that is often responsible for such reckless price hikes," he explains.

Muhammad aptly depicts the direction of our economy, "We are shifting away from mills to (shopping) malls." On the one hand numerous mills and factories are being closed down, on the other hand Dhaka and a few other cities are being filled up with shining and glittering shopping malls. We seem to be heading for, what Muhammad calls, a mall-centric economy. This service sector growth, he explains, is unbalanced as it is import based and has no relation with production. And it is not particularly a mark of a healthy economy.

The BNP-led coalition has been keen on appointing its faithful in the judiciary.

True, the government has raised salaries and allowances of the government officials and employees, but they do not make even five percent of the entire population. The price hike of both food and non-food items have shot up inflation which has hit double digits for the first time in the history. Per capita income has also risen but the raised income has been more than eroded by high inflation.

Muhammad doesn't think fates of rural people who constitute 80 percent of the population have seen any remarkable improvement in recent years.

However, roads have been built in sizeable numbers and communication has developed which together has seen a rise in non-farm activities in the rural areas. Again the spread of micro-credit -- besides Grameen Bank, a good many international, national even local NGOs now have micro-credit programmes -- facilities have also seen some improvement in the lives of the rural people. But agriculture continues to be the main stay of and the only sustainable production base/source for the rural population. Noticeably, the non-farm activities have not gotten the strength and spread to substitute agriculture and hasn't turned into a secured source of production for the rural people. Thus during the off season of Ashwin and Kartik, the poorest people migrate to the cities in search of work.

While the first four years of the present ruling coalition is marked by failures in almost all crucial areas, it has got a few achievements to its credit. The ongoing drive against adulterated food is certainly one of those handful successes. That there was a law against adulterated food is something we all knew. We were also aware about the unhygienic and hazardous state of the thousands of restaurant kitchens across the city, where millions of Dhakaites have their meals. But we certainly did not know that we could still be shocked; as most of us had no idea about the extent of this adulteration. No doubt adulteration of food has been going for long, but the ongoing drive is certainly the first of its kind in history. The government surely deserves praise for the move. The government has in fact framed a tougher law levying heavier fines and longer jail terms in the just concluded parliament session. One hopes, the operation would go on with the same zeal and enthusiasm.

The BNP-led coalition government can also demand credit for banning polythene and ridding Dhaka off the greatest polluter of the city's air, the two-stroke three-wheelers. In recent months though, polythene appears to have been creeping in slowly taking the advantage of waning government enthusiasm and inefficient monitoring.

The introduction of CNG-run scooters ridding Dhaka of the polluting two-stroke three wheelers is one of the major achievements of the ruling coalition.

Many would also like to congratulate the government for its strict stance against cheating in the public examinations. State Minister for Education Ehsanul Huq Milon deserves a special mention here. He is the one who raised a sort of a movement against cheating. His unannounced visits to examination centres and catching of unsuspecting teachers, who were found to be assisting in the deplorable practice, proved to be a strong deterrent to cheating. Cynics however, continue to say that the standard of education is falling consistently and stopping cheating, while a positive attempt in it, is not going to heal the real ills of our education system. Our outdated syllabi, age-worn teaching methodology, ineffective evaluation system are some of the areas that demand immediate attention. Besides, the need of a uniform education system instead of the present three forms of instruction (Bangla, English and Madrasa) has been felt for long.

More than one and a half years into the formation of an independent Anti-Corruption Commission, one doesn't really know whether it's a success or failure of the alliance government. While the BNP-led alliance government has reasons to claim kudos for setting up an independent Anti-Corruption Commission, (a necessity everyone dearly felt and a promise most political parties have been making and violating for long) it will also have to shoulder the blame for failing to make it work. Since its coming into being it has remained absolutely non-functioning and the only thing we have so far witnessed is a recurring quarrel between the commission's chairman and one of its two members.

The list of the government's successes have been overwhelmed by a series of blunders that have left the majority of the coalition's voters disillusioned. The next one year is going to be a challenging one for the ruling parties if they want to win back their sceptic voters.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005