As we step into a new decade, how do we see ourselves in the next one? The Star explores the potential of some key areas where innovation is badly needed.
The Great Leap Forward
After its restoration in 1990, the democracy practised in Bangladesh has been a distorted, malfunctioning one. Some major fixing needs to be done to treat the disease that is eating away at our polity.
Reforms within the Fold
Even though the Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the parties that have alternately been elected in the last four democratically held elections, in public profess to uphold democratic principles, they practice a warped, deformed version of internal democracy. Party councils become a mere rubberstamp as, on the last few occasions, the councillors have vested the power to handpick the party office bearers to the supreme leaders of their respective organisations.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Photo: star File
Both the leaders, for their turn, have gladly exercised this power and have chosen each and every member of the parties' central leadership. To make matters worse, the supreme leaders of the parties, while in government office, sometimes choose the same person for the office of the party General Secretary (or Secretary General) and the Minister for LGRD. In the worst-case scenario, there are instances where the party supremo, who is also the Prime Minister, has chosen members of the party central committee as her cabinet colleagues. The line between party and the government, which is supposed to be drawn tightly and firmly, gets blurred, and governance suffers.
All the major political parties have to start practising democracy from the grassroots. The Election Commission can supervise the elections of the parties' different tiers and in this way internal democracy can be strengthened in the political parties. The party members must keep in mind that if the central council vests the power to handpick the entire party leadership on a single individual, it will inevitably harm the party's democratic culture and a new leadership will not emerge.
Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia should also know that it is bad for the country's democracy if the same person holds the reins of the government and the party in power. It stinks of mistrust in fellow party-men and gives an aura of despotism that has plagued the country for so long. When the same person holds both the party and government offices, in the absence of a proper democratic culture, the government becomes synonymous with the party and corruption takes root.
The party in power, at the central level, should have two tiers: party office bearers and the Ministers; and no one, including the Prime Minister herself, should hold two posts at the same time. All elections within the registered political parties must be done in secret ballot under the supervision of the Election Commission.
Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom
In a Westminster-style democracy, the Prime Minister is considered Primus inter pares (the first among equals). This is hardly so in our country's politics; the PM wields all the power. This is because, since its infancy, the country has flirted with several forms of government and the remnants of feudalism still make the masses look for a demigod in their leaders. Both of them, when they get elected, act like the president in a presidential form of government. In fact, besides both the leading figures in our politics, there is hardly anyone who can lead the country in the new decade.
To fill this leadership vacuum and to avert a possible leadership crisis a new clause can be incorporated, if such need arises in the constitution according to which a person will not be able to become Prime Minister if he has already held the post a certain number of times. The country is in dire need of a new batch of honest, sincere leaders who will be forward looking, liberal in thinking, and on top of it all, will be able to deliver.
The Boys with Guns
Student politicians are often used by leaders of their mother organisations to incite violence in the streets.
Over the last four decades, a strange, moribund form of politics is being practised in the country's educational institutions. The armed cadre-based politics that different leading student organisations are practising has quickly replaced the ideology-oriented student organisations that the country witnessed in the sixties and seventies. Gone are the days, when students and their leaders were looked up to by the masses, and the different student bodies, in the absence of a class-based political institution, had led the mass upsurge against a string of military rulers who usurped power in the dark days of our political history.
Gone are also the days when student politics gave birth to leaders like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Matia Chowdhury, Mujahidul Islam Selim and Rashed Khan Menon. Student politicians now use their clout to manipulate government tender, control the dormitories of different colleges and universities or simply to work as an auxiliary force should use of violence be needed to enforce strikes called by their mother organisations.
It is sad that student and youth politics has degenerated into such a level that it can only be compared with a cancerous growth, which, if not removed forcibly from our national politics, we, as a nation, might have to face disastrous consequences. The presence of gun and machete-wielding young men in our campuses and in the streets of our cities makes a mockery of the democratic values that we so feverishly want to establish in our social and political life. A moratorium on student politics is the order of the day, and to implement this, sincerity from the part of the main political parties is necessary.
Decentralisation of Administration
Power in the last four decades has become heavily centralised. Even the local government bodies such as Union and Upazila Parishads have not been able to function properly as the MPs are allowed to control the development works. It has created a void at the local level and the MPs who are supposed to engage themselves in making laws and taking policy decisions have engaged themselves in the day-to-day affairs of the local bodies. This breeds corruption, not to mention the havoc that it wreaks thanks to the dual leadership that it gives birth to.
MPs need to disentangle themselves from the local bodies, and the local administration has to be allowed to work in a free, fair and transparent manner. All elected representatives of the people should bear in mind that at the end of the day it is serving the people of this republic that matters the most. If the long hands of the MPs are stretched to even the nitty-gritty of the local bodies, both lawmaking and development works will be hampered.
It is, however, good to see that the 'nomination business' witnessed in the first three democratic elections has decreased to a tolerable level in the run up to the 2008 parliamentary elections. The two major parties, especially the Awami League, have listened to the people's demands and have chosen candidates nominated by their workers at the grassroots. And the party that has practised it the most--the AL--has come out victorious. One can only hope that this trend will be continued in the years to come.
There is however a fundamental flaw in the electoral system of the country. In the national elections of 2001, Bangladesh Nationalist Party won 193 seats by bagging around 41 percent of the total votes cast, and the Awami League, which got 40 percent votes, won only 62 seats. In the general elections in June 1996, the AL formed the government by winning 37 percent votes (146 seats), and the BNP sat in the opposition bench after getting 33 percent votes (117 seats). There is no denying that the current electoral system does not properly reflect the wishes of the people, and, as the Sheikh Hasina-led government is toying with the idea of making some amendments in the constitution, it can seriously think of introducing proportional representation system into the electoral voices. It will shake the country's political establishment, and this major overhauling of the electoral system is badly needed.
National Unity and a Third Alternative
Leader of the Opposition, Khaleda Zia. Photo: star File
In the last general elections that was held in 2008, the people of Bangladesh overwhelmingly voted for the AL. But the change in politics and economy that the party promised in the run up to the elections has not yet arrived. Our politics is still dangerously divided along the line of petty party politics, where ideological opposition hardly matters. Basically it comes down to Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, the two leading leaders of the AL and BNP, and the personality cult surrounding their father and husband remain the rallying cry. Issues that dominate Bangladesh's politics are extremely personal in nature and sometimes come down to which one of these two ladies has the last word.
Politics in the new decade should not be practised in such a manner. There are issues of national interest on which a national consensus is needed. The country badly needs a clear direction regarding the economic policy of the country, the energy sector, participation of all parties in the parliament, violence in politics, the future form of the caretaker government system and the changes of the constitution.
A situation where the main opposition party chooses to boycott the parliament and happily resorts to violence in the street can never forge the national unity that the country now so badly seeks to overcome that the present stagnation our politics is in now. A dialogue can be launched between all the parties registered with the Election Commission to create a unified platform so that politics in the future remains stable and no adventurous undemocratic forces can create trouble during the transition of power. Our leaders should remember that the Bangladesh that they think they live in is no more the country they see around them. Thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, the free media and a resurgent civil society, when it comes to politics, the ordinary people of the country are more knowledgeable about their politicians than before. And the past few elections results tell us that no political party should take the voters' loyalty for granted. So far Bangladesh has by and large a two-party political system, which, any student of modern political science knows that, is the by-product of plurality voting where the winner takes all. A two-party system has many good sides, of which include: stability and economic growth. Unfortunately, this is hardly so in our politics. A third democratic alternative that will give the two parties a run for their money is needed in the country's politics. So far, the emergence of such a force has remained a distant possibility. An alternative political party might not even be needed if the major parties fix the anomalies that have been plaguing our political system for so long; it is not a question of if they can do them, it is a matter of if they will think of doing them.
Education Policy 2010 Is it a Utopian Dream?
The education policy 2010 is one of the most comprehensive policies drawn so far after independence that aims towards a unified, non-discriminatory, accessible and affordable education system. The present education minister, Nurul Islam Nahid, the engineer of this policy, talks about its implementation to the Star.
As political government changes, policies are often discarded and never see implementation. Is the present policy immune to such possibilities?
Since liberation about six to seven education policies or reports have been prepared but none implemented. As a student, I have been involved in all the movements, whose basic aim was quality and scientific education. My experience says that if the education policy is not nationally acceptable to all then it will not be possible to implement it.
Education minister Nurul Islam Nahid
That is why the preamble of the policy firstly mentions that it will be a national policy not a partisan one and secondly it is not a holy text that cannot be changed; it is man-made so it can be changed. It has happened in the past that a change in the policy was not accepted by anyone and implementation was barred. We have to keep in mind that education is a dynamic subject- it is always changing, science and knowledge is expanding continuously; these facts should be kept in mind for making progress.
When we prepared the draft education policy with the help of experts and educationists, we first circulated it. We could have just passed it right away in the parliament. Instead we wanted opinion from all groups of people who might have different philosophies than ours. We posted it in the website and published it through the media. Throughout the country around 500 large and small seminars on the draft education policy were organised, some by us and some by educational institutes and NGOs. Receiving thousands of opinions from these, we tried to understand the basic trend in the opinions and incorporate those in the policy.
I took another initiative of taking the opinion and also views of our political opposition. My attitude was that I should take their opinion into consideration; otherwise there will not be any national acceptability. I myself requested Emajuddin Sir, the ex-Vice Chancellor, and Moniruzzaman Sir for their opinion. Moniruzzaman Sir himself has given me his views on behalf of his colleagues, which I consider as his party's opinion. From there, I have incorporated some basic issues that might be quite critical for Awami League's politics.
Then I held meetings with representatives from all the different types of madrasas and took their opinions. Later when we finalised the draft and placed it in the parliament no amendments came and we found that it received national acceptability. For example, Osman Faruk, ex-education minister of BNP, praised the education policy in a national daily but said implementing it would be difficult. Emajuddin Sir also said so and so did Moniruzzaman Mia. I replied to them, “Sir, I know it will be difficult, I knew it beforehand. We have to take the challenge. If we don't take up such huge challenging task, how can our new generation be courageous? We must do it.”
The best thing about the possibility of implementation of this education policy is that nationally it has obtained a place above all arguments to some extent. I am saying 'to some extent' because there will always be some who might raise questions, like the ones who called hartal couple of days back but did not receive enough support to back it up. Interestingly, they had supported it before but now suddenly they are demanding something else.
Every time there is a change in government, they cancel the policies created by the previous government and make a new one and while it is being prepared a new government comes in and the cycle goes on. To prevent this, there are provisions for amendments in the policy. If they think they want to change something, they can; in the meantime they will continue to follow the steps that has received national support in the policy.
The dropout rate in primary and secondary level is high not because of the lack of primary school but for need of private tuition, costs of stationary and the lost earnings by children. Teachers, moreover, are among the least paid both in public and private sector. However the new policy requires highly qualified and fully dedicated teachers. How do you plan to meet these challenges?
The first thing is we cannot give a to- the -point solutions to these problems. But we are already trying to address these issues.
We are building schools for child labourers in the urban areas where these problems are prevalent. We are also giving the children a certain sum of money as alternative to the amount they would have earned. Say he used to earn Tk 1000 but we cannot give that much; we are providing for his educational cost and giving Tk 500, an amount which he can contribute to her/his family.
Regarding private tuition and notebooks, well, previously in the villages they used to buy notebooks, even teachers taught from the notebooks because that was easy. So we are trying to make the textbooks available everywhere and discourage the use of notebooks. We sometimes raid printers who publish notebooks. But we cannot stop it totally.
The use of notebooks and practise of private tuition can only be reduced when the quality of teaching in the classrooms will be high. Teachers will teach in such a way in the classrooms that the students will not need to study at home or buy notebooks.
Quality of teachers is one of our biggest problems. If we want quality education we need quality teachers. But there is a lack of quality teachers because few talented people come and stay at this sector, because of low salary and benefits.
So in future we shall try to increase the salary structure and also motivate them to be patriotic and fully dedicated to the profession. We are giving them training on that. We are trying to increase the financial support but of course it cannot be like that of developed countries. We shall create a separate pay scale or pay commission and propose it next time when the salary is reviewed.
Under the new policy students have to sit for four public examinations within eight years- at class five, eight, 10 and 12. Don't you think this will build extra pressure on the children and hence hamper real learning?
The students were sitting for exams at class five for promotion to class six and also at class eight for class nine. I have been to different schools and I noticed that in every school at class five about 40% students sit for the scholarship examination. In most cases, not in schools like Viqarunnessa or Ideal, teachers think that if five students get the scholarship then their schools will become renowned. So they select maximum 40 percent students or sometimes even less and direct all their energy to that 40 percent. They sometimes take fees and give them extra tuition. The rest 60 percent remain unattended.
Again these 40 percent and the other 60 percent sit for another year-end examination for promotion to upper classes. So they are actually giving two exams. Had we not taken these terminal examinations at class five and eight, the students would not have been free from exams. The only difference that we have made is that these exams will be held nationally and with one single question paper.
The main reason is to try and take the quality of education at all areas to a modern and scientific standard. Since the same question paper is being used at Viqarunnessa, or in a school at Kamrangir Char or Shandip, the teachers over there will be under pressure to teach the whole class properly. Otherwise if all the students fail, the school will either dismiss the teacher or school management committee of the village will ask them to show cause. As government we are also under pressure to make the system work. So we are training the teachers by rotation on how to improve the quality of teaching.
We cannot say that the quality of education will be equal throughout the country in a day or a year. But we have to start somewhere, may be it will take five years may be more.
About 48 percent drop out before completion of class five and 42 percent before class eight. To stop these we are trying a lot of things like giving free textbooks, food, need-based scholarship but these examinations provide a different motivation. We are creating a hope in the student's mind that if s/he can remain at school till class five, s/he will be getting a certificate that says s/he is an educated citizen of this country. Similarly, they will be getting another certificate at class eight.
Slowly, we will be introducing technical subjects at class six, seven and eight, so that even if a student does not study any further, s/he can have some basic skills. Now people with MA degrees go to Middle East and work as sweepers since they do not have any other skills. But if they go there as technician, they can do something better.
Today education means knowledge and skill that is useful in daily life. For example, a village boy who will go back to his agricultural job after studies, had better learn about seed, fertiliser and their use. So we want our education system to be practical and skill-based.
How can we bring the technical expertise of our country on a par with other countries through higher education?
We want to raise the quality of our higher education to international standards. For the first time, we have created a fund of Tk 900 crore for research in higher education with the help of the World Bank. A few days back, we have approved and disbursed fund to 40 research projects proposed by groups of two-five teachers from both public and private universities.
But the main concern is what to do with the crores of people in our country? If you can't make them skilled then they will be a burden. If you can make them skilled then they will become assets. That is why I have given the emphasis on technical and vocational education.
Unfortunately, we are very weak at this sector because in the past hardly any attention, value and expenditure were oriented towards this sector. Socially technical education has no value. Most parents want their offspring to obtain the Masters degree, even if they remain unemployed. For example, in our elite society no one wants to be a nurse, a welder or a technician. During marriage 'my son has completed Masters' carries some weight but this is of no use in the professional life.
I have done something quite desperately about what to teach in technical institutes by taking into account what the employers want rather than what academicians think the syllabus should include. I said that let the employers say what technology and hands they will need after five years and what kind of job demands are there in Korea, Malaysia where we export labour.
While working on this issue, I came to know that about 16.5 thousand foreigners are working in different positions in our garment sector, because we do not have expertise in those areas in our country. I was shocked thinking that while we are not getting jobs, foreigners are coming from the neighbouring countries to fill in the positions!
At first I was not sure what to do, then I went to this polytechnic textile institute and spent the whole day there trying to understand its quality and environment. I became confident that there are good students there, who can get those jobs if they had a university degree. So I asked them whether they could run the institute as a university. They were quite courageous and ex-students from the garment sectors came forward too. Getting positive response from them, I immediately made the law and took all the necessary steps to convert it to a university.
Where would all the money for this ambitious policy come from?
Yes we need a lot of money to implement this policy. Although every year education gets the highest allocation in the budget the expenditure in the education sector is still higher than the revenue.
For the last couple of years, the conferences of Education for All (EFA), to which Bangladesh is also a signatory, are struggling to ensure that developing countries like ours should spend eight percent of the GDP, not the budget, for education. Do you know how much we spend now? Only 2.23 percent.
The South Asian countries have realised that we won't get this amount so we sat together and decided that we shall ask our governments for at least six percent. We still have not received any response from any of the governments because there are so many other priorities like food, electricity, agricultural products and so on.
Yet I am not discouraged. I am a positive person, because I think the money that we get should be spent fully and properly without any misuse. The biggest area of misuse is corruption. We want good governance at every level of the education administration, which should be transparent, skilled, progressive and corruption-free.
I have made it clear that anyone diverting from this will not be tolerated. Everyone has his own specific job and there is no scope for shirking work. I shall be the first one accountable, saying I had this work last year and I could not do it, if that means I cannot stay, I will get out.
I have tried to take a strong stance against corruption; although things have improved I understand it is a very difficult task. This year's Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) report says that the corruption in the education sector has come down from 39 percent to 15 percent. TIB's Iftekharuzzaman in ATN news said that our perception that corruption cannot be stopped is wrong. But there should be a responsible individual who would take the initiative and he gave the example of the education ministry. So if we can stop corruption we can save a lot of money.
We shall also use the concept of public-private partnership, or private donations to build, for example, rooms in village schools, library or computer laboratory. This may not be possible everywhere but may be it will be possible in at least 10 percent areas. Even that we will welcome and we shall involve everyone in whatever way s/he wants to contribute to the education sector.
A Not-So-Healthy Healthcare System
Important facts to keep in mind: The total population of Bangladesh is over one hundred and thirty million. 60 percent of this population lives below the poverty line. 77 percent of the population lives in rural areas. To cater to the medical needs of this growing population, there are about 80 district level hospitals of various kinds, 13 government and medical college hospitals, six postgraduate hospitals and 25 specialised hospitals. The doctor to patient ratio is currently 1:4719, the nurse to patient ratio is 1:8226 and the total number of hospital beds available is 40,773.
Our healthcare budget may be small but it is also mismanaged. Photo: zahedul i khan
When we think about the current state of our public healthcare system (PHS), we end up shaking our heads and complaining about the lack of doctors, corruption on every level, and scores of other problems that the government should be doing something about. Studies have shown that most people encounter corruption in health under different guises, some of them being bribery, negligence of duties, nepotism, deception or embezzlement.
While these are the main bottlenecks impairing the growth and improvement of the public health sector, there are numerous reasons behind them. In order to bring about improvement, the government must find the root causes behind these problems and formulate strategies to tackle them.
According to Dr Rashid-E-Mahbub, former president of the Bangladesh Medical Association and the former president of Bangladesh College of Physicians and Surgeons, the lack of commitment on the government's part toward the health sector is the biggest obstacle to progress. “ Currently, six to seven percent of the national budget is allocated toward health care, which is less than one percent of the country's GDP. Our neighbouring countries are allocating upto three percent of their GDP toward their health sectors, so this is definitely a financial bottleneck in our system,” informs Dr Mahbub.
“Our budget may be small, but it is also mismanaged. Cuba has limited resources but they manage to run an effective health care system. Their government had a vision and they planned well. Think about the US, it is the most powerful and resourceful country in the world but has a poor healthcare system. Even Sri Lanka has better healthcare than most SAARC countries. What we need is proper planning. At present, we are supposed to be serving 150 million people but about 70 to 80 million people do not fit into the framework of the modern health care system. So the amount allocated per person goes up, but due to mismanagement, the people who are within the framework do not get the amount allocated to them,” he continues.
While the public health care system is working to prevent infectious diseases, non-infectious diseases are also surfacing. Photo: zahedul i khan
Of course the healthcare sector cannot be developed overnight. The government has to be realistic. Currently, it cannot afford to provide free treatment in the public health sector. “We just have to realise what is important and prioritise. The government has already started addressing issues such as maternal mortality, child health, provision of safe drinking water, sanitation and immunisation which are the primary responsibilities of the PHS,” says Dr Mahbub. “ The PHS in our country, given the state of our economy is not so bad if we compare it with other countries with similar economies. Availability of Medicare is one of the major problems here. The PHS has no Medicare system. The accountability on Medicare services provided by the private sector is questionable. There is no law to protect the service users from corruption and abuse. These are the problems that need to be addressed,” he opines.
While the PHS is working on preventing infectious diseases such as diarrhea and malaria, non-infectious diseases are also surfacing. According to Dr Mahbub, the PHS is trying to raise awareness about these diseases and informing people about the changes they should make in their lifestyles as preventive measures. “We are giving out six immunisations now but there are definitely other immunisation programmes that can save people from infectious diseases,” he states.
While the government can ask other countries for donations for this sector, this may have to be part of their long-term plans. “We can't be donor oriented,” says Dr Mahbub “we have to have a proper plan and then we can ask for the money from outside sources. You see, nowadays donors will give money for specific diseases such as AIDS and they will push their own agenda but we have more problems with tuberculosis and leprosy but they are giving less attention to those. AIDS is a global problem, so donors are more worried about that than our specific problems.”
Another major roadblock to progress seems to be the shortage of doctors in this country. “But can we afford more doctors?” asks Dr Mahbub. Our economy cannot afford more doctors than we already have. If we produce plenty of doctors but cannot train them properly due to lack of resources and funding, people will be further exploited. At the moment, increasing the number of doctors may seem like a solution statistically, but economically it is not feasible.”
“We have village doctors too. They are definitely not modern doctors but atleast people have somewhere to go to. We may call them quacks, but we are not in any condition to fix this medical grid. If social development does not take place in these remote areas, our doctors will not want to work there. The government has recently assigned about four to five thousand medical graduates to rural areas, but they are not serving there. The government has to formulate a plan on how to make this system workable by providing more incentives for these doctors,” he continues.
There are many ways to provide incentives, monetary being one of them and of course the government can guarantee them their 5-year experience will be equivalent to 10 years if they serve in the rural areas.
Centralisation of medical services can also be named a stopper to the development of this sector. While healthcare is being provided in urban areas, the rural dwellers are suffering because of the long distances needed to travel to get access to healthcare.
“All economic activities are centalised, especially if you have privatisation. Again this is a political agenda. If the government thinks it should do business with health care it is a political want. At the same time, the rural people should definitely have access to proper health care. We have to find ways to make these doctors want to go to the rural areas and work there. We should include this in our overall healthcare policy. It is not possible for us to force them to go. Doctors should have a commitment in the social arena. This is problematic because rural medicine and urban medicine is completely different and our doctors are not acquainted with rural medication so they need more training in regards to that,” says Dr Mahbub.
One solution to this can be having more government run medical hospitals in each district, so that people can study close to home, and remain in these areas to work. However, there are problems with this as well. “As of now, we have 18 government run medical colleges and more than 50 private sector medical colleges, but having these colleges alone won't suffice, because we do not have enough qualified staff to teach here. We definitely need more medical colleges, but like I said it cannot be haphazardly done. It needs proper planning and thought. Many private medical colleges do not have qualified staff or clinical facilities. If the students are not trained in a proper way, then we will have a lot of half educated doctors on our hands. That is why we need planning and manpower in every department in healthcare. Other countries have figured out a workable system, we have yet to achieve this,” opines Dr Mahbub.
The mindset of doctors with regards to their profession is also somewhat harmful for the future of this sector. According to Dr Mahbub, "Everyone wants to be a specialist. The question is, is this good or bad? Globally, a doctor is a doctor whether he is a general physician or a specialist, but in this country, we discriminate. Specialists are given more importance and respect. The more degrees you have the more you are valued. Elsewhere, like in America, they are all MDs and they work on skill development.”
"Having post graduated degrees is just not good enough. Most want to be cardiologists or gynecologists but noone wants to an anesthesiologist, but without an anesthesiologist how will the other two work? This is very alarming. We have to change our mindset in order to be rid of such practices" he opines.
"Another huge problem is with nurses. The entire medical care process is supposed to be teamwork. The nurses should be well trained and qualified to help the doctors with everything starting from medical checkups and tests to surgery. Unfortunately, our nurses are not trained. We do not have proper nursing schools and this is a crippling problem, which puts tremendous pressure on the already overworked doctors. Most nurses are only trained to do desk jobs. The people in our society are reluctant to put their trust in nurses as readily as they do in the doctors. Also, we have a mindset that nursing is a female profession and very few men are inclined to work as one. We have to work to change this mindset. It all comes down to monetary issues and we have no alternative but to try and make things better, again through planning," states Mahbub.
The government has recently handed over the management of some hospitals in the public sectors to NGOs. While this can help in areas such as funding and staff training, Dr Mahbub has certain reservations about the type of NGOs they are being handed over to. "Our idea of an NGO is completely different from that of the general people. We consider NGO's as any organisation, which is non-government, such as BIRDEM, Holy Family Hospital and then we have private hospitals such as Square, Apollo, United etc. We call these the business houses. However, we prefer partnerships with the public. We prefer to work with non-profit organisations. To tie a government owned hospital with a business house will not serve the purpose of the common people. We need to build partnerships with the Municipality Corporation, the City Corporation or philanthropic organisations in order to change things in a way that will benefit the masses," states Dr Mahbub.
Private hospitals may have more funding, higher salaries and cleaner, more luxurious premises, but the quality of service has room for improvement and comes at a high cost. "The quality of service at private hospitals is the responsibility of the state. There is no denying that there is negligence in the public sector, but in the private sector, they abuse their monopoly and the lack of accountability. They are extremely expensive. There should be laws made to prevent this abuse. In other countries, there are insurance companies that look over these things and make sure the patients are not being exploited. We have no such thing here and that is definitely something to think about. The government simply cannot finance health alone. Health cards must be introduced so the poor can afford basic healthcare. Healthcare is everyone's right. We would like to see that right protected and respected by the government in the future. The lack of continuity is definitely an issue every time a new government takes over. They all have different ideas of how the system should operate, but the key is to work together, combine their ideas and prioritise the needs of the general population before pushing their own agendas,” opines Dr Mahbub.
As for the future, if there is continuity and definite goals in mind, there is hope for this sector. A few changes have already started taking place. Dr Mahbub says, "At present we need to make changes in the existing policy. We have a new policy which has not been implemented yet. Its not like the government isn't trying. They are not trying to change everything, but they are trying to bring about change within their own system. The question is, how effective is this system? Say for drugs, they have created special casing for drugs used in the public sector, and these are available at lower prices. They have appointed four to five thousand doctors to work in rural areas even though effectiveness is questionable; they are developing community health clinics. These are all the positive signs, but how much they can meet the increasing demands of the population is the question."
It seems there is hope for this sector if our political parties set aside their differences and combine their ideas and visions for the future of Public Health Service in Bangladesh. The key is to develop a detailed plan involving the use of our existing resources and funds, creating laws to protect people from neglect and abuse and figure out strategies to implement them.
Hammer the Hurdles
Land acquisition a major hurdle for energy projects; inefficient managers stall gas sector growth; coal gasification may be the best solution for coal utilisation; Bapex jobs should be more lucrative
Power plants: Insufficient in number. Photo: zahedul i khan
The Awami League came to power two years ago making loud and clear declarations that it would end the country's energy crisis. Upon assuming power, the party rolled out a road map showing how the country would come out of its gas and power crisis. In the last 24 months, the party has modified and added new ideas to its road map.
With the country's gas reserves depleting fast, one of the smartest moves of the Awami League government was to pioneer a much needed shift from gas based energy solutions to a multi faceted solution where a combination of imported petroleum, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), energy conservation, greater use of coal and alternative energy technologies would ensure the country's short, medium and long term energy security.
While the concept may be an ambitious one, this is undeniably the best way to take a country of 160 million people forward. What is crucial for the plan to work is timely implementation and smart leadership at the field level.
In this regard, the government's progress in tackling the power crisis through the Power Development Board (PDB) has been reasonably well. Government effort in the gas sector through Petrobangla however, is still lagging behind.
The good news is that so far the government has signed a record breaking three dozen power generation contracts. (Of them, a good part will start generating power from this year and thus reduce the power crisis) In addition, chances are that this year Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration Company (Bapex) might strike some new gas fields. If successful it would provide some relief in the long-term energy security.
Magnama gas drilling pad in the Bay of Bengal. Photo: Star file
The bad news is that Petrobangla clearly has no concrete vision about how to overcome the gas crisis and till now is banking on old unimplemented plans or plans given by foreign oil companies. The government is also far behind its target to install a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal in the Bay to allow import of LNG containers. The LNG would be very costly, but it would give the country the option of keeping its gas based power and industrial infrastructure going.
As for coal resources, the government's efforts, again, have remained behind the schedule. It has not done any significant progress to ensure greater utilisation of local coal deposits or imported coal. Fortunately some preparations are under progress.
Of them, there is a move to build a coal city in Barapukuria–where it has the country's lone underground coalmine. This coal city will serve as the hub of local coal development as most of the coal deposits are located in north Bengal. This would also provide the government with greater infrastructure to go for an open pit mine in one part of Barapukuria for increased extraction of coal–or opt for any other cost effective methods.
The underground Barapukuria coal mine has already caused surface land subsidence–leading to loss of arable land and igniting public discontent in that area. The government has now started acquiring this unusable land, so that it can implement some other ideas in the future.
But this is not an easy task due to political resistance and the progress is so slow that the government may not be able to achieve its goal of better utilising national coal resources.
One of the key players in creating this political resistance is the national committee on protecting oil and gas resources that had a major role in the violent Phulbari protest in 2006 against the open pit mining proposal of Asia Energy. This committee is once again campaigning against any move in the coal sector.
Since land is the major issue of dispute in a populated country like Bangladesh, such negative campaigning is gaining support among the people of Baparukuria who seek higher prices for their lands being acquired by the government.
Bangladesh's harshest reality is that it does not have a lot of land and it does not have energy. To tap energy of any kind, be it coal or gas–the government must acquire land. If it becomes too aggressive about acquiring land, it would create a local political problem with ecological pitfalls and if it remains indecisive–that would worsen the national energy crisis with long term political pitfalls.
Therefore the only way to overcome this dilemma is to acquire land under a package that gives the affected community a guaranteed livelihood. The purpose of acquiring such land is not to make any individual or a company rich and powerful–but to fuel the growth of the whole nation. Therefore the people, especially who are sacrificing their ancestral lands, should get the direct benefit of the package. This is one area that the government should work on. Such package should be applied for acquiring lands for all energy related projects.
Coal development can be a solution to the power crisis. Photo: zahedul i khan
Secondly, in tapping coal resources, the government should turn to the most environmentally friendly technology. The open pit coal mining method may be environmentally most hazardous, but in particular cases the economic benefits may be so high that the government can reasonably address the environmental concerns. Again, there is one better method to tap coal resources than open pit mining: coal gasification. Coal gasification method requires much smaller areas–almost like those of a gas field. It's cheap and if carefully implemented, may not trigger land subsidence. Plus, through gasification of coal, the government may be able to produce synthetic gas that would help boost the declining gas supplies of the country. Consider the fact that Bangladesh has discovered around 2.5 billion tonnes of coal out of which only 30 million tonnes are being tapped from the Barapukuria coal mine. Through gasification, the nation can tap a significant percentage of that coal without creating any public outcry.
Thirdly, to bring dynamism to the gas sector, the government must redefine Petrobangla's role. Petrobangla is essentially an oil and gas entity that needs to be run by efficient and innovative managers–not just a few politically loyal theoreticians. So what is the difference between a dynamic manager and a theoretician in dealing with the gas sector? Well, for the last five-six years the country's biggest gas field Titas has been losing a huge amount of gas due to leakages in the gas fields. Many reports have come out in the newspapers–but no effective measure has been taken to address the problem. Till date Petrobangla is least bothered about the huge loss of leaked out gas.
The government did bring some dynamism in Bapex, the lone national exploration company, by allocating it with enough funds to carry out exploration works. But if such a company has to compete with international oil companies–it should be given with a better pay structure to dissuade Bapex workers from disruptive unionism.
Fourthly, in line with the creative approach nurtured by the government–the government should continue to hammer on the use of alternative energy and conservation technologies. Oil company Chevron has a slogan, “energy saved is energy found”. This should be the motto for a populated country like Bangladesh for good.
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January 1, 2011 marked the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The world stepped into a new decade with newer challenges and promises. In this ever-advancing world of technology, where does Bangladesh stand? What initiatives should the Government take to fulfill the commitments of Digital Bangladesh?
Previously nonfunctional Government websites are being
updated to represent Bangladesh better through the Internet. Photo: star file
When the whole world is looking forward to the 4G technologies, ie mobile broadband that provides the features of high-speed Internet with mobility, Bangladesh is still stuck in the medieval period of 2.5G. Mobiles in this country are still used for voice calls and text messaging only. While the world is aiming to provide Internet connectivity to all and planning projects like one laptop per child, remote places in Bangladesh are still deprived of basic technologies like electricity. In a world where any and every kind of information is available at one's fingertips, the Bangladesh Archive is still at a nascent stage. Though on January 1, 2011 the whole world stepped into the New Year together, Bangladesh seems to lag ages behind.
With the skeptics criticising the dormancy of the Government, vision 2021 seems to be something impossible to achieve. “But Digital Bangladesh is not a magic wand which you flick and something out of the ordinary happens. I think the way Bangladesh is embracing new technologies and moving forth to enhance and advance its telecom infrastructure, the visions of 2021 does not really sound like something alien, ” says an employee of a leading mobile operator, who prefers to remain anonymous. In actuality, Bangladesh is heading towards a 3rd generation technology arena. Many of the mobile operators are already swapping their 2.5G-based machines with Base Station Transceivers (BTSs) that are expandable up to cutting-edge mobile standards like 4G and LTE (Long Term Evolution). Establishment of this technology implies that one will be able to download movies, do video conferencing, and play online games on a mobile phone. It's like having the features of high-speed broadband in your pocket. “This boom in the mobile communication sector is very crucial as it is the mobile phones that have reached the nooks and crannies of Bangladesh. 93% of the of the Internet users in Bangladesh get access via mobile phones,” mentions the anonymous employee. Moreover, to boost the growth of high-speed Internet connectivity, the Government has leased license to Fibre@Home and Summit Communications to establish and manage Bangladesh's own fibre optic network. This will dramatically increase communication speed between end users.
The booming telecommunication sector: Mostly dominated by private and multinational companies. Photo: zahedul i khan
The promising measures are unfortunately eclipsed by myriads of drawbacks. Though the mobile phone culture has engendered job sectors of various kinds through “recharge booths”, “repair centres” and “customer care”, the sad truth is most of the revenue generated by the phone companies are sent abroad to the mother companies. This deprives Bangladesh from a possible economic detonation. Teletalk- the only self-governing mobile operator, patronised by the government, is yet to create a reliable and expandable infrastructure. “The government has prohibited leasing electric lines to any new establishments due to the recent power crisis. Hence, though we bought new BTSs to enhance our network, we could not set any new BTS. Meanwhile, a foreign mobile operator managed to upgrade its network in Bangladesh. It's all due to appropriate liaisons. Moreover, the internal system of Teletalk is very bureaucratic which makes its development dilatory,” informs a Teletalk official who prefers anonymity as well. During the July-December period, Bangladesh Government had earned Tk 30.80 billion from the telecommunications sector; only Tk 11.38 billion of it was earned through BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) and Tk 19.42 billion was earned by the NBR as tax and VAT from five private mobile operators. Only 36% of the revenue is collected by Government-run telecom sector. Had our governmental mobile operator been the dominant one, revenue would have been much higher.
Moving on to the communications backbone of the nation, we are at mercy of a single submarine cable line, SEA-ME-WE 4, which connects us to the world outside. If this cable is down, we have no alternate cable line for back up. TATA Industries in India already have there own fibre optic backbone network. If they can do it, why can't we? “The Government is already working on it. The Government is in the process of licensing International Terrestrial Cable operators for the purpose,” informed Lieutenant Colonel Tushar, a BTRC official.
Mobile phones: the most-spread technology. Photo: zahedul i khan
But this is not the only problem the telecom sector has. Bangladesh doesn't have a local International Gateway (IGW), which means that while chatting when one sends a simple wink to his/her neighbour in Dhaka on a messenger, it travels all the way to Singapore and then reaches the destination. Having a local IGW will allow local data travel within the country's boundary and hence make Internet communications much more secure.
Information on the finger tips. Photo: zahedul i khan
In digitising the government offices, Bangladesh Bank played a pioneer's role by adopting ICT in all spheres of its functions. But, Government websites are often found “down”. While digitiasation of official business will make the process transparent and bureaucracy obsolete, projects still seem in the pipeline. Passports are being made machine-readable but we are yet to receive our 'digital signatures'. Although private mobile operators are offering attractive value added services (VAS) to all, governmental initiatives on e-governance, m-healthcare and many other handy public services are far from materialising. But loaded with power crisis, corruption, political turmoil and economic instability, Bangladesh cannot possibility accomplish the dreams of a Digital Utopia. To provide computers to the children in villages we first need to provide the villages with electricity. To connect the whole country via Internet, we need fibre optic backbone network from Taknaf to Tetulia. Government aided services will not reach the public if corruption remains unchecked. If there is no political harmony between the opposition and the ruling party, the nation will not get fair and unbiased policies. Unless the development strategies are undertaken and executed in parallelly, one regressive sector will hinder the progress of another sector. Bangladesh is already tailing behind in the race of technological advancement. If pragmatic, dynamic and effective steps are not taken immediately, the only thing that will escalate is the distance between us and the empire of cutting-edge technology. Bangladesh has produced ingenious engineers who are enriching the research and development sectors abroad. If we can only create an appropriate field, the brains of our nation can take us light-years ahead.
For a Giant Long March
In the last two decades Bangladesh, once infamously dubbed the bottomless basket, has achieved some phenomenal growth in the economic sector. The country's GDP has shown steady growth; it has progressed generally at five percent a year. But, along with the growth, exploitation of the poor is also increasing exponentially. Twenty percent of the country's population holds 46 percent of the country's wealth. Even though the number of extreme poor has reduced drastically by 10 percent in the last 10 years, thanks to the rising inflation and subsequent spiralling up of the prices of the necessities mean that the number of people living below the extreme poverty line is going to increase in a year or two.
In the last 10 years the country's economy has shown remarkable progress in reducing its dependence on foreign borrowing. In the 2006-7 fiscal year, the country's total foreign aid, in the form of loan, was USD 1613 million, whereas the country has received foreign remittance worth USD 3372.49 in 2004 alone. Growth in agriculture has also been robust. There is, however, scope for a big leap, which, if handled properly, can give impetus to industrial growth. It is indeed disappointing to see industrial capital funnelling into finance capital, which even though has given a boost to the stock market, in the long run this can spell disaster to fledgling industries.
Growth in a still agriculture-dependent country like Bangladesh should be small and medium enterprise (SME) driven. Even though the central bank has made arrangements for loans for the SMEs, setting up a business in Bangladesh has remained a costly and dangerous affair. Interest rate is still high and deterioration of the country's law and order does not help much either.
Loans given to the SMEs can be made interest free, and the government can claim a stake in the businesses as its share for the amounts of loan given. In fact, industrialisation policy in the country should be three-pronged: private ownership, public-private partnership and collective ownership of the workers. The primary goal should be to create self-employment that will eventually generate growth. It will create employment opportunities for the country's four crore unemployed people and the intervention of the state to generate employment will not be needed.
In fact the role of the state should be that of a silent facilitator. The government needs to amend certain laws and make some new ones to attain that goal. A food security law is a must to stop hoarding and to bring down the prices of daily necessities. The Trading Corporation of Bangladesh can be activated, which can restart the ration card system for the lower and middle-income groups, a policy that the country had pursued before till it was wrongly abandoned in the nineties.
Jute, once the country's financial barometer, is witnessing a revival in the international market. New industries can be set up and old, obsolete ones re-opened. In fact, while opening up the old industries the government can think of introducing the collective ownership system in one or two mills.
Bangladesh's ready-made garments have won the hearts and minds of the businesspersons and consumers in Europe and the US. New markets need to be explored so that the one of the country's most thriving foreign-currency earners do not wobble should another economic crisis ravage these two regions' economy.
Energy has remained the biggest hurdle to cross to industrialise the country at a mass scale. Only 30 percent of Bangladeshis has access to electricity, and its supply to industries has been erratic. The country needs to make a decision on the use of its natural resources, how it should be done and on what basis. There are environmental and human concerns regarding the use of open peat mining to extract coal. The country must have a full-fledged coal policy and a national consensus needs to be forged on the issue.
Bangladesh has 2,26,80,000 acres of arable land, and 50 percent of it is owned by only 6 percent of the total population of the country. It is small wonder that the contribution of agriculture in the national income has come down to a meagre 20 percent; sad for a country, which once had a vibrant agrarian economy. The increase in production cost and the presence of middlemen on the market have spelled disaster for the farmers, who are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Seeds, diesel and fertilisers must be made readily available. Unchecked market breeds middlemen, and government intervention is needed in the agriculture market so that the farmers are not deprived of the right prices of the commodities that they produce.
Another untapped sector is the manpower business. Even though these unskilled workers send millions in foreign currency, their rights remain unprotected on foreign soil. A major overhauling in the education system is the order of the day. If the country can generate skilled workers, we can send manpower to advanced developed economies in Europe and America.
Bangladesh, brimful of ideas and human energy, can be the next Brazil. In fact in 2005, investment bank Goldman Sachs put Bangladesh in Next Eleven, 11 countries that the institution thought had high potential to become world's leading economies along with the BRIC countries. That goes to show what the country and its economy can achieve if it is run on the right track.
Future of the Farms
The economy of Bangladesh is predominantly agrarian providing employment to almost half the labour force of Bangladesh. The livelihoods of rural communities rotate almost exclusively around agriculture. Although overall food production and living standards have improved, significant challenges lie ahead.
Almost half the labour force of the country is dependent on these fields for their livelihood. Photo: zahedul i khan
Agricultural output of Bangladesh has more than doubled in the last three decades largely owing to the successful dissemination of the 'green revolution'. While the successful revolution probably prevented a disaster in Bangladesh and other parts of the world, as many anticipated a nightmarish scenario with the population increasing, and food production levels staying stagnant; the revolution has nevertheless reached its limit and once again there is a need to increase yields of food production to keep pace with the growing population.
“Although the population is increasing at a rate of 1.5 percent and considering Bangladesh's total population, this is a very significant number,” says Dr Quazi Shahabuddin, former director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS). “Against the rising demand, the availability of land for growing food is dwindling fast.”
“The arable land has been shrinking by almost one per cent per year due to increasing demand from housing, infrastructure and industries, as well as loss of land from river erosion. With global warming, loss of more land in coastal areas due to advancing seas is likely to happen. Water availability for irrigation is increasingly becoming scarce. The soil fertility has been declining due to overexploitation of soil nutrients, and imbalanced and inadequate use of fertilizers.”
Dr Shahabuddin says that the existing technology made possible by the advent of the green revolution has increased food production in Bangladesh remarkably. But the limits of green revolution have been reached. The High Yielding Varieties (HYV), the result of the 'green revolution' have largely been adopted and implemented throughout the country. As an example he cites the Boro rice crop, one of the HYV variant, which is grown on more than 90 per cent of the arable land of Bangladesh. “So at most, the Boro crop might be utilised at less than ten per cent of the arable land.” Dr Shahabuddin says that newer technologies have to be tapped for the development of crops that give in a higher yield.
“Biotechnology has been used to develop genetically modified (GM) crops. However, the issue of GM crops is controversial owing to food safety concerns.”
Considering rising food prices, and the uncertainties of climate change, relying on foreign resources as Bangladesh has done in the past might no longer be an option. “During the 1998 floods, there was surplus food production in India. As a result, Bangladesh has not had difficulty in securing the required supplies,” says Dr Shahabuddin. “However, the Global Food Inflation has changed the scenario, and nowadays it is not possible to rely on the international market.” Bangladesh had considerable difficulty in importing food in the aftermath of the Cyclone Sidr in 2008 that caused severe food shortages.
He says that Bangladesh has to change from food reliance to a situation where it can be more or less self reliant on domestic production. “Once India was a surplus country in the production of onions. But this year, there are significant shortages. Climate change might be a decisive factor here.” India banned onion exports when prices more than doubled in one week at mid December 2010.
Modern technology is very important for the development of agriculture. Photo: zahedul i khan
Tackling the adverse effects of climate change is going to be one of the most formidable challenges. “The intensity of natural disasters like floods and cyclones are likely to increase. Floods and droughts are likely to get more severe,” says Dr Shahabuddin. He suggests that priority must be given to tackle the impact of climate change on agriculture.
“Considerable progress has been made in developing rice crops that are resistant to flood, drought and salinity,” says Dr Shahabuddin. Also crop varieties that can be harvested in a shorter period ie rice that can be harvested in two months as opposed to three might be utilised. “Farmers can plant other crops such as vegetables until the time has come for the next rice season.”
However, according to Dr M Asaduzzaman, Research Director, BIDS, the new rice varieties are not in the hands of the farmers. “Unless the farmers are actually using the crops, there is no advantage,” he comments. Also, he says that the saline resistant crops have so far been proven unsuccessful. “The yield is too low and farmers have rejected it,” he says. “If the new crop could have been harvested in a shorter period, say 15 days earlier, it would have been accepted by the farmers.”
Dr Asaduzzaman also says that contrary to popular opinion, real prices of rice has not increased at all. “In the past years, house rent has doubled. Everything has become much more expensive,” he says. “But everyone complains only about increases in rice prices. This alarm over rising rice prices is a misplaced concern for most people.”
Dr Shahabuddin on the other hand seems concerned with the hike in rice prices this particular season. “In this season, there is generally a downward trend in prices. One reason might be that the millers have become very dominant. The government has become hostage to the situation.”
The low standard of living associated with the populace engaged in agriculture is also a cause for concern, especially for the day labourers who work on the field. “Wage levels have increased, but not the quality of labour,” says Dr Asaduzzaman. He says that most day labourers who work on the paddy field develop roseola between their fingers. “The wage board has not changed in a few decades. Most labourers have no work for most of the year. They have to develop alternative livelihoods independent of agriculture and this has happened to a degree.”
“Marketing policies of the farmers are very weak,” says Dr Asaduzzaman. As an example he points out that if bringel is sold at the market for Tk.20, this brings in as little as Tk 5 for the farmer. “There is a place called Mohangang in Netrokona. Whereas it should take three hours for the farmers to reach the markets, it takes eight hours owing to very bad communications.” He says that the government has to improve marketing intelligence to benefit the rural population.
“These are perishable goods and they have to be sold off quickly. There is no concept of packaging. This way, many products are wasted. For example 15-20 percent of chillies produced get wasted in the absence of packaging,” he says.
“Bangladesh has not done very well in the production of crops other than rice,” he says. Dr Asaduzzaman says that lack of proper facilities such as cold storages for potatoes have meant that much of the farmer's harvests were destroyed the preceding year. “Once farmers incur a loss in cash crops, it is difficult to persuade them to do it again.”
He suggests the development of 'ecological niches'. “There has to be research stations in all districts,” he says. Ecological niches mean that the nature of crop production shall depend on the unique ecology of the different areas and thus the requirement for research stations at district levels.
In conclusion, there should be no denying that while there has been marked improvements, there are serious shortcomings. Overcoming these shortcomings shall mean developing and utilising new technologies and improving human resources in the agricultural sector. As Dr Shahabuddin points out, “Because of severe land constraints, sustainability of growth in crop production in the 21st century will depend on the government's continued support for agricultural research to further develop technologies and improved farming practices and on its efforts to disseminate these technologies to the farmers.”
Law and Order
Building Public Trust
Even a 70-year-old joined the queue waiting for a ticket to watch the Bangladesh cricket team play in the World Cup. Braving the chilling cold the old man played cricket and chess with the waiting youth the entire night before the day the World Cup tickets were due to be sold. They played, laughed and enjoyed every moment without any complaint until the next morning when the police suddenly swooped on them.
Police charged with batons to maintain the queue for the sake of maintaining law and order. The cheerful crowd turned violent soon, injuring two police officers by throwing brickbats they were using in their roadside cricket match. The situation was so unexpected that the old man could not utter a single word and only cried in silence. Beating the crowd had nothing to do with maintaining law and order. But it did expose how intolerable the behaviour of law enforcing agencies has become.
And it goes on round the year. Students, garment workers, day labourers and even university teachers become victims of police brutality. Over 2,500 garment workers were injured by the police in 2010 when they demanded arrears and increments in their low salaries. Police justify the use of excessive force by saying that sometimes such action is needed because a situation goes out of hand. The usual way law enforcers always try to control a chaotic situation is through a brutal show of truncheon, firing of rubber bullets, lobbing tear gas canisters and random arrests of people in that area.
For the sake of maintaining law and order people of the country tolerate everything-- extra-judicial killings and custodial torture. But what is generally understood by criminal activities like mugging, abduction, murders, political killing, extortion and corruption do not decrease in the end.
According to Police Crime Statistics, a total of 1,57108 crimes (reported) took place in the year 2009 which was 1,57979 in 2008, 1,57200 in 2007, 1,30578 in 2006 and 1,23033 in 2005. The types of crimes include robbery, murder, rioting, violence against women, child abuse, kidnapping, police assault, burglary, theft, narcotics, smuggling and others.
Additional Inspector General of Police (admin) AKM Shahidul Haque, however, says that the law and order situation is under control as organised criminal activities are being prevented. Cases of extortion have gone down as have traditional crimes like mugging and thievery compared to the years 2007-2008.
If the police have a positive relationship with common people it would be easy to generate accountability of police and combat crime. Photo: zahedul i khan
Experts, however, evaluate it differently saying that the disorders in society are taking place in different forms and not always in accordance with the traditional definition of crime, which is evident from the growing instability in the law and order situation. “The number of crimes taking place should not be the only indicator to measure the entire law and order situation. Society would suffer the consequences of such instability. In the economic aspect a number of indicators might show the progress of the country but growing violence and violation of human rights above all, the instability in law and order would hold back the country's development for sure,” observes Dhaka University Professor, CR Abrar.
Human rights activists describe the law and order situation as alarming, pointing at the growing insecurity and abuse of people at the hand of law enforcers. The annual report of Odhikar, a human rights organisation, states, “The law enforcement agencies have continued killing suspected 'criminals'; members of the radical left political parties; or simply innocent people 'by mistake' without due process of law. In the year 2010, 127 people were killed extra-judicially. One person was killed extra judicially every 3 days on average. Among those killed, 68 were killed by RAB, 43 by the police, nine persons jointly killed by RAB and police; three by the joint operation of RAB and the Coast Guard; three by the joint operation of RAB, Police and Coast Guard and one by BDR.”
The annual Odhikar Report also says that 67 persons were reportedly tortured and 22 persons reportedly tortured to death by different law enforcement agencies. Police topped the torture list this year. Two persons were allegedly beaten to death by RAB and BDR. During this period, it is alleged that two persons were shot dead by police in the Dhaka and Habigonj district. These incidents fall outside crossfire/ encounter/ gunfight/ shootout, as the two victims were reportedly shot point blank. A total of 109 persons died in custody last year, says the report.
“After the fall of the authoritarian military rule in the country, people hoped that democracy would bring justice to their lives and their rights and dignity would be preserved but the political parties coming into power in turn seem less committed to the people and establishment of the rule of law,” says CR Abrar, president of Odhikar.
He also criticised the trend of ruling parties using state organisations like law enforcement agencies and defence for their own interest; thus the law is often violated by the persons who are supposed to implement it. “Again political parties let any perpetrator go free if that person is a supporter of the particular party and become vindictive towards other political parties,” he continues.
The Odhikar annual report also shows a rise in political violence immediately after 2009. A total of 220 persons were killed and13,999 were injured in political violence from January to December 2010. There were also 576 incidents of intra party clashes in the Awami League and 92 within the BNP recorded during this period. In addition, 38 people were killed in the Awami League intra party clashes while 5,614 were injured. Seven people were killed and 1,146 injured in BNP's intra party clashes.
But in none of the cases where ruling party men were involved was justice delivered. Political killings, where the perpetrator is found guilty should be tried, and exemplary punishment would be a step ahead for establishing rule of law, observes Abrar.
The policymakers' attitude is naturally imitated by the mass. The Odhikar report 2010 stated, “Acts of violence against women are nowhere near decreasing. Despite special criminal laws to ensure justice for acts of violence against women, lack of implementation, corruption, economic hardship and social/family programmes interfere to prevent justice from being served. 2010 also shows a rise in incidents of harassment and physical abuse of young women and girls.”
According to the report, a total of 174 persons were killed by mob violence, while the number was 127 in 2009. The people who were lynched and killed in mob attacks were alleged criminals and thieves.
In regard to the challenges that the law enforcers face, AKM Shahidul Haque, Additional Inspector General of Police (Admin) stresses on the necessity of establishing a relationship of mutual respect between the police and the public. “Police needs specialised forces for individual operations as it is not feasible to tackle all kinds of problems with one force and limited manpower. Further, police must be given incentives and necessary logistical support to perform their responsibilities properly”. Police have to be people friendly and should not act as the masters of the public, he continues.
“We have programmes to interact with civil opinion leaders in communities to enhance the relationship of mutual respect, but such efforts should be accelerated to get a positive outcome. If the police have a positive relationship with common people it would be easy to generate accountability and combat crime.” Haque observes.
Abrar says, “The operation of the whole system of the state is patronised by political coverage, thus a rapist is released or a killer is tolerated”, there should be a firm commitment from the government's end to have zero tolerance for crimes.” It is very crucial to bring back people's faith in the justice system otherwise people would take law in their hands, Abrar adds.
“To bring stability in the law and order situation it is crucial to make the institutions like police, Rab accountable; the provision of police remand should not be taken as a tool to restrain oppositional political parties or trade unions. Again, if the existing laws and High Court directives are implemented and followed impartially there is no need to concentrate on formulating new laws”, Abrar recommends.
He also observes, in regards to the National Human Rights Commission, there are reasons to be hopeful that it can preserve human rights and bring a balance in law and order situation; for that, the Commission needs to perform its responsibility with no interference and the government must ensure this happens. Such institutional empowerment can bring better days in coming years,” observes Abrar.
If the culture of torture by police can be curbed it will have a long-term effect on law, order and the justice system. Formulation of new law which is time consuming can be substituted simply by issuing a circular by the IGP or the Home Minister can change the behaviour of the whole police force, observes Mizanur Rahman, Chairman, National Human Rights Commission. “It would make the agency accountable; thus people would trust the force and would not consider the law enforcers as agencies using their force and unlawfully torturing anymore,” he continues.
Vision for the Next Generation
AASHA MEHREEN AMIN
What do we have to offer our next generation? An overcrowded capital, bursting at its seams as more and more migrants from other districts pour in with the hope for better opportunities only to be pushed into shanties and cruel streets? Or barren villages, where green fields have turned into brick kilns and farmers have lost their land bit by bit to land grabbers, river erosion or just plain poverty until there is nothing left to lose. Corruption is spreading its cancerous tentacles in every crevice of society and poverty is wallowing in its own misery. How can we save our next generation from so many threats to its survival?
Perhaps the best way to start would be at the beginning- the time when a potential human being is conceived. Maternal health is the crucial beginning that must be ensured to get a decent head start in life. Nutrition seems to be one of the deciding factors of whether a nation will move forward with gusto or with weary, weak, steps. Girls and women from poor families, in addition to so many basic rights, are also deprived of proper nutrition. The domino effect is obvious. Mothers, many of them teenagers, who do not get enough food give birth to babies who are underweight and prone to illness. A Bangladesh Demographic and Health Survey (BDHS) study states that mothers who are shorter for their age and malnourished are more likely to be malnourished. The infants grow into malnourished children, stunting their physical and intellectual growth. Thus the vicious pattern of ill-health continues from the womb to the workplace. Nutrition experts have pointed out that it is not just poverty that causes malnutrition though it is indeed a predominant factor. Other elements are at work: lack of awareness about what constitutes a balanced diet, that breastfeeding for two years gives a child immunity against many diseases for life, that girl children must get an equal share of food as their brothers, not just because it's the right thing to do but because they too will one day be productive citizens, breadwinners as well as mothers.
The food basket needs not only to be increased in size but to become more diversified including fruits, vegetables along with essential protein-rich foods to ensure a healthy army of young people. Kamal Hyder, a doctorate in Food Science and Technology from Texas A&M University, in an article provides three main factors that can solve our nutritional deficit. He says that the “availability and affordability of foods across the length and breadth of Bangladesh” is the first and foremost of the factors. Secondly he says, a major drive is needed for nutrition education to give incentives for eating balanced diets. Finally he adds, “a concerted effort should be given to make food enriched and nutritious at low costs so that fewer empty calories are consumed.”
Ration card systems can be introduced to provide for subsidized food. Awareness programmes through TV, radio and cinema are the best strategies to educate our youth about how to be healthy. Schools at both primary and secondary levels should have nutrition as a core subject.
While preventing hidden famine is the highest priority for any forward looking government, ensuring physical fitness of young people is also vital. Encroached playgrounds have to be given back to the children and more opportunities for sports for both girls and boys have to be created. Every community should have youth clubs, common libraries and entertainment centres to channel young people's energies into positive directions. Mentoring, a successful concept in many countries, should be a model to follow to help children have good role models to emulate and mature guidance to follow when they are in need of help. While the government can support these efforts it is up to each community, each neighbourhood and each family to take part in providing the best possible environment for a child to grow into adulthood.
As children approach their teens, hormonal changes have strong effects on their psyche. Families and society in general must learn to look at adolescence as an important right of passage to adulthood instead of a burdensome stage that needs to be controlled and gotten away with as soon as possible. Parents marry off their teenaged girls in fear of their honour being lost while teenaged boys are given too much freedom and too few wholesome forms of entertainment and hardly any guidance on gender sensitivity. The past year has been filled with disturbing cases of boys and young men stalking and harassing teenagers to the point when the victims think death is the only way of escape. This is a tragedy we cannot allow to continue to happen. Young girls must be taught to stand up for themselves and be the victorious ones when they are oppressed in this way. Law enforcers must act as big brothers to protect these girls rather than be influenced by the perpetrators. Boys have to be taught how to respect girls and women, from an early age instead of confusing their lust with love. Again media awareness campaigns and parents are the main players to make sure young people refrain from stalking, drugs and taking their own lives. We can no longer be a society that is in denial of the fact that young people do engage in pre-marital physical relationships and hence have to know about contraception as well as the responsibilities and risks associated with their behaviour. Giving them this knowledge does not mean that we are encouraging them to have pre-marital sex, it is just helping them to make informed choices, not ones that may cause them harm in the form of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
Education cannot be limited to academic concepts to cram before exams but real learning that will stimulate not clog, the intellect of young people. The love of knowledge through reading just for pleasure has to be the first step to be encouraged. The model of Abdullah Abu Sayeed's Biswa Sahitya Kendra and mobile libraries in the endeavour to create enlightened individuals can be replicated at a large scale by the state all over the country.
Young people are creative by nature and the ability to innovate is inherent in youth. Creativity and innovation have to be encouraged and nurtured from the school level and continued into adulthood by offering opportunities to express their talents and hopefully make a living through them when needed.
In an age of unbridled consumerism, materialism, competition and obsession with image, it is not easy to instil age-old values in young people. Yet a society based solely on satisfying material wants and being fixated on wealth and status, is a dead society, one that has lost its soul. That is a tragedy that we, the older generations must prevent at all costs. Values such as respecting others, being kind and generous, developing empathy and humility may be age-old but they are never outdated and will apply to all times and especially to the future. While we may nurture our children and teach them the rules of survival an essential ability that will go beyond the success of gaining power and money, is the ability to feel compassion for others so that they can build a world that is more equitable, tolerant of differences and where peace is the ultimate reward that everyone strives for.
The challenge to keep our youth healthy in body and mind is immense. But it is essential that in addition to a liveable world, we must ensure that it is inhabited by at least a majority of good human beings. That is the only way humanity can prevent its own extinction.
Photo: Sk Enamul Haq
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