Beyond symbols and sentiments
Symbols and sentiments have their uses, some noble, others not quite. Political history is replete with multiple symbols based on creed, colour, class, language, indeed anything that is exploitable in one way or the other to advance particular ends. Many such manipulations have been mischievous, for example, the sowing of sectarian seeds here, there and everywhere. But the struggle for Bangla over the past half century has, thankfully, seen us through to freedom from a pseudo-colonial dispensation. However, our misfortune is that, up until now, it has turned out to be mere physical freedom, not true emancipation of the people at large. The symbol itself though has been hugely successful in the sense that it has gone global, as it were, with our very own Martyrs' Day, Ekushey February, emerging in recent years as everybody's Mother Language Day.
The UN-declared International Mother Language Day is a celebration of the diverse languages of all the peoples of the world, ourselves included. This does not necessarily diminish the importance of our exclusively Bangla cultural achievement, made doubly exclusive because Bangla-speaking citizens of the-then Pakistan alone had shed blood in defence of their mother tongue. Rather, it should invite or provoke us, if you like, to look beyond our noses, beyond symbols and sentiments made sacred, and to confront the objective reality of Bangladesh's place today in the twenty-first century world.
How have we fared so far, apart from Dr Yunus winning a place in the league table for Nobel laureates? Amartya Sen, in one of his recent essays on the critical role women play in development, marvels at “the gradual transformation of Bangladesh, which was seen not long ago as a 'basket case', into a country with significant economic and social success and much promise .............. one illustration of the dynamic power of women's agency and the consequential correlates of gender equity.” This positive picture, it may be mentioned, was drawn from the remarkable success of two of the best known development organisations, Grameen Bank and BRAC. Ordinary lives outside these showcases, however, would belie such optimism.
Even though Bangladesh is in one of the world's most fertile riverine regions, it harbours some of the most malnourished people on earth. This is due to decades of rotten politics and skewed policies. One would have thought self-rule would focus on the fundamentals of human resource development, first and foremost -- people's right to minimum nutrition and health care, meaningful mass education, right to decent livelihood and shelter. These needs have obviously not received the attention they deserve as is reflected in the health and productivity profiles of the people at large.
What happened to the pro-people policies governments were supposed to have taken? They are all there, enshrined in the constitution, in five-year plans, in other development documents. Although we have officially been jumping on to every internationally/ multilaterally-initiated bandwagon for development, the end results have not been commensurate with the time and money spent on them. There are of course many factors behind this inefficiency. One reason is, most of the last three and a half decades have predominantly been a playing field for plunderers of all shades, rather than for no-nonsense builders of an economically, educationally and politically healthy nation.
Political parties have been functioning all through like questionable companies, with the civil and other bureaucracies, together with commercially important lobbies, behaving as if they were home-grown colonialists, or agents of un-named powers, lording it over the people, and marginalizing their actual needs and desires.
Let's look at any one of the basic needs, food security, for example. Governments have always tended to think that food security means silos bursting with grain stock. Legumes or pulses, known as the poor man's protein, have gone beyond the reach of even middle-income citizens. What is worse, these food items are not considered 'essential' nutrition by our policy makers.
Governments are often touchy about reports of hunger and refuse to recognise anything short of a spectacular famine. But the alarming news is that a silent epidemic of malnutrition has been stalking the nation persistently over the years even while grain stocks remained full. Although a World Bank National Integrated Nutrition Project has avowedly been trying to make amends since the mid-1990s, it has not achieved much. There has been more publicity of NINP than sustained interventions to raise awareness about the crucial importance of eating a sufficient quantity of basic nutrients for the health of the mind and body. Grameen's micro-credit interventions have done far more convincing work here.
A study by the Worldwatch Institute reported in 2000 that per capita consumption of legumes in South Asia has dropped more than 50 per cent in just 40 years, resulting in widespread micronutrient deficiencies among poor communities who ward off hunger with only rice and hardly any curry. Macche Bhate Bangali has really become a myth as the traditional, affordable fish protein has almost disappeared from the daily meals of the poor, despite the fact that Bangladesh is home to one of the richest sweet water fish resources in the region.
One report has it that children in Bangladesh have been getting shorter than their parents on average while it is the reverse in Japan and other nutrition-secure countries. It is not just the body that is at risk due to inadequate food but the brain as well fails to cope competently with the challenges in life. Should we then allow the unlimited export of fish, for example, the much-loved Ilish, to earn foreign exchange? Isn't it tantamount to robbing Bangladesh's poor of the pleasure of eating this delicacy as often as they used to a decade or two ago at a reasonable price?
We hope decision makers, sooner rather than later, will tailor our nutrition policy to suit the majority. It is unthinkable that a country with so much micro and macro level malnutrition should give away its wealth of God-given essential nutrients for 'foreign exchange' while spending a great deal of the same to import countless consumer items or raw materials in the name of food and beverages. One loses count of all the junk being imported or churned out in Bangladesh and the indiscriminate advertising to catch lifelong consumers. These packages are of very little nutritional value and certainly make a bad situation worse. Even the remotest villages today are found to serve these low-nutrient, high calorie soft drinks rather than the traditional lebur shorbot to guests!
People go hungry not because food is scarce but because they do not have the means to buy enough or the freedom to choose balanced meals. The prevalence of widespread nutrition-related health problems, ranging from mild to severe stunting and wasting in children, multiple diseases in young and old alike are all manifestations of both macro and micro-nutrient deficiencies. Do policy makers understand the full import of this situation? By pretending all is well with regard to people's access to balanced food we are crippling the nation irrevocably. This is how one health scientist warns unthinking decision-makers: “When a people's diet takes a vicious path of its own impoverishment, it causes a graver mischief than any act of cruelty inflicted by an alien power.”
Let policy makers go back to school if they must to rectify gaps in their understanding of human nutrition. Buffer stocks of rice, wheat or maize alone cannot ensure food security unless access to sufficient, affordable, balanced food for the majority is guaranteed. This is the most promising single input, the first vital step, for human resource development. The second step, compulsory universal education, will work better if the health and happiness of communities who are handicapped by widespread ill-health and disease is improved through better nourishment. Negligence and corruption in this sector should therefore be dealt with as the worst kind of crime.
Nerun Yakub is a senior development journalist.
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