Bangladesh in a cul de sac?

January 14, 2013

The young South Asian democracy is a good example of how people wishing to progress 

towards achieving ‘a government of the people’ can at least claim we are on the road to 
democracy. But for democracy to function properly in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh 
one thing that must be realised, upheld and practised is the concern for human life, 
writes Syed Neaz Ahmad.

BANGLADESH is one of the world’s poorest, least developed and most densely populated countries. Political chaos, rampant corruption, strikes, inadequate power supplies and a high unemployment rate — some 35 per cent — make it hard for the economy to prosper. The economy, which cannot absorb the rising labour population, is largely agricultural and depends heavily on the cultivation of rice. Tea and jute are the main cash crops. Bangladesh supplies about 90 per cent of the world’s raw jute but production of both jute and tea has dipped in recent years, largely due to weather. The gross domestic product is comprised of agriculture (30%), industry (18%), and services (52%).At best of times the masses suffer water pollution, waterborne diseases, water shortages, monsoon flooding, soil degradation and erosion, deforestation, overpopulation and severe pollution are the largest environmental concerns in Bangladesh. Political infighting, corruption, and opposition from interest groups, the bureaucracy and public sector unions stall economic reform. Some ‘interest groups’ somewhere might find the above hard to chew but before we start disputing the facts and figures it will be helpful to note that it was picked up from the US government’s website.

Now after that little detour let’s get our feet back on the road to Bangladesh. Floods and cyclones are natural occurrences that humans, governments and technology cannot stop. But one can definitely minimise human tragedy by preparing oneself through better warning systems, evacuation, and security and safety arrangements. The recent typhoons in the Americas are examples where best of arrangements failed but human lives were saved to a great extent.

The young South Asian democracy is a good example of how people wishing to progress towards achieving ‘a government of the people’ can at least claim we are on the road to democracy. But for democracy to function properly in the People’s Republic of Bangladesh one thing that must be realised, upheld and practised is the concern for human life. A nonchalant attitude towards human tragedies — man-made or natural — is not a civilised attitude.

Road accidents, boats capsizing and train accidents are a matter of routine. Dozens of lives are lost every day: a finance minister died in a road accident, a promising filmmaker lost his life in a head-on collision. As a result of public uproar, the communications minister was given a different portfolio.
Unfortunately, things haven’t changed and it’s deaths as usual on roads, rail-tracks and rivers.

The recent well-publicised and well-denounced death of a journalist couple, the disappearance of former member of parliament Ilias Ali, a prominent leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the involvement of now former railways minister Suranjit Sengupta in an alleged bribery case haven’t helped improve the image of the administration and particularly that of the home minister Sahara Khatun. Political observers in Dhaka have expressed their concern over Suranjit’s fast-track clearance by anti-corruption officials — and his rapid reinstatement by Sheikh Hasina.

Another thorn in the side of the ruling party Awami League seems to be former mayor of Dhaka Sadeque Hossain Khoka. Khoka until recently was the uncontested mayor of Dhaka. Not sure if the Awami League could win the next mayoral election it was delayed and postponed for years. However, a ‘better’ alternative has been found: Dhaka will now have two municipal corporations run by two mayors — one for south and one for north Dhaka. The lines have been drawn in the sand. The mayoral election — and its expected results — is likely to divide the people rather than facilitate the administration.

The exploitation of students by politicians is the main reason for campus chaos. Obviously, such sponsorship of young offenders does not help increase political awareness, peace, tranquillity and the literacy rate.

Modern democratic ideas stem from 18th century utilitarianism and current debate centres on the elitist theory of democracy — that government is by political elite, which though voted into power invites little participation by the electorate. This is where the good concept of democracy and its erratic practice receive a hit below the belt. It’s obvious despite its evolution through the centuries democracy has to be adopted and adapted to suit local circumstances.

The misadventure of democracy witnessed in many impoverished countries over the past several decades has proved beyond doubt that for a democracy to succeed certain criteria must be met. Let’s ask ourselves a few questions. Do we have the prerequisites in place that will ensure its smooth running and eventual success? Are the people educationally, politically and emotionally mature enough to distinguish between jackal and jackasses? Walter Lipmann in ‘A Preface to Politics’ observes that ‘no amount of charters, direct primaries, or short ballots will make democracy out of an illiterate people.’

My conception of literacy is not being able to scribble your name. It’s the development of mental faculty, political maturity, the ability to understand what is good not only for me but for the community and the country, and to be able to listen, to understand and accommodate an opinion which is not to ones liking. This attitude will help establish an atmosphere where law is respected and order is maintained which in turn will encourage peace, tranquillity and prosperity.

Any attempt to kill or kidnap political leaders is fraught with danger. Violence begets violence and we have seen that there is no end to that. Despite Interpol and US state agencies being roped in to solve the mystery this ‘whodunit’ continues to intrigue the masses. Bangladesh watchers are amused at this feet-dragging by the powers that are. Not many days ago a Saudi diplomat was killed in Dhaka.
But who will establish a peaceful order? At the last mayoral elections in Bangladesh 32 wanted men — wanted by the police not the masses — were elected as deputies to the Dhaka City Corporation. Five similar other characters were elected in the south-western city of Khulna.

This is perhaps an illustration of what Henry Miller once described: ‘When blind lead the blind, it’s the democratic way.’ Aren’t we being naïve to expect better performance from ‘wanted men’?
The leaders owe it to the innocent masses — never mind the 47 per cent literacy rate — in whose name they have been ‘elected’ to create an atmosphere of trust and understanding. However, the only democratic understanding in vogue is how best to ‘help’ oneself — for you never know what happens at the next polls.

The present establishment – on its last leg – has little time left to convince the masses of its
best of intentions. Bangladeshi masses are kind by nature but not feeble in mind.

Syed Neaz Ahmad is a London-based writer, critic and TV chat-show anchor.