Sunday, April 6, 2008

Poetry in Music

According to Plato at the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet, a notion that continues to be validated even in present times. Recent album launches in the local music scene, however, show that it is not only the euphoric side of love that inspires musicians to write songs, frustration over unrequited love or even vengeance can be themes for lyricists. Even an abusive word or two may creep in for effect, as is the case in one of the songs on a particular album recently released from a popular and well-reputed music label.

Listening to Azizul Abedin's first self-titled album, produced and distributed by Sangeeta, one notices a mixture of emotions. Written and tuned by Azizul Abedin himself, the set of ten songs in this album has been composed by the famous Fuad Ibne Rabbi. Rather than the compositions, which includes a soothing mix of soft instruments and subtle melodies, this album would probably attract music listeners more for its intense lyrics than the music.

Abedin relates several stories through his words. Where musicians tend to write about the hurt within, inflicted upon them by the unfair world, cruel nature and their insensitive beloveds, Azizul Abedin writes about the pain that he might have inflicted on someone. In Aami Ashbo Bole, Abedin talks about an afternoon when his beloved stands by the window waiting for him to come and pull her close. By dusk, she finally realises that he would never come.

In Kichu Bolo, Abedin asks the world to stop talking about dreams, flowers, birds and all the beautiful elements on earth. Life is definitely not a bed of roses. Why not talk about the bitterness experienced in love, why not glance at the tears for once instead of the smile, why not think about the destruction caused by the deadly rivers and simply forget about it's superficial beauty? In this song, Abedin asks people to stop daydreaming and come forward to speak the truth.

In spite of urging the world to take off it's mask and reflect on bitter reality, Abedin himself stops in his tracks and wonders about a world that could have been his. Probably one of his best-written lyrics in the album, Durjoger Raat, Abedin remembers a soothing evening during a dark and stormy night.

Azizul Abedin's work in his self-titled album may not have introduced a fresh sound, but has definitely done a praiseworthy job in terms of his lyrics. However, the music label has been unsuccessful in distributing enough copies of this album to the market. Though it has been a few months since the album has been launched, due to lack of marketing and promotion, many music listeners are not aware of this new musician on the block. Many of the major outlets in the city, unfortunately, have also not been informed of this album.

In an era where technology has popularised digital music amongst the musicians and music listeners, Abedin's meaningful words have gone a long way to reiterate human pathos in music.


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007
Volume 7 Issue 10 | March 7, 2008 |



A Muktijoddha's Story

There are countless stories that we hear about the Liberation War from our elders. However, it is not everyday that one gets to meet a Muktijoddha, recalling the endless days and sleepless nights, preparing for the Liberation War. Tara Miyah, one such freedom fighter, talks of the days when he was strong and dependable, the way he and his team fought the Pakistani army and finally how, more than three decades later, he and his family are trying to survive in a free Bangladesh.

Mohammad Tara Miyah was in his late twenties during the Liberation War, Back then, young men were always in danger of being picked up by the Pakistani army and tortured to death. "Many of my friends would go missing for days together," says Tara Miyah. "Some would turn up after weeks, bruised, physically and mentally deranged, but most of them could never be found. That's why it had become a trend for young men to join the team of Muktijoddhas." Popular in his hometown, Gaibanda, for his strength and a good athlete back in the days, Tara Miyah had been the target for the local collaborators and the army for a long time.

Mohammad Tara Miyah

Finally, Tara Miyah joined the team of Muktijoddhas. "As soon as I joined the team, we crossed the border over to India," he says. "We were training in Darjeeling for over a month. There were young boys from all over the country. We were taught to use the rifles and also ways to camouflage ourselves from the enemy."

Meanwhile, back home, the sufferings and the mass murders had begun. "It was extremely painful for us," Tara Miyah reminisces. "We were away from our home, family and friends. All we could do was hope for our loved ones to be safe from the brutal Pakistani forces. I remember wishing at one point, to do something more than what I was doing. I wanted to fight these people who were inflicting so much pain on us!"

Soon after, a few army officers visited the training programme in Darjeeling and selected a few Muktijoddhas to join the army. "I was also selected for the army and almost immediately we travelled to Sylhet to fight the war. After camping out in Tengratilla for a few hours, we attacked a Pakistani army base at 4:00 in the morning."

Tara Miyah, now in his 60s, still remembers the battle like it happened only yesterday; the bombs, bloodshed and the poisonous gas that seemed to choke him and his comrades to death. "It was terrifying," he admits. "Despite all the training that I had received, the first actual experience was frightening, but satisfying at the same time."

He remembers the time when he heard the news of hundreds of innocent human beings being tortured, raped and slaughtered in his homeland. "My brothers and sisters were simply trying to protect themselves from the atrocities," he says. "What had they done to deserve such a horrifying fate in the hands of the Pakistani army? That they were proud Bangalis was reason enough."

For nine long months, Tara Miyah trained and fought the army until an independent Bangladesh was declared. "It was like grabbing hold of a dream!" he cries. "You can't touch your dream, but back then, it seemed like we could feel it. In a nutshell, we were all ecstatic. We were hoping for something big to happen now. We had driven away the oppressors. Now we had a land of our own! I would walk around with my head held high."

That was 37 years ago. Today, the scenario has changed for Tara Miyah. After retiring from the army as a sepoy, he and his family have been leading a pitiful life. It has only been a couple of months now that Tara Miyah has been receiving a stipend of tk 500 from the Government. "My elder son lost his sight when he was a child," says Tara Miyah. "Even at this old age, my wife and I have to look out for him." Sharing a small quarter with several others in Tongi, Tara Miyah's elder son earns around tk 100 every day. "I am not sure what he does for a living exactly," says Tara Miyah. "He sits near the Tongi railway lines from early morning to late evening. People who walk by help out by giving him something or the other. But he is still a proud young man. After all, he is the son of a freedom fighter." Tara Miyah's younger son is studying his Bachelors at local college in Gaibanda.

Tara Miyah spends his time now, moving from one place to another asking for help. When survival becomes almost unbearable, he comes down to Dhaka for a few days at a stretch, contacting his seniors from the army, for food or books for his younger son. "I fought for my country with courage and pride," he says. "If I need help, why would it be disrespectful for me to ask my friends? I would do so with pride and courage, even today."

Photo: Shafique Alam


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008

Volume 7 Issue 14 | April 4, 2008 |

Nailing the 'If' Factor


Being the biggest contributor to the country's foreign exchange- around 76 percent- and employing around 2.2 million people, 80 percent of them women, the importance of nurturing a sector as vibrant and thriving as the garments industry, cannot be emphasised enough. With export of Ready Made Garments (RMG) reaching 9.2 billion in 2007 and predictions of it rising to 12 billion or more in the next two years, it is obvious that the industry is growing at an exponential speed. Greater demand for our garments abroad indicates the improvement in quality of the products as well as greater customer confidence, which translates to further expansion of the industry, more employment, more consumers in the domestic market and a huge boost to the economy. However, there are many jolts and stumbles along the road to economic freedom and overcoming them will determine whether we can sustain the boom that is waiting to happen.

Aasha Mehreen Amin and Elita Karim
Photographs: ZAHEDUL I KHAN

It is like entering 'garment utopia'. Greenery adorns the tall shiny building; a gushing fountain greets the visitor as birds chirp away in the swaying, leafy trees. It is lunchtime and scores of young men and women walk towards an area where the food is being served while others stroll out for a quick meeting with their families living close by. Still others go to the child-care unit to nurse their children or just say hello to their kids.

Inside the building, everything is squeaky clean, the executive offices, glass walls, even the factory floors where state-of-the-art machinery add to the sophisticated process of making each garment. After lunch, we are taken on tour of the different units - dyeing, spinning, cutting, stitching and so on. Hundreds of workers wearing colourful masks can be seen feverishly operating the sewing machines, sorting, cutting fabric, sewing on various parts of the garment that will end up in some fancy store in downtown London or New York or some other trendy American or European city. The masks are to protect the workers against cloth dust and supervisors strictly enforce this practice. Health and safety of the workers are a major priority: the floors are clean and airy with proper emergency exits, fire extinguishers and warnings about wearing safety gear such as gum boots in the washing unit and metal gloves for the cutters. A fulltime doctor is on duty at the medical unit, which is again, clean and has two beds for workers who may fall ill while on the job.


The industry is growing at an exponential speed

This is a factory in Kaliakor, around 50 km from Dhaka, owned by Far East Knitting and Dyeing Industries Limited and gives a glimpse of what the future can be like for this industry. Many other factories that line the road next to this factory are as modern as this one, says the company's director, Mohammed Bin Quasem, an entrepreneur who is quite fanatical about bringing innovations to improve efficiency, productivity and quality. One of the biggest hurdles a garments factory owner has to cross is reducing lead time -- the turnaround time from receipt of an order to the delivery of a product as this is a key factor in staying competitive in a market where giants like China and India can deliver products to international markets far more quickly than Bangladesh which has the longest lead-time amongst its competitors. A short lead-time is crucial in a market that moves according to latest fashion trends, which keep changing all the time.

Far East's strategy has been to charter a plane from Germany that could load the goods on Saturday and deliver them in London on Sunday. “Our buyers were very happy and we were getting orders for a 100,000 extra pieces every week!” Quasem adds that by now Bangladesh's garments are well known internationally for their high quality in fabric, stitching etc. In the fast expanding knitwear industry, around 98 percent of the fabric is made in Bangladesh, says Quasem. Such developments in reducing the gap between demand and supply of raw material, particularly for woven fabrics, is important in reducing lead-time.


Mohammed Bin Quasem, Director, Far East Knitting and Dyeing
Industries Ltd

Quasem has also introduced metal detectors in the factory to make sure stray pins or needles do not get attached to the clothes being sent to exacting buyers like Mother Care which specialises in infant wear.

But it is not just good safety measures or even good quality garments that capture a market that is flooded with competitors. Buyers are more globally conscious, they want environmentally-friendly garments and products that are made through ethical means. Far East and Quality Assured Ltd., both of which Quasem is a director, are together the largest exporter of 'organic garments' that is clothes that are pure, with fibres that are not genetically modified and their manufacture does not involve the use of pesticide or reduction of the water table. The factories also have their own effluent treatment plant, which treats the wastewater from production so that it is less toxic before it is disposed off into the water bodies of the country.


A child care centre at the Far East factory in Kaliakor

The thorniest issue for foreign buyers has been work conditions and age limits of the workers. Customers want to be assured that the product they are buying has not been made with child labour and that the workers have not been exploited. All factories in Bangladesh have to comply with the labour law of 2006, which among other things prohibits child labour and also limits the hours of overtime to two hours. For Quasem and his fellow directors, all the factories they own must be far beyond merely compliance. At Far East and Quality Assured Ltd, the Human Resources Department makes sure that every worker is treated fairly in terms of salary, overtime and other benefits, that workers are not abused in any way and that all complaints from workers are addressed. A woman 'welfare officer' visits each floor regularly to hear out any complaints or problems any worker may have and tries to come up with a satisfactory solution. “Sometimes women workers are shy about telling their male supervisors that they are pregnant,” says Quasem “Here the woman worker can tell the welfare officer who then informs the supervisors so that extra consideration is given to the worker such as extra food, more bathroom breaks, saving her from any heavy work and so on.”

Bonuses for good performances are constantly given to workers with good performance. Those who have completed three years in the factory get an extra bonus apart from the holiday bonuses.

Quasem and his partners have decided to take it a step further with their upcoming Echotex Ltd which will employ all the ethical and environmental practices even more stringently with a winning formula: a great product, happy workers and an ethical, green factory will make a commercially sound enterprise which in turn will build a future.

Factories like Far East and Quality Assured Ltd may not be representative of the industry as a whole in terms of ethical practices (there are still many small factories with poor, claustrophobic, unsafe work environments) but they do show a definite change in the mindset of garment entrepreneurs. “Private entrepreneurs have started to believe in themselves, that they can strive for something better," says Quasem “and customers are gaining more confidence in our products and our capability of taking care of our people.”

But even optimists like Quasem and many of his fellow entrepreneurs admit that the 'silent revolution' that they are anticipating is dependent on several factors. One of them is developing a pool of highly skilled workers which are in high demand but low in supply. The head of the International Finance Corporation - SouthAsia Enterprise Development Facility (IFC-SEDF) Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan and the Deputy General Manager, Deepak Adhikary, believes that one of the major factors that need to be addressed is training, coaching and mentoring of the workers and staff. The absence of this is playing a major role in slowing down the progress of the RMG sector in Bangladesh.

In the present scenario, workers are mostly unskilled and uneducated. There are virtually no institutes to train workers so that they have better skills that also result in better paying jobs and greater efficiency.

Adhikary believes that we should have more institutes in the country, where students will receive practical training. Furthermore, he thinks that to reach the 20 billion dollar benchmark, the factory owners need to organise regular training workshops for the employees and the staff. "One has to know by doing," he says. "Lecturers and professors will come and lecture about the market and factories. However, an engineer is basically of no use if he or she has never seen a garment factory, leave alone the operation of the machinery. Therefore, practical knowledge and vocational training is extremely important for the workers."


State-of-the-art machinery like this one at Far East makes thread
and cloth and also dyes it.

According to him, many factory owners simply overlook the idea of training their employees. "One would have to spend a huge amount of money for training," he explains. "That is why a factory owner is usually satisfied with the fact that he has cheap labour. Then again, a worker sometimes leaves the factory after training, to join another one with better facilities. This is also another reason as to why factory owners do not give a second thought to training their employees and workers."

Infrastructure, power and good banking facilities are also areas where Bangladesh is lagging behind. Frequent load shedding and poor roads are major obstacles in reducing lead time. Big factories have their own power generators, many of which produce surplus power but there is no system of sharing this extra power. Political stability obviously is also an essential factor for expansion.

"Our competitive markets in India, Pakistan and China are enjoying less interest rate, that is 3%, less bank charges and a very strong infrastructure," says Anwar-ul-Alam Chowdhury (Parves), the President of BGMEA. "For instance, it takes trucks carrying goods at least 8-12 hours to move from Dhaka to Chittagong. We lose a greater deal of time delivering outside the country.”

The declaration of the minimum wage for garment workers has also been a contentious issue. In the wake of painful price hikes of essentials the TK 1662 minimum wage seems way to low to satisfy disgruntled workers.


The assembly point for workers at the factory.

"The workers should be given certain facilities," says the BGMEA President. "For instance, a ration card system, through which the garment workers can at least buy their essentials at a subsided price. Only the government can do this."

Unfortunately though, Chowdhury believes that successive governments have not been committed enough and that is why these changes will take a long time to come about. "Time and again, we have been asking the government to develop economic zones, which will bring down the living costs of the garment workers tremendously. These zones, or small cities, will have housing facilities, schooling, medical facilities and so on. But the government is not committed and are not serious about this idea. Their policies are still not industry based. This is why, it gets very difficult for us to build a production-driven economy."

Discrimination against female workers in the sector, in terms of wages, is hardly heard of now according to Nazma Akhter, president of the Sammolito Garments Sromik Federation and the General Secretary of Awaj Foundation, an NGO working for workers' rights. "There are seven grades in a garments factory, where a worker starts off working as a helper in the seventh grade with minimum wage of Tk 1662," the former garment worker explains. "As a worker gets promoted, he or she shifts to a higher grade and accordingly gets a higher salary. Since everything works according to these guidelines, there is hardly any scope of discrimination in terms of wages. However, many workers are not regularly paid their wages. For instance the other day, a worker called to say that she and the others in her factory had not been paid their wages for the last two months. This is a common problem that workers, male or female, face today."

Sexual harassment of female garment workers by male co-workers has been a long-standing menace. According to Nazma, female workers are now stronger and more confident than they used to be before and have formulated ways to tackle the harassers. Even though regulations within a factory are now very strict where harassment is concerned, this is still a major problem faced by female garment workers.


The effluent treatment plant at Far East

Despite the fact that a large number of female employees work in the garment sector, men still have the upper hand. As a result, it becomes very difficult for women to express their needs. "For instance, there are many factories who still do not have a provision for maternity leaves for female workers," says Nazma. "While some are probably not bothered, the other factories are simply not aware of the fact that the women need the maternity leaves. If the women are given the leave, they would probably be a paid leave for two months and the other two months would be non-paid. Sometimes, even the women themselves are not aware of the fact that it is their right to a four-month paid maternity leave as per the government policy. Some of them even come to us to ask how to apply for the leave."

"It is very important for the workers to interact with the management," she adds. "That would let both the parties to understand each other and solve the ever-rising problems. Workers need to be trained, educated and updated on a regular basis as well. This is the responsibility of the garment owners. This would also lead to a better level of productivity in the industry. The owners can fund these training programmes and the resources required for the programmes as well. Every year, a good amount goes to welfare, charity and advertisements. Even a small percentage of this amount can be spent on the workers for training and vocational education."

Deepak Adhikary emphasises on interaction and connection with the outside world as ways to expand the export market.

In a market that is driven by latest fashion trends that are constantly in transition, Bangladesh has to delve into design development in order to establish original, local brands. Several design institutes have emerged in the industry with foreign and local experts to teach students as well as internships at garment factories. There is therefore a possibility of a substantial pool of designers in the future.

The garments industry also suffers from a dearth of mid-level managers and training for such people is essential to modernising the industry.

Deepak Adhikary also emphasises on how to expand the export market, interaction and connection with the outside world is a natural process. Even remotely isolating oneself will result in huge losses. "Every extra penny that a country earns is due to the strength of the export market in that country," he explains. "Any amount of growth or any change that happens in the RMG sector revolves around the export market. Today, we are competing with export markets in countries like Cambodia, China and Vietnam, where the markets also emphasise on brands. Bangladesh has to aim for brands like Gucci and

Nazma Akhter, fighting for workers' rights

Prada, even though it does have a niche in places like Wall Mart."

"Cheap labour used to be a factor," he explains. "Not anymore. Along with cheap labour, the RMG sector here also needs to focus on reducing the lead-time, delivery, accommodating new designs and trends." To build a production driven and export-oriented economy for the RMG sector, one has to prepare for the series of battles that we will have to fight one after the other. "It is like foreseeing a possibility of an earthquake or a tsunami in Bangladesh," he explains. "Even if the natural calamity does not happen, we simply cannot put our forces down. We don't know when we will be gripped by something like this. Similarly, this sector has definitely survived a lot of turmoil like the post MFA, removal of sanction on China by the EU, labour unrest and so on. However, a lot of attention still needs to be given on social and environmental compliance along with productivity improvement along the supply chain."

Few in this industry or connected to it will disagree that the time is ripe for Bangladesh's garment industry to take full advantage of the goodwill it has earned in the international market over the last few decades. All the ingredients for a big bang are there: a huge supply of young, sincere, hardworking and easily trainable workforce, innovative, dynamic entrepreneurs and the ability to maintain high quality of product. A practical industry policy, greater infrastructural support from the government and opportunities for skills development can take our garments sector to unprecedented heights.


Smaller factories in the middle of the city continue to have cramped factory floors.

On the local front, an expansion of the industry in this scale will have a multiplier effect on the economy with a rise in ancillary industries as well as a huge increase in employment, purchasing power and thus a surge in demand for goods and services in our local markets. The idea of more and more people coming out of poverty is certainly an exciting one, which makes the 'silent revolution' theory all the more believable.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008

Volume 7 Issue 14 | April 4, 2007 |

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Achievers of 2004

At a time when it has become difficult to count our blessings and have a positive outlook on life, it is crucial for a nation to look for causes to celebrate. As we end 2004, SWM takes a look into this eventful year and selects a number of achievers who have shown that talent combined with determination and hard work can bring about amazing results. These individuals represent the brand of people who have managed to keep the flicker of hope for our country alive and flaming.

Amrao Pari
Abul Khaer and the Emmy

Best known for its political instability and natural disasters, Bangladesh has surprised the world when "Amrao Pari" (We, too, Can), a documentary directed, shot and edited by 18 Bangladeshi teenagers has won the 32nd Academy of Television Arts and Science (EMMY) Awards.

Abul Khaer, the protagonist of the documentary, is himself a hero in real life. On an early July morning in 1996, the nine-year-old stopped a passenger train that was approaching a disjointed track at the Boaljhuri Railway Bridge.

"At that time I had 20 ducks and ducklings, which laid around 18 eggs a day. My father was a day labourer and apart from him, these eggs were the only source of income for us. Every day I woke up early in the morning to collect snails and oysters for the ducks," Khaer recalls. While browsing through stones on the rail track, near the Toraghar crossing, Khaer discovered a part of the rail line disjointed.

"I tried to reunite the tracks by hand, but failed," he continues, "Then I realised that the Chittagong bound Antanagar Meghna was going to come within 10 minutes or so." He shouted for help, but no one came.

Khaer knew he would be able to stop Antanagar Meghna if he could wave anything red to the driver. The child, who would later drop out from school because of sheer poverty, ran home and brought his aunt's red petticoat. When he went up the track, waving the red cloth, the train was only 200 metres away.

The train, however, stopped. "But the driver was extremely furious," Khaer recalls. "He yelled at me and asked why I was waving a red cloth at the train," Khaer smiles, and looks at the young team that recreated the whole incident on film to win this year's prestigious EMMY.

Half the 18 teenagers of the EMMY-winning group were already household names by their participation in ETV's Muktokhobor. When the television channel went off air, these children, along with the programme's producer Rowshon Ara Rukhsana Sirkar Nipa, decided to join ATN.

"Nipa apa called and told us not to quit filmmaking," Robiul Islam Raju, who went to Boaljhuri, Chandpur, for shooting says. In fact, Mahfujur Rahman, ATN-Bangla's chairperson, grabbed the idea when Nipa submitted her project proposal.

"He immediately approved it and named it Amra Korbo Joy," Nipa says, "Eighteen children, half of whom are underprivileged, work with this programme. And our motto is, 'By children, for children, to everyone'."

Broadcast at 6:30 every Friday evening the programme has become an instant hit among the channel's young audience. The children get a monthly allowance of Tk 3,000 each.

"It was Tk 1500 in ETV. Then again we worked only seven days a month at that time. Now we work two weeks in a month," Fateema Akhtar, another cub reporter and a student of Mirpur Technical College, says. "Every month I save something from my allowance and send it to my parents in the village," she continues.

When UNICEF wanted the team to make a documentary for the World Child Broadcasting Day, the group decided to focus on Abul Khaer. Two members of the team, along with their producer and two other adult members went to Khaer's home in Hajiganj to re-enact the incident.

Guided by Nipa and other adult members of the ATN staff, the children did most of the direction, cinematography and editing. "We operated the camera and sat with the editor. We took all the editing decision by ourselves," recalls Khairul Amin Nahin, one of the cinematographers of the team. Nahin, a student of Dhaka College, was not in Muktokhobor; he joined Amra Korbo Joy after undergoing a one-month training course.

When it was made, Rezwanul Haque of UNICEF Bangladesh advised the team to send it to International Children Day of Broadcast (ICDB). On 14 October this year, the film was nominated for EMMY-UNICEF Award. The other three documentaries that got nominations in this category were produced by Lao National Television, Walt Disney China and National Television Kenya.

The award was declared on November 22. In the other nine categories, BBC and Channel Four grabbed the most awards and MTV got a special award for its HIV/AIDS campaign.

Though the documentary is littered with editing and directional flaws, critics believe it was the film's humane touch that has won it the award.

Things, however, had remained unchanged very little for Abul Khaer till the making of Amrao Pari. In 1996, to recognise his bravery, the government gave Abul Khaer a lump-sum amount of Tk 2,500. Though the Chandpur District Administration had promised to give his family an abandoned acre of government land, it has never been kept. The boy had to quit study and all the duck and ducklings the family had raised died too.

When Amra Korbo Joy team came back to Dhaka they told the ATN authorities about Khaer's plight and the channel employed him first as an office peon this year, then as an assistant cameraman.

- Ahmede Hussain


Aref Chowdhury (Rubel)
A Young Innovator

For Aref Chowdhury (Rubel), three years as a researcher at Bell Labs was not just another job, it was a life-altering experience through which he earned acclamation within the scientific world. On September 20, 2004, MIT's magazine, Technology Review named Chowdhury one of the top 100 young innovators of the world. Innovators under thirty-five were nominated for their help in transforming the nature of technology and business in industries such as biotechnology, computing and nanotechnology.

Chowdhury, along with his 99 other counterparts was honoured on September 29-30 at Technology Review's 'Emerging Technologies' conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the United States, in which the subject of discussions was on the technological innovations that have the potential to fuel new economic growth and change.

Chowdhury has a bachelor's degree in Engineering, with Honours in Electrical Engineering and Applied Mathematics and Statistics from the State University of New York, Stonybrook, and a Ph.D in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While he was there, Technology Review recognised Chowdhury's work on nonlinear photonic crystals, where he designed and fabricated nonlinear photonic crystals that could be used to switch date between individual wavelengths of light when routing information optically.

Bell Labs is the Research and Development division of Lucent Technologies, which designs and delivers the systems, services and software that drive next-generation communications networks. It has played a pivotal role in inventing and perfecting key communications technologies, including transistors, digital networking and signal processing, lasers and fiber-optic communications systems, communications satellites, cellular telephony, electronic switching of calls, touch-tone dialing and modems.

Chowdhury's field is nonlinear optics and biochemical detection research. On the prestigious title he has been given, Chowdhury says, "It is a great honour to be recognised, but a lot of the credit goes to my research colleagues. I feel very lucky to work with world-class scientists here at Bell Labs on research that can positively impact Lucent and beyond."

Director of Quantum Information and Optics research at Bell Labs, Dick Slusher has some thoughts to share, "Aref is representative of the calibre of a scientist hard at work on problem solving, significant research challenges here at Bell Labs. He joins a great group of Bell Labs alumni that have won this award in previous years and we applaud his accomplishments."

Aref Chowdhury's accomplishments serve as a source of inspiration for not only young innovators, but also young Bangladeshis everywhere. He is the living proof that hard work and determination eventually helps one win the race. His work is not only praised by his immediate colleagues and co-workers, but has been recognized internationally as a means to change and transform the future of science and technology, thereby impacting the world we live in positively.

-Srabonti Narmeen Ali


Self-Analysis
Lipi's Visual Solution

Projecting one's childhood on the canvas is something of a challenge for any artist, as the murky hue of nostalgia always plays havoc with the artistic verve by making it too moody or glum. For Tayeba Begum Lipi, childhood memories serve to express the usual visual verve, as she brings them on to put forward a statement. Childhood, in her work, gets a new lease on life and meets the artist's current self-portrait. This union of the present and the past has fetched Lipi the Grand Prize at the 11th Asian Biennale of Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy in January 2004.

Lipi says her entry into the arts was by accident. Tayeba, after passing out from college in 1986, came to Dhaka to seek admission in the journalism department of the Dhaka University. The moment she entered the walled area of the Institute of Fine Arts, she was taken by the beauty of its setting and environment. Disregarding her parents' advice and shunning her art student brother's outrage, she sat for the entrance examination and was allowed admission.

In 1991, when she was introduced to oil colour in her drawing and painting department her enthusiasm was boosted. "At this point I realised that I would certainly become a painter," exclaims Tayeba remembering her struggle in the early years in the Institute of Fine Arts while trying to find a foothold in the domain of art.

Around 1995, she got a chance to attend an artist camp in Nepal. There she met young artists from the subcontinent, and it was at this time that she was introduced to all the different aspects of art. She did a lot of landscapes there, which contributed to her development in handling oil.

As she gradually woke up to the fact that art is not merely confined to the boundary of the frame of a canvas, she felt liberated. Art as an easel painting had been her fixation, but in Nepal her ideas were given a thorough shake, when she had seen young artists experimenting with space and objects defying traditional visual languages. She felt at home with the new mode that tends to extend the border of the very concept of art.

She came back to Dhaka with her enthusiasm enhanced and confidence reinforced. The change that affected her translated into her paintings; she started to put falling and contorted female figures against a vegetation-rich landscape.

Though her paintings at that time exteriorised a feeling of outright confidence, they were markedly different from what she would later embark on. In the second part of her Masters of Fine Arts, she had fully realised her goals: it was to formulate a socially relevant language of art. To fulfil that ambition she juxtaposed static female figures that resembled mannequins. She had in mind the emancipation of women. So, it was fashion and trend that became the subject that she poked fun at. Her female forms were depicted frozen alongside the paraphernalia of the dorjee, (tailor) to suggest conformity.

With the language of art, she herself became a nonconformist. In the new millennium, her art boldly tackled ideas that tossed her into the limelight. She started to use her self-portrait, and combined realistically executed paintings with installed objects, human dummies and so on to formulate a voice of socio-political significance.

Lipi likes to believe that her sojourn in Ireland had created opportunities she otherwise might have overlooked. She was awarded residency for three months. "My ideas reached maturity in Ireland as I was exposed to a lot of stimulation and I also had the time to generate ideas of my own," says Tayeba. In a show by Lipi and her artist husband in 2002, Tayeba's Toy Watching Toys was all the rage, where her three big realistic portraits were presented vis-a-vis burkha-clad dummies fashioned after herself. In the last solo that she called "Even The Walls Have Ears", she mixed together video installation with two-dimensional images.

Tayeba had to struggle in real life to overcome financial snags. Since the beginning, she and her husband took up art as their only pursuit, now the two shepherd an organisation named Britto. At present she remains at the helm of this artists' trust as its director. As for her fight to overcome personal obstacles, it is intrinsically bound with her struggle to find an artistic language of her own. Currently she has been awarded a year round Scholarship from the Artist Aminul Islam Trust. Throughout her journey she carries all the emotional baggage that make up her personality. Perhaps that is how she so easily confronts her self-portraits in the form of her work.

-Mustafa Zaman

Abdullah Abu Sayeed
An Enlightened Man Recognised

Litterateur cum teacher cum television presenter Abdullah Abu Sayeed hardly needs an introduction. While he has a strong claim of eminence in all of these fields, his most enduring creation is the Biswa Shahitya Kendra (The Centre of World Literature). Since the early seventies, Sayeed has led nothing less than a revolution with Alokito Manush Chai (Creating Enlightened Individuals), a mission he has been pursuing for the last three decades.

Professor Sayeed's remarkable work has won him many accolades besides his disciples' respect, but this year he brought both for himself and Bangladesh a unique honour when he won the prestigious Ramon Magasaysay Award 2004, also dubbed as the Nobel in Asia. In its citation the Ramon Magasaysay Foundation emphasised Sayeed's "contributions to his cultivating in the youth of Bangladesh a love for literature and its humanising values through exposure to great books of Bangladesh and the world". Besides, his contributions to journalism, literature and creative communication arts were also mentioned in the citation when Prof Sayeed accepted the award in an elaborate ceremony in Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

Professor Sayeed believes that a good book contains thoughts, dreams, visions, beauties and all the precious things mankind has created both in the past and the present, so by exposing young people to the greatest books of the world he wanted to create "The Enlightened Individual" for which he has devoted all his energies. The Biswa Sahitya Kendra with its amazing collection of books both Bangla and Bangla translation of many world masterpieces have contributed to the intellectual upbringing of an entire generation of youth, but, more importantly, he has succeeded in reviving the almost dying culture of reading among young people. BSK is not just a library where one goes to read books, it has also developed a network among many of the schools across the country so that students of those particular schools have access to the BSK collections. The centre has also initiated mobile libraries, the first of its kind in the country, which go to different specified places in the city following a particular schedule, thus allowing interested readers, who cannot make it to the library, to borrow books virtually from their doorsteps. Though BSK's principal focus is on reading books it also arranges workshops on filmmaking, photography, creative writing etc and organises film shows and a variety of cultural shows for of the intellectual development of the youths.

Youthful even at 60 plus, Sayeed's energy is still in great supply. He can often be spotted in the front line of a small procession holding banners that read "Save the Buriganga" or "Want Safe streets" or "Beware of the Deadly Dengue". In spite of his stringent daily routine he has time to take the streets for a good cause or utilise his celebrity status to create mass awareness about anything that will benefit people.

-Shamim Ahsan


Mohammad Ashraful
The Cricketing Sensation

Cricket is a game that requires a touch of skill, a dash of talent, a fistful of determination and a bucket of hard work. These are the essential ingredients of being an international star in the realm of cricket and Mohammad Ashraful is an upcoming talent who has all this and more. Ashraful was born on 9th September, 1984 in Dhaka. Making a name in the cricketing arena, he made history by becoming the youngest man, or boy, ever to score a century in Test Cricket at the tender age of sixteen. This was the fastest hundred for any Bangladeshi and more so, it was his debut against match against Sri Lanka. He shared the Man-of-the-Match award with Sri Lanka's Muttiah Muralitharan that day. But life was not always so. He started his career at a very young stage, a leg spinner who was also good at batting. He soon joined the under 19 team and from there, quickly shot up to the Bangladesh national team. Since then, every minute has been a sensational adventure. Ashraful is an aggressive middle order batsman and is one of the shining stars of Bangladesh cricket. After Bangladesh's tour of Sri Lanka in 2002 Ashraful was benched for quite sometime. However, after his undisputed contribution of 108 in the Patron's Trophy for Bangladesh "A", Ashraful was back into the national team. In his comeback match he scored a remarkable 98, only to be undone by the magical bowling of Heath Streak.

Ashraful, still in his learning stage, is now a talented batsman. He has made a reputation of playing all kinds of shots in the book but has a knack of throwing away his wickets at odd times. The only thing to account for this is his youthful impulsiveness. He showed what he was made of this December 2004, when he scored his second century - a colossal 158 not out - against the Indian cricket team during their tour of Bangladesh. Ashraful now holds the record for the highest individual test score by any Bangladeshi. It was an inning of rare brilliance for Ashraful, a milestone in his career. He had won the battle but the war was lost, as Bangladesh lost to India that day.

Sunday night on December 26 was a night to rejoice as the Bangladesh side wrote a new chapter in their history. They took on the visiting Indian team in the second ODI and won. Mohammad Ashraful gave a stunning performance whacking two sixes and one four in a fine 28 runs off 48 balls. This was their first victory on home turf and it came on their 100th ODI. The whole stadium exploded with not just the audience there, but also the millions on television all over the country, backing their team as they inched their way to victory.

Ashraful is the 'new kid on the block' and he is here to shake things up.

-Imran H. Khan


Momtaz
The Music Queen

Hers is not the typical Bangali woman's soft, mellow voice, it's rather slightly on the rough, husky side. The lyrics of her songs are not exactly refined, but often colloquial, sometimes even rustic. But it is with that unconventional combination that she achieves a distinct quality that the audience finds irresistible. Her strength doesn't lie in the soothing effect on the ear, rather she kind of stirs up the audience's heart and demands their response. Thus when she comes on stage the audience goes into a frenzy and when she sings out the audience invariably joins in chorus. Her infectious charm and undeniable talent has made her one of the most popular entertainers of the country. With an unbelievable 600 audio albums to her credit she is unarguably the most adored singer of the country. At a time when band musicians are the craze in live concert shows she is indeed the biggest crowd puller.

Mumtaz Begum's initiation into music occurred early. She was a mere child when she accompanied her singer father Modhu Boyati at first as an audience but very soon as a co-performer. Her father aside Matal Razzaque Dewan was another of her guru who she considers her mentor. She took to music almost unknowingly, but then she must have dipped deep into the sea of music and come out intoxicated, for ever. She never looked back again and never even distantly thought of doing something different. The kind of music she used to perform like Marfati, Boithoki, Murshidi can roughly fall under the genre of mystic songs.

It was not always rosy though. There were also occasions when she did albums entirely free of cost and when those albums became popular the producer offered her Tk 2,000, not for the ones she had already done, but for the one she would do next. That too on the condition that if it didn't sell well she would be bound to pay the honorarium back. Mumtaz didn't have to pay back-- the album sold out instantly and suddenly Mumtaz became extremely busy. At times she was recording two albums a day. "I used to be handed down the lyrics and the music tracks minutes ago and there used to be hardly any time for rehearsal and I had to record it at one go," she reveals in an interview with the Daily Star last May. Some of her most famous music albums include Return Ticket, Ashol Boithoki, Murshider Talim, Ronger Bazar etc.

Though Mumtaz sings other varieties than those of mystic songs her concentration remains there. One of Mumtaz's great achievements has been to broaden the audience base of mystic songs which has been largely confined to rural areas and rural people. And most surprisingly today's middle class urbanite youths also make a part of her fans.

As a person Mumtaz is a woman of great kindness who is ever ready to extend a helping hand to people who come to her. She was an active supporter in the establishment of an eye hospital in her native Shingair village.

- Shamim Ahsan


Asheque Elahi Shams
Acting the O's

“Getting an 'A' in Bangla was a big shock for me!" exclaims Asheque. The tall and slim youngster with black rimmed glasses seemed very indifferent to the fact that he actually got a total of 11 'A's in his O level examinations held in the year 2004, the highest this year and the second highest so far, after Rezwan Haque, who got a total of 12 'A's in 2003, the highest in the world. A student of South Breeze School, Dhaka, Asheque Elahi Shams made his family, friends and school proud with his outstanding results, and clinched the Daily Star Award as well.

Asheque had taken on a total of 11 subjects in two sittings, comprising of Bangla, English, Economics, Accounting, Computing, Commerce, Pure Math, Biology, English, Chemistry and Physics. "I was terrified during my Bangla exam and was really bewildered with the result actually," says Asheque. "I had never really done all that well in my mock exams at school and truly speaking, never had much hope in Bangla, especially grammar. I had registered for some of the subjects just a month or so before the exam," he goes on. "I had major problems with my project in Computing and never realised that I would get an 'A' in it."

Asheque claims to be an average student, just like any other from his class. "I am actually very lazy and simply cannot think of studying for hours at a stretch," says Asheque, revealing his study secrets. "I did everything at the very last moment and never really went to all the trouble of studying beforehand. I did take extra help and would go for tuition for certain subjects. However, I also watched a lot of TV, watched movies and had fun as well. I think studying right in the end helped me remember everything."

Did he feel absolutely delighted with his results and the fact that he had the highest score this year? "Not really," he replies. "Everyone in my class got all 'A's in the subjects they registered for. In fact, I think this year we had some of the best students in the batch. Though I did feel happy about my grades, since they will help me get into a good college now."

Asheque is now working hard for his A-levels and looks forward to studying in Princeton University. "I do plan to com back to my country after my studies," informs Asheque. "I hope everyone does, for that matter."

- Elita Karim

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004

Volume 4 Issue 27 | December 31, 2004 |

Tona Tuni's latest venture with children

Culture

A new edition of children's books by Tona Tuni is like a fresh ray of sunlight for the tiny book lovers adding fresh joy to their innocent dreams tumbling by. Tona Tuni came up with two editions for little children, namely Esho Gunte Shikhi and Choray Bornomala at the Ekushey Book Fair this year.

Each of these books, accompanied with a VCD, is filled with colours and also substances from our culture to make a child capable of relating to what he/she learns. Chhoray Bornomala is a descriptive illustration of all the letters in the Bangla language. Each of these letters has been done in different colours with a chhora (a rhyme) to make the learning more simple and fun for the child.

Esho Gunte Shikhi is a number book, where children can learn the numerals in the Bangla language. They are also taught how to count and add.

Both the books come with video CDs, which upon watching and listening to, a child will be able to develop not only number and writing skills but also sense of recognition of the surroundings, names of birds, fruits, animals and many other elements of the Bangladeshi culture.

Some of the rhymes, where animals and fishes have been made to talk, are good effort to expand the imaginative intuition of a child. Funny quips like a fussy old woman and a new bride dressed in red carrying water have also been used to depict the village scenes.

Tona Tuni has been educating children for generations now. Many households in the country have made Tona Tuni a part of their family not only as bedtime stories but also as effective means to educate their children.

Picture
The cover jacket of the book
Sat. March 06, 2004

'Oh dear, Oh dear, I'll be too late!' cried the White Rabbit

Culture
Alice lands in Scholastica


Alice, the famous character from the fairy tale 'Alice in Wonderland', came to Dhaka recently. Bringing this well loved children's story to the stage was Scholastica School, Uttara The packed STM Hall, where the play was held, brought together an audience comprising students, diplomats, parents and teachers.

The students of the senior section of Scholastica School presented a musical version of the children's literary classic by Lewis Carroll. The play was directed by Azad Abul Kalam, and was assisted by Kazi Tawfikul Islam Emon and other drama teachers of the school. The most significant feature of this overwhelming play was that the production was designed and executed by the teachers along with the students of the institution.

The Chairperson of the Board of Management of the school, Yasmeen Murshed, thanked the production team consisting of the music team, the singing choir, the choreographers and the stage designers who had worked extremely hard to make the production a huge success. The crew mainly comprised students who had to practice regularly as well as cope with the academic pressure.

The special guest was the US Ambassador to Bangladesh, Harry K Thomas, who had begun with a greeting in Bangla, eventually switching on to English. In his words, 'Education is complete only with the development of the souls and personalities of children. Children feel secure and confident enough to face the many realities of the world through teamwork and extra curricular activities.'

The colourful sets, costumes, the innovative props and the enthusiastic acting of the students of the senior section of Scholastica School, brought all the fabulous creatures of Alice's Wonderland to life. Alice, played by Shazreh Ahmed, displayed an unbelievable amount of strength and creativity, when she somehow popped into a strange land full of extraordinary beings, talking animals, walking-breathing packs of cards and popular characters from the nursery rhymes.

There were some variations in the Scholastica version of Alice in Wonderland. According to this version, it was a hot summer afternoon, when ten-year-old Alice and her sisters were sitting by the river with Mr Dodgson begging him to tell them a story. Once Mr Dodgson began his story, Alice suddenly saw a White Rabbit dressed in a tweed jacket with a watch in his hand scurrying by, shouting, 'Oh dear, Oh dear, I'll be too late!' Alice's adventures thus began once she jumped into the hole after the rabbit.

The spectators immensely enjoyed Alice's encounter with Humpty Dumpty, who was actually sitting on the wall, much to Alice's amazement. 'You'll fall off and break yourself. All the King's horses and men wouldn't be able to put you together you know!' cried Alice to the legendary egg.

Throughout her journey in Wonderland, Alice met many of its crazy inhabitants, for instance The Mad Hatter, according to whom, time had stopped exactly at Tea-Time, 6:00 pm in the evening. He along with the Hare and ever-sleepy Mouse were drinking tea in oversized cups and pouring out more from even larger tea pots. The little mouse,much to everyone's delight, sqeaked out every word. The famous Cheshire Cat was also there to greet Alice with his big grin and clever talk. Right at the end, Alice got a chance to be in a trial, where the Queen of Hearts declared her famous line 'Off with their heads!' to just about every subject in her land. The trial was about the Knave of Hearts who had stolen the tarts made by the Queen one fine afternoon.

The audience was awe-struck not only by the excellent acting skills shown by the young children, but also the d├ęcor of the stage, the clever and colourful props and also the stage set. They were undoubtedly enchanted with the magical happenings on stage, transporting themselves to Wonderland. The professionalism shown by these amateur youngsters was remarkable.

Many parents remarked that schools would do well to give more attention to the role of extra curricular activities as a nece-sssary element of education. As Ambassador Thomas pointed out to each parent in the audience, 'All over the world, we speak one language and that is take care of your children.'

Mon. March 15, 2004
Picture
The Queen of Hearts playing croquet

A Tale of Conceit and Deceit

Even after President Iajuddin Ahmed, frail and enfeebled at 76, has been sworn in as the Chief of the caretaker government (CCG), the spectre of death looms large over Bangladesh's political horizon. He and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) faithfuls say that as the talks between warring political parties have failed and all the constitutional options have been exhausted he has to assume power to save the country from further bloodshed. But beneath this veneer of seemingly benign intentions stands a pack of lies and deceptions. The President did not properly explore all the plausible options of the constitution as he now claims to have done, but instead, this former professor of Dhaka University has played into the hands of, what it now seems, the BNP's long standing plan to rig the next general elections.

In the face of a presidential takeover, the Awami League (AL) has given Iajuddin four days to prove his neutrality; the party has also laid down an 11-point demand on the table of the ailing President, which include: the removal of three election commissioners and correction and revision of the voter list.

If these demands are not met, the AL has warned to go back to the streets. The country's hard-earned democracy is under threat, and there is a fear that further trouble lies ahead for this poor nation of fourteen crore people.

Ahmede Hussain

Dhaka, last Friday night, resembled civil war torn Beirut in the eighties. The Prime Minister Khaleda Zia gave a speech to the nation at seven in the evening and immediately after it ended machete and oar-wielding opposition workers poured onto the streets of the capital in their thousands. Khaleda claimed normalcy and gloated over her government's “glorious five-year rule” as the country quickly slipped into chaos and lawlessness. A faint column of smoke rose first near Dhanmandi from a bus that had been burnt and quickly turned into a mangled corpse of charred steel; after this, as though after the first blood of the war was drawn, the war formally declared, opposition workers, with renewed vigour, turned to every other moving vehicle on the roads; buses were burned, shops were looted, innocent passers-by, mostly women, returning to the city after holidaying, were robbed near Kanchpur. At zero hour, goons belonging to the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), riding a microbus and armed with automatic rifles, shot and maimed 40 opposition workers, who were organising themselves for the next-day's rally. The old part of the city, even before Khaleda's fustian speech began, had turned into a battlefield; boys as young as ten or eleven, belonging to Nasiruddin Pintu of the BNP and Haji Selim of the Awami League (AL), took the rivalry into a new height; rival groups' houses and businesses were torched, women were harassed; throughout the night, like the other half of the city, mobs of different colour and hue were on the prowl. Homes of BNP leaders across the country were attacked by the AL leaders, and on different occasions by the BNP's own disgruntled factions.

On this gory and ruthless night and the day that followed 20 people were killed all over the country. Saturday had witnessed even worse incidents of violence. In the capital, the bone of contention was the control of Paltan Maidan, where both the opposition parties and the workers' wing of the BNP called a meeting. BNP-men were not seen venturing into the ground, instead Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) workers and the opposition fought a savage battle near Baitul Mukarram National Mosque; at one point of the fight the JI, which actively opposed Bangladesh's independence by carrying out numerous acts of rape and mass murder, introduced guns into what would have otherwise been a pitched battle. “Allah-hu-Akbar (Allah is the Greatest),” a loudspeaker blared while JI-men fired 20 rounds of bullets at AL-workers who had so far been using oars and brickbats. It took the night to descend and paramilitary Bangladesh Rifles to join hands with an outnumbered and withdrawn police force to restore some semblance of peace in the area, but before that four had died and a hundred were already maimed.

Not far away from the pandemonium, at her party headquarters, to a small audience of about two thousand followers, Khaleda declared that she would follow whatever decision the President made: a good hint for anyone who has been following the events closely.


President Iajuddin Ahmed taking oath as the Chief of the Caretaker Government in a hurriedly organised ceremony

Words, words, words

The talks that have failed, on the pretext of which the President has appointed himself as the Chief of caretaker government (CCG) are one of sorest and disreputable episodes in Bangladesh's political history.

A long-running controversy has taken birth a few years ago when Judge KM Hasan, former foreign affairs secretary of the BNP and one-time nomination seeker of the party, was made the Chief Justice (CJ). Many smelled a rat when the government suddenly extended the term of Supreme Court judges, making Hasan the last retired CJ available. The opposition made protests, and declared not to go to any election held under any government led by him; the BNP talked about following the constitution, which they themselves had tailor-made to make a likeminded person the CCG. The issue of Hasan's political past has never been discussed in parliament; instead, at the beginning of this year, the secretaries general of both parties swapped letters, as many as eight times, to discuss the possibilities of a reform in the electoral process; the seven round of talks that came out of the letter-swapping were shady, as murky as these two politicians could have made it to be. The tone and the mood were strikingly similar-- Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan of the BNP, in a black suit, wearing an always-ready-to-smile face, Abdul Jalil of the AL, a seemingly weather-beaten, throwing a puckered smile at everyone in sight-- "We have made significant breakthrough. We are hopeful to give the nation a good piece of news before Eid.”-- Either of them could have been passed on to have said this to the anxiously sweating newspersons waiting outside, sometimes, just to get a glimpse of the duo.

Trouble began when, three days before Eid, both Bhuiyan and Jalil came out of the venue within ten minutes into their discussion with sealed lips-- "Let's see what happens,” Bhuiyan declared; Jalil, uncharacteristically reticent and irritable, “Not now…not now,” he said as his car rolled on. That night the BBC scooped its rivals by airing the news that both the politicians did not care to let their nervous countrymen know-- "At the ongoing talks the BNP has proposed the name of MA Aziz as a substitute to Hasan”; this was a piece of nerve-wrecking information, which effectually meant that the last chance of breaking the stalemate had fallen apart. The next day, the day before Eid, Mannan Bhuiyan broke the news--"The BNP does not think it is possible to replace KM Hasan with anyone else as it is unconstitutional”. This spelled disaster for the ordinary citizens as the Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina had already urged “people come to Dhaka with oars and sticks if power is handed over to KM Hasan”.

Justice KM Hasan, meanwhile, remained silent, and it has needed a violent eruption of people's angst and frustration, 20 people have to die to make this retired judge realise that “for the greater benefit of the nation”, he, KM Hasan, a good citizen, should not become the CCG.


Scenes of mayhem: Activists of the 14- party alliance set fire at various points in the city; riot police swoop on the activists; workers of the 14 party alliance carry off a fellow activist who was shot in head during clashes with Jamaat activists

The Farce that has been enacted

After the discussions failed, the parliament expired its terms, mayhem followed and KM Hasan declined to become the CCG, the President has stepped into the ring; he started his own talks with the leaders of different political parties and in the first meeting declared his own willingness to be the Chief of the caretaker government. It came as a surprise to everyone because all the other options set out by the constitution were not exhausted yet -- The AL did not want MA Aziz, who has already earned a name for being controversial and partisan; without giving any reason, the BNP and JI for their part said they had a problem with Mahmudul Amin Chowdhury, another retired judge, becoming the head of the new government.

Controversy arose and Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, the BNP secretary general, played foul with the issue; to the press Bhuiyan lied by saying that Hamidul Huq, another retired judge and second in line to be the CCG, had expressed his inability to take over; but the following morning the retired judge told a private television channel that it was not the case-- "I am available if all the parties involved come to a concensus about me."

The Clause 58C (5) of the constitution says, " If no retired judge of the Appellate Division is available or willing to hold the office of Chief Adviser, the President shall, after consultation, as far as practicable, with the major political parties, appoint the Chief Adviser from among citizens of Bangladesh who are qualified to be appointed as Advisers under this article."

That the President has to assume power means that no one qualified to be the Chief Adviser has been found among the citizens of Bangladesh, which is ludicrous and laughable.

Iajuddin's magic draught

This is the same Iajuddin Ahmed, whose ill-health and the mystery surrounding it created a world of intrigue not more than six months ago. The President had been taken ill, the press were told, but a thick veil of secrecy was drawn around Iajuddin, who the government said had suffered a "massive heart attack". The President, after the "massive" heart attack, went to the Combined Military Hospital in Dhaka, and walked down the asphalted road and concreted corridor to get admitted; he was later flown into Singapore and Jamiruddin Sirkar, the Speaker and a BNP faithful was made the acting President, and for a long time, even after Iajuddin came back to the country and seemed well enough to perform his duties, Jamiruddin carried on with his "extended role" as the acting President. Not to mention that the BNP, at that time, had already grown a habit of changing Presidents; Badruddoza Chowdhury, once elected the head of the state by the BNP, only a year into his job, was removed overnight; no reason was given, and Chowdhury, who now heads his own party, refuses to talk much about it.

For about a month, effectually, there were two Presidents-- Iajuddin and Jamiruddin. Rumours ran wild when some younger MPs of the BNP-- the so-called young Turks-- demanded the removal of Iajuddin on the grounds that his health did not allow him to perform the day-to-day duties of presidency. It was clear that his own party did not want him to remain President, especially with the next general elections in the offing. A more loyal and workable Jamiruddin Sirkar was wanted and the party, later on, grudgingly made do with Iajuddin because of the huge uproar that was made when the party tried to dump him.

Has the President, so weak only six months ago that he was finding it increasingly difficult to perform as a titular head-- has that same Iajuddin Ahmed taken a magic tablet that he will hold not one but two most important posts at the same time, and will not make a blunder? Even when he has long passed the standard age for retirement?

Waiting for the Barbarians?

The Awami League has failed to stand up to the occasions when the day of reckoning has arrived. The party, while the secretary-general level talks were going on, never disclosed the day-to-day outcome of the discussions. By making KM Hasan the centre of their demands, the party has actually played into the hands of the BNP. The AL has thrown all its attentions and might on the appointment of KM Hasan as the CCG, downplaying its previous, and more important demands for the reform of the caretaker government system.

Last Friday and Saturday, when the whole nation was anxiously waiting for a vision of the future, for a guideline, the Awami League could not come up with any. Sheikh Hasina, who has led the first government of the country's history to complete its full five-year term, starting from 1996 to 2001, has never shown a way out of this anarchy, instead she fomented more violence by calling her followers to "seize the capital with sticks and oars".

Signs are there that the BNP leadership has always toyed with the idea of eventually making the President the CCG. The BNP has done everything it can to rig the next general elections-- a stooge like MA Aziz and Khaleda minions like Mahfuzur Rahman and SM Zakaria have been made Election Commissioners, the party has planted its own members onto different layers of the judiciary and administration.

But signs are there, too, that the BNP, which along with its zealot and corrupt partners have enjoyed an absolute majority in the last parliament, may not even get the single majority needed to return to power. The BNP leaders, most of whom are mired in corruption and political scandals, it seems, are aware of this. The party is desperately trying to cling onto power no matter what; on Sunday, the day Iajuddin nominated himself as the CCG, Dhaka was abuzz with rumours of military takeover; there were idle speculations that a state of emergency might be declared. Who fed on these gossips and where they generated from one cannot tell, but these paved the way for the President to become the CCG. The rumours that a martial law can be imposed, that we are going back to the Stone Age, have been deliberately spread.


A declaration of war. Armies of the 14-party alliance and Jamaat-e-Islami get ready for another round of brick batting in Paltan on October 28

It is surprising; shocking almost that the party that has so overwhelmingly won the elections only five years ago is now frightened to face the voters this time round. The level of corruption and misrule of the BNP's last term can only be compared to the forlorn days of 1972-75 when different armed gangs and the then Prime Minister's sons indulged themselves in a world of corruption and degeneration.

By playing foul with the constitution and thus undermining our hard-earned democratic process, the BNP, has, in effect, dug its own political grave. And with the advent of the BNP's own breakaway faction the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and its increasing popularity in BNP bastions like Chittagong, the BNP has reasons to get scared. Iajuddin's appointment as the CCG is unlikely to change the situation, on the contrary, it may as well, spell an even bigger disaster for Bangladesh, if Iajuddin, a retired Professor of Soil Science turned President turned Chief of Caretaker government fails to govern.

Khaleda's Balance Sheet

Five years after being voted to power, what legacy is Khaleda Zia and her Four-Party Alliance (FPA) leaving behind?

Ahmede Hussain

Khaleda Zia speaking to the nation on October 27

Of the pledges that the FPA has made before coming to power in 2001, hardly anything substantial has been fulfilled. The long overdue separation of the judiciary, which both the major parties have promised to do 15 years ago, immediately after the ouster of Gen HM Ershad, hangs in limbo. The FPA government, particularly its law minister Moudud Ahmed, who is especially known as politically corrupt, has so far given numerous excuses for the sorry state of the country's judiciary. Instead of giving it independence, Khaleda has effectually ravished the country's judiciary, especially the lower one, by employing one BNP-man after another; cases of judges taking inducements have remained an all time high during the last government's tenure.

About the autonomy of the government-controlled Bangladesh Betar and Television, the information minister has never uttered a single word; on the contrary these two organisations have been made the FPA-government's own propaganda machine; Fascist Hitler's Nazi information minister Paul Joseph Goebbels believed that a lie becomes a truth if it is said a hundred times; Khaleda's information minister and his cronies in Bangladesh Betar (BB) and Television (BTV), taking Goebbels's suggestion too seriously aired lies, one pack after another, blatantly, with a straight face, as many times as they could. These seemingly educated people, who are still not in the helm of these two bodies act as though general people of this country are a bunch of idiots who can be taken for a ride whenever they want to. In her last speech to the nation, Khaleda rightly said that the AL government during its tenure had made the BTV and BB a particular family's eulogy-producing device. True though she is, if anyone has watched BTV or BB in Khaleda's time will have thought Bangladesh is a hereditary monarchy, where only the Queen (Khaleda) and, the heir to the throne (Tareque Rahman) and his chums are allowed to show their faces on the idiot box. Ekushey Television, the first independent private channel in the country was taken off the air in Khaleda's rule as it lost an appeal in the Supreme Court.

Ershad seems to have been won over by the four-party coalition

Dhaka-based newspapers, on the other hand, have enjoyed a relative freedom; at the same time different BNP-men have lodged several criminal and defamation lawsuits against editors, publishers and reporters of different dailies. No verdict has so far come out of these cases, most of which are made only to harass journalists. The situation has been worse for journalists living outside the capital, particularly those who live in the northeastern Bangladesh, where thugs and goons have been butchering innocent people. In Khaleda's five-year-rule journalists were killed in Khulna, Barisal, Nator, Kushtia and Bogra; the list of other types of attacks on journalists like maiming or beating is endless. Khaleda Zia's full term in office has made the whole Bangladesh a prison for those who believe in free speech. Humayun Azad, the country's leading linguist and novelist was hacked at a book fair in Dhaka for writing a novel Pak SarJamin Sad Bad, and over two months later the author died in Germany. Azad's killers have not been brought to book; interestingly it was Jamaat-e-Islami MP Delwar Hossain Saidee, after its publication, in the parliament who demanded the book's banning. When it comes to clamping down on free speech, Saidee-- who actively opposed Bangladesh's independence war and had carried out numerous acts of rape and mass murder in that period-- has remained an ardent advocate. In Khaleda's “glorious rule”, this caitiff fanatic has once demanded that a blood test for all journalists be arranged to see if they are proper Muslims or not. Even after all this Saidee has remained a free man, only a few days ago he used to sit in the Treasure Bench, not far away from where Khaleda herself sat.

So it is no wonder that during her tenure the country has witnessed the worst instances of attack on free speech and religious freedom. Immediately after the FPA came to power thousands of homes and businesses owned by the country's Hindus were burned and looted; some Hindu women were raped by Khaleda's boys and many Hindu families were forced to flee the country, selling the properties of their ancestors to Shaheed Zia's soldiers.

At the fag end of Khaleda's rule, the lives and properties of minority Ahmadyyas have also come under beastly attack from the fanatics. In different parts of the country their places of worship have been desecrated.

In spite of these, the biggest crime the Khaleda-led government has committed on this nation is the creation of a culture of sheer misrule and unabated corruption. Several stories of corruption of Khaleda Zia's own son Tareque Rahman have been in circulation. From an offer to the Malaysian government to invest millions of dollars in that country to taking a 25 percent commission from every new business contract signed-- Tareque Zia's name has been everywhere. Tareque himself, and, not to mention his mother Khaleda, summarily deny it. The Anti Corruption Commission that has been formed with much hype and hoopla has so far produced practically nothing. In her speech to the nation, Khaleda has accepted the presence of rampant corruption in her government; though she has apologetically termed it unfortunate, this admission, this acceptance of failure to keep the so-called Young Turks (an euphemism for Tareque and his cronies) under control, will not go down well to the electorate.

Standard of living in Khaleda's term has plummeted sharply; though her government has boasted a good foreign currency reserve, real income of the ordinary citizens, actually declined in the last five years, because of rising inflation, which according to unofficial estimates is at eight per cent a year. Though the BNP has claimed to have led a nationalist government, many of its members, particularly those living in the border areas, have indulged themselves in smuggling of essentials to and from India.

The newly - formed LDP is going to pose a real threat to the BNP in some small pockets of the country

Bypassing Bangladesh's own petroleum exploration body, the Bapex, numerous shady deals have been struck in oil and gas, Bangladesh's two prime national resources have been leased out to different multinational companies.

Khaleda's last tenure has also witnessed a rise in violent Islamism. Several grisly bomb blasts have taken place during her government's tenure. The government, at the very outset of its term, has kept denying the presence of these militant outfits in the country; Khaleda herself has blamed the opposition several times for blowing the fundamentalist issue out of proportion, calling it a conspiracy to blemish the country's image abroad. Even after several grenades were lobbed at an Awami League meeting at Bangabandhu Avenue, in which 37 people died, several BNP leaders tried to find the perpetrators in the fold of different criminal gangs. Even when Siddikul Islam alias Bangla Bhai (BB) and his gang were butchering the innocent in the troubled northern districts of the country, the party and some in the state machinery had helped BB carry out numerous acts of gruesome killing and thuggery. It has been found later on that BB is actually one of the linchpins of the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a terrorist outfit that has declared a jihad to establish Sharia in Bangladesh. The

government's role in handling the issue of religious extremism is questionable: though the regime at the tail end of its term has actually cracked down on the outfit, the BNP leaders, who once actively supported and armed BB, remain free.

The parliament, like other democratic institutions in the country, in the last five years, has remained ineffective; the AL has never played the role of a strong opposition in the parliament; the Speaker has always failed to live up to expectations, his role in this parliament has been markedly partisan. The Sangsad has never been made the centre of all political activities; the major policy and political decisions have been made either at

Tareque Rahman the heir apparent, has left a sordid legacy that many voters may not forget

press conferences or at party gatherings. The BNP, as the party in power, has failed to make the political atmosphere more congenial and workable; the Awami League, for its part, has always relied on strikes and street agitations; instead of relying on wit, which politicians in other democracies do, both the major parties have resorted to violence and anarchy.

The BNP's last term, apart from corruption, has also been marred by unashamed nepotism and lawlessness. Though the FPA government has formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a new force parallel to the police, to improve law and order, there are instances of RAB-members themselves extorting and killing ordinary citizens in the name of cleansing the country of hooligans.

The BNP, in its last term, has created a culture of corruption and degeneration; goons and thugs belonging to the BNP and its corrupt and vile partners have run amuck; long-term BNP leaders have been sidelined and this has given birth first to Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh, and, eventually, to a major break-up of the party-- Liberal Democratic Party (LDP); the LDP's emergence as a major player in the country's politics means that the BNP, as a centre right force, has lost a significant ground and in the next general elections its votes, in areas like Chittagong and the northern districts, are going to be significantly divided. And worse still, chances are there that the LDP may push the BNP further into the hands of extreme rightist elements like Jamaat and opportunist and corrupt leaders such as Ershad and Naziur Rahman Manju. Signs are already there that the BNP, already mired in nepotism and improbity, may move further right under the leadership of Tareque Rahman.

The BNP, as a political party, even as an oligarchy run by a few families, is facing the biggest crisis in its history. Even the death of its founder Ziaur Rahman or the military coup led by Ershad, or a rebellion by party stalwarts in the mid eighties could not cause such a big blow as it is facing now, which is, in fact, its own creation. The unabated corruption and unashamed misrule of the BNP and its partners have put the party's future at stake; with the LDP claiming a big share in its vote, chances run high that a major vote swing will take place in the eighth general elections, which is only months away.

Ershad, himself a crook and a treacherous politician, will not be able to save the skins of the BNP leaders and their cronies. What happens in the next elections will decide the future of many, especially the future of the BNP as a political entity.

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POWERLESS

Imran H. Khan and Elita Karim

REDWAN, a student of class six in South Breeze, is one of the worst hit victims of the recent load shedding. He lives in a time when “country-wide load shedding” is as common a topic as, “political upheaval,” “launch disaster” or “government criticised for…” He and his family members have to do without electricity for two hours on average every day. His wish to his parents on his next birthday is to get an Instant Power Supply (IPS), a rather different wish from the usual iPod, Play Station or cell phone.

A smooth supply of electricity is one of the basic benchmarks of development but Bangladesh seems to be in the grips of the worst power crisis in its history. The current supply of electricity satisfies only half the nation's demand. With each passing day, this persisting power problem is affecting every sector in Bangladesh. When it seems it just cannot get worse - it does.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, in her speech to mark the end of the four-party alliance's term in power on October 27, 2006, said that the country was in a transitional period and "people's demands and hopes rise alongside strides in development." Her cabinet apparently feels that having electricity is a condition linked only with development and not a basic right of every citizen. She says, "A time comes when supply cannot keep pace with demand. That is exactly what happened in case of electricity in Bangladesh." But isn't it the duty of the government to predict the demand for power and take necessary action to meet it?

The Prime Minister also said "The number of electricity subscribers during the past five years has increased by 76 percent and crossed the 97 lakh mark." And that demand for power has increased due to infrastructural development, modernisation of lifestyle and rapid proliferation of mills and factories. So we know the “How much” and we know the “Why?” The crucial question is “What are we doing about it?”

Though 89 thousand kilometres of new transmission lines have been installed throughout the country, what point is there if there is no electricity to supply through these lines? “More and more people got connected, which is a major success claimed by the government,” says Anu Muhammad, professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. “However, if there is not enough production of power, what is the use of this connection? We had the opportunity of creating at least 3,500 mw of power in the last five years. Instead the country witnessed at least 2,000 mw of power cut.” With the exception of one power plant, one that is masked with controversy and skepticism, the coalition has failed to build any power plants. Neither has it managed to keep all its current power plants in full capacity.

Expensive electrical equipment of the PDB lay in ruins when angry mobs ransacked and demolished numerous power stations in and around Dhaka city
Agitated denizens set fire to vehicles all over the country to protest the government's failure to curb the power crisis

During the first few months of the coalition rule in 2001, the Power Development Board (PDB) coped with the country's 3,100 megawatts (mw) demand of power. By 2004, the demand increased to 3,200 mw resulting in a shortage of 250 mw, on average. Two months later, the power crisis deteriorated with a supply shortfall of over 600 mw. By the middle of 2004, the shortage was 500 mw. At that time CDC, a British investment company, was in charge of running Meghnaghat and Haripur power plants after buying the ownership from American company AES. By March 2005, the load shedding scenario in Bangladesh doubled and there was a supply shortage of 1,000 mw. Experts in the Power Development Board (PDB), Power Cell and power companies expressed their fear that the situation would worsen as the government was not taking adequate steps to increase power supply, namely hinting that more power plants were in order. To make matters worse, frequent transfers and postings of high officials in the power sector added to the problem.

The experts were proved right and the long suffering public's apprehension turned into a nightmare in midSeptember, 2006, when 19 power generation units shut down and Bangladesh witnessed the highest-ever power shortage of 2,200 mw. According to the data from the PDB, even in the peak hours when the 'official' demand for electricity was at 4,300 mw, the country's power plants were producing only 3,126 mw. But according to the power demand chart of the Rural Electrification Board (REB), Dhaka Electric Supply Authorities (Desa) and its company Dhaka Electric Supply Company (Desco) and the PDB, the demand for power was 5,400 mw. It was discovered that the PDB officially shows a lower level of load shedding to tone down the government's letdown in the power sector.

A Daily Star report quoted a PDB official saying that the government had failed to install any new power project in the last five years except for the 80 MW Tongi power plant which remained shutdown most of the times due to its sub-standard quality. In contrast the government in the last five years has doubled the number of power consumers -- mostly in the rural areas. Such an increase in demand without proper backing with supply led to the nightmarish load shedding that took place in the last two months. About 21 power units out of around 100 have closed for weeks on end.

Come September 29, 2006, State Minister for Power Major General (retd) Anwarul Kabir Talukder was removed from his post, just hours after he gave his notice to resign. His dismissal was the second removal of a state minister for power in the last four months. Amid widespread public protest against a severe power crisis, the government replaced former state minister for power Iqbal Hassan Mahmood on May 21 with previous state minister for finance and planning Anwarul Kabir Talukder. Talukder followed the path of eight power secretaries and eight Power Development Board (PDB) chairs to be relieved of this post in during the coalition government's term. The power quarter, it is alleged, has been biased in awarding contracts to favoured parties, violating basic rules and regulations while driving away genuine companies.

Power failures also disrupted a large amount of medical equipment at health and diagnostic centres all over the country. Hospitals suffered and most places that had generators had to incur huge fuel costs to keep their generators running.

Currently Bangladesh has close to 8.5 million power connections covering nearly fifty million people. The number of connections was five million five years ago. Initially, the demand and supply were in equilibrium at 3,100 mw of power but now, the country generates only 3,300 mw power while the number of connections has but doubled. The prevailing power crisis can be pinned to the BNP-led alliance government's failure to set up new power plants during their regime.

LOAD shedding this year had risen to such an extent that violence was inevitable to follow. In April, villagers, traditionally the most peace loving and least volatile amongst us, were compelled to bring out processions in Kansat in Chapainawabganj to demand adequate electricity supply so that they could carry on with their only source of livelihood farming. Instead of trying to palliate them the government unleashed a reign of terror. The protestors were violently attacked by alleged BNP goons, shot at indiscriminately and finally, arrested by the police. A total of 20 innocent lives were lost in and around Kansat. The last resort for the villagers was to flee from their own homes to seek refuge from the police, who would go on late night rampages. Reporters, during that time period, were barred from visiting the trouble prone areas. They were also threatened by the police if they (journalists) did otherwise. This was the government's response to a legitimate demand of the people.

Other news of violence and street protests were common all over Dhaka city as mobs took to the streets demanding power. In most places, there was no electricity for about 3 to 5 hours each day. Crowds also barricaded Dhaka-Chittagong and Dhaka-Sylhet highways disrupting traffic. The load shedding was worst in Chittagong, Keraniganj, Savar, Narayanganj, Narsingdi, Satkhira, Magura, Munshiganj and other parts of the country, especially those in the North. Some places faced seven to twelve hours of power outages every day, while in most remote villages, there was a shortage of electricity for more than 20 hours per day. With their backs against the wall and inaction from the government's side, they had little recourse but to go for street agitation.

A procession in Kansat by villagers demanding power ended in bloodshed when police opened fire on them

The power crisis is largely connected with rampant corruption in the sector. In June 18, 2005, the Cabinet Purchase Committee awarded the contract to set up a 90 megawatt combined cycle power plant in Fenchuganj to a disqualified lone Chinese bidder, Harbin Power Engineering Ltd. Earlier, on April 20, the cabinet committee at a meeting chaired by Finance Minister M Saifur Rahman approved the same deal along with a decision to quickly provide the bidder with 10 percent down payment, blatantly going against government restrictions. Harbin, the lone bidder in this case, also won the contract for the 100 MW Tongi Power Plant, under the ruling BNP-led coalition. There was a one year delay before the plant started and the plant has failed to function properly from day one. Ignoring all the warning signs the government signed its second power project deal of Tk 524 crore with the same company on September 13 last year. Is it so surprising then that this second plant, the Fenchuganj Power Plant, is one of the most troubled ones of the PDB? If this project was done in 1998 when the first bid was floated, the cost would have been less than Tk 300 crore. There were other incidents where 3 costly power proposals of Hosaf group and CMC, its Chinese partner of Barapukuria coalmine and power projects were approved. While corruption and bid tampering have driven away competent power companies, the favoured ones such as Harbin, failed to deliver on their promise.

In recent times, the government has suspended electricity supply to big shopping malls and less important small industries during peak hours in the evening and cut power supply to billboards. This way, they can re-route that power to people's houses and to hospitals. This is perhaps the only positive stop-gap solution as people would rather have light for their children to study than see flood lit shopping malls which cater to a ridiculously small percentage of the country's population.

In other energy sectors, gas is one field that has been on volatile grounds. Even though Bangladesh has a lot of gas, it has failed to meet the demand and the scenario has become as before, with Bangladesh buying more and more petrol and diesel from abroad. To add to that, foreign companies are coming on Bangladesh land and 'accidentally' setting fire to our gas wells. At the end of December, 2005, Petrobangla, the state-run oil, gas and mineral corporation made a claim of Tk 250 crore as compensation from Canadian Niko Resources Ltd for losses caused by explosions at Tengratila. The first accident dates back to January of this year when Niko was drilling at the abandoned gas field under a joint venture agreement with Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration and Production Company Limited (Bapex), a subsidiary of the Petrobangla. The second blowout took place in June of the same year when Niko was drilling a relief well to extinguish the first fire. Niko too had been busy spending one crore taka on a Toyota Land cruiser as a gift for State Minister AKM Mosharraf Hossain, who was later replaced. There were no actions taken against Niko. Up until the end of the four party coalition's rule Niko was happily drilling away for gas in Feni.

Whatever successes the BNP led 4-party alliance has had in its term, failures in certain sectors, namely power sector, curbing massive corruption and unbridled price hike have been its biggest downfall. It is rather sad that the government, instead of facing the music, is repeatedly denying the truth. The power shortage is not the result of Bangladesh's development as claimed by the prime minister, but an outcome of the failure of the government to keep the chaotic situation under check and curb corruption in the sector. The recent power crisis has not befallen the nation all of a sudden, but is the natural consequence of years of negligence.

Source : The Daily Star

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Bangladesh Shining?

Khaleda Zia's last term in office has witnessed a boom in the telecom sector and a steady economic growth, but the spiralling price of essentials and corruption may cost her dearly in the next elections

Ahmede Hussain

Khaleda Zia's tenure witnessed a boom in the telecom sector

It is, indeed, no less than ironic that every development activity that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) claims to have done in its last five-year rule is attached to allegations of graft and nepotism. One of the major achievements of her tenure has been the banning of two wheelers from the streets of the country. But, that, too, is overshadowed by corruption--it is alleged that due to the dishonesty of some BNP leaders, the Communications Minister Nazmul Huda's brother to be precise, a four-stroke three-wheeler (CNGs), which costs Tk 1,50,000 abroad is being sold at double the price in the country. The same can be said about the billing-metres of these taxicabs; a metre that usually costs Tk 1000 on the international market is as much as nine times high, costing Tk 9,000 apiece.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Even some of the over 70 ministers in Khaleda's cabinet allege that their ministries could not function properly because of Tareque Rahman's manipulations and interventions. When Khaleda herself has urged foreign investors to come and invest in the coutry, news of Tareque's foreign investment abroad is in circulation.

In fact, it is the same sordid story everywhere. The BNP and FPA leaders have not spared anything or anyone. Though the country's economy is boasting a steady growth and the wild horse of inflation has successfully been tamed, prices of essentials on the market have been skyrocketing. In her last speech to the nation Khaleda has also boasted a steady foreign exchange reserve of USD three billion, saying that remittance inflow has increased to $ 4.2 billion, rising from $ 1.88 billion when she took over as Prime Minister.

Environment-friendly CNGs one of the very few achievements of the BNP-led alliancegovernment

That the rate of inflation is at seven per cent a year and the prices of rice and vegetables, along with other daily necessities have been soaring, means the real income of the masses have dwindled. It is tragic that BNP-men are involved in this too-- there is evidence that the party high-ups have created a number of syndicates which have been controlling the supply to different bazaars, creating artificial crises on the market, and thus making the price far beyond the means of the masses.

A real development-- if one must use the word, for the BNP-leaders have abused the word indiscriminately-- has taken place in the telecom sector; the competition has been so high here that even the government-run BTTB, inept and ineffectual that it is, has joined the country's burgeoning mobile phone market. At the same time, the government has opened the world of Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol to private operators. After much delay the BNP-led Four-Party Alliance has also decided to connect the country with the Information Super Highway. Use of polythene, deadly to the environment, has been banned; a massive crackdown was launched on food-adulterers, but, at the same time, no follow up has been done to drive them away from the business for good.

The FPA leaders, BNP-men to be precise, have set up different television channels and banks in the last five years. The most striking of these success- stories is that of a BNP leader who a few years ago lived in a tiny rented house, and, now, this person, a favourite of Khaleda Zia, is an MP, and owns two television channels, a newspaper and a bank.

Apart from corruption, signs of misrule are everywhere. Under Khaleda Zia's rule most of the government-run subsidiaries, which were limping around under Sheikh Hasina in 1996-2001 because of the Awami League leaders' own corruption, have become a refuge for corrupt employers and fat bureaucrats. Though on different occasions Khaleda Zia has talked about "upholding the country's image abroad", urging citizens to be on their guard against any probable conspiracy, on the foreign affairs front Bangladesh remains friendless. The BNP could not solve issues as basic as sporadic shooting by Indian border guards on innocent Bangladeshi farmers. The country's performance at different trade talks of the WTO has been shambolic and miserable.

With the prices of essentials soaring and the real income of ordinary people diminishing fast, it will be laughable if the BNP and its partners claim that the country, under their rule, has been shining. After five years under Khaleda, if anything had been shining at all that, too, would have been in the pockets of BNP and FPA leaders.

The Sector of No Importance

Nader Rahman

Rioting garments workers

Bangladesh is a land of contrasts. A Nobel Peace Prize and yet people die over the next election commissioner, known for its fertile soil, yet people still starve in the north, an economy destined for failure after the cessation of the Multi-Fibre Agreement (MFA) and yet we are still on our feet. One might think the garments sector was one of the few aspects of this country's economy that the government handled properly, but that is far from the case.

To set the record straight the government has recently taken credit for the fact that even after that ominous day of January 1st 2005(when the MFA expired), Bangladesh's garments sector has continuously grown and that overall in the past 5 years our main export earner has increased in size. The easy reply to that is that our government had absolutely nothing to do with the growth of the Ready Made Garments (RMG) industry. Before the quotas expired there was immense apprehension as to what the post MFA period would hold for the economy of Bangladesh, the government said nothing and offered no support. What happened after the lifting of the quotas was that the industry as a whole galvanized and through their own hard work and enterprise streamlined their production. For the first time on an international scale we were receiving orders without the benefit of the MFA and we did not wilt. There was no massive take over by China or Vietnam as everyone had thought, the industry held its ground. Now the government who never even floated the idea of assistance in the post MFA era has taken the credit for stable growth of our RMG industry.

Aside from basking in what can only be called reflected glory, the government has made some rather serious mistakes that have harmed our garments industry even more than the lifting of quotas. The past five years have been littered with garments factory related accidents and after its customary lip service the government has not rigorously enforced its so-called safety precautions. The shining jewel in this pile of safety

The Palashbari Tragedy

consciousness is collapse of the building that housed Spectrum Sweater Industries Ltd. and Shahriar Fabrics in Palashbari on the 11th of April last year. The communist party of Bangladesh claimed that as many as 1000 lives had been lost in the past five years in the garments sector and they made no qualms about whom they blamed. The government has been impotent and there have been numerous fires always accompanied by countless deaths. Even if the figure of 1000 lives is rather high, it does not shy away from the real failures of the government. These constant security fears and the prison like workplaces are what lead to the most recent and possibly greatest failure by the government.

Just a few months ago garments workers around Bangladesh erupted, as their wage demands were not met. For all the assistance that the government has apparently given to the garments industry, they never once took to task the owners for sub-standard facilities and even poorer salaries. That is until it blew up in their face, then they hastily set up a wage commission which somehow inexplicably agreed to a basic minimum of Tk 2000, when the workers demands were Tk 3000. For a couple of days Dhaka was turned upside down as the workers on a rampage demanded a less gruelling working day (currently it's 14 hours) and a minimum wage to keep up with raising prices. This was the sum total of their efforts into the garments sector in 5 years. For a nation with 75% of total export earnings coming from the garments sector they certainly did a fine job at resurrecting our economy. People died in fires, stampedes and whole buildings collapsed. The most obvious reaction to that is to turn a blind eye to poor work conditions and laughable salaries. The great economic minds were working overtime.

Now the post MFA era has been the most crucial time for our fledgling economy. While it is true that a few companies have closed down and that sales are down from pre MFA times what is most important to notice is that the industry and the export based economy of our country have not collapsed altogether. Sure enough prices went down, but for the companies that stayed on, international competition spurred them on to streamline their production methods to compete globally. As one garments manufacturer commented the profit he was making on 6 containers before now he was making on 8. But he still got orders from abroad. Here the government should have taken a more active role, currently almost all garments factories run on diesel-powered generators, if those factories were to run on state supplied electricity their productivity would increase by at least 5%. Now for a simple calculation, our export earnings from RMG's is approximately 5.8 billion dollars, a 5% increase would be an extra 290 million dollars in foreign exchange. In the past 5 years the government has also made no effort for barrier-free access to the American markets. Currently we pay about 310 million dollars in duties at US customs, with tariffs ranging from 5 to 30%. A recent study from the Centre of Policy Dialogue estimates that the removal of barriers on our RMG to the US would amount to an immediate one billion dollar increase in the export of apparels to the US!

One wonders what the government has actually been up to, they claim the economy and the people are of utmost importance yet for the past five years they have seemingly forgot them both. One can guess the Prime Minister had a speechwriter with a sense of humour, because only he could have added all that talk of helping the garments sector. It also goes to prove that she may have read that speech, but she most certainly did not understand it.

A Successful Police State

Aasha Mehreen Amin and Kajalie Shehreen Islam

RAB -- the fearsome elite force became controversial because of the over-300 'deaths in crossfire' of arrestees

When the BNP-led coalition assumed power in 2001, winning a two-thirds majority vote, it came with an anti-crime mandate. The promise was to wipe out the gory legacy of terror and mayhem left by the godfathers and goons of the previous Awami League (AL) government and free the streets of crime. BNP-voters fell for this and were eager to believe that they had made the right choice in the 2001 elections. Little did they know that in the course of the next five years they would witness an unprecedented level of acts of human rights violations carried out by agents who either enjoyed patronage of the parties in power or had absolute institutional authority to do so. The most blatant examples of the government's fascist tactics to apparently curb crime were its 'Operation Clean Heart' and the 'deaths by crossfire' carried out by its elite force Rapid Action Battalion (RAB). The government's five-year rule was marked by innumerable arbitrary arrests, torture and deaths of victims in police custody, increased police brutality during opposition rallies and hartals as well as attacks on minority communities.

In 2002 the government was under increased pressure from the business community and international donors to crack down on crime, most of which was linked to the gangs and hoodlums of politicians. The police force was riddled with corruption. Much of the police force's inefficiency was directly linked to the fact that the police were severely underpaid, overworked and heavily politicised, a situation created and left uncorrected by previous governments. Reforms were obviously needed but instead of going through a major overhaul of the police force the government chose to use the army in the most undemocratic way. Operation Clean Heart began on October 17, 2002 with battalions of soldiers scouring the country, rounding up alleged criminals and taking them to various army cantonments. This was not 1971, nor was it a state of emergency; it was in a free country under a democratically elected government.

During Operation Clean Heart, between October 2002 and January 2003 when it ended, more than 11,000 people were arrested; out of them 2,400 were listed as alleged criminals. Eerily, around 44 people in army custody died of unexplained 'heart attacks'. Relatives of the dead claimed that the victims' bodies bore marks of torture. The government kept stubbornly mum about how the list of so-called criminals had been prepared or by whom or what the criteria was to mark them as criminals.

Law and Justice Minister, Moudud Ahmed said that the army had been called in under section 129 and 130 of the Bangladesh Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) to help the civil authorities fight crime and that they had not been given power of magistracy or to arrest anyone. The truth was that the army was arbitrarily arresting people and handing out punishments to them without trial.

Sections 129 and 130 of the CrPC relate to dispersal of unlawful assemblies and require army personnel to "use as little force, and do as little injury to person and property, as may be consistent with dispersing the assembly and arresting and detaining such persons". But army personnel can be used only when the civil forces fail to do the job. Section 131 moreover states that an army officer can act alone only "when no Magistrate can be communicated with”. In the case when it is possible to communicate with a Magistrate, he is obliged to obey the Magistrate's directives and advise on whether he should take a particular course of action or not. Cleverly, the government ordered police constables to accompany the army officials on the third day of Operation Clean Heart although it was obvious who were calling the shots. It was called a joint drive of the army, paramilitary Bangladesh rifles and the police. According to Article 33 (1) of the Bangladesh Constitution, no person may be arrested without being informed of the grounds for arrest. Furthermore the arrestee has the right to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner. Article 33 (2) requires every detainee to be produced before a Magistrate within hours of his or her arrest. Under Operation Clean Heart, hundreds of people were denied such rights. They were tortured and at least 44 of them died because of torture. To the public's dismay in January 2003, the Prime Minister created the Joint Drive Indemnity Ordinance which allowed the perpetrators of human rights violations under Operation Clean Heart to enjoy total impunity in Bangladesh.

After Operation Clean Heart was wound up in 2003, the Law and Justice Minister Moudud Ahmed in 2004 came up with another fascist project -- to create the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite 'anti-crime' unit comprised of armed personnel from various security branches. Wearing black uniforms, black bandannas and black sunglasses, these ninja-like agents are often feared more than hard-core criminals, by the public. The consistent allegations of extra-judicial killings and torture in custody by RAB officials have created this image of terror. The government claims that crime has gone down considerably after the deployment of RAB and to a certain extent it is true in that there are fewer incidents of street hoodlums extorting money from business people. This, however, does not change the fact that the RAB has used unconstitutional, undemocratic means to curb crime. Many criminals have been arrested but even criminals have the right to be tried before a court of law. Between January and October 2005, an estimated 300 people were killed in what is termed 'crossfire'. The RAB has unashamedly given the exact same explanation for every death in their custody: a criminal is caught and taken to custody; he is asked to show where his criminal den is; his gang members start attacking RAB who are forced to open fire and the criminal dies in the crossfire.


Many journalists and human rights defenders came under attack

Not all victims of RAB's wrath are known criminals. Many have been tortured or killed for political reasons. Thirty-year-old Sumon Majumdar, for instance, was picked up for extortion by RAB officials, an allegation vehemently denied by his parents. Was it mere coincidence that he just happened to be a witness to the murder of opposition AL MP Ahsanullah Master in May 2004? Sumon's parents did not see their son alive again.

Meanwhile, everyday, the newspapers report yet another 'death by crossfire'. The allegations of torture by RAB officials conjure images familiar to barbaric regimes of dictatorships in foreign countries. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, on August 4, 2004, RAB officials arbitrarily arrested and then tortured three young men from Chittagong's Agrabad area. The brutal torture, which included giving electric shocks to the genitals, led to the death of one of them -- Sha Newaz, a madrasa teacher from Chandpur, on August 6. The other two men, Monir Hussain Talukdar and Ziaul Alam Dipu, were also tortured and RAB officials filed false cases of illegal trading in arms against all three men.

There are also allegations of extortion and harassment by RAB officials. Again, for the most part, the RAB has enjoyed impunity provided by the government.

During 'Operation Clean Heart' around 44 people died in custody of mysterious 'heart attacks'

The police forces, meanwhile, continue their traditional role of making arbitrary arrests under Section 54 of the CrPC which allows the police to arrest anyone without a warrant of arrest and keep them in detention for 24 hours. Many of those arrested under this section have been denied meeting their lawyers, medical attention or family visits. There have been allegations of torture to obtain 'confession'.

Police brutality has been most obvious in the streets during opposition rallies and hartals. The excessive use of force on opposition activists and also journalists indicates the increasing politicisation of state machinery by the government in power to intimidate opponents or critics.

Freedom of speech and expression came under violent attack during the immediate past government’s regime. At least 11 journalists were killed in bomb attacks, shootings and stabbings since 2002, five of them in 2004 alone. Among them were Manik Saha, correspondent of New Age and Humayun Kabir Balu, editor of the daily Janmabhumi, both killed in bomb attacks in Khulna. Also killed in Khulna was Dipankar Chakrabarty, editor of the daily Durjoy Bangla, who was beheaded by five young men. Other victims include district correspondents from daily Samokal, Sangram, Ajker Kagoj and editor of Comilla Muktokantha. In September of this year, Bellal Hossain Dafadar of the Khulna-based daily

Bangla Bhai's idea of punishing outlaws

Janabani was stabbed to death. Hundreds of other journalists were threatened and attacked over the last five years, many of them maimed with their limbs broken. The culture of impunity, made obvious by the fact that no one has yet been brought to book in these cases, has contributed to these crimes continuing unabated.

In other cases, the government itself served to intimidate anyone who dared to speak out against them. Journalist and human rights activist Shahriar Kabir was arrested on sedition charges for wanting to make a documentary on the violence against religious minorities which occurred right after the four-party coalition assumed power in October 2001. He faced a possible death sentence and was tortured while in custody. Writer and professor of history at Dhaka University, Muntasir Mamun, was also arrested, accused of publishing articles criticising the government and conspiring against the country. Hundreds of other human rights defenders, including university professors, journalists and social activists were threatened or attacked either by religious extremist groups, outlaw groups, political thugs or just petty criminals with political backing. A number of business people, among them, Jamaluddin of Chittagong, were threatened, kidnapped, ransom demanded and then killed. Many of the threats against university professors and free thinkers also materialised.

Two professors of Rajshahi University, Prof. Yunus and Dr. S. Taher Ahmed, were killed in 2004 and 2006 respectively, allegedly by ruling coalition partner Jamaat-e-Islami’s

A JMB bomb blast at a court in Gazipur left eight, including the suicide bomber, dead

student wing, Islami Chhatra Shibir activists. Religious extremists also attacked professor of Bangla at Dhaka University, Dr. Humayun Azad, at the Ekushey Boi Mela in 2004. Dr. Azad died later that year. Just two months ago, in September of this year, Prof. Aftab Ahmed of Dhaka University was killed by unidentified assailants his own home on the university campus. No one has been apprehended in any of these cases.

While the government may not have been directly involved in most of these incidents, it failed to provide security to the victims. The continued occurrence of such incidents also demonstrates the government’s apathy and reluctance to do anything to stop them. This unwillingness to take measures -- often against groups with links to the government -- was also blatantly obvious in the violent attacks against members of the Ahmadiyya community, their homes and places of worship, the perpetrators of which have yet to be arrested and punished. In January 2004, the government even placed a ban on al Ahmadiyya publications, in response to an ultimatum to the government by ruling coalition partner Islami Oikyo Jote and extremist group Khatme Nabuwat Movement to declare the Ahmadiyyas non-Muslims. A court later suspended the ban.

Many have viewed the government’s indifference and inaction as encouragement to the perpetrators to continue with their crimes, some legal experts even terming the government as an accomplice.

While the government was busy first avoiding, then denying the existence of religious fundamentalists in the country, a spate of bomb and grenade attacks since 2004 left a number of people killed or injured. These include the August 21 grenade attack on an AL rally which left at least 21 of the party’s activists dead; the attack in January 2005 in Sylhet which killed former finance minister and AL presidium member SAMS Kibria; and the attack on British High Commissioner Anwar Choudhury, also in Sylhet in 2005. Other political killings include those of AL MP Ahsanullah Master and Manjurul Imam, president of the Khulna Awami League.

Starting from August 2005, when 400 bombs went off simultaneously in 63 districts of the country, several bomb attacks were carried out by religious extremist group Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh, killing a number of people. They included, among others, members of the judiciary, whose law the extremists rejected, demanding Islamic law in the country. After years of denying the existence of such religious extremist group, the government finally made a crackdown and dramatically caught, jailed and tried the key leaders of the group, including Shaikh Abdur Rahman, Bangla Bhai, and other main JMB members. They are currently awaiting execution.

JMB leaders Bangla Bhai (L) and Shaikh Abdur Rahman (R) in police custody

Acknowledging the existence of and taking action against such groups earlier may have saved many lives. But the government chose to turn a blind eye towards the activities of its religion-based partners and their offshoots -- who use religion more for political than for spiritual gain -- for the greater part of its tenure. If anything, the hold of the religion-based parties over the government has been made even more obvious by actions such as giving madrasa education equivalence with mainstream education. The state has already failed to provide employment for millions of youth who become frustrated, many of them easily led astray by extremist groups. By taking this step, young people are encouraged to join madrasas; they will get the same degree as that given in mainstream education but after studying under a totally different curriculum. Their chances of entering the work force, while actually being less qualified, increase and improve, which will then cause even greater crisis in the already limited job market.

Bangladesh was founded on the basic principle of secular democracy. The unconstitutional acts of the government in its manner of fighting crime through human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force, custodial torture, etc., as well as its use of religion for political gain has made a mockery of the term democracy.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006
Volume 5 Issue 118 | November 3, 2006 |