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.
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.
Five years after being voted to power, what legacy is Khaleda Zia and her Four-Party Alliance (FPA) leaving behind?
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Volume 5 Issue 118 | November 3, 2006 |