• Saturday, Jul 04, 2020
  • Last Update : 03:06 am

Doing relief right

  • Published at 07:08 pm April 16th, 2020
Food covid-19 bangladesh ration mask rice social distance

This isn’t the first time influential people are stealing supplies intended for the poor

Every day, I have been reading in different newspapers most excellent observations and analyses about the coronavirus, and I have wondered what on Earth I could add to everything.

Locked down in Banani, I do venture out around 10am each day to pick up necessary food items and a few newspapers, if available. I know that most newspapers are available, but sometimes I have been unlucky, so I rely on the online versions. 

I also usually do try to walk around at a brisk pace for at least 30 minutes every day to keep a 75-year-old body (and mind) as fit as possible. But locked down for long means that one tends to eat a bit too much and starts talking to oneself too much.

Overall, in my Banani/Gulshan vicinity, people are quite disciplined and some shops have been very strict about physical distance (I hate the very incorrect “social distance” label) and putting up notices: “No entry without masks.” 

Some apartment buildings have instituted strict rules but some not. Where are our municipal commissioners to implement standard procedures? Are they too busy trying to hijack relief supplies for the poor? Is that what is happening in 2020, Mujib Borsho? Does no one remember the words of Bangabandhu on January 10, 1972, on his arrival back in Bangladesh when he said that no one should steal or bribe?

Today, after nearly 50 years of independence, the rich are very clearly stealing from the poor. Those who have nothing, queue up for relief food, and receive nothing. 

This is not the vision that Bangabandhu had. If he had been here today, he would have humiliated the millionaires and billionaires by asking them to put themselves forward as good Muslims. To help those who have less, or in many cases, nothing.

I am one of the few bideshis still alive who remember the suffering in the refugee camps in West Bengal, and the cholera epidemic which could have engulfed Kolkata but didn’t, the extreme poverty in Bangladesh in 1972 when I first came here, and I know of the extreme hunger and starvation deaths in places like Rowmari, Kurigram in 1974/75. 

I worked for Oxfam in those days but was based in India, but because of my intimate Bangladesh connection from the Liberation War, I kept closely in touch.  

In early 1974, Oxfam funded the Rowmari Thana Central Cooperative Association (TCCA) to establish a paramedical health program. TCCA was led by Nurul Islam and in September 1974 he informed Oxfam that the people of Rowmari were starving. 

Simultaneously, the government, under the Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, and Oxfam, embarked on relief assistance. They opened a gruel kitchen and distributed one chapatti or a portion to all persons who gathered at the thana headquarters every afternoon. 

Men and boys were served first, and then women, and finally children too young or too weak to walk. The food shortage in Rowmari was so severe that 6,000 people would wait all day for perhaps only one piece of the 400 chapatis prepared for distribution with the Bangladesh Army called to control the crowd. 

Oxfam provided assistance to TCCA to set up a shelter and feeding centres for children under 10 who were starving. By December 1974, 3,000 children were being covered at five centres. Encouraged by Oxfam, the workers of the paramedical program of TCCA conducted a malnutrition survey. 

The results showed a much worse level of malnutrition than similar surveys during the Biafran civil war in 1969 or in the Bangladesh refugee camps of 1971. Doubting the accuracy of the nutritional survey, Oxfam commissioned the John Hopkins University Centre for Medical Research in Dhaka to double-check the findings. 

This further survey confirmed the severity of the situation, but by this time, it became clear that TCCA was unable to effectively manage the feeding program.

Oxfam then asked Brac to work in conjunction with TCCA in a feeding program covering 15,000 malnourished children. The efficiency of the feeding program attracted the attention of many international organizations and donors. Realizing that a long-term development program was needed, Brac purchased some land to set up a centre to act as an office, residence, store, and health centre. 

Sensing that his influence was likely to diminish, Nurul Islam became uncooperative and master-minded all aspects of non-cooperation. He had been used to control all resources in the thana and he regarded the presence of Brac as a threat. 

At that time, Nurul Islam, who had been an MP earlier, and the TCCA leaders controlled everyone and everything; carpenters, the bank, the villagers, the bullock-cart drivers, the army, and the firewood suppliers. 

There were even allegations that relief supplies were being sold over the border in Assam. Ultimately, Oxfam and Brac gave up the idea of a development program even though funds had been allocated. 

I have written about this organized corruption of 1974 to remind us all that the habit still continues, and powerful and influential people still do not hesitate to steal food which the government had organized to be distributed to families who are without an income and are currently starving. 

These well-known people should be shamed and should be severely punished. Another suggestion is that the Bangladesh Army should be asked to organize food distribution and the sale of Tk10 per kilo rice. l

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971, and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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