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OP-ED: Reinventing the state, reviving lost values

  • Published at 07:31 pm June 10th, 2020
Poor Covid
Photo: REUTERS

In these dark coronavirus times, where have accountability and transparency gone?

The crisis engendered by the coronavirus pandemic in the country should be reason for us to reflect on the nature of political administration in Bangladesh. The issue acquires greater urgency in light of the embarrassments we as citizens of the country are being compelled to experience almost every day, and that at a time when all our focus ought to be on the job of beating back or containing the pandemic.

Sadly, for a nation which regularly takes pride in its history, the stories making the rounds in these troubled times can only undermine the state we have built through the sacrifices of millions. When money belonging to the state is laundered abroad and corrupt elements buy homes in Canada, when reports reach us of influential men having little difficulty in purchasing business centres in the West, we are saddened. 

The sadness is not merely that these people, all of them hailing from the economically weak state Bangladesh yet is, have prospered in life. The sadness is that they have slipped through the loopholes of the law, certainly with the knowledge and connivance of their powerful patrons, and built themselves little empires that the law has had no supervision over. 

When, in these dark coronavirus times, the rich class can jet off to foreign land on chartered flights, you wonder where the old principles of a socialist and secular democratic order upon which this nation was liberated 50 years ago have disappeared. When men accused of shooting at other men are permitted to leave the country even as the police are looking for them -- the law enforcers have seized a vehicle belonging to them, as if that is an achievement calling for celebration -- you ask the very legitimate question of where democratic accountability and transparency have gone. 

A member of parliament, ours, is sent off to prison in Kuwait on charges related to corruption in manpower export. Your head hangs low. His spouse too is a member of parliament. Will anyone ever explain how that came to be?

This is the landscape that stretches before us. It expands all the time. And all the time there is the old refrain: “No one will escape the law.” But of course, the law is being taken for a ride all the time. And no one who should look to the malady will respond to the issue. If this is not a steep decline in democracy, whatever degree of it we have so far been able to keep going in this tortured land, how else would you describe it? 

Mixed messages hit us every day on the coronavirus front. Patients are wheeled from one hospital to another by their families, for every hospital tells them, in unconscionable behaviour, that there is no space for these ailing, in most instances dying citizens. And by the time some hospital takes pity on them, they are in their final few breaths of life. 

In a democracy, one would grill the doctors refusing to have their patients in their hospitals. Better yet, one would question the owners of these hospitals on the issue. The government would step in, in the interest of all those dying citizens.

None of that happens, which is now a reason for us to ask if the state cannot be recast in the mould in which it was constructed back in the early 1970s. And we say that because we are all victims of a bloated bureaucracy which keeps growing around us. Hundreds of civil servants are promoted to positions of additional secretaries and secretaries day after day, with scarcely room for them to sit in or files to work on. 

Do we need such a holdover from British and Pakistani colonial times? Modern government is stultified when there is a preponderance of bureaucracy, for bureaucracy undermines politics and stays, as it always has stayed, at a vast remove from the people. 

That makes you think. This country needs less bureaucracy, which in essence means less but efficient government. Where we ought to have had a properly functional and purposeful system of local government, we have always had a leviathan of an administration that does little to promote the interests of citizens. 

Too many ministries, within which there are again too many departments and sub-departments, have kept the country in a chokehold. An excess of ministers, few among whom have demonstrated administrative ability, has slowed down the administration. Too many platitudes come from them and, of course, too little of the kind of performance that will assure them places in national history.

Yes, less government and more efficiency is the requirement, both in coronavirus times and beyond them. Enlightened government has always worked wonderfully everywhere around the world. That being the principle, in this country we are in need of drastic measures the goals of which are an empowerment of citizens across the board. 

In the pre-1971 Pakistani times, we were appalled by the resources of the state being commandeered by a mere 22 families. Today it is time for us to go for a head count of the millionaires, even billionaires, we have created in Bangladesh. They have taken from the state and are even now taking in the form of stimulus packages. The European Union has to step in with 113 million euros to pay our garment workers. And this is the state we have built, where our pseudo-capitalist class proclaims its “poverty” and those foreigners have to come in with bagfuls of money for their workers?

This simply will not do. We need to reinvent the state of Bangladesh. Drastic land reforms, as a way of slicing away at the role of the affluent classes, are an imperative. Land reforms are but a signal of citizens’ empowerment. Involved in the process are grassroots political workers, large numbers of whom have been ignored over the years owing to an imposition on the political process of ill-equipped and ineffectual men and women -- and they are businesspeople, superannuated bureaucrats, and ill-experienced neo-politicians. 

Indeed, it has all been an imposition on the national psyche. Devolution of power, from the urban centre to the rural interior, is a requirement we can ignore to our peril. It says a whole lot about the poverty of politics in the country that district commissioners and deputy commissioners are placed in charge of relief distribution in coronavirus times, with the political classes beholden to them. Bureaucrats do not strengthen political pluralism. Political workers do.

A recasting of the structure of the state calls for workers and peasants in every professional field to be privy to trade union rights. It calls for the state to engage politically with all stakeholders in the arena of politics, to have political adversaries speak to one another without rancour, to promote healthy debate on the issues of public interest in parliament and outside it. 

It should be a spur to measures that will have government seek advice from experts outside it on the economy, on foreign affairs, indeed on matters that call for dispassionate responses and resultant positive action. Our public intellectuals ought to shake themselves out of lethargy, out of partisan silence, and educate our people.

The state, let it be repeated, needs reinvention. It must begin at the village and union levels, for all political power must be concentrated in them. Village cooperatives, empowered local government, citizen-supervised transparency and locally organized law and order and justice ought to be the engine powering the state.

Power must not flow from the top to the bottom, but the other way round. When that happens, we have democracy at work. That is when democracy shines as an intellectual enterprise.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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