Bouquets and brickbats, pluses and minuses
“So, Julian bhai, what are you going to write about?” a Bangladeshi friend asked me a few days ago. “More kudos for Bangladesh’s development achievements, or are you going to say something about aspects that are not so good?”
In the English language, when wanting to express a strong feeling, one is encouraged to “call a spade, a spade, not a shovel.” This means to tell it how it is and that is what I always try to do.
Having been an eye-witness for many sections of Bangladesh’s 50-year journey, I cast my mind back to the euphoric atmosphere of January 1972 when, representing Oxfam, I had driven to Dhaka overland from Kolkata just 10 days after Bangabandhu had returned to Bangladesh. I had seen with my own eyes the damage and devastation everywhere.
By March 1972, Oxfam’s Overseas Aid Director Ken Bennett wrote in a report: “I doubt if it would be an exaggeration to say that the extent to which a solution to the problem of food imports and the restoration of communications can be quickly found may well depend on the future of Bangladesh as a state.”
Many economists have marvelled at the development -- human and material -- and progress that Bangladesh has made over these 50 years, but this development could have been even greater if real parliamentary democracy had been ensured by all political parties and if rampant, endemic corruption had been controlled, again, by all political parties.
It is significant that during the first speech that Bangabandhu made on his return to Bangladesh on January 10, 1972, he said: “My brothers, you know that we have a lot of work to do. I want all my people to begin working on repairing broken roads. I want you all to go back to the fields and cultivate paddy. I want to say, not a single employee should take bribes. Remember, it was not an opportune time then, but now, I will not forgive those who take bribes.”
Later on, when the first general election took place in March 1973, Bangabandhu, reportedly, was angry that corruption was getting in the way of the constitutional process. He condemned the disappearance of all the relief materials that his government had obtained from abroad. At the inauguration of the Bangladesh Military Academy, he is reported to have said that even if we had achieved independence, this would be meaningless if we did not tackle corruption. In a great rage, Bangabandhu is reported to have asked: “Where is my blanket?”
Whenever Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses the nation, she highlights the need to root out corruption, but nobody seems to hear her appeals. In addition, when the media produces thorough investigative journalism reports about corruption, there is rarely any follow-up because, no doubt, the reporters are silenced one way or another. Sadly, in my development career, connected to different ministries in Bangladesh, I have witnessed far too much corruption and some of it right under my nose in the road in which I live in Banani, Dhaka!
However, to return to some of the pluses on Bangladesh’s journey -- remarkable progress with education, agriculture, community health, disaster preparedness. And, of course, the development of the ready-made garments industry. Many policies have been sensible, sometimes enlightened, but the successes have really been due to the hard work, intelligence, and resilience of the people across the country.
Over the last five decades, I have met many remarkable experts who happen to be illiterate. The man who, on learning that the 1991 cyclone was approaching his coastal home in Chakoria, Cox’s Bazar, removed the village hand pumps and blocked the pipes with banana plants to prevent the seawater from entering.
Today, we talk about and hear about climate change. 25 years ago, it was global warming, and the illiterate farmers of Chouhali, Sirajganj, were telling us that each year the river was beginning to rise a few days earlier, which was due to the Himalayan snow melt happening a few days earlier each year. These are the experts that I admire, the ones that tell me about the soil structure deteriorating because of mono-cropping or that chemicals are “poisoning my land.”
However, now in 2021, as we celebrate 50 years of Bangladesh, we need to demand of the various officials from union parishads right up to ministers to carry out their responsibilities honestly and efficiently. Remarking on an increase in the number of reported Covid cases, the health minister recently blamed the public for “complacency.”
How can he say that when he heads a corrupt ministry? What has he -- and his ministerial colleagues -- been doing for the last one year? They have been complacent! Has there been a coordinated across-government campaign regarding the pandemic? In Dhaka and other cities and towns, what have the municipal corporations done?
What about the elected ward commissioners? They have been too busy trying to find ways to “get rich quick.” And the Education Ministry, it seems, has given up caring for children’s education. Thousands of schools could have been running in the open air, under trees, but there is no flexibility at all to allow this to happen.
I can’t think of a more important group who are more disenfranchised with more years ahead of them to be affected by what’s happening, than an entire generation of children. A year without face to face teaching, which has been the case in Bangladesh and many other countries in the developing world where resources for home learning are far poorer, may have untold repercussions that won’t fully emerge for many, many years.
There is so much work to be done after the celebrations are over. I hope that there are some who can and will rise to the occasion.
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.