Sunday, December 25, 2011

Unaccounted for: enforced disappearances and other issues

Enforced disappearances should not be confused with kidnappings or abductions or people who go ‘missing’.  Even though the latter are all serious criminal offences, enforced disappearances are far more serious and are even considered crimes against humanity, and rightly so.

Delwar Hossain is a 30 year old trader of trader of scrap paper, metal and plastic, who lives in Madaripur municipality. His family alleges that at around 9.30 pm on  June 23, 2011 Delwar was taken away by some people who identified themselves as members of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from the boat terminal of Gachbaria market at Mostofapur. There were witnesses who saw Delwar being taken, but who refrained from approaching the men, after being shown RAB identity cards.

Thirty-two year old Mohammad Jamal Ahmed from Tongi Model Thana, Gazipur went to the ‘Dhaka Electric Supply Company’ situated in Cheragali Squib Road for a new electricity connection for his home on the afternoon of May 4, 2011. When he approached the gate of the company, some people identifying themselves as law enforcement officers, took him away. Jamal is a vital witness in the murder of Ahsanullah Master, former Member of Parliament (MP) from Gazipur.

Habibur Rahman Haoladar is a 48 year old fishmonger of Bagerhat district. At around 5.30 am on July 6, 2011, the police of the local police station, members of the Armed Police Battalion, and District Detective Branch (DB) police, with the help of some local people, arrested him from his house. The local police later denied involvement in his arrest and claimed that he had some influential enemies who may have abducted him wearing police uniform.  However, his daughter recognised one of the men as being the sub inspector of the local police station.

 The three men have nothing in common except for the fact that they were taken away by men claiming to belong to law enforcement agencies.  Some of these men were not in uniform, but in civilian dress; some allegedly showed identity cards; some were recognized as local police officers.  Law enforcement deny involvement in these incidents of enforced disappearances, but the questions remain, as people start to doubt the credibility of law enforcement and resort to mob violence and taking the law in their own hands; and as families of those who ‘disappear’ receive little assistance from the police.

In order to clear the confusion as to what entails ‘enforced disappearance’, we need to look to the international definition of this crime, so as not to confuse it with the crimes of ‘abduction’ or ‘kidnapping’. In order to give a lucid understanding of the issue, I have taken the liberty of breaking down Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, to make it more understandable: Thus, the term ‘enforced disappearance’ is: the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the state or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the state, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person,

which places such a person outside the protection of the law. 

Thus, enforced disappearances should not be confused with kidnappings or abductions or people who go ‘missing’.  Even though the latter are all serious criminal offences, enforced disappearances are far more serious and are even considered crimes against humanity, and rightly so. The confusion as to who perpetrated the crime, the lack of assistance given to the family of the disappeared and the reluctance of the law enforcement to offer any insight or assistance, all ensure that this crime against humanity continues with impunity and that the families of the disappeared are denied justice and denied the knowledge of where the victim is.  In such a crime, there is no closure till the victim is recovered.  Sometimes, as in the case of Kalpana Chakma, the closure never comes.

However, enforced disappearances are not a new phenomenon in the history of Bangladesh.  During the Liberation War, many notable intellectuals were abducted and their whereabouts remained unknown till their bodies were found. After liberation, the crime continues under various regimes.

Criminal Law in Bangladesh has no provisions for the crime of enforced disappearance, just as it has none for the crime of torture. However, there are penal provisions for crimes such as abduction, wrongful confinement, murder and grievous hurt.  The Code of Criminal Procedure lays down all the paths to be taken to ensure a proper investigation and prosecution. There is, however, a hitch; since criminal procedure also has it that government sanction is required prior to suing a public servant.  As a result, it is difficult to make accountable, law enforcement officers, for crimes amounting to torture, ill treatment and other violations to human rights. If that is the case, does that mean that public servants are above the law? If a public servant commits a crime, he becomes a common criminal. He has no more right to call himself a servant of the people, and in my humble opinion, he should be treated in the court just as any other criminal is treated – with no need for the government to stew about whether he ought to be tried or not.

The Government of Bangladesh has ratified the Convention against Torture, but has yet to accede to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Article 4 of the Convention states: ‘Each State Party shall take the necessary measures to ensure that enforced disappearance constitutes an offence under its criminal law.’  Article 3 obliges member states to take measures to investigate acts of enforced disappearance, committed by persons or groups of persons acting without the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State and to bring those responsible to justice. So it does not matter who perpetrated the crime of enforced disappearance – it is the State responsibility to investigate and bring to justice all perpetrators. Clause 2 of Article 6 also states that no order or instruction from any public authority, civilian, military or other, may be invoked to justify an offence of enforced disappearance.

As one can infer from the international definition of ‘enforced disappearance’, the perpetrator does not have to be an agent of the State to be liable. The crime could also be perpetrated by a ‘group of persons’ acting with the acquiescence of the State.  Even though the Government of Bangladesh has not acceded to the Convention, given the attention and activism recently generated by the human rights community around enforced disappearances, and the statements issues by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the State is now in no position to deny that it does not know that the crime is being perpetrated and thus it has a high level of responsibility to ensure that this crime is controlled, put to a stop and the perpetrators taken to task. It also has the responsibility to return those who have been disappeared to their families – in whatever condition.

Successive governments of this country have ratified most of the major international instruments – including the ICCPR and the Convention against Torture.  That does not mean that torture and cruel and degrading treatment has vanished from the country or that the government has made any serious drive to eliminate the practice.  It has also ratified CEDAW, the convention to eliminate discrimination against women and the convention that protects the rights of the child.  That does not mean that violence against women is taken into very serious consideration or that the rights of street children are protected and they are cared for by the state. More recently, the state finally ratified the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court – but that does not mean that any VIP will be taken to the court any time soon.  Then why sign, ratify or accede to these international standards and guidelines?  Why not?  It shows that the state has taken note of violations of human rights and has the commitment to do something to rectify matters, when and if it can. Acceding to the International Convention for the Protection of Persons from Enforced Disappearance will add to the commitment of Bangladesh – the same commitment it showed when it ratified the other international conventions; when it was elected to the Human Rights Council for two successive terms ; and when it decided to put in place a National Human Rights Commission. Signing an international human rights instrument does not mean that the violation will disappear overnight, but it does add to the state’s commitment to do something to rectify the matter and control it.

Reports of enforced disappearances, regardless of who perpetrated the crime, are becoming a common topic in the news papers.  Almost as common as the issue of torture and deaths in ‘cross fire’, which seems to have ‘mysteriously’ taken a back seat.  The media and human rights defenders must continue to investigate and highlight all these issues, to ensure that no one loses out on a fair trial.  As a signatory to many important international human rights conventions, and a member of the UN Human Rights Council, it would be, in my humble eyes, in the best interest of the Government of Bangladesh to accede to the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, in order to further its commitment to preserve, protect and enhance the human rights of the people of Bangladesh, to ensure that everyone gets a fair trial and to maintain its balance on the path to effective democracy and democratic practices.

Collected :

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Govt missteps put burden on people

While the government may have indeed succeeded in increasing power production and the supply of power to the national grid, its errant policies in trying to achieve the increase may very well deprive people in the end of enjoying the access to power. The Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission on Thursday, as reported in a news item published in New Age on Friday, increased retail power price by a staggering 20.67 per cent, in two phases, starting December and February next year. Only last February, the government had increased the retail price of power by five per cent. After the changes, the five power distribution agencies will be realising Tk 5.02 on an average up from Tk 4.16 in November. It is pertinent to remember that the government in November hiked the bulk price of power by 33.57 per cent to cut down on government subsidy to the power sector and the present retail power price hike is an effect and continuation of the bulk rise. Since February, bulk power price has already gone up by 57.81 per cent. The government is indeed putting an unprecedented level of burden on retail users of power, within a very short time in which none of the income indicators of ordinary people have improved, and the fear is, over the next of couple of years, bulk prices will see further large scale increases, all of which will later fall upon retail consumers. The BERC has indeed stated its intentions, according to previous reports published in New Age, to double retail power prices in three years time.

The power price hikes, as is common knowledge by now, is being done to cut subsidy to the power sector, which has reached unbelievable proportions ever since the incumbents assumed power and decided to go fuel-oil powered rental power plants to increase the supply of power in the country. Till date, the government has approved 18 quick rental power plants since January 2009. In the first fiscal year of the incumbents assuming power, the expenditure of the Power Development Board alone shot up by 343 per cent.      According to a report published in New Age in November this year, the government spent a staggering Tk 4,000 crore in the preceding 14 months to subsidise rental power plants. According to another New Age report in December, while Tk 30 billion has been allocated as fuel oil subsidy in the budget for this fiscal year, the finance ministry has estimated that the subsidy will eventually stand at Tk. 110 billion.

Needless to point out, these subsidies are causing a huge burden on the public exchequer and foreign currency reserve, as a result of rising import bills accrued through the import of fuel oils, and in effect, has virtually jeopardised the economy. At the retail end, the power price increases are having an adverse impact on the general price index, and inflation in the country has been hovering around the 12 per cent mark over the last six months – one of the highest in Asia.

The government has belatedly decided in December to not go for any more rental power plants, however, it would seem, given that the country’s fuel oil consumption is slated to go up by 33 per cent even this year, the damage has already been done. Under the circumstances, the government would be well-advised to take steps to phase out its dependence on rental plants and reinvest in power plants in the public sector, something that has been sorely missing from their agenda.

Collected :

Does president have power to appoint CEC, EC members?

While commencing a dialogue with political parties on Thursday at Bangabhaban, President Zillur Rahman in his written speech stated: "You are perhaps also aware that the constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh in article 118 dealing with formation of the Election Commission, empowers the president to appoint the chief election ommissioner and other election commissioners."

He further stated that he wants to take a decision on this matter upon holding discussions with the leaders of major political parties.

However, we observed some serious anomalies between the president's claim and the provisions of the constitution. 

The president in his written speech referred to article 118 of the constitution as the source of his power to appoint the EC. 

But article 118 cannot be read in isolation from the constitution's article 48 (3) that clearly says: "In the exercise of all his functions, save only that of appointing the Prime Minister pursuant to clause (3) of article 56 and the Chief Justice pursuant to clause (1) of article 95, the President shall act in accordance with the advice of the Prime Minister." 

Even in these two cases, his discretionary power is very nominal. Because he has no option but to appoint the leader of the majority party in parliament as the prime minister. 

And in case of the appointment of chief justice, the president is expected to appoint the senior most judge of the Appellate Division. 

When article 118 is read along with article 48 (3), it becomes clear that the president's claim that the constitution empowers him to appoint the CEC and other EC members is misconstrued. 

His statement that after discussions with political leaders he "will decide…" is also beyond his power, as he must act on the advice of the prime minister in all cases except the two mentioned above.

It is only natural that the president's written statement was drafted by his staff. So we want to ask did the president's staff do their homework, and are they well versed in the constitution? 

We feel that the president was misguided in this matter which should be immediately looked into, as otherwise the president might be dragged into unnecessary and undesirable controversies that must be avoided to maintain the prestige of the high office that he holds. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Killings at the border, again

Why do these keep recurring?

We wonder why Bangladeshi citizens continue to be shot by the Indian BSF despite assurances from the highest level of the Indian government that firing would not be resorted to by the BSF. 

Over a period of two days recently, as many as four Bangladeshis were killed in three different districts bordering India. Coming as the deaths do on the heels of the four-day DDG level meeting of the border forces of the two countries that ended last Thursday the killings are even more unacceptable.

The recent killings raise several questions. It was reportedly claimed by the BSF that they had opened fire only in self defence. What was the BSF defending against? Were they being attacked by armed people? 

It is also relevant to ask where the BSF was when they were allegedly under attack, behind or in front of the border fence. If behind the fence, how did the Bangladeshis manage to cross the fence, which is constantly under BSF observation throughout the day and night, both visual and electronic, in the first place, and more so when the BSF capacity to oversee the border is far greater than that of Bangladesh's. Did the BSF recover any lethal weapon that had supposedly threatened their lives? Reportedly, one of the Bangladeshi killed might have been strangle.

It appears that the harmless rubber bullets are not really harmless and apparently the Indian Home Minister's assurances during his visit to Dhaka in July that New Delhi had ordered BSF not to shoot anyone crossing Indo-Bangladesh border, no matter whatever the circumstances were, have not percolated down to the level of the Indian border outposts. 

Every border killing widens the trust deficit, unfortunately. It only helps the cause of the detractors of the efforts to take the pitch of bilateral relations to a new level. And thus there is urgent need for the Indian authorities to strictly enforce what it has committed to Bangladesh. The message to freeze weapons must go down to the last jawan as was committed by Mr. Chidambaram not very long ago. 

Collected :

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Appointment of administrators as councillors – unconstitutional and ill-intended

The government’s decision to appoint administrators to 61 district councils – the top tier of the local government system – instead of constituting the local bodies with elected representatives appears to have opened up a floodgate of constitutional, legal and political questions. According to report front-paged in New Age on Thursday, the government decided to revive the district councils, which have remained dysfunctional around two decades, on the back of the government decision to appoint two additional secretaries as administrators to the newly formed city corporations of Dhaka only two weeks back. It is pertinent to remember that the previous Awami League-led government enacted the Zila Parishad Act 2000, repealing the Zila Parishad Act of 1988. The law stipulates that the chairman, 15 members and five women members of a zila parishad would be elected by an electoral college consisting of the upazila chairmen concerned, municipal mayors and councillors and union parishad chairmen and members. The three-tier local government system,  introduced by the government of Ziaur Rahman through the Local Government Ordinance 1976, provided for a zila parishad  that was to consist of elected representatives and nominated women members, including a chairman and a vice-chairman to be elected by them from among themselves. In 1988, the Jatiya Party government of HM Ershad enacted the Zila Parishad Act, which provided for a chairman appointed by the government to each zila parishad. The act was made inoperative after the fall of Ershad regime in December 1990 as the chairmen were removed and deputy commissioners were made ex-officio chairmen.

According to Article 59, clause (1) of the constitution of Bangladesh, ‘Local government in every administrative unit of the Republic shall be entrusted to bodies, composed of persons elected in accordance with law’ and according to Article 152 (1) of the constitution, ‘administrative unit means a district or other area designated by law for the purposes of article 59.’ The government decision to appoint administrators has come under strong criticism from constitutional and local government experts who see the decision as contradictory with the constitution of the country. Pertinently, according to a report published in a leading Bengali daily on Saturday, within two weeks of the enactment of the Zila Parishad Act 2000, a then member of parliament filed a writ petition with the High Court challenging the legality of two clauses in the act, concerning the electorate and the provision for the appointment of administrators. With the regards to the petition, a bench of the High Court division has already issued a rule asking the government why these two clauses would not be declared unconstitutional and illegal. The rule is yet to be disposed off. Furthermore, according to a Supreme Court directive on July 30, 1992, signed by five Appellate Division judges who had served as chief justices at different points of time, ‘All current local government institutions must be immediately reconstituted with ‘elected’ representatives replacing ‘unelected representatives’ ’. Needless to say, all these leave the government decision appoint administrators on very shaky grounds.

What is evidently more worrying is that almost all the 61 appointees of the government, are either president and general secretaries of the district chapter of the ruling party.  This would indicate to a clear and ominous intent on the part of the government to politicise the local administration. Given all these, the Awami League-Jatiya party government would be well-advised to immediately withdraw the appointment of administrators to local government bodies in contradiction to the constitution and social and political mores, and immediately arrange for elections to be held at the district councils.

Collected :

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Disappearances and secret killings

Creating panic among common people.


The crossfire and custodial deaths-related criminalities have been chillingly surpassed by abduction, disappearances and surfacing of dead bodies with scar-marks of third degree methods -- all enacted in cloak anzd dagger manner. It is just not enough to say that citizens have started panicking, they are growing apprehensive of newer forms of brutalisation and exaction of vendetta that is complete anachronism in a democracy.

In cases of custodial deaths and cross- fire the perpetrators were easily identifiable but so far as disappearances-led fatalities go, their identities are masked. This accentuates the fear of the unknown which is even more dangerous. The accounts of relatives of the victims and in some cases those of witnesses suggest that plainclothes men picked up the targeted persons and spirited them away in microbuses or some other vehicles.

Whether they are law enforcement personnel like, for instance, Rab, police or detective branch people in plainclothes at whom relatives, eye-witnesses and an Odhikar report pointed a finger of suspicion or they are hired impersonating gangs on a killing mission, we have a serious law and order challenge on our hands. If the killers are hiding behind a facade or lawmen using a new tactic, they couldn't have done so without a nod from somebody and if they are doing it all by themselves then this is clearly running a vicious mini-government within the government.

What is regrettably disquieting is the blasé attitude shown by the home minister to the horrific development. She said she had only come to know of it through newspaper reports. Reportedly, a certain negative attitude was shown by the police in registering the cases whilst the Rab and police have clearly denied having anything to do with the disappearances. Some of the victims have been associated with the BNP or its wings such as Shechha Sebak Dal or Chhatra Dal. 

The state has a huge responsibility in protecting and securing the lives of its citizens, their affiliations or track records regardless. If lawmen should take law into their own hands or fail to rein in gangs doing it then the state's authority is laid open to question. 

The state must not only discourage terrorisation but also be seen to be doing so. That is the big challenge before the government; for, if people can carry out abduction and killing missions with impunity this smacks of the imagery of deaths squads in parts of Latin America. 

We must put this blatant and dangerous abuse of power to end at once while the culprits are exposed and sternly dealt with after a no-nonsense investigation.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Govt. too busy to listen to secret killing charges

As the Awami League-led government is busy with its political programme to try the opponents on charges of crimes committed during the war of liberation 40 years ago, it has little time to ponder over the present alarming situation of killing, abduction and disappearances of citizens especially when the broader allegation is against the law enforcing agencies.

The victims include innocent citizens, political opponents, businessmen, local government representatives, students and youth leaders.

According to newspaper reports and the records of Human rights organizations, at least 22 persons went missing in and around Dhaka city during eleven months of this year. Of them, ten were recovered dead while others still remain missing. 

At least 12 persons, including Narsingdi municipal mayor, were killed by unknown assailants in Narsingdi district alone in last month (November). 

Meanwhile, 1,350 unidentified bodies were recovered from the desolate and marshy land in different parts of the country, mostly from the outskirts of the capital, in the last 10 months. Many of the deceased were victims of secret killings, human rights organization said.    

Anjuman-Mofidul Islam the only private organization in the country involved with the burial of unidentified bodies said they have buried 1,103 bodies in last 10 months in capital city alone. Anjuman-Mofidul Islam in Chatagong also buried 239 unidentified bodies. 

At least 1,204 bodies were buried as “unidentified” by Anjuman-Mofidul Islam in the year 2010 while 296 in 2009 respectively. Anjuman has buried a total 3,437 bodies during the last 10 years.

Police recovered 15 unidentified bodies from Ashulia, Turag, Keraniganj and bypass areas last week alone.
On the occasion of the world human rights day, a Bengali daily reported that at least 100 persons were missing all over the country. In most of the cases, law enforcing agencies were accused of the abductions and consequent denial of their involvement. 

The law enforcing authorities are worried with the increasing incidents of secret killings but accuse professional killers of committing the crimes who disguise themselves as members of law enforcing agencies.
“The law enforcing agencies have been investigating every allegation of secret killing,” Home Minister Sahara Khatun said while briefing reporters at her office Wednesday. Shara Khatun reiterated her very favourite statement: “The law and order situation is better than any time before” 

However, the main opposition BNP has categorically accused the ruling Awami League of executing ‘planned murders’ in the country through numerous extrajudicial killings. 

“Continuous silent killings are a proof that the government is using its forces to carry out killings,” acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said last Sunday at a press briefing at the party’s Naya Paltan headquarters.

“Unidentified bodies are recovered every now and then from the outskirts of Dhaka city and remote places. The government forces pick up people and kill them without trial. We believe the government has direct link with these killings.” 

Meanwhile, Jatiyatabadi Chhatra Dal, the student wing of BNP observed a three-day-long protest last week against ‘killing’ of three of their activists namely Shamim Hossain Sohel of Dhaka University, and Ismail Hossain Al-Amin and Masum Hossain.

The body of Ismail was recovered. Ismail’s body was recovered from Dhalehswari river near Munshiganj 11 days after he went missing.

“The three were picked up by people claiming to be RAB personnel. No step has been taken despite informing police. This shows the government is directly linked to the killings,” the BNP leader added.
Referring to statistics of various rights bodies, Fakhrul said 200 people have gone missing in November-December with 27 of them going missing in the last as many days. 

JCD chief Sultan Salauddin Tuku said, “The incumbent government is carrying out assassinations like the BAKSAL regime of 1970s and justice is being denied.” He alleged that the police did not act even after Ismail’s mother Nasima Begum filed two general diaries with Kalabagan police. “Only six months back, organising secretary of the wing’s Uttara unit Noor Hossain Hiru went missing in the same manner and he is still traceless,” the student leader added. 

Various human rights bodies including the National Human Rights Commission have expressed their anxiety at the increased frequency of such occurrences. 

All allegations are alike and in most of the cases, the victims are picked up by people introducing themselves as law officers, especially as Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) personnel. However, RAB officials routinely deny.
‘Line of fire’

RAB is now using the term ‘line of fire’ instead of its earlier jargon “cross-fire” that earned a bad name for the elite force. 

On December 8, a leader of Purba Banglar Communist Party, Mokaddes Ali Malitha, was killed in a shootout between his cohorts and members of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) in Alamdanga upazila in Chuadanga. Mokaddes was caught in the line of fire and died on the spot, said RAB-6 commander Captain Hasanur Rahman adding that Mokaddes was wanted in 10 cases including 5 for murder.

Only in August this year, the Amnesty International asked the Bangladesh authorities that they must honour their pledge to stop extrajudicial executions by a special police force accused of involvement in hundreds of killings. 

In its report, Crimes unseen: Extrajudicial executions in Bangladesh documented how the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) justify their killings as accidental or as a result of officers acting in self-defence, although in reality many victims are killed following their arrest. 

“Hardly a week goes by in Bangladesh without someone being shot by RAB with the authorities saying they were killed or injured in ‘crossfire’ or a ‘gun-fight’. However the authorities choose to describe such incidents, but the fact remains that they are suspected unlawful killings,” said Abbas Faiz, Amnesty International’s Bangladesh researcher.  

Collected :

Extrajudicial killings all around

THE spate of extrajudicial killing still continues. This time, 11 men in Bhola became victim of such killing on Wednesday afternoon. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Thursday, five people, suspected as pirates, along with a fisherman, got killed during a ‘gunfight’ involving the police. Moreover, five more suspected pirates, who escaped the ‘gunfight’, were later beaten to death by the mob. Suffice it to say, the killings in question necessarily point to, regardless of the oft-repeated claims of the incumbents otherwise, unabated slide in law and order on the one hand and growing public distrust of law enforcement agencies on the other.

The Awami League-Jatiya Party government assumed power in 2009 with the commitment, among others, that it would keep law and order under control and that it would stop all sorts of extrajudicial killing. 

Pertinently, it was highly critical of such kind of killing during the tenure of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led government in the past. Besides, it pledged on more occasions than one in the past three years or so before the leaders of different human rights organisations, national and international, that it will show zero tolerance towards such killing. Regrettably, however, it seems to have done little to make those words a reality. Worse still, it has consistently claimed that no extrajudicial killing has taken place during its tenure so far.

Meanwhile, apparently to evade criticism about extrajudicial killing, the law enforcers, especially the Rapid Action Battalion, have allegedly changed their tactics of execution in recent months. The new tactic involves enforced disappearances of alleged criminals. According to Odhikar, a rights organisation, a total of 359 people were killed in what the top brass of the law enforcers called ‘crossfire’, ‘shootout, ‘encounter’, etc in the past three years or so, while the number of victims of mob beating stood at 148 and enforced disappearances, 22, in the past 11 months.

Either way, the incumbents need to realise that what suffers most due to all this is the rule of law, and that if it is allowed to continue, society may plunge into lawlessness, endangering even the hard-earned democracy of the country. It immediately needs to do something decisive about arresting the surge in crimes as well as putting an end to all kinds of extrajudicial killings.

Collected :

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Martyred Intellectuals’ Day’s resolve

ON THIS day, forty years back, just two days before the Pakistani occupation forces laid down their weapons, which marked the end of more than two decades of neo-colonial rule by the Islamabad-based ruling elite and the beginning of the journey by the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, their local cohorts, calling themselves Al-Badr, Al-Shams, etc but essentially offshoots of Jamaat-e-Islami, which was against an independent Bangladesh, perpetrated one of the most heinous crimes in human history. These pro-Pakistani militias picked up, and executed, one after another some of the greatest Bengali minds of the time. The objective of the killers was apparently to retard the fledgling nation intellectually; they had seemingly realised that these were the people who would provide the intellectual and ideological guidance to the reconstruction of the war-ravaged country and the building of the nation state. Suffice it to say, four decades later, the country and the nation have not yet overcome their loss.

Not surprisingly, most of these martyred intellectuals generally belonged to the left and progressive school of political thought, and were the driving intellectual force behind the popular struggle in the then East Bengal for political empowerment, economic emancipation, cultural freedom and social equity and equality. They correctly read the people’s aspiration — cultural, economic, political and social — and adeptly led the nationalist movement through the 1960s up to the military phase of the liberation struggle. In the void created by their killing, national politics in independent Bangladesh seemingly lost its ideological mooring, leading to an intractably divided body politic. In the resultant crude struggle for state power and concomitant equation, even the trial of war crimes and war criminals was crowded out, as it, too, apparently became part of partisan equation. Little wonder, it took almost four decades since independence for the trial of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity during the war of liberation by the Pakistani occupation forces and their local cohorts to begin.

While the war crimes trial has finally begun, it has to remain limited to prosecution of the local cohorts of the Pakistani military junta, since the post-independence Bangladesh government, of the Awami League, chose to let the officers and soldiers of the Pakistan army who had carried out war crimes in 1971. Moreover, ever since the trial process began, there has been a steady stream of irresponsible remarks from both sides of the partisan divide. While remarks by some BNP leaders apparently sought to undermine the war crimes trial, enthusiastic overkill by some ministers of the Awami League-led government raised questions about it in the people’s mind, at home and abroad. It is imperative that the perpetrators of war crimes should be punished. It is also imperative that the trial should remain above and beyond any controversy, and meet the international standards.

Along with the war crimes trial, there need also be prosecution of the masterminds and perpetrators of the targeted killing of intellectuals at the fag end of the war of independence. However, thus far, neither of the two major political parties has been forthcoming in this regard. Their indifference is, perhaps, not too difficult to understand. After all, most of the martyred intellectuals were left-leaning, whose ideology runs counter with these parties. Thus, it is incumbent on the left-leaning and progressive sections of society to mobilise public opinion and create pressure on the ruling quarters for trial of the killing of our intellectuals in 1971.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Spate of disappearances : Stop this macabre crime

IT is with utmost concern that we notice the increasing incidences of mysterious disappearances. Some of these persons have remained untraceable for a long time while dead bodies of many have turned up at different places of the country. In fact only in the last eleven months there have been instances of 22 disappearances out of which 10 dead bodies have been found. Last year at least 18 people went missing. 

This is indeed a sad commentary on the state of the country's HR and law and order. There cannot be a more abysmal state of human security when the victims' relatives cry out agonizingly their preference for 'crossfire deaths' to disappearances. At least the bodies could be found. 

The most disconcerting aspect of it is that most of those who remain untraceable after being, allegedly, picked up by members of the law enforcing agencies are political figures belonging to various political parties. The accusatory fingers are being pointed at the law enforcing agencies, the police RAB, DB and Special Branch. 

And these agencies have dismissed out of hand allegations of arresting illegally or any connection with the deaths.

Even if we were to take the comments of the IGP, that it is difficult to link the disappearances to the agencies as true, then the only surmise is that there is a very well organised gang operating in the country that are able to kidnap people in broad daylight from homes and from the streets posing as members of law enforcing agencies. And this has been going on for a long time. That being the case, shouldn't the police have been more diligent and undertaken measures to apprehend this group?

This situation is unacceptable in a democratic dispensation where the administration never hesitates to paint the obtaining law and order as very satisfactory and better than any time in the past. One would have hoped that by now the government would have been more proactive in arresting the situation. Notwithstanding the remonstrations of the administration the popular perception is quite different. And the government must act immediately to stop the heinous practice.

A Brief History Of Accessing Information Worldwide

The Earth is not just an ordinary planet!’

IN BANGLADESH, the increasing use of the internet for social media, surfing, etc is significant. According to Facebook, by August 31, 2010, the number of Facebook users in Bangladesh was 995,560. Within the next one year, it went up to 1,735,020. Whereas eleven years back, in 2000, the number of internet users was only 100,000. Since the introduction of the internet in our country in 1996, it has brought changes in our social life (urban life in particular) giving a new dimension to media, commerce and education. However, all these would not have been possible if the world wide web, commonly known as W3, was not introduced 20 years back.

So, aren’t ‘internet’ and ‘W3’ the same thing? Definitely they are not. Internet is a pool of smaller networks. In other words, internet uses a group of protocols called TCP/IP to instruct the network where to go, and exchange data accordingly. On the other hand, the worldwide web is a tool to access information with the help of ‘hyperlinks’, which allow collaborators in remote sites to share their ideas.

The past
IT ALL began when Tim Berners-Lee, a British physicist and computer scientist working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, wanted to find an advanced way to link up all his colleagues to share documents without much hassle. In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed the WWW, which would allow ‘all links to be made to any information anywhere’ — so he explained in his posted summary of the software project that he had built in 1980, on alt.hypertext usenet group. Thus, on August 6, 1991, the first website was created as <>, and was hosted with a set of hyperlinks and texts. He named the project ‘World Wide Web’, or W3. In December 1991, Professor Tim Berners-Lee presented a paper at a Hypertext’91 conference in San Diego, Texas, which was accepted as a poster session. However, the internet revolution took yet another three years to grow. It was in December 1992 that the first web server outside Europe was set up at Stanford University, USA, and in the beginning of 1993 people came to know about the web when Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, a science and technology writer, wrote on it.

Berners-Lee wanted to expand the scope of the web. To have gateway servers for other data, he welcomed collaborators. Initially, Berners-Lee set up the website, where he created a page with information about how people could create their own web pages, and how the web could be used for searching information. As a result, by 1992, fifty web servers with 19.68 billion pages were born around the world. The number happened to be more than three times the world’s population at that time, according to sources. By December 2010, the internet monitoring company Netcraft reported that around 266,848,493 websites were available on World Wide Web, with an increase of 47 million hostnames and 7 million active websites, from previous months. According to, on Wednesday, August 24, the indexed web contained at least 13.31 billion pages. In Bangladesh, there are 5,234 sites under 212 categories (, November 23, 2007).

What began as a simple communication platform for scientists has grown into a phenomenon. But how? In Berners-Lee’s own words, he ‘just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas.’ ‘What are TCP and DNS?’ one might ask. TCP (transmission control protocol) is the networking protocol or internet protocol suit used by messages as they zip across the internet, and is responsible for providing reliable, systematic delivery of a stream of bytes. Whereas, DNS (domain name system) is the system that transforms ‘.com’ domain names into numerical identifiers for computer and other networking devices.

W3 became more popular and accommodating with the emergence of Web 2.0, a term that was proposed by Tim O’Reilly, a supporter of free software and open source, and the founder CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Based on the web as a platform , it is ‘ a set of principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites that demonstrate some or all of those principles . . .’ It allows animated images and user-generated content involving interactivity and collaboration using scripting and programming languages like Ajax, Flash and Javascript,. Under this category are the social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video-sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, mash-ups and folksonomies. Proposed in the first Web 2.0 conference by O’Reilly in 2004, the term was dismissed as jargon by Berners-Lee as the W3 was created on the same principle.

Present: the wave of change
WARDRIP-FRUIN, Noah and Nick Montfort, wrote in The New Media Reader in 2003 that ‘The World-Wide Web was developed to be a pool of human knowledge, and human culture.’ Now, starting from education to entertainment, the web has changed the entire outlook of life both on ground and in cyberspace, as the Web 2.0 now accommodates websites containing text with images, podcast and videos, help users transact business online, buy goods from sites like Amazon, eBay, or Facebook, Twitter and Google+, and search engines like Google and Bing are bringing newer trends of online marketing, branding and rankings. Interestingly, this Eid, shopping activities on Facebook have been reported too. One can now have the three-dimensional experience of a product advertisement on the web, creating newer purchasing behaviours.

Perhaps the changes in politics and media are far more remarkable. The recent uprisings in the Arab region and how it spread through Facebook and Twitter is known to all. News today travels faster than light because of Web 2.0. Our newspapers would probably go half empty without the existence of W3. The more the information becomes accessible, the more it requires authenticity. Thus, William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute terms this vast ocean of information as the ‘Fifth Estate’ that would hold governments and media around the globe accountable (quotes in SPIEGEL interview).

Many a today’s adults remember reading Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in their childhood, and might have even wondered at Alice’s question, ‘What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?’ It is amazing that a childhood fascination from the past is a reality now. Today, children, even toddlers, have something to learn on the web. There are many YouTube videos on learning alphabets with pictures, music, and conversation. In geography class, teachers are using Google Maps to locate and find a place. In one click, a student can go to a place where they have never physically visited before. The scope is ample. 

Teachers are now being trained and instructed to educate students using the web, and to use social sites, smartboards, video streaming, YouTube and so on to teach both children and adult learners. Bangladesh is trying hard not to lag behind. In 2007, at Presidency University, a group of Bangladeshi teachers were trained on teaching methods using these available facilities in a classroom situation. Though small, the initiative was a welcome start.

There is the other side of the midnight too! The web has increasingly become the hub of cyber crimes and pornography. According to Google hit counts, there are about 1, 860,000,000 (0.24 seconds, Friday, 12:42 hr) results with the term ‘porn’ on it. This definitely has a negative impact on the society as a whole, as many today do not ‘love the sunset, when one is so sad.’ Instead they rely on web entertainment. How this behavioural pattern is going to be changed is another topic of discussion. Most importantly, human privacy is under threat. Recently W3 consortium announced a draft of online privacy, and the western world is devising new plans on how to resist online pornography; however, where do we stand on this note?

The future: the semantic web and evolving social system
THE web started as a social need, as Tim Berners-Lee said once in a lecture. Therefore, in the future, we can anticipate that the web would revolve around creating certain social systems, which may run by, what Berners termed, ‘social machines’. These machines will be like little devices that will understand the users’ requirements. In the future, one would not need to roam around the web looking for specific information. We already have meta search engines like ‘,’ that bring us all the related web sites in one click. 

Likewise, in more advanced ways, the machines will directly read and process the meta data and automatically access information for the user, according to their needs, rather than the user looking for the information themselves. How is it possible? The answer is ‘semantic web’, an extended hyperlinked network. The term ‘semantic’ refers to the study of meaning- through the web of data the computer would access the exact information one requires. This might be done through ‘voice browsing’, reveals W3C (World Wide Web Consortium).

The web is likely to dissolve geographical boundaries. In the commerce sector, the geographical limitations of the world are already disappearing. People are choosing where to live, work, study or settle. Decision-making will be performed online. At present W3C’s focus is on developing technologies that would allow web access using devices like mobile phones, eBook readers, TV systems, voice response systems, music players, kiosks, digital picture frames, in-car navigation systems and even domestic appliances.

Certainly, the next phase of the web is going to affect many human lives. For example, unlike the situation in our part of the world, many global companies like Cisco, Pfizer and Boeing have already started to cut jobs, predicting that the prospects of the web will reduce the necessity of human work. In our neighbouring country India, the situation is completely the opposite. They are hiring more people in this sector.

Maybe the future web will have lot more contributions. It would definitely change the entire social structure, starting from the individual. Scientists believe that human belief, concept, culture, literacy, politics -every aspect of society -would face a new dimension, and new definitions. Would people take collective decisions on reducing crime, solving problems, developing infrastructure, over the web? That is yet to be decided. 

Whatever future lies ahead, it is certain that what began as a simple hyperlink tool, will necessarily play a great role in shaping the future society and directing us towards a new world order!

Nevertheless, the wave of technology and the wave of transformation always travel parallel. It will certainly touch this corner of the world without delay. But, the huge wave of world transformation will just stop at the deep sea shores of Cox’s Bazaar, where the optical fibre cables end. The rest of the country has wired connection to the internet which provides merely minimum speeds. On a single day, the urban citizens face power surges several times a day, while most rural areas are still in primitive condition. Under these circumstances, are we ready? ‘Ask yourselves: is it yes or no? …no grown-up will ever understand that this is a matter of so much importance!’(The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exepury, chapter 27).

BY : Mehjabeen Rahman

Saturday, December 10, 2011

An Open Letter To World Leaders

WE, THE citizens of Bangladesh and expatriate Bangladeshis, are urging you to stop India from constructing dams on upstream rivers that flow through Bangladesh. India’s unilateral action to dam and withdraw water is against international conventions. It violates the spirit of the Millennium Declaration by 191 member states of the United Nations, which pledges: ‘To stop the unsustainable exploitation of water resources by developing water management strategies at the regional, national and local levels, which promote both equitable access and adequate supplies’ (Chapter IV, para 23).

You may already be aware that the Indian government has recently announced its decision to go ahead with the project of constructing a dam (hydroelectricity plant) on a river which feeds two major river systems in Bangladesh. This will have dire consequences on the economy and ecology of Bangladesh.

The proposed Tipaimukh dam is to be located 500 metres downstream from the confluence of Barak and Tuivai rivers, and lies on the south-western corner of Manipur state. It is a huge earth dam (rock-fill with central impervious core) having an altitude of about 180m above the sea level with a maximum reservoir level of 178m and 136m as the minimum drawdown level. It will have an installation capacity of 1,500MW with only a firm generation of 412MW (less than 30 per cent of installed capacity).

The proposed dam is located among six major seismically active zones of the world. Analysis of earthquake epicentres and magnitudes of 5M and above within 100-200km radii of the Tipaimukh dam site reveals hundreds of earthquakes in the last 100-200 years. It is found that within 100-kilometre radius of Tipaimukh, 2 earthquakes of +7M magnitude have taken place in the last 150 years and the last one being in 1957 at an aerial distance of about 75km from the dam site in the ENE direction. This poses a serious threat of dam’s failure.

Bangladesh gets 7 to 8 per cent of its total water from the Barak in India’s north-eastern states. The dam will choke up the Surma and the Kushiyara rivers, and ultimately dry up the Meghna, the biggest river of the country.

We fear that this project will start desertification in Bangladesh. It will also change the ecosystem of the Sylhet region. It will affect the production of rice — the staple food, fish — the major source of protein. It will also immensely affect the flora and fauna and the entire biodiversity of the region.

We have seen the adverse environmental impacts of India’s Farakka dam/barrage project at the upstream of the mighty Ganges which flows into Bangladesh as Padma. The Farakka project made the northern districts of Bangladesh almost a desert and contributed to the arsenic contamination of ground water.

Millions of people are dependent on hundreds of water bodies, fed by the Barak, in the Sylhet region for fishing and agricultural activities. This dam will have serious impact on poverty and security in the region.

The Tipaimukh dam could play a role for Bangladesh if it was a joint project and managed in line with Bangladesh’s requirements. However, neither the construction plan nor the management plan was shared with Bangladesh. There was no exchange of information or data regarding the impact of the dam on ecology, environment, fishery, wildlife, and most spectacularly on the life and living of the people living upstream and downstream of the dam.

On June 21, the former Indian high commissioner Pinak Ranjan Chakrabarty claimed that there did not exist any international law that could prevent India from constructing the Tipaimukh dam. However, this is misleading and erroneous in view of the status of the 1996 Ganges Water Treaty between Bangladesh and India as well the relevance of the applicable international customary laws.

According to Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, bilateral or multilateral treaties are the primary expression of international law. The 1996 thirty-year Ganges Water Sharing Treaty was signed by the heads of states of Bangladesh and India and thus, according to the 1969 Vienna Convention on The Law of Treaties, it has the full backing of international law. Both Bangladesh and India are bound to abide by this treaty until 2026.

Article IX of the treaty stipulates: ‘Guided by the principles of equity, fairness and no harm to either party both the governments agree to conclude water sharing Treaties/Agreements with regard to other common rivers.’

Furthermore, according to the International Laws Commission’s Commentaries on the Draft of 1997 Watercourse Convention which contains pledges to apply the principle of equitable utilisation and no-harm essentially presupposes obligations of conducting prior consultation and conclusion of agreement with co-basin states before undertaking any planned measures on a shared river like the Barak.

Therefore, construction of the Tipaimukh dam by India on the upstream of the Barak, which, after entering Bangladesh, continues to flow as Kushiara and Surma, will be illegal unless it is preceded by prior consensus with Bangladesh. Although India has not yet ratified the 1997 Watercourse, there is every reason to argue that the Convention, being adopted by a vote of 103-3 in the UN General Assembly, is applicable as ‘evidence of international customary law’ to Tipaimukh or any such project on shared rivers.

This convention was drafted by the International Law Commission, which was constituted under Article 13(1) of the United Nations Charter. The draft law produced by this commission represents either existing or emerging rules of international law (ILC Statute, Article 15); various verdicts of the International Court of Justice have already expressed such a view (for example, the 1997 ICJ verdict regarding the River Danube dispute between Hungary and Slovakia).

The 1997 convention is supported by recent state practices in different parts of the world. By the terms of 1992 Trans-boundary Watercourses Convention, adopted under the auspices of the UN Economic Union for Europe, there is no scope to undertake planned measures on shared rivers without conducting a comprehensive environmental impact assessment, providing full information to all the concerned basin states and ensuring that there are no serious harmful effects on the ecology as well as the co-riparian states.

In the last two decades, various countries in Africa (e.g. 1995 Zambezi River Protocol, 1997 Lake Victoria Program), South East Asia (e.g. 1995 Mekong River Agreement), and South America (e.g. 2004 Program for the Pantanal and Upper Paraguay River) have emphasised basin-wide cooperation for ensuring sustainable utilisation and management of international watercourses.

The cooperation and no-harm principles are more emphatically endorsed in a number of international environmental instruments to which both Bangladesh and India are parties. Among them, Article 5 of the 1972 Ramsar Convention requires the contracting parties to consult each other about implementing obligations arising under the Convention in respect of trans-boundary wetlands, shared watercourses and coordinated conservation of wetland flora and fauna, and Article 3 of Biodiversity Convention provides that ‘states have the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.’

Provisions for preventing and mitigating harm related with the utilisation of shared water systems are also found in other conventions, including the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate change and the 1994 Convention on Desertification.

This is no wonder that India does not want to ratify the 1997 Convention. It has been continuing to construct dams on 53 common rivers that flow through Bangladesh. Among the common rivers, the most rivers affected by Indian barrages and their networks of canals, reservoirs and irrigation schemes are the Ganges, the Meghna and the Teesta.

As the World Commission on Dam observed in its report, the hazards of dam construction outstrip the benefits. The World Commission on Dams analysed the environmental, economic and social impact of the world’s 45,000 large dams, and the result unveiled by Nelson Mandela, Chairman of the Commission, in the later part of 2000 is quite bleak. Overall costs of dams, to both man and nature, are mostly negative. They are notorious for creating great environmental change. They force massive human resettlements, mostly of people who live where the lake is due to appear. It concluded, ‘an unacceptable and unnecessary price has been paid to secure … benefits.’ The World Bank estimated in 1994 that 300 large dams forced some four million people to leave their homes.

Hydroelectric dams, once regarded as clean renewable energy source, turned out to be significant generators of greenhouse gases given off by decomposing vegetation in tropical reservoirs. The constant and reliable irrigation hydroelectric dams can waterlog the ground. The water brings underground salt to the surface, which is left behind when the water evaporates. Eventually, the soil becomes too salty for crops to survive. Even the prevention of flood is a mixed blessing. The salt which was once carried downstream by a swollen river replenishing the soil and nutrients, no longer makes its journey to the sea. Instead it clogs up the reservoir.

We appeal to you, in the name of humanity, for the sake of the environment and ultimately for regional and global security, to stop India from this act of vandalism. We also urge you to demand on India to agree to shared-management of all common rivers in the spirit of the Millennium Declaration. 

BY : Atiqur Rahman Khan Eusufzai and Syed Tipu Sultan.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Govt Should Convene Nat’l Convention On Tipaimukh And Other Issues

THE assertion of the Bangladesh prime minister’s adviser on international relations, Gowher Rizvi, upon his meeting with the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, in New Delhi on Saturday, that the ‘notions about the adverse impacts of the Tipaimukh dam on Bangladesh are groundless’, seems to underline two sad truths. 

First, despite its repeated assurances otherwise, New Delhi would allow construction of the Tipaimukh hydroelectric project in the upstream of the river Barak, which, according to experts and environmentalists, could wreak havoc on the ecology and economy of north-eastern Bangladesh. Second, a section of the Awami League government, which apparently does not include the prime minister, is willing to put its faith in the Indian government’s assurance, notwithstanding the fact that New Delhi has more often than not chosen to not live up to its promises, that the Manmohan Singh administration has thus far not shared any data on the Tipaimukh project and that experts in Bangladesh and India have persisted with their opposition to it, pointing to its long-term adverse impact. According to a report front-paged in New Age on Sunday, Rizvi even suggested that the hydroelectric project could in fact benefit Bangladesh and that Bangladesh could also invest in the project. Such suggestion could be construed as the adviser’s naiveté at best and collaboration with the Indian plan at worst.

While the incumbent administration has time and again sought to have people believe that it has turned a new chapter in the Dhaka-Delhi relations, and that the ‘friendly’ Indian government would never do anything that may harm Bangladesh’s interest, the ground reality seems to suggest otherwise. Suffice it to say, the Indian government’s decision to go ahead with the Tipaimukh project, overriding the genuine and legitimate concern of the majority of the people in Bangladesh is just one instance of its apparent duplicity. Delhi has played the same ‘say something but do something else’ trick as regards sharing of the Teesta and other trans-boundary rivers, killing of Bangladeshis on the border by the Border Security Force, demarcation of land boundaries, exchange of enclaves and land in adverse possession, removal of non-tariff and para-tariff barriers to Bangladeshi products — the list could go on and on. One of the reasons why India has got away with such blatant disregard for Bangladesh’s concern and interest may be that the country’s political parties have failed to take a united stand against such behaviour, which is unacceptable in a modern comity of nations, and more often than not allowed their mutual mistrust and partisan bickering to prevail over national interest.

Thankfully, in recent times, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition have taken a similar stance on the Tipaimukh project, both insisting that there should be a joint and comprehensive survey of the construction site. The government needs to build on such rare convergence of opinion. To this end, it needs to convene a national convention, involving the democratic political parties, social organisations, rights groups, experts, academic, informed sections of the media and, for that matter, representatives of democratically oriented and rights-conscious sections of society. The focus of such a convention needs to be reaching a national consensus on not only Tipaimukh but also other issues that blight the country’s relations with India. If the government goes for such an initiative, the opposition political parties need to respond positively. It is imperative for all to realise that the nation must speak with one voice when national interests are ignored or trampled with by a so-called friendly neighbour.

Collected :

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Great Partition Of Dhaka City

The great divide of our historic Dhaka city into two parts is finally happening; the legislature has approved the ordinance for the division. Barring any miraculous court orders nullifying the legislation, for which the courts have been moved, soon there will be two cities although we do not know what they will be called. People like us who had spent their childhood and youth in good old Dhaka will not know what new name our part of the old city will bear. Will they be simply called South and North,or will they be christened with some names? 

Do we care what the names will be? All we know is that the Dhaka that we knew and grew up with, the city that the world was familiar with, will no longer be the same with any other name. I know any comments on this division are post facto, crying in the wilderness, or more proverbially crying over spilled milk. Nonetheless, I would like to cry. I would like to register my protest as an ex-citizen of Dhaka, albeit from thousands of miles away. 

We have been told that the division of Dhaka was mandated by poor services to the citizens. We have been further told that this was necessary to make city life better with improved sanitation, water supply, road conditions, transportation, and what have you. A divided Dhaka will make the average citizen's life much superior with enhanced and faster services -- the services that they do not have now. Let us pause for a second to reflect on the promises in these hypotheses. 

Dhaka City Corporation has been in existence for over three decades now, turning from a Municipality that was created hundred and fifty years ago. From a small urban centre of a few square kilometers in 1900 with about a hundred thousand people, the city is nearly 1,530 sq. km in size now, with an estimated population of about 12 million. As one of the top 11 megacities, Dhaka is probably the fastest growing in the world. It is projected that by 2025 eight of the ten megacities will be in Asia with Dhaka ranked fourth, following closely on the heels of Tokyo, Bombay and Delhi. 

How do you manage urban services for this burgeoning population without first tackling and planning to accommodate this growth? Is it by splitting the city into two halves, or by augmenting resources of the people who manage the services, and handing them the authority to do so? 

The key challenges that Dhaka faces are not posed by incorporation of the city as a single entity. The other ten megacities of the world, including those in our neighboring country (such as Kolkata and Mumbai), continue to remain a single corporation and they continue to provide urban services to their citizenry as one city corporation. However, the challenges that Dhaka faces, unlike other cities, come from other sources. These are the city's unfortunate location -- being virtually surrounded by rivers that limit expansion -- its population density, and impossible traffic. 

Bifurcation of the city will not alter the physical and manmade challenges that Dhaka faces now. Our population will continue to grow, and so will our traffic, and the divided city will have to cope with this growth and services will continue to suffer. No miracle can be expected in the delivery of services unless the purveyors of the services have the resources and authority to deliver. 

While defending the decision to split Dhaka our prime minister reportedly made comments that such divisions "to improve urban services" had taken place in other major cities of the world such as London, Melbourne, Sidney, Manila, etc. To put things in the correct perspective we should point out that London City was not divided by any legislation. London has two parts; City of London, and Greater London. The City of London is a small area (2.9 km) within Greater London, England. It is the historic core of London around which the modern London grew, and it has held city status since time immemorial. The City's boundaries have remained almost unchanged since the Middle Ages, and it is now only a tiny part of the metropolis of London, though it remains a notable part of central London. Greater London is the top-level administrative subdivision covering London. Melbourne and Sidney to my knowledge do not have divided city corporations; both cities are run by elected city corporations headed by mayors (called Lord Mayors). 

We should not be looking at these cities for comparison in any case; they are far above our league. We should look at the nearest cities that have problems comparable to our own -- such as Kolkata and Mumbai -- and see how the corporations in these cities provide services to their citizens. The problems Dhaka's citizens face are not likely to be resolved by this Great Divide. We will probably render them twice in magnitude.

BY :  

A Slice Of Dhaka, Anyone?

The decision to split Dhaka seems like one of those ‘brilliant’ ideas that come to the head in a soused or stoned state, which miraculously stick to your mind in the morning. The real consequences of this decision, of course, neither do we know, nor do the critics, nor does the government. That was never the point anyway.

WITH so many amendments being made to the laws that govern our country, I wonder if an amendment can be made to the Right to Information Act 2009, by introducing the word ‘authentic’ to it, and calling it Right to (Authentic) Information Act. I say this, because, on the day our prime minister flamboyantly defended her decision to split the Dhaka City Corporation, she mentioned, that many cities in the world, including London, Manila, Sydney and Melbourne, have more than one city corporation. Correct me if I am wrong, but my Google research tells me that the city of Manila has one corporation (to be distinguished from metro Manila which is not the capital but a region), while south Sydney city council, created in 1989, was merged with the city of Sydney in 2004 as its ‘financial viability’ was under threat. No mention anywhere of two mayors or municipalities or councils in Melbourne. London has the lord mayor of the City of London, besides the mayor of Greater London, though it is essentially a ceremonial post and the lord mayor works as an ambassador to the business and financial establishments of the City of London.

However, it is not that we wouldn’t find more than one mayor in any part of the world if we tried hard. Many of the adjoining townships or new areas of large cities often fall outside the purview of city governments and are administered through separate local councils. If indeed, the administrative functions of a certain geographical area need to be divided for enhancing performance, then you can cut out as many slices of the cake as you may wish.

Slicing up Dhaka appears to have attracted some legal complications though. The immediate-past mayor Sadeque Hossain’s lawyers argued in court that Article 1 of our constitution describes our state as ‘unitary’, while Article 5 defines Dhaka as the capital of the republic. The courts in the past observed that splitting the High Court was a breach of Article 1, while, during the verdict of the 13th amendment case, it declared caretaker governments illegal on grounds that the country cannot be administered by unelected officials, going by the constitution. Whether bifurcation and introduction of unelected administrators contradict the constitution is now up to them to decide.

There appears to be merit in the arguments of the critics of the decision as well. The city corporation essentially fixes roads, cleans garbage and drains, manages graveyards and public toilets, and kills mosquitoes. Important city functions like town planning, controlling traffic, running the public transport system, and supplying water and electricity do not fall among their functions and the case for having an autonomous city government with powers to control those, ahead of the split, sounds rather compelling. Some critics also say that the north-south division also threatens to widen disparity, as the rich areas of Gulshan and Banani in the north are bound to pay more taxes to their mayor than their poor Old Dhaka cousins in the south. Things can get worse if the north get a mayor from the ruling party and the south gets one from the opposition, or vice versa. Add to that, according to the new bill, the government has 90 days to both organise elections during the tenure of an outgoing election commission and split the infrastructure, logistics and administration of the city corporation into half, which is bound to put an avoidable strain on the public exchequer.

The legal and administrative complications are, however, all secondary. What is surprising, if not shocking, is that the whole of us 15 million Dhakaites woke up one November morning to discover that we were either northerners or southerners of Dhaka. There is no mention of it in the electoral manifesto, there has been no study to assess the relative advantages and disadvantages of splitting Dhaka, there was no demand for it from any section of the urban dwellers, in organised form or otherwise, nobody was asked for advice, not even the highest elected representatives for Dhaka. Everyone has been grappling for meaning ever since.

The Jamuna Bridge was built because the people of the north-west of the country wanted a faster route to reach Dhaka. The Padma Bridge has been conceived because the people of the south-west now want a similar route to Dhaka. The country was liberated because the ordinary people of East Pakistan wanted reprieve from the repressive regimes of West Pakistan and the bold leaders of the time articulated their wishes and organised their demand. See, the word ‘democracy’, printed on the bare back of Noor Hossain before he was shot dead, have a meaning. Democracy is a space where people vent their wishes and expectations, while political leaders articulate their demand or deliver on them.

It was during the time of kings and maharajahs that you dreamed up of building an expensive palace as an ode to your beautiful wife, of shifting capitals and of splitting capitals in two halves or four. This throwback to the era of maharajahs is what has left us perplexed. That is why, though the consequences are far less grievous, some people old enough to remember have drawn comparisons to that wintry January morning 36 years ago when they woke up to the six-hundred-pound gorilla called BKSAL.

All this, of course, is a case of sour grapes. The president has signed the bill and whether we like it or not, for law-abiding citizens, it is now a law. What prompted the government to take such a step is something everyone knows, but from a sense of propriety has so far only been described as ‘politically motivated’.

Mayor elections, especially of Dhaka and Chittagong, have somehow become potent indicators of the level of acceptability of the government in power, over the last two decades. In 1994, Md Hanif and ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury’s victory in the Dhaka City Corporation and the Chittagong City Corporation polls paved the way for the then opposition Awami League to kick-start a successful anti-government movement, while Mohiuddin’s victory again in 2005, once again served the Awami League the same purpose. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party already has its hands on the Chittagong City Corporation by removing the mighty Mohiuddin with little-known Manjur Alam. The incumbents can ill-afford another embarrassment in Dhaka and the split at least increases their chances, drastically, of having at least one mayor from their ranks.

This ‘politically-motivated’ decision, of course, is one more offspring of the ‘winner-takes-all’ politics of our country. The culture of mutual political animosity and personal repulsion has driven the two camps in the country to device ingenious ways to keep each other out of power. If only such ingeniousness and acumen was on display when defending our rights and solving our problems. The constitution, the parliament, the judiciary, the economy, the law enforcement agencies, the religion of the majority and now the capital are simple pawns in the game of power ready to be sacrificed at the altar of parochial necessity. Who knows, five years from now, the BNP might want to split Dhaka into four and the Awami League will take to the streets to defend the four hundred years of heritage of Dhaka.

The decision to split Dhaka seems like one of those ‘brilliant’ ideas that come to the head in a soused or stoned state, which miraculously stick to your mind in the morning. The real consequences of this decision, of course, neither do we know, nor do the critics, nor does the government. That was never the point anyway. But in the game of sacrificing pawns and protecting kings, we seem to be swimming deeper and deeper into stranger shores. We split Dhaka now, in the future, we might just as well want to split the country. If wards can be divided equally, why not districts. There is geographical distribution of popularity anyway. On second thought, given the blinding necessity of both sides to keep hold of power it might not be such a bad thing either.

BY : Mubin S Khan.  

Monday, December 5, 2011

Administrators Replacing Mayors ‘Unconstitutional’

Politicians and rights activists have observed that appointment of administrators replacing an elected mayor is unconstitutional and a violation of the Supreme Court ruling.

They have also termed the provision for replacement of the elected mayor by an administrator ‘double standards’ of the Awami League-led government.

The government on Sunday appointed administrators to the two city corporations in Dhaka, formed by splitting the Dhaka City Corporation by the amendment to the Local Government (City Corporation) Act 2009.

Jatiya Sangsad passes the bill on November 29.

Section 25 of the amended act empowers the government to appoint administrator to a city corporation after its formation or after the expiry of the tenure of the elected mayor.

The politicians and rights activists, whom New Age talked to, observed that the provision was unconstitutional and a clear violation of the Supreme Court verdict that had scrapped the provision for an election-time caretaker government on the plea that unelected persons could to replace an elected government.

They also said that amendment to the 2009 act exposed the ‘double standard’ of the Awami League, which had dropped the caretaker provision on the same plea.

Bangladesh Nationalist Party acting secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said that the amendment to the 2009 act was ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘ill motivated’.

Workers Party leader Rashed Khan Menon, also a ruling alliance lawmaker, said, ‘We strongly oppose any provision for replacing an elected body by an unelected one. It goes against the spirit of the constitution and the Supreme Court verdict.’

‘I suggested that public opinion should be solicited before the passage of the bill, but I could not place
my argument in Jatiya Sangsad, since the bill was passed before the scheduled time,’ Menon said.

Communist Party of Bangladesh general secretary Mujahidul Islam Selim said, ‘It is curious that the ruling party which is against the caretaker government, at the same time wants an unelected administrator to lead a local government body like the city corporation. One of the stands can be correct – but not both. To me they have taken such a contradictory stand just to fulfill their unethical political interest.’

Awami League leader Suranjit Sen Gupta, however, defended the new legislation.

‘In the case of formation of a new city corporation, the provision for appointing an administrator is not contradictory to article 11 of the constitution,’ he said.

When asked about appointment of an administrator after the expiry of the tenure of a mayor, Suranjit said, ‘After the end of the tenure of an elected mayor, that person also becomes “unelected” so he should voluntarily leave the office.’

Former caretaker government adviser Sultana Kamal, also a rights activist, said, ‘Awami League itself is responsible for not holding the Dhaka City Corporation election in time. So they cannot make such statements.’

She said, ‘When the government is so serious about ensuring the rule of an elected government, why their stand is exactly the opposite in the case of local governments. In fact, their political motive is to put the people of their choice in office replacing an elected body.’

Section 25 of the amended act is against the spirit of the Supreme Court verdict, the 15th amendment to the constitution, which has dropped the provisions on caretaker government, and against the political stand of the ruling party on the issue, Shahdeen Malik, a senior lawyer and constitutional expert, told New Age.

‘In fact the amended section is a breach of Article 11 of the constitution that ensures effective participation of the people through their elected representatives in government administration at all levels and also against the spirit of Articles 59 and 60 of the constitution that deal with local government,’ he said.

Historically, political leaders and bureaucrats have always tried to control the local government bodies, he said adding, ‘The amended Section 25 of the 2009 act is just a reflection of such mentality.’

Tofael Ahmed, a local government expert, also found the government’s step ‘highly contradictory’.

‘In fact, the government is taking contradictory decisions for political gains,’ he said.