Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sundarban Put In Jeopardy

THE decision of the High Court to vacate the order on maintenance of a status quo on the much-talked-about coal-fired power plant near Sundarban, without hearing on the rule issued on the government in March 1 this year on why the plant should not be declared illegal, has effectively paved the way for two 1,320MW power plants to be established only nine kilometres away from the world’s largest mangrove forest and a world heritage site. The government is likely to sign the agreement during Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka in September 6-7, following a memorandum of understanding already signed between the Power Development Board and India’s National Thermal Power Corporation. Considering the binding obligations that come with an international agreement signed between two head of governments, the likelihood of any other proceedings or development halting the establishment of the plant in the future now looks slim. 

The court, meanwhile, is set to hear the rule in October, after its month-long vacation. It appears that in its haste to find answers to acute power shortage as well expedite friendly relations with India, the government has put in jeopardy one of the country’s finest treasures, and the court, by vacating the status quo, has all but played into its hands.

From the very outset when the proposed thermal power plant came to public knowledge, there have been strong protests demanding the project be scrapped, both from environmental activists as well as locals at Rampal, Bagerhat, the proposed site for the plant. While local farmers lament the potential loss of arable land, environmentalists point out that the coal-fired power plants would drastically reduce the diversity of vegetation, wildlife and micro-organisms in Sundarban. The project will destroy the ingredients of the soil that support the lives of millions of inhabitants of a large region, increase the proportion of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide in the air and seriously harm the flora and fauna of Sundarban. Moreover, it is important to remember that Sundarban serve as a natural barrier to the protection of the people in a large area of the coastal region from calamities such as cyclones Sidr and Aila. Given these circumstances, the court issued the March 1 order after hearing a public-interest litigation writ petition filed by the Human Rights and Peace for Bangladesh seeking cancellation of the installation of the power plant.

The government is yet to provide any serious argument that disputes the claims of environmentalists nor has there been any feasibility study on the likely impact on the Sundarban following the establishment of the plants, as far as media reports go. Under these circumstances, the government stands to risk threatening a great national asset, ironically vying to become one of the seven natural wonders on earth, if it goes ahead with the signing and subsequently the establishment of the plants. It would be well-advised at least wait out the hearing on the court rule before proceeding with such a major project.

Licence To Kill

At a minimum, let us be honest with ourselves and acknowledge where the real blame lies. This ultimately lies with the corrupt system in place and the government that props it up. Government agencies have given the drivers literally a licence to kill. If we can agree on this, then we can take the right steps towards solving the problem.  Ikhtiar Kazi.

AS I read articles on Tareque Masud’s untimely death at the age of 54, I am saddened and outraged. I am saddened because his death caused by a head-on collision with a bus was completely preventable. I am outraged for the same reason. Many expressing their condolences about this tragic event knew the acclaimed movie director on a personal level, I cannot claim that privilege. Like many of you, I knew him only through his poignant movies, such as Matir Moina (The Clay Bird), winner of the 2002 Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Prize, Muktir Gaan (The Songs of Freedom) and Ontarjatra (The Homeland).

Masud’s death will temporarily focus attention on fatal car accidents that increasingly appear to be expected daily news in Bangladesh. His death will spark protests, and call for action and change. ‘Visionary’ political leaders will express condolences and deliver grand speeches with oratory perfection. Leaders of political parties will blame each other as usual, but will take no responsibility or provide any lasting solutions.

Talk-shows will superficially address the breakdown of order and decency in the country. There will be marches and candle light vigils. The bus driver who may or may not have caused the accident will be made the scapegoat, found guilty and perhaps even be sentenced to death. Grandiose illusions of justice, democracy, and law of land prevailing is what you will hear. Bangladesh’s great democracy with its digital aspirations will march ahead, falsely appearing to tackle the incident as head-on as the accident itself.

That is the script. No real solutions addressing the root problem of such deadly accidents will be offered. No real or thorough investigation will be performed. You will see just the typical lustre of surface wax. And as expected, this process will repeat like reruns of your favourite TV shows, until another such avoidable accident happens—repeat, pause, repeat is the formula of choice for those who are inept of any vision.

Many people will place the ultimate blame on the reckless drivers that routinely drive in the wrong lanes at twice the legal speed limit. These drivers are sometimes high on drugs, overworked and have no real expertise and training to ride a bicycle, let alone a bus or a truck. Admittedly, they have blood on their hands when accidents occur, and they must bear their share of the blame. But if the drivers are made scapegoats, we have misdiagnosed the real problem, and such a solution will only trivially attempt to resolve a deeper known issue.
At a minimum, let us be honest with ourselves and acknowledge where the real blame lies. This ultimately lies with the corrupt system in place and the government that props it up. Government agencies have given the drivers literally a licence to kill. If we can agree on this, then we can take the right steps towards solving the problem.

Anyone who has spent even a short time in Bangladesh can figure out how the system for obtaining a driver’s licence works. An authentic licence with all its privileges (but not the responsibility) can be obtained for about Tk 10,000 ($150). Pay the fee, and you will have the legal right to drive on the streets of Bangladesh. No need to take the driving exam or prove you can actually drive. It is all covered in the fee. Efficient, automatic and even transparent so you do not have to waste your precious time stuck in bureaucratic lines or street traffic. An agent does all your work.

Allow me to shed some further light on the process. There are generally four variants to obtaining a licence. The ‘fully automatic’ process is described above (sit back and everything is taken care of). The ‘semi-automatic’ process is similar to ‘fully automatic’ but with one difference. In the ‘semi-automatic’ process, you have to actually sit for the exam. But don’t worry, there will be someone to assist you to make sure you pass the exam and to compensate you for your headache of appearing for the exam your fee will be a little less. 

The third category is what I call ‘Photoshop.’ You will receive a licence that looks authentic but your information will not be officially registered with any government agency. If you are caught with this licence, you are charged with fraud (but don’t worry, for the right fee even this can be waived).

Interestingly, for all practical purpose the three categories above are the same. The applicant’s economic ability determines the category chosen; market efficiency at its best. The less work you do and the more you outsource, the more expensive it is. It’s a well-oiled and well-designed system that takes into account your financial ability.

The fourth category is what I call ‘almost legitimate’ because you have to sit for the exam and actually take a real driving test. However, these tests are so rigorous that I doubt even a professional race-car driver would pass. From what I hear, one part of the test includes driving in reverse where you have to create the shape of the number ‘8.’ Like the previous three categories, there is also a guarantee. No matter what you do, you are guaranteed to fail the test for the temerity of making the government official actually do his job. The system will frustrate you until you follow the official unofficial process of paying a bribe.

If justice is to be served for Masud’s death as well as those of countless others, accountability must first be imposed on those at the top of the pyramid instead of those at the bottom, who are just pawns of the system. In Japan (and other advanced Asian countries) if a government agency or private institution is found remotely responsible for wrongdoing the head of the agency appears publicly, gets on his or her knees, weeps and profusely asks for forgiveness for their mistakes. Honour, dignity and harmony matters in these cultures (and maybe that is the reason they are ‘advanced’ nations). Even when there is a natural disaster (such as the recent tsunami), where things are not in the hands of man, leaders can be held responsible if they do not react to the situation properly. After the customary public humiliation and acknowledgement of responsibility, the leader is sacked and punished. Bangladesh (and Bangladeshi politicians) should take some lessons of humility from the most advanced Asian countries and emulate them. Of course, that is just one step in the process.

I realise that Bangladesh faces myriad problems and is still an underdeveloped country with minimal resources. However, how a nation tackles these challenges will determine its future. Let us ask the tough questions and get to the bottom of why man made tragedies such as the accident that killed Masud are daily occurrences. Let us develop a strategy to make sure it does not happen again. And let us hold all those who are responsible, directly or indirectly to the crimes they have committed, so that justice truly prevails. Masud’s death should not be in vain. If his death can make even a small dent in the direction of positive change, at least then we will have some solace. Masud and his crew were headed to Manikganj to receive permission to shoot his film ‘Kagojer Phool’ (Paper Flower) on that fateful day. We will only wonder what other works he would have produced if his life had not been tragically cut short.


I INTERVIEWED and hired several car drivers in my extended visit to Bangladesh. Part of my interview process would be to take their licence and ask them their name and date of birth. They would look dumbfounded because in most cases they did not know the name or date of birth that was on their licence. But they would stress that it is a legal and authentic licence. Ironically, it was just a year ago I wrote an article where I talked about head-on car collisions (you can find that article as well as other pieces on my blog). In addition, I have had the great privilege of travelling across Bangladesh and see its natural beauty. In all my trips, my biggest fear was accidents. Large buses and trucks routinely came head to head with my car because they were driving in the wrong lane. It did not matter if it was night or day, sunny or rainy. A split second was all it took to determine my fate, and luckily, fortune was smiling on me.

The Hazare Phenomenon

Is there a lesson for Bangladesh?

A heretofore little known man from Maharashtra is making the headlines in India. Anna Hazare has gone on fast to force the Indian government to formulate a more stringent anti-graft law because he feels that the one the government wants to put up in the parliament is not tough enough. And he has given ultimatum to the government to accept his version of the bill or leave.

Hazare's strength stems from the well of popular support that he has been able to garner over time for a cause that affects a very large segment of India's population. 

We are certain that Hazare's position against graft touches a common chord with most of the public in Bangladesh. Although one may not agree with the stiff position he is displaying in spite of his willingness to talk to the Indian government, it is the moral content of his action that one cannot but commend. 

Here is person who is trying to address a social ill that pervades the Indian society in a cancerous form and the only way to attract the attention of a seemingly unresponsive government is to express moral revulsion in a collective manner which he has done quite successfully.

For Bangladesh too we feel there is a need for similar manifestation of popular revulsion against corruption, on which the government has at best been soft-pedaling. And it is through movements such as Hazare's, peaceful yet demonstrative of the popular sentiment that will not only generate public debate but also induce the government to move decisively against all forms pervasive ills in the society.

We would hope that the civil society in Bangladesh will come out in support of anyone who takes the lead in this regard, as indeed one person has to stop indiscriminate issue of driving license.