Thursday, December 30, 2004

mobile rip-off to continue.

For at least a couple of years there has been a a lot of hullabaloo about a new government mobile phone service. It was going to be cheap and affordable to the general public. ti was going to force the existing mobile companies to slash rates big-time.
The soft launch was a huge disappointment. The tariffs are not that exciting. Already accusations are flying. Who was bribed to up the rates? The private foreign telecom companies have most to gain from an uncompetitive T&T mobile service.
Compared to call rates in India, Bangladesh's consumers are getting ripped off. And we have four private companies supposedly competing head-to-head.
Four companies means this market is an oligopoly. It is true you cannot have too many in this type of business. So what you need is good robust regulation. Now that's a joke.
Perhaps the cheerleaders for the free market should reflect on the state of regulation.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Missing the disaster

Unusually, Bangladesh suffered only two fatalities from the Andaman Sea Tsunami. Elsewhere, the death toll may even edge up to 50,000. The question arises that with such satellite technology available and 24-hour international channels and of course the Internet, how was it that no warning was given out (except in Thailand,though even that was too late)? Two full hours passed. Two-thirds of the deaths were avoidable.
Keep an eye on the international pledges. Exactly one year ago, after the Iranian earthquake in Bam, hundreds of millions of dollars were also 'pledged'. So far they have received just $13M. Expect the same here too. When are journalists going to ask some real questions?

Monday, December 27, 2004

slum city

The Daily Star mentioned the government thinks that within the next five years, the number of slum dwellers in the capital will cross 10 (TEN) million.
Dhaka city's overall populaton will climb towards nearly 20 million around the same time.
Professor Abul Barakat says migration of the poor is the main reason for such a rapid growth of slums.
If this isn't a social timebomb, what is?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Next Generation

The majority of Bangladesh's population may be young. There may be a history of student & youth involvement in all the critical political events of the last half century. From the language movement of 1952, the independence movement leading to 1971 and the movement to restore democracy 1990. However, today they seem to be quiet and are ignored.
They are going to be the ones to suffer from the Indian River Linking Project as they will find themselves an economy in ruins. What will their future be then? However, like in most seminars & 'roundtables', they are never invited. No one wants to hear their concerns or their views.
The political and social parties & movements are greying and ineffective. Until the young are engaged again, there will be no meaningful change. The Next Generation must be heard.

Fears for the New Year

It is fashionable around this time of year to make predictions for the New Year. What’s in store for Bangladesh? If we look back to 2004, would we have guessed at the start of the year that bombs would be thrown at a British High Commissioner or the leader of the Opposition, Sheikh Hasina along with the top echelons of her party, the Awami League?None of us, except the perpetrators, knew. So what could lie in store for us in 2005? The groups who carried out these acts must be serious people and have objectives and goals. If they failed to achieve them then, is it not likely that they will try again? Where and against whom? It is reasonable to fear that there will be more violence and that there will be more destabilisation. 2005 is not going to be an easy ride.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

India's great river-linking folly

A three-day international conference on the subject of the Indian River Linking Project (IRLP) just ended in Dhaka. The Indian activist Medha Patkar, of the Narmada Bachao Andolon, was the leading attraction & she didn’t disappoint. The same cannot be said for some of the politicians on show. It was obvious that they didn’t really think it through and will by now have forgotten about the issue. Medha summarised it by saying that it wasn’t good enough to leave it in the hands of the governments negotiating by themselves. It was a question of the state acting against the interest of the people. Therefore, people from both Bangladesh and India had to unite against this project. A cross-border movement……… she also said that Bangladesh’s people had to take the lead since we would suffer the most as we are downstream.
And none of us want to be used by forces who want to go India-bashing. People within India are opposed to the project.
The project, involving creating 30 links diverting massive rivers such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra to southern India is an engineering nightmare and will devastate Bangladesh’s agriculture and therefore wider economy. It will lead to either conflict or mass migration or both around 2020.
It will not cost the ‘estimated’ $120 billion but at least double that amount. A lot of money to be made by MNCs, consultants and contractors. That’s the real game. One thing not mentioned by anyone is this: a major part of the scheme is for Nepal to set up storage areas so that water can be diverted first towards the west in India. The Maoists guerrillas control 2/3rds of the country. If they win, will they want any part of this? Unlikely since Nepal gains nothing from this project. Even if they don’t win, the country will be unstable for the next five to ten years. How can one build in such an uncertain political environment?

Monday, December 13, 2004

foreign investment

There has been a flurry of interest from the Middle East, France and TATA. They are talking hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars in foreign investment. At t same time, we have had Tk. 2000 crore ($340 million) lying idle in our banks because our own business magnates are not willing to invest. Same country, different attitudes. Why? What’s the explanation?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The great human wall of Bangladesh

A massive human wall or thousands of people held hands from the extreme northwest to the south east of the country on December 11th. The Awami League and Left parties pulled it off. It was some logistic feat. It seems they are so buzzed up, they want do it again, this time from the north East to the south west (Sylhet to Sundarban). It makes a welcome change from hartals/general strikes and is very imaginative.
Now the excitement is over, let’s ask the opposition parties a couple of questions:
1) What were your 9-point demands and do people know or do they care?
2) Why do they think this exercise is a springboard for a movement?

Perhaps like the Great Wall of China, this human chain was seen from the moon. One is permanent, the other temporary. What will be the long-term impact in 2005? I guess it will not be very much.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The saga of dhaka's first ever flyover

Dhaka is now suffering the Bangkok syndrome. Endless traffic jams. Oblivious to all, the authorities went full steam ahead and built the flyover at Mohakhali – a crucial junction between one industrial area, a rich/diplomatic neighbourhood and the main road to the international airport.
Unfortunately, as a direct consequence of the flyover, the snarl-ups have now moved to in front of the PM’s office!
The Communication Czars must think this is like a game of Lego. You just keep adding parts and it will be solved. The latest brainwave is to build a tunnel at the end of the flyover to Agargaon (NW Dhaka). It will shift the tailbacks to near where the new World Bank offices are sited in Agargaon!
Small mercies. Does it matter? Yes, because the World Bank is financing the Dhaka Urban Transport Project. Something that could have been plucked from the sixties. Car-centric, road based and, in the best traditions of the Bank, anti-poor.
Some of us are trying to formulate an alternative transportation policy that is based on public transport but allows room for the private car and rickshaw. Why? Because the middle class should be allowed to enjoy the car. As long as it doesn’t take up unfair space on the road (as now). And transport is a big job provider. It is a labour intensive industry and until we find something else for the rickshaw puller, let him earn an income. Give him a rickshaw-cycle lane to smooth the traffic & let’s provide training.
If you have any innovative ideas, please share them with us. We cannot just criticise the Bank. We have to provide an alternative policy.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

youth rebellion?

It’s amazing what you can see on the Internet. Agencies are quite happy to print reports on the web since it’s free and easy to spread. I was browsing through the British aid agency (DFID or Department for International Development) report on “Supporting the drivers of pro-poor change". We can see a phrase called ‘youth rebellion’ on page 22. This scenario is concerned about the possibility of the youth of Bangladesh rebelling against the status quo. Why would they do so? To replace the current system which fails to provide jobs and hope to them - our future. Imagine the ‘job market’ to be like Kawran Bazar. Picture a million young people entering the market, in search of a job. Year in year out. See them being turned away and told to go home. Empty handed. Or at best underemployed in some meaningless role for a pittance.
Our youth are doing what they were told to do by their parents and teachers. Play your role in society and work for a living. The system is geared against them and preventing them doing so. DFID (and therefore many other foreign agencies) may be worried that the youth may not carry on taking this lying down. Having little to lose they may demand fundamental change. They have been noticed.

Monday, December 06, 2004

fooling the leaders of South Asia

Dhaka city is in the middle of a beautification drive. Trees are being planted in the middle and sides of roads. Lane markings are being painted on.We are even having a special anti-mosquito drive.
Why all the sudden flurry of activity?
Because Dhaka will host a summit of the leaders of South Asia in January 2005. Presumably, we think they don't read the papers. Will they be impressed by our spring clean? Don't they know the stats about Dhaka?
I guess the best way to impress others would be to make tangible improvements in people's lives. Being able to announce that they had set up clinics providing free medical treatment to slum dwellers would mean something. Like what's happening in Caracas, perhaps.
Unfortunately, the authorities are more interested in image. Style before substance. Perhaps they have learnt something from New Labour?
Of course, the Asian leaders won't be fooled. It boils down to our own leadership's need to massage their egos.

Have some people given up on the state of Bangladesh?

Dhaka civil society discovered the ‘failed state’ a few months ago. It’s the talk of the town. We are falling over ourselves to quash the notion that Bangladesh is a failed state. It’s all a conspiracy, don’t you know? But why? And if we are not a failed state, are we a successful one then? Who defines if we have made it or not? How do we know? Is it a flash in the pan doing the rounds in a few seminars? Or is there something sinister behind this? Where did it start? Where will it end?

This is an excerpt of an article published in The Daily Star of Bangladesh in November 2004. To read more go to

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Street politics

We are about to suffer another political winter of discontent. This time the opposition has shown some enterprise and imagination with a historic human chain, spanning the entire length of the country (on December 11th). No doubt it could be seen from the moon, just like the Great Wall of China. However, even if we are spared the usual quota of ‘hartals’ and work stoppages, we are still firmly stuck in the gutter of street politics. Slogans and cheap headlines are the stuff of our democracy.
Let’s do something. Every time a politician opens his or her mouth to attack the government or opposition, let us cut him or her short and ask for solutions. It’s similar to that old business adage where the boss says to his assistant “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions’. We have had our bellyful of one point, six point, and fifteen point demands. We want to see more intelligent debate about how we are going to do the seemingly impossible – chart a way out for Bangladesh. All movements, parties and activists need presence on the street. Everyone needs visibility. We can support that.
But what we need are programmes that speak to us, that can provide for a better life.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Fighting the real battle with the World bank

The ruling party has placed a bill in parliament to provide immunity to the World Bank from all the laws of Bangladesh. The media, progressive parties and some NGOs have vociferously opposed this move. Note that some political parties are quiet.
What do the protestors want? Their immediate aim is stop the bill being passed. OK, let us assume they achieve this. Then what? Then they will simply move on. That’s what always happens. Win or lose, they will move on to another issue, another campaign.
If an employee hadn’t taken the World Bank to court they might not asked for immunity and we would have slept blissfully through this. She did, they asked and now we are awake and challenging.
So all this time we did not think of taking the World Bank to task in the courts. Now that right is being taken away from us, we are complaining. Where were we all this time?
I do support the courageous moves of the protestors in rallying against this bill. However, we should pick the right target and stay in for the long-term.
Tactically, we should oppose the Immunity bill in this parliament, If passed, we should press for any new regime or parliament to repeal this bill.
The long-term aim should be scrap any PSRPs or World Bank control of our policies since it is obvious to nearly all that they do not lead to development.
Strategically, we should look at an intermediary stage or issue and logically press for that resolution. This should be the cancellation of our foreign debt. A precedent has been set for poor countries – the so-called highly indebted developing countries. Even though our debt is higher than some of the smaller countries, we have not been included. After years of pressure from activists in the North and South, the international financial institutions agreed to a process of writing off debt. It’s imperfect and still unfair. But it’s a start.
We receive $700 million in so-called aid annually. Our overall debt has now climbed to $17 billion. We owe the World Bank alone $6.5 billion.
The World Bank says that a country’s debt is unsustainable if our debt is 150% of the value of our annual exports. Our figure is higher, at 180%.
Now add this little fact. We pay out about $650 million every year for our debt. Remember, we hardly receive grants any more. They give loans. That’s why the ‘Aid Consortium’ is really the ‘Debt Consortium”.
We are almost in the position where we get $1 as ‘aid-debt’ in the right hand and we pay out $1 with the left hand. We get nothing extra.
From 2005, many garments companies will close down. Besides losing lakhs of jobs, we will also be earning less dollars. Our creditors will be merciless and still insist on their debt. We should have a mature discussion with them and suggest that we have a minimum five year moratorium. I.e we stop paying. We can then invest that money in creating more industries to earn foreign exchange or save foreign exchange.
Our ‘development partners’ will throw up their hands in horror or even laugh.
Remind them of two things. The Japanese, Canadians and British have or are cancelling our debt – it’s nothing new. We want ALL creditors to do so.
The US is calmly asking that $150 billion (nine times our debt) to be cancelled. For which country? Iraq. The World Bank hasn’t protested. Strange that what is unacceptable in one place is OK somewhere else.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Private students

The government and University Grants Council (UGC) recently announced that 8 private universities would be closed down for gross violations. Another 10 new applications have been held up and will not be considered until there is a new law in place. There are scores of private universities, mostly operating out of apartments. Lecturers have been prized away from the public universities. There are not enough of them to go around. Positions remain vacant. Students are getting short-changed, big-time.
This scandal has been with us for some time, so why act now & so meekly? This whole fiasco is hitting innocent middle class families who are investing their hard-earned earnings to give their kids a chance of a better life.
Let's close those apartment-lecture-hall-businesses and compensate the families.
For those private universities who are serious in providing education, we should insist they have proper campuses and teach more than just BBAs and IT.
Finally, we should pay public university lecturers decently since the poorer students cannot afford to go private.