Friday, January 28, 2005

grenades & Bangladeshi politics

A 73 year old man had just finished a speech in a small north-eastern town of Bangladesh. Someone form the crowd threw a grenade. The elderly man and three others were killed. Mr. S.A.M.S Kibria was a Finance Minister in the previous regime and current Awami League MP. Even though he was in the twilight of his career, this is no ordinary 'incident'.
After a somewhat surprisingly quiet winter political lull, the violence is back.
Who gains from such instability?Quite a few people and groups. And they are not necessarily underground.
Politics in Bangladesh ceased being peaceful from the mid 90s. We are no longer surprised that political leaders are killed. There have been several such attacks over the last seven years.
However, it is quite strange that this region, Sylhet, has borne the brunt of these explosions - significantly an attempt on the British High Commissioner in 2004. A few opposition women leaders were at the receiving end of a similar assault a couple of months ago.
Is civil society complacent or is it fearful?
Maybe 2005 is not going to be such a smooth easy ride after all.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

world forums

We know two major forums are on. One is in cold wintry Switzerland. The other in the warm Brazilian town of Porto Alegre. After the venture into India last year, the World Social forum has returned home. More than 100,000 people have gathered again. I went last year. Enjoyed the experience. Felt uplifted. Brazil seemed a bit too far and too expensive. However, there are many like me who are observing exactly what happens after this forum.
A consensus is emerging that to make "another world is possible" come true, there has to be much more than plenary speeches and colourful demos. The mainstream media will patronisingly show the pictures but imply that the really important action is in Davos.
Let 's see whether the intellectuals now want to get their hands dirty and look to implementation of the alternative programmes. Will the WSF unite on a couple of issues and campaign on them worldwide? If so, will it be debt and climate change? If so, then the WSF will start to become an alternative force.
And if it can give moral and intellectual support to Chavez in Venezuela and encourage the other center-left Latin american leaders to show more resolve, then a geo-political shift may start to happen.
i have profound doubts because the WSF has not truly engaged in Asia (especially the chinese and Japanese). there has been no follow through in India, despite the change in parties in last year's elections.
We need more politics in the WSF. let us hope that they can consolidate and solidify the Latin American electoral successes and then reach out to Asia. Uncle Sam is bogged down in the Middle East and the dollar is on the way down. Are they listening?

election fever

The present regime still has two years left till January 2007 before the next election. It has a whopping two-thirds majority in parliament. Yet it has not managed to do anything dramatic to change the future of this country. They could have passed sweeping new laws. But the opposition has managed to make the Assembly inactive by its street politics.
Now, the same parties are vying for power through another election. They are starting early. You might wonder why they are so eager, since neither the winner nor the loser can make the legislature function. Sham democracy. Of course, there is a simple reason. Elections get one to the seat of power. That seat is not to be found in the Jatiyo Sangsad, or National Assembly.
We need to examine what “Participatory Democracy" is all about. Plainly, representative democracy has not worked.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Fire, deaths and squabbling

A fire swept through a garments factory in Narayangany, killing a score of workers. Fire extinguishers were either not present, or did not work. There was no alternative route for victims to use. They were consumed by the flames. The unions are protesting and national figures such as Dr. Kamal Hossain have condemned the lack of safety. Unfortunately, a similar incident occurred in a factory, also in Narayanganj. Workers died in a fire. The same leaders made impassioned speeches. Nothing happened. At the same time, the businessmen’s lobbying group, the BGMEA, has been busy in the courts. The government had appointed an administrator, allegedly to influence that association’s forthcoming elections. So while workers die, and we now wait to see the impact of a post-quota world, our businessmen and government are squabbling for position. Don’t be surprised if one-third to one-half of the factories are closed in 2007. Those responsible are too busy to care it seems

Saturday, January 08, 2005


The ready-made-garments industry bigwigs have been sounding off about the impact of the removal of quotas in 2005. There's been a lot of false confidence about how the industry will compete with China and India. Ignore the bravado. Expect to see hundreds of thousands of women out of a job by 2007.
We all support industrialisation as it is the way forward to lift this country out of poverty. But the nature of the business owners becomes apparent when you read about a factory fire where the women workers were not able to escape because the doors were locked. The management are not interested in checking if the fire extinguishers work or not (assuming there are some) and do not provide alternative routes of escape.
At the same time, we hear that the factories are trying to follow 'codes of conduct' in line with Western consumer demands.
Well, 22 workers died yesterday and others are badly burnt. Will there be any compensation?
Owners need to make profits and their margins are definitely being squeezed by foreign buyers. But there are lots of businessmen who do not pay their workers for months at a time and are callous about their workforces.
And yet the women want to work in these factories because this is their only hope. We cannot or seems do not want to have a human face to industrialisation. The Victorian world disappeared in London but it moved over here and is alive and kicking in 2005.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

an earthquake is overdue

There have been quite a few aftershocks following the one that led to the Tsunami. Up to 80 jolts. US scientists are now a little concerned that there is no quake in Assam, the last one being in 1950. If it occurs anywhere near Dhaka or Chittagong, there will be a catastrophe. No preparation and crowded badly built buildings make for a deadly combination.
An earthquake is long overdue. That may mean 30 years, it may mean 3 years. We are used to disasters but we have not experienced an earthquake of a really serious magnitude in our lifetimes. We will.
Plans have been drawn up. They reveal that many deaths will occur due to gas explosions in the dense section of the capital, called Old Dhaka. After that many more will perish from the breakdown in water, sanitation and health systems.
The problem is that no one in authority is aware of the plans or what they should be doing now.

No show summit

There are a few disappointed officials in Dhaka this week. Denying it up to the last minute, they had to announce the postponement of the summit of South Asian leaders. The Tsunami is far more important to Sri Lanka, Maldives and India, as it should be. SAARC has so far only proved to be a talking shop. We could all benefit if South Asia can act in unison. But the historical (and hysterical) confrontation between India and Pakistan has gone on for 50 plus years and prevented SAARC following ASEAN, let alone the EU.
Now new groupings are appearing, such as BIMSTEC and BICM.
Despite the recent conciliatory noises betwen Pakistan and India, I do not believe they have the will to overcome their petty jealousies. We cannot wait for foreover. And frankly, why should Bangladesh be more bothered with Pakistan over South-West China or mynamar or even Thailand?
I think it would be much healthier for us to look east and south east and get closer to China. Economically and militarily. By us, I include India too.