Friday, August 28, 2009

Is parliamentary democracy working in Bangladesh?

Published in The Daily Independent, August 29, 2009

BNP's General Secretary Khandker Delwar Hossain, himself not a Member of Parliament, has hinted that his party may continue to stay away from the Parliament when it meets for the next session. His hint is not unexpected; nor is anyone expecting any better news from him. He has used the same line that the opposition has been using as a reason for not attending the parliament since we established parliamentary democracy in 1991 after the fall of Ershad's decade long dictatorship, that the party in power has not created the conditions necessary for the opposition to attend the parliament.

Both the mainstream parties that have, while in the opposition, made this excuse for staying out of Parliament. But neither bothered to create the environment they have demanded, while in power.

In the last two terms, the BNP and the AL have introduced the issue of front row sitting as an additional excuse to stay out of the parliament. During the last BNP government, the AL abstained from attending the Parliament because they demanded and did not get what they considered was a fair number of front seats in the parliament. This time, the AL has used the same principle used on it by the BNP to deny the latter the number of seats they have demanded. The "sovereign parliament" thus remains deadlocked on an issue that can only be described as trivial.
The people are both frustrated and disappointed by the way the AL and the BNP have used trivial excuses to stay out of the parliament. The excuses they make while in the opposition and the total indifference they show to these excuses while in power raise serious doubt whether parliamentary democracy can work in Bangladesh. They have failed to acknowledge that in a parliamentary system of government, the presence of the opposition in parliament is fundamental to the system.
The number of seats that the officially designated opposition has in the parliament does not make its role any less important in the context of parliamentary democracy. The party in power needs the opposition to make parliament sovereign and ensure parliamentary democracy. The absence of an opposition is in fact incomprehensible in a parliamentary democracy.

In this instance, the reason that is keeping the BNP out of the current parliament and the one that had kept the AL out in the last parliament rejects the principles upon which a parliamentary democracy is established.
Denying seats to the Opposition in the front row or giving it on basis of seats won in the elections demonstrates a mindset in both the BNP and the AL of denying the opposition an important role in the affairs of the parliament. In other words, the two parties have demonstrated, while in power, a preference for humiliating the opposition, thus refusing to accept the fact that in a parliamentary democracy, an opposition has almost as important a role to play as the party in power.
In the context of both the BNP and the AL, the issue of seating arrangement that now holds the Parliament hostage as it had held in the BNP's term of office is difficult to comprehend.

In 2001, the BNP had won the elections with two-thirds majority and acceding to the AL's request for a few additional seats in the front row should have been accepted in good grace. This time the AL has won with a greater majority than the BNP and denying the BNP the extra seats on the plea that the latter did the same is not even common sense for this has provided the BNP an excuse to stay out of parliament. In looking deeper into the psychology of the two parties with regards to the seat issue, one can reasonably conclude that neither believes seriously in the role of an opposition in a parliamentary democracy.
The spirit of democracy in general and parliamentary democracy in particular rests on compromise that the two mainstream parties have sadly failed to demonstrate. As a consequence, our parliament has failed to emerge as a symbol of authority; of sovereignty.

The parliamentary committees that are the arms of the parliament for exercising that sovereignty have also failed to emerge as powerful institutions. The functions of these committees are given a great deal of media coverage but in the absence of a functional and vibrant parliament, the work of the parliamentary committees does not have the necessary clout to make the executive branch pay much attention to their work.

The two mainstream parties have thus between them made the parliament a lame duck institution instead of a sovereign one. In the present term, the AL government has introduced some new elements in executive governance that further undermines the role and effectiveness of the parliament. In at least one Ministry, it has placed an Adviser with full rank of a Minister with a Member of Parliament playing second fiddle to him as a state Minister. It has included seven Advisers who are virtually super ministers in a Cabinet where the overwhelming majority of the members are first timers with little or no experience and even less confidence.

In effect, the nature of politics of the two mainstream parties have ensured that although we have re-introduced parliamentary democracy following the fall of Ershad, our Prime Ministers have preferred to exercise executive power like him, without the need of the opposition. There is a further element here that does not help a parliamentary system establish itself in Bangladesh. When people vote for either of the two mainstream parties, they in fact vote for either Sheikh Hasina or Khaleda Zia just like voters vote in a presidential system of government. Thus when either party wins, its leader assumes power and influence that are hardly conducive to a parliamentary system where a Prime Minister in theory is supposed to be "the first among equals.

The leader of the party that wins not just exercises power like a President; she behaves like one too. The absence of opposition helps her to do so while an ever-compliant President ensures nothing to the contrary. In fact, the parliamentary system has been tailored by the BNP and the AL to allow the Prime Minister to enjoy executive power as a President without the disadvantage of term limitation of a presidential system.

In Bangladesh, we have established one of the best systems of election for the people to elect the government of their choice. In that sense, we have democracy. But once we send our party of choice to form the government, they end up exercising power that cannot be described as democratic. Although our two parties are nemesis to each other, the Awami League and the BNP are partners in not allowing the parliament to be sovereign, instead allowing the executive led by the Prime Minister to exercise power arbitrarily by staying out of it when in the opposition.
Thus the nature of politics, mindset of the leaders and other objective conditions are not conducive to a parliamentary system of government in Bangladesh. Unless there is a sea change in the mindset with which the two mainstream parties conduct politics, the parliamentary system that we have will be one in theory only; in practice it will continue to be more presidential than a presidential system of government. In being so, the country runs the risk of power being exercised at the executive level arbitrarily because the two parties between them have made the "watchdog" of the people toothless in keeping the executive accountable.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Operation Clean Street

Published in The Independent, August 26, 2009

Going by newspaper reports the day after "Operation Clean Street" was launched, it increased people's sufferings in the streets instead of easing it. In fact, the Prime Minister who directed the concerned authorities to do something urgent for improving Dhaka's collapsing traffic "system" was herself a victim when her motorcade was held up at the Sheraton Farmgate intersection. According to newspaper reports, the traffic police did not receive the message from the PM's motorcade staff and hence she was stranded which was not bad. She did get to see firsthand what the ordinary people suffer every day. Also, this should remind her that her directive is not enough to get things done!

It is not the first time that a Prime Minister has called for improving Dhaka's traffic situation. In the past, our Prime Ministers have expressed concern over Dhaka's traffic. During the Caretaker government, the Adviser in charge held twice widely covered media events to inform the residents of Dhaka that the government would be giving contracts for underground and over ground transportation network to improve Dhaka's traffic. Not surprisingly, nothing happened because these were merely media events that were arranged with full knowledge that nothing would be eventually done.

In fact, Dhaka's traffic has been deteriorating over the last couple of decades and those in charge then knew as much as the public did that Dhaka's traffic would someday collapse unless dramatic improvements were made in the transportation network in the city. But then, there has been no dearth of meetings, workshops and seminars over the years with nothing being done at all to halt Dhaka's so-called traffic system going down the dark hole. We have not added new roads; we have not improved existing ones and we did nothing towards those measures without which Dhaka's traffic network is as good as dead, namely taking steps for modernisation of Dhaka's traffic system by either underground or over ground system of communication or a combination of both.

The existing statistics about Dhaka's traffic are abysmal and should lead to just one conclusion; that it is a miracle that people can still move in the streets. The ratio or area of the city devoted to roads in the context of the size of the city is unbelievable. The greed of the residents for land and the connivance of the city planners have ensured that even that unbelievable ratio is encroached. Due to the connivance of the law enforcement agencies, the existing roads are encroached by small traders and hawkers. The mindless way in which the drivers drive adds further chaos to the pressure on roads and often traffic jams are accentuated by the reckless way cars and vehicles are driven.

The greed of residents has also impacted adversely on our traffic situation in a different but much more dangerous way. A lot of traffic jams, in fact the unbearable ones occur when schools start and end in the residential areas. Let us take Dhanmandi for example. It was built as a quiet residential district with well laid out roads, with adequate space for lakes, parks and even schools, etcetera. But the planners quite rightly did not plan this residential area for a floodgate of schools; hospitals and most definitely not for business establishments. Following our independence, in fact after the 80s, greedy businessmen, dishonest town planners and other relevant agencies conspired to turn this wonderful residential area into a hub of schools, hospitals, now universities and business complexes. It is not just that greed of few people have turned this wonderful residential district into living hell; the congestion and overflow of traffic of these establishments is today a major cause of the hellish traffic situation of Dhaka.

As if lessons from Dhanmandi were not clear enough, the city planners and relevant authorities have "murdered" Gulshan driven by the same greed that drove them to "murder" Dhanmandi. Today, Gulshan has literally become unlivable particularly if people living there have to use the Gulshan Avenue. The Avenue has become the new commercial hub of the city where there is really no infrastructure to even imagine establishing such a hub. Each of these commercial buildings on the Avenue caters to the need of hundreds of cars but have space for parking in single digits. The result of this madness has turned Gulshan into a jungle of cars and vehicles where the residents are close to suffocating while the greedy and rich are becoming greedier and richer.

Once when we used to talk about Dhaka's traffic, we would inevitably discuss the rickshaws as impediments towards modernising Dhaka's traffic. Now very few blame the rickshaws because even without them, we have managed to slow down Dhaka's traffic even slower than the snail's. In fact, tall talk and no action over Dhaka's traffic backed by increasing greed of some of its residents and their nexus of corruption with relevant authorities have created a situation that our Prime Minister faced on the first day of "Operation Clean Street," After this experience, she should spare a moment and consider that those who named "Operation Clean Street" are themselves a part of the problem. Under the present state of affairs, it would be taking us for fools if we believe that there could indeed be an "Operation Clean Street." In fact, those who codenamed this latest move taken after the Prime Minister's anger as "Operation Clean Street" have not shown sincerity because they better than anyone know that such a codename can only be a stunt because they will not be able to clean the streets just like that. In fact, the measures they have said they will undertake to take old cars/vehicles off the street will never happen. Instead, the law enforcement agencies will make money out of such a drive!

Dhaka traffic is today God's business for without His blessing no one should be moving between destinations in this city. Here the traffic police stops us on green lights and looks us in the eyes for stopping on red lights. Here we maintain our traffic lights and use them to ridicule ourselves. Here we name residential areas and hand them over to businesses. Here we do almost everything to make our traffic the worst in the world in which we ourselves often contribute, like allowing our drivers to drive as they like, park as they like. Yet we are perhaps also the most vocal about speaking on our unbearable traffic system. This is why with our traffic we go one step forward and the two steps back.

But then if we want to continue living in Dhaka, we will not have time that our city residents had in the past which was talk about Dhaka's traffic and continue with their greed. We are perhaps in the last stretch if we want to save Dhaka. We must have a modern network of both over ground and underground railway. There is not one city the size of Dhaka in terms of population that does not have such modern network for traffic. Building this network should start if possible tomorrow but it cannot be delayed anymore. Within this modernisation that will take time but must be done, Dhaka can follow Tokyo in improving its existing traffic network. In that city, except the main arteries, all other roads are one-way. The timings of schools can be looked into so that these do not conflict with the office timings in government and private enterprises. Those who drive and those who have drivers must ensure that the traffic regulations must be followed. We could also consider in certain important roads and areas, movement of cars by number plates; odd numbers on one day and even numbers on another. Finally, those who control the traffic on the roads must show intelligence that they most often do not to follow one basic principle of traffic management; make all out effort to keep traffic moving. Most often, we see a number of these traffic sergeants and constables giving directions at cross purposes that strangulate traffic instead of easing it.

We do not need "Operation Clean Street" for we know such operations are stunts. Dhaka's traffic problem is not one to deal by stunts for our traffic "system" is literally in the ICU. It is not one to fool with but one to deal with commitment; sincerity and vision. Let us also not forget that here time is of the essence.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Extortion and public misery: What is the way out?

Published in The Daily Independent, August 21, 2009

Two Ministers of the government, holding the key posts of Finance and Food between them, acknowledged that criminals with links to the ruling party and members of the law enforcement agencies are responsible for the high prices consumer pay for daily commodities because they regularly extort money from trucks and other vehicles that carry these commodities to the market. The Finance Minister, animated as always, pleaded with these elements to stop their illegal activities so that Bangladesh could "be a wealthy nation in 10 years."

The Food Minister gave unbelievable figures of how much the consumers suffer from these politically connected extortionists and members of the law enforcement agencies. He said that traders and truckers pay three fourths of the negotiated transportation fare to these elements that they conveniently pass on to the consumers. The Ministers were speaking recently at a business event in Dhaka.

In speaking to the media these days, our Ministers are often, candidly honest. This is indeed encouraging. What however is not encouraging is that the Ministers are not forthcoming on informing the public on what they intend to do with what they so honestly acknowledge. In this instance, the Ministers' candid admission is nothing unknown to the public. Our highways are used every day by millions of our people who see as a common sight, these extortionists at work. The law enforcement agencies also are not shy to do what they do out of sight of the public. It was however baffling that after admitting such criminal activities by members of their own party and the law enforcement agencies, the Ministers were expressing hope that they should stop such illegal activities to allow Bangladesh to become a wealthy country!

Of course, there is precious little that these Ministers can do to deal with what they have acknowledged publicly. The reason is in the nature of politics that we have allowed to grow in the country in the name of fighting for democracy. In a span of 25 years, we fought colonial and oppressive forces twice, the last one in 1971 that was also genocidal and won. In fighting these forces, we won because we have depended heavily and completely on our political parties that have played their role extremely well by bringing the people together to fight the common enemy. In other societies, the political parties that have played similar roles went into the background once the fight against the forces of oppression was won. The elected government was left alone to lead and build the nation. The role of political parties in all countries today adhering to a democratic form of government is predominantly, election centric. They come into the political stage actively in helping their candidates to win and form the government and recede into the background once the elections are over.

In Bangladesh, this did not happen because the anti-democratic forces managed to be around even after we won our independence. The political parties were therefore required to remain active in everyday politics. The opportunity to do the right thing after Ershad's decade long dictatorship fell as a result of the movement led by the BNP and the Awami League was wasted because these two mainstream parties created the need for using the political parties in everyday politics to fight each other. In fact, our politics has become corrupt and criminalised because the political leadership of both these mainstream parties have indulged with their respective parties to keep them busy in politics even when the elections were over when the correct thing should have been for the party in power and the one in the opposition to cooperate on a nation building agenda. The politics that has emerged in our country, created by these two parties is one in which the party that wins gives its members a share of political power by allowing them to use their political clout to receive benefit from governance, legally and illegally. The one in the opposition has kept its party alive by using it to fight these criminal activities, quite conveniently forgetting that when it was in power, it did pretty much the same.
For the first time though, we are witnessing a change in the way our politicians conduct politics. The way the two Ministers have acknowledged their own party's complicity in extortion is a hint of that change. The Prime Minister herself has spoken out strongly in urging the Home Ministry to crack down on the extortionists even if they would happen to be Awami Leaguers. However, for achieving the desired result, a lot more has to be done by the Prime Minister herself and her Ministers. There has to be a paradigm shift in the way she runs her party. At the same time, there has to be a major change in understanding and assessing the role of a political party in democracy. In the good old days when we were fighting the forces of oppression, our political leadership needed an extensive network of the party right up to the grass root level to carry the message of the party, its policies and manifestos to the voters to win their favour. This is also why our political leadership, as they were establishing their parties in those times of democratic struggles, had to depend on labour wings, youth wings, and students' wings, etcetera, etcetera for succeeding as a political party.

Today, times have changed dramatically. The revolution in information has short-circuited the need for the extensive network. The Prime Minister is aware better than anyone how much she and her party had to depend for winning the last elections so comprehensively. Privately she has even commented that with an AL ticket, even a log would have won a seat in Parliament. She owes very little for AL's massive election victory in December last to those who are today wearing the AL hat and extorting money. She owes very little also to the activists in her labour wing and none at all to her students' wing. Yet these are the people who are not just giving the party a bad name; if they are not contained, the party's election promises of a Digital Bangladesh and Vision 2021 would remain visions in paper and may not see the light of day.

It is time therefore for action and not for just hoping that these elements would give up extortion to allow Bangladesh to become wealthy. The Prime Minister's warning sadly will also not have the desired effect. A few facts must be acknowledged. First, the Awami League has won the elections and formed the government. Second, the AL leaders in government, including the Prime Minister, represent the nation, not just the party. Finally, they are therefore required by the principles and practices of a democratic government to give the nation's interests precedence over the party's. Unfortunately, in distortion of these principles and practices, our mainstream parties have, since the return of elected governments, allowed the officials of the party in power to use their influence in government, which is a major reason for the endemic corruption in our governance. Extortion that is now a major reason for people's sufferings is the direct consequence of this indulgence.

Once elected in a parliamentary democracy like ours, the influence of the party in office should end at the doorsteps of the executive branch. Its role should increase in the parliament instead. The reverse, unfortunately, is the reality in Bangladesh. Unless the reversal is corrected, the "hopes" of the Ministers and the dire warning of the Prime Minister would not lead to the desired result. The only way out is for a message to go out from the Prime Minister that in enforcing the law, taking decisions by the executive branch of the government, being an Awami League party official or representing the Awami League is not a license for favour. This calls for a paradigm shift in governance that will take a long time for sustainable results but it is high time to make a start as much for the Awami League as it is for the nation. The role of the law enforcement agencies in connection of money they make in the transportation sector is a different matter, much easier to handle if the government is serious about it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Politicising the bureaucracy: Is there a plan?

Published in The Independent, Dhaka, 17th August, 2009

One of the issues that the AL had placed before the people for support to win the December, 2009 elections was blaming the BNP for politicising the civil bureaucracy. By implication this meant that if elected, they would not do what the BNP did. It is true that the BNP had politicised the civil bureaucracy during its 2001-2006 tenure. The BNP also overlooked the fact that under its watch, there was a change of guards taking place; that the civil bureaucrats recruited in the Pakistan days were finally leaving and those recruited after liberation, much weaker in ability, were taking charge at the top.

The BNP's playing politics with the civil bureaucracy was however nothing new. The BNP had just tried to fine tune what the AL did during its 1996-2001 tenure. In fact, the AL was brought to office in 1996 riding on the wave of a revolt by the AL leaning civil bureaucrats who had created the "Janatar Mancha." The BNP did during its tenure just followed on what the AL had established as a part of the politics of the country; that the civil bureaucracy, particularly those at the top, must be loyal to the party in power.

Looking back in hindsight, one of the reasons why the BNP became unpopular during its last tenure after going to power with a two thirds majority was because it followed the AL way of dealing with the bureaucracy. The BNP had just one legitimate issue with the civil bureaucracy, namely taking action against those members who had openly "revolted" against an elected government. The BNP, however, used the excuse of the Mancha's revolt by moving against those it presumed to be AL leaning. As a result, it divided the civil bureaucracy and weakened it. The BNP also introduced a selective system of "extension" to keep in service those that it deemed loyal to the party. That did not work either. The BNP ended by messing up governance because of this mindless politicisation of the civil bureaucracy. Those involved in politicising the bureaucracy also made money out of it. The country that could have made significant strides in over-all development, suffered as a consequence leading to conflicts and violence in politics that brought the emergency that pushed back our development efforts further.

Thus when the people, particularly the 20 million new voters who have voted this time, found that the AL was willing to de-politicise the bureaucracy, they were encouraged to vote for it. Of course, they voted for the AL for "digital Bangladesh" and "vision 2021" as well. It is still too early to judge the AL's on the last two named issues. Unfortunately, on the de-politicisation of the civil bureaucracy, the writing became clear on the wall almost as soon as the Awami League took office.
Immediately on assuming office, the Awami League made it clear that those presumed to be supporters of the BNP/Jamat alliance would have no place in the government. This time around, being an AL supporter would also not be enough; it would be necessary for civil bureaucrats to prove that they have no connections to those now referred in the party as "reformists" that is now a hated word in the Awami League's inner circles. It did not take long for the government to make these intentions clear. It made OSDs in numbers that have been the largest under any government since independence as the first step towards weeding out of civil bureaucracy those the AL government considered leaning towards the BNP/Jamat or "reformists" in the party.
In politicising the civil bureaucracy this time around, the AL government has thus introduced new elements. The part of isolating the presumed BNP/Jamat supporters has been easy because except for the first BNP government after Ershad's fall, the three successive elected governments have used politics as basic criteria in dealing with the civil bureaucracy. Hence when the AL took office this time, there was a handy list of presumed BNP/Jamat supporters available that was evident in the ease with which a record number of officers were made OSDs. In promoting to and filling important positions, the AL government could not however depend on that list. To ensure that civil servants leaning towards AL but also towards the "reformers" are not promoted, the government has introduced contractual appointments in key positions that are being given from people who have gone into retirement quite some time ago or from those in service whose loyalty to the party under the changed circumstances is absolute. In fact, the word going around in the bureaucracy is the government now has a "DNA test" for determining loyalty.

The Awami League government is thus entering into unchartered territories in dealing with the civil bureaucracy. Over the years, the civil bureaucracy has served useful purposes and must given a lot of credit for the development that has taken place in the country. Up to the first BNP government, the civil bureaucracy was allowed to follow the basic principles upon which it was established in the British and Pakistani days, namely keeping it apolitical and encouraging merit and efficiency as the basic criteria for promotions and other privileges.

These time-tested foundations are being eroded without any serious thinking about its importance and role as one of the most important institutions in governance. By making politics the primary consideration, the political parties are trying to introduce a system that has no place in any democracy today. If our political parties had themselves matured so that the nation would be safe in their hands, then a weak and politically compliant bureaucracy would not have been a major worry. But then we have heard our Prime Minister speak out many times about her cabinet colleagues in a critical manner. The Ministers have said publicly that they are unable to satisfy the Prime Minister because the bureaucrats are BNP/Jamat supporters despite the opposite being the truth! Something is seriously amiss here.
In 2005, a Director-General of a Japanese government financial institution had met me in my office when I was Ambassador to Japan just a few days before that country's national elections. He was extremely critical of Prime Minister Koizumi and the ruling LDP. I asked him with a great deal of curiosity why he was so openly critical of LDP and Koizumi being a civil servant. The gentleman answered that being critical of a politician and a party is his fundamental right but as a civil bureaucrat, he would be serving Koizumi and the LDP loyally without any question asked if he returned in the elections.

Our civil bureaucracy has served well because it too historically has been based on same principles. What the AL Government is doing is creating its anti-thesis. The question is: does it have a plan? The issue here is even if it has a plan, Bangladesh is just not the country to establish such a politicised bureaucracy because when our civil servants enter service, a large number of them are divided half and half into the AL and the anti-AL camps because of the politics they are allowed to do in their educational institutions. If such a policy is officially introduced, the government that introduces it would be paying for a large number of the civil servants without their support because in such a large bureaucracy, it would neither be feasible nor possible to weed out civil servants completely based on which party they support.

Then in our bureaucracy there has always been and still are a large number of civil servants who have no strong political affiliation who would be caught in the middle and left in a limbo. Such politicisation towards which the AL government is moving would eventually stifle life out of the bureaucracy while benefiting just a small part of it. Such a policy is not common sense either because a pall of gloom prevails over the majority of civil servants today except for those few who have passed (or hope to pass) the stringent test of party loyalty. The AL government's perception of a civil bureaucracy is in fact the communist/authoritarian model; only our system is neither communist nor authoritarian.

(The writer a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies and former Ambassador to Japan.)

Friday, August 14, 2009

Parliamentary delegation “convinced” on Tipaimukh

Published in The Daily Star, August 15, 2009

FORMER Water Resources Minister and currently Chairman of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources Mr. Abdur Razzak, upon his return home from leading a parliamentary delegation to India, said that his talks with the Indians have “convinced” him that Tipaimukh will not harm Bangladesh. He told news media that the dam will be constructed for generating hydro-electricity and ensuring flood control and its water will not be used for irrigation.

The parliamentary delegation did not include any member of the opposition. Mr. Razzak's words alone may not resolve the controversy that Tipaimukh has raised in Bangladesh. A lot more will be required to calm passion and apprehension over the issue that was allowed to develop into a full blown controversy with enough potentials to take Bangladesh-India relations off the track. The Indian High Commissioner, unfortunately, started the controversy as much by what he said as by the manner in which he said what he said. Some of the Bangladeshi ministers added apprehension to the controversy when they addressed the issue in the media in support of the Indian High Commissioner.

The Indian High Commissioner and the ministers failed to take into account the fact that the Farakka issue has embedded deep into the psyche of Bangladeshis a suspicion that India would eventually withdraw waters from the rivers that flow from India and turn Bangladesh into a desert. The public reaction in Bangladesh led by the BNP was therefore natural and spontaneous because in Tipaimukh, they saw the scepter of a Farakka on the north eastern side of Bangladesh-India border.

It is very encouraging that the Indians have “convinced” the Bangladesh parliamentary delegation. It is also encouraging to learn that Tipaimukh will generate electricity and control floods in the plains of Assam and that its water will not be diverted to cause shortfall in the flow of Barak River on which the dam will be constructed as it flows into Bangladesh into the Surma and Kushiara rivers. The assurances nevertheless raise a curious issue in the context of the serious controversy that Tippaihmukh has caused in Bangladesh: the inordinate delay by the Indian side to take Bangladesh into confidence over Tipaimukh. According to one member of the delegation, they were given information on Tipaimukh that was denied to Bangladesh in the last 20-25 years. The parliamentary delegation has submitted a report to the Prime Minister but its details are not yet known. The report must have all the technical details so that the Bangladesh government could tell the people the whole truth and let the issue rest. Therefore, one must wait to learn how much the Indians have taken Bangladesh into confidence on Tipaimukh.

When the AL won the December elections last year, it was expected in Bangladesh that Bangladesh-India relations would improve qualitatively given the AL's historical closeness with the Congress. Additionally, in recent times, there has been a perceptible change in people's attitude in Bangladesh over issues that had stalled Bangladesh-India relations in the past such as transit, use of ports etc. Given India's concern over terrorism, Prime Minister Sehikh Hasina even offered to establish a joint task force to tackle the issue. There was optimism in many quarters in Bangladesh that the two countries who need each other for compulsions of history and geopolitics would move towards a new era of win- win relationships where India, in reciprocal gesture, would look at Bangladesh's concerns on water, trade and maritime boundary.

Unfortunately, that optimism was very short lived. The Indian High Commissioner helped raise the controversy over Tipaimukh that put the Bangladesh government on a spot. Even the ministers were confused over the Indian High Commissioner, with the Foreign Minister at least once expressing reservation over his media comment only to be contradicted by the LGRD Minister the day after! All these did not suggest that the Indians were eager to settle outstanding bilateral issues; rather these actions by the Indians hinted towards an overbearing attitude on their part.

Tipaimukh nevertheless has helped the AL and the BNP move closer to making this a national issue, something unpleasantly rare in our politics. The ministers stopped supporting the project perhaps under the Prime Minister's direction who must have sensed the dangers of taking a pro-Tipaimukh stand. In her bilateral meeting with the Indian Prime Minister on the sidelines of the NAM Summit in Egypt in July she raised Bangladesh's concerns over Tipaimukh. Mr. Singh gave Sheikh Hasina assurance that nothing would be done to harm Bangladesh and the two leaders further agreed that a Bangladesh parliamentary delegation would visit India to discuss Tipaimukh.

Apprehensions in Bangladesh will not be fully laid to rest till the people are convinced with facts. The favourable impression carried home by Mr. Razzak and his delegation will not be enough to clear the apprehension in Bangladesh. The facts must come out in a transparent manner so that assessment could be made by experts. The best and perhaps the only way to resolve this issue satisfactorily would be to discuss Tipaimukh in the Joint Rivers Commisison with India providing all the facts and figures, something the Indians have refused so far despite Bangladesh's repeated requests.

The Tipaimukh controversy can land Bangladesh-India relations in the doldrums if handled badly or insensitively. It can also act as a conduit for taking relations to a different level altogether if handled positively. Given the fact that there is very deep and significant opposition in India, particularly in Manipur over the project, the Indians could drop it altogether because the amount of electricity it will generate is by no means dramatic. In fact if generating electricity is the main argument, then there are other places India could look to generate many times more electricity. That could provide a quantum leap to the development of Bangladesh-northeast India-Nepal and Bhutan sub-region and could very well include Manipur with no environmental costs. For many decades now, Bangladesh has been trying to pique India with Nepal's tacit support for a sub-regional management of water resources. Nepal could be used for building dams and reservoirs that could provide the much needed energy as well as control devastating floods in India, Bangladesh and the sub-region.

Recently Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has spoken of a South Asian power grid. It is an old call, one she also made when she was Leader of the Opposition. Such a power grid could become transformational if the vast water resource of the region, which is now being wasted because of India's mindset for dealing with each of her neighbours bilaterally, is developed multilaterally. Bangladesh should now make a strategic shift in conducting her bilateral relations with India. Past experience of using the traditional channels alone have not worked in our favour for we were seldom given a fair deal when our Foreign Ministry and other Ministries and established channels such as the JRC have been used to negotiate with their Indian counterparts. Issues have always been bogged down by a mindset on the Indian side that neighbours cannot be trusted multilaterally and on Bangladesh's side that India cannot be trusted as a friendly neighbour. It is time that our Prime Minister takes charge to deal with the major irritants at the highest level to reach the political understanding without which it would be very difficult to improve and strengthen Bangladesh-India relations.

The Tipaimukh controversy is far from over. Nevertheless, it seems that India is eager now to give Bangladesh information that was not forthcoming in the past. The meeting between the two Prime Ministers in Cairo may be the reason for the change of heart on India's part. The Indian Prime Minister is a statesman and knows the importance of a friendly neighbour. Our Foreign Ministry needs to make more use of summit diplomacy for better attention and resolution of our problems with India.

Monday, August 10, 2009

How safe are we from criminal and religious militancy?

Published in The Daily Independent, August 10, 2009

The State Minister for Home made a statement while opening the Sher-e-Bangla Police station recently that is surprising to say the least. He said that no one is safe in the country, whether walking on foot or in a car and that "we all are under the surveillance of the networks of criminals and religious extremists and this is the reality… no people, big or small, are beyond such networks." The Minister acknowledged a very bad law and order situation but blamed it upon the anti-Bangladesh forces of 1971 and criminals for the state of affairs.

The Minister was candid to say the least although he certainly over-exaggerated the case. Since the return of civilian rule following the December 29th elections, criminals who were forced to lie low have returned with vengeance to make up for their lost time and business during the two years of emergency. Hijacking and mugging are now routine affairs of life in Dhaka. The extortionists are also making up for lost time and their impatience is showing; businessmen are getting killed without being given a second chance to meet the demands of these criminals.

The public universities have been the first casualties signalling the deterioration of law and order. The student wing of the ruling party moved on the student wing of the opposition to gain control of the residential halls immediately after the AL government took office. They lost no time to start manipulating tenders and interfering in admission to extort money. Intra-party quarrel within the student wing of the ruling party worsened the environment in the universities that have also spread to the other educational institutions. The lawlessness in the educational institutions forced the Prime Minister to de-link her official position as the party chief in the party's student wing. Sadly, her action did not have the desired impact and conflict and criminal activities are far from being rooted out from the educational institutions. To compete with the ruling party's student wing, the BNP named a central committee of its student wing where middle aged non-students have been given key positions, signalling clearly their intention to match their opponents to vitiate the environment of the educational institutions.

In his emotional appeal, the Minister's heart was in the right place but not his head. He has correctly assessed the dangers of militancy from the criminals and religious extremities but his dire conclusions are grossly exaggerated because fear of the militants is not that serious yet to force people to stay home. Nevertheless their activities have increased beyond the tolerance of the public. However, in appealing to the people to be united for tackling militancy of the criminals, the Minister is knocking at the wrong door. The people are united as ever against militancy from criminals but they are frustrated that such militancy has become a feature in their lives because politicians patronise the criminals. The major parties are all equally guilty of allowing this nexus to grow in their respective parties. When one of these parties is in power, the criminals with links to them make lives of people hell while those supporting the opposition go on the run, usually crossing into India where they have a safe haven.

The Minister has also shown a misplaced sense of confidence on the law enforcement agencies by asking the people to support them against criminal militancy. It is general knowledge in the country and for good reasons that the law enforcement agencies are part of the problem with criminal militancy. The political party in power has always used these agencies to protect and sustain the nexus between politics and criminals. The law enforcement agencies on their part have used this interference as an excuse to maintain and sustain their own nexus with the criminals for their own ulterior benefits.

The Minister's fight against militancy, if he seriously means business, must start by making it a non-political issue. The law enforcement agencies must be given the task of apprehending criminals without any political interference. Sincerity in this context is of the essence for such a step will break the dangerous nexus between criminals and politics. It will also put the law enforcement agencies on the spot so that they can no longer make an excuse of political interference for their incapability in nabbing the criminals. Once this freedom is given to the law enforcement agencies, they can then be made to bear the responsibility for the rise of criminal activities or else face the music. This pinpointing responsibility should be an easy task once the nexus is broken because the country has an excellent network of police stations all over the country to tackle criminal militancy.
As for militancy growing in the educational institutions and out of it, the task is even easier. The government has to severe the umbilical cord between national politics and student politics to deal with it. The Prime Minister should complete the task that she has started when she disassociated herself from the student wing of her party. She should ask her political associates to do the same. Once this cord is disrupted, criminal activities inside our educational institutions would die naturally because students on their own cannot sustain breaking the law because they simply do not have that strength or capability. Once the ruling party takes these steps; the opposition will be forced to follow or face the law.

These steps will not definitely root out criminal militancy from the country. Our imperfect legal system will set free many of the criminals who would be nabbed by law enforcement agencies working without political interference. No society can achieve total freedom from criminal militancy and our imperfect legal system needs reform to tackle criminal militancy better. Nevertheless, once these steps are taken, the major source of criminal militancy arising out of the nexus between crime and politics would be thrust a major blow. Whatever criminal militancy would remain afterwards would be something that the people would be able to bear without losing sleep over it.

Religious militancy is a different issue although its potentials for damaging the country's fragile law and order situation are significant. In the last elections, the religious based parties have been dealt a major blow. The BNP has paid a heavy price for encouraging religious militancy when in power last time. In fact, it was the BNP's indulgence for political reasons that religious militancy gained grounds in Bangladesh. Once that patronage was gone, religious militancy has become less a factor in the context of the country's law and order. In fact, since the BNP left government, religious militancy has been talked about in the media a lot but there has not been any action by religious militants that would scare the daylight out of anyone. Although Bangladesh is a predominantly Muslim country, there exists in the society a deep dislike against those who use Islam in politics and more so, for militancy that the law enforcement agencies could use to tackle religious militancy provided political considerations are left out of the equation.

The Minister has over-exaggerated the case on both criminal and religious militancy. His statement unfortunately has been covered outside Bangladesh where his views on religious militancy have caused interest. At least one stringer of a major international news media has been asked to provide more information on the Minister's concern about religious militancy. At a time when we need to project a good image abroad, we should be cautious in creating alarm on religious militancy.

Criminal militancy in Bangladesh can be resolved if the government is willing to call a spade a spade and not play politics with it. Religious militancy is the lesser of the two evils. It is criminal militancy that, if not tackled, could soon keep people from coming out of their houses not religious militancy and the Minister should keep this in mind in dealing with the deteriorating law and order situation in the country.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Corruption during the Emergency: How deep was it?

Published in The Daily Independent, August 3, 2009

Serious allegations are coming out from the relevant Parliamentary Committees on corruption of former Advisers of the Caretaker Government (CG). The committee investigating the LGED Ministry that Transparency International, Bangladesh and the CG publicly identified as the most corrupt Government. Ministry concluded that under the CG, corruption in the LGED Ministry was more than in 39 previous years. Charges are by no means proof of corruption and hence these must now be substantiated through the legal process. Those who brought the charges must now ensure that the law is set in motion.

There are serious moral issues involved in these charges. During the emergency, the CG identified corruption as the most important impediment to Bangladesh's future. They made full use of the media to sensitise the public in favour of their assumption that the country's politics, civil administration and business were responsible for such widespread corruption. Political leaders, businessmen and civil bureaucrats were arrested, including two former Prime Ministers, without respect for the law and human rights, and were humiliated. The CG, however, failed to prove the allegations in the overwhelming majority of the cases they filed in the court.
The ACC under the CG acted like an institution possessed. The Chairman, a military bureaucrat appointed to the post with the rank of a Minister by an unelected government toured the country, holding meetings at district headquarters, in pursuit of banishing corruption from Bangladesh. He vowed that the ACC would change the character of the people for zero tolerance against corruption. The ACC held regular press briefings to announce corruption charges against individuals that private TV channels and newspapers made public. The ACC did not for a moment care or consider a fundamental fact of the law that a person is innocent till proven guilty in a court. From their body language at these press briefings left few in doubt that they were pronouncing judgement. The ACC in fact acted in these briefings as the prosecution, judge and jury.

In the beginning however the people supported the ACC silently because they also believed there was widespread corruption under the elected governments and the corrupt needed to be punished. They were very soon disappointed to see the Commission make a mess of tackling corruption by placing itself above the law. In catching both "big and small fish" of corruption, it went after far too many than it could handle. Its other mistakes were, first, it showed a very subjective interest to incarcerate politicians in the end appearing distinctly vindictive. Second, it also showed a distinct dislike for businessmen and civil bureaucrats and assumed the military to be above corruption. Finally, it made the corruption agenda a political instrument aimed at breaking the major parties to create a "king's party." The civil leaders of the CG and their military backers complimented the ACC's over-enthusiasm instead of cautioning it for its extra-legal activities. It took no note of gross human rights violations by the ACC and allowed it to do pretty much what it wanted. The CG also allowed the military intelligence to do behind the scene what the ACC did publicly in the name of tackling corruption. In fact, behind the scene, the military intelligence acted like a government unto itself and a lot of corruption and human rights violations during the emergency are directly linked to them.

There was no doubt that the ACC Chairman was well meaning in his jihad against corruption. That notwithstanding, it was surprising that he failed to realise that the task of banishing corruption was not the task of the ACC; its task was simply to catch corrupt people and prepare cases against them for the courts to handle. Likewise, the task of changing character of the people was surely not one that the people of Bangladesh would entrust to a military bureaucrat. The CG allowed the ACC to catch the "big and small" fish of corruption in scant respect to the law and human rights without lifting a finger.

Two instances, involving an Ambassador and a former Minister, highlighted how eerie the activities of the ACC and the military intelligence had become after it had created so much hope among the public in the initial period of the emergency rule. The Ambassador was sentenced to a five years' prison sentence while still in station representing the country! The charges against him were all audit objections, like changing of residence, etcetera that should have been dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and settled against the Ambassador's pension and other benefits that were held by the government. While the Ambassador pursued his case in the High Court and received a stay order, the ACC pressured the lower court to sentence him for five years, a decision for which the lower court was held for contempt by the High Court! In openly pursuing the case against this Ambassador, the ACC boasted before the media that all Ambassadors while in station abroad would be similarly treated. It was utterly surprising that the Foreign Ministry at that time did not protest that insane statement nor defended the Ambassador who was sentenced anyway. It is not that Ambassadors are above the law but for sake of the country, action of corruption against them while in their stations can be taken publicly only by a government that is not in its senses. The Minister was physically tortured by the military intelligence to sign on dotted lines about corruption in his Ministry. His wife and daughter were also incarcerated to break the Minister's will for securing the confession.

The military leaders of the CG promised that thousands of crores of Taka would be recovered from the corrupt that would be used to build hospitals and in other social services. In fact, a substantial amount of money was recovered but none of it went for those hospitals and other social services that were promised. Huge sums must therefore be in some pockets instead of lying in the government exchequer.

The Chief Adviser surprisingly watched the ACC and military intelligence trash the law and human rights without raising a finger. Instead he and his Advisers and the military leaders came before the public continuously deriding corruption in every segment of the society except the military. It is therefore unacceptable that corruption charges should be brought against Advisers of the CG and the CG itself. Additionally, there is also the need for an answer as to where the thousands of crores arm-twisted by the army intelligence during the emergency, went. The present ACC should pursue these allegations with extreme seriousness but outside the media. The Commission could also consider amnesty to people who were arm-twisted and tortured for money to recover the thousands of crores that were paid but were not deposited in the government exchequer. Although unrelated to the corruption issue, the government should also inquire into the constitutional violations by the CG because these violations allowed the CG to carry out its extra-legal activities by setting the law aside for which grave charges are now being brought against it.

There were a good number of people who were incarcerated by the CG who were genuinely corrupt. In the name of political victimisation, they should not all be allowed to escape; nor should such cases be handled on political lines. The ACC has a difficult task but the Prime Minister has assured it independence. It should now pursue the corruption allegations against the CG, its Advisers and the intelligence people following the same yardstick they had set for politicians, businessmen and civil bureaucrats during the emergency that no one is above the law.