Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is Bangladesh the best place for investment?

It is very encouraging to see our Prime Minister speaking at so many forums during her current visit to the United States. Her statement at the UNGA in Bangla made us proud. We remembered with nostalgia her father Bangobandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's speech in our mother tongue for the first time ever when he spoke there after we became a member of the UN. In her speeches at the UN, she has effectively highlighted the adverse effect that climate is having on all of us due to global warming where we are a frontline nation is being asked by nature to pay the price for the greed and insensitivity of other nations, particularly the developed nations. We felt proud that our Prime Minister was given pride of place at the meeting of delegation heads of peacekeeping nations where she was seated next to the US President.

I am however writing this piece to focus on one issue that the PM has highlighted during this trip, namely seeking foreign direct investment (FDI) for Bangladesh. In a conference on investment held at the Bangladesh Consulate in New York she said, "Bangladesh and only Bangladesh is now the best place for investment." The phrase is a catchy one but the business and investment world is one where catchy expressions seldom bring FDI unless the ground is as attractive.

During AL's 1996-2001 term, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had taken the same keen interest for attracting FDI soon after assuming office. I was with her on two of her overseas visits for that purpose. In the first one, taken just two months after she became PM, she addressed an investment seminar in Hong Kong. An international consultant firm named Perigreen was given the responsibility to organise that Seminar. That was the time just before the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese. Therefore, in the Bangladesh delegation, there was an air of great expectancy that we would be able to attract the attention of investors. Unfortunately, little investment came our way from that effort. In fact, the company that organised that Seminar, Perigreen, was busted a couple of years later.

A year after that trip, the Prime Minister went on an official trip to Japan where she addressed another investment Seminar. In that speech, she reiterated what she had said in Hong Kong. In fact at that Seminar, the Prime Minister said in a part of her speech that the Japanese should follow the South Koreans who at that point was a major investor in our country, little aware that asking the Japanese to follow the South Koreans was not exactly the right way to motivate them to come to Bangladesh.

During the visit of Khaleda Zia as Prime Minister to Japan is 2005, it was more or less a repetition of the same tone; that investors who are waiting to invest in Bangladesh were missing out on a golden opportunity. The interest of the investors in the meetings with both Prime Ministers in Japan was significant. In fact, the interest was more during Khaleda Zia's visit because at that time, the Japanese investors were seriously looking for an investment destination to relocate part of their huge investments in China for reasons of politics. Unfortunately, neither Prime Minister succeeded in bringing to Bangladesh any major FDI flow from Japan.

The reasons are there for everyone to see; only we are not looking. Our Prime Minister was absolutely correct when she said this time in New York that Bangladesh is the best investment destination. But unfortunately, her statement is correct only partly. To motivate investors, she would need to prove a little bit more; in fact a lot more. Let us for a moment see what we have to be an attractive investment destination. First, we have a geographical location that should be the envy of other countries vying for FDI. As a bridge between South Asia and Southeast Asia, we offer investors a foothold from where they can access markets of over two billion people.

As a member of SAARC and BMSTEC, both of whom are committed for free market eventually, there is really no other country that has potentially a better geographical location and potential than Bangladesh. Then we have access to sea. As a country of 160 million people, we offer investors a huge local market. Finally, we offer to investors cheap and intelligent labour in plenty. With all these "too good to be true qualifications" why then are we languishing for FDI having so far failed to draw any significant amount of it? Here is where our Prime Minister needs to do her home work before asking foreign investors to come to Bangladesh. The other day, a University Professor was telling viewers in a TV talk show that when the Singaporeans were seriously seeking FDI, they even took into the equation the drive from the airport to the hotel to motivate investors. Of course before that, they made their airport world class. On both counts, we would be out of the contest as an investment destination even before entering it. Then there is the issue of infrastructure. During the BNP time, we were told that the BoI was a One Stop destination for all the needs of the foreign investor. The Board would grant an investor the land, the electricity, the phone and all other requirements they would need to set up business. I have been told by quite a few Japanese investors with experience in investing in Bangladesh when I was an Ambassador there that that the BoI did all that, of course for a bribe, but when they went to establish their unit with BoI's approval and asked for power, phone and the rest, they were told by these departments that they did not work under the BoI and thus they would have to apply to them again and of course with the necessary additional bribes! All these points were highlighted by the Japanese Ambassador in Dhaka at that time in a confidential letter to the PMO that was leaked to the press. There was at that time another major obstacle to FDI concerning our roads that were in pitiable condition. They have not improved a bit since.

Then of course there is the issue of politics. Added to all the mentioned negative points, our politics has stood in the way of attracting FDI as a major obstacle. The over indulgence with hartal by the two mainstream parties has seriously damaged our prospects as an investment destination. Investors give top priority to a country's political stability. They are not concerned whether this is achieved by democratic or any other means. They are not even the least bit inclined to spare a cent for assisting a country's democratic aspirations if it does not bring two cents for them. Then there is of course the curse of corruption that is anathema to attracting investment. One complaint I heard from Japanese investors was that our bureaucrats take bribes but do not deliver.

FDI can change the face of a country in two to three decades, as it did to China and Malaysia. They attracted FDI by changing laws, rules and regulations. On paper, we have done pretty much the same. On the ground, it is a different story. Those who deal with foreign investment in Bangladesh feel that foreign investors are to be fleeced and often make unreasonable demands and most often do not deliver. There has to be a sea change in their mindset. But the most important change that must come is in our politics where there has to be bipartisanship in attracting FDI. Political conflicts have to come out of the streets and into the accepted institutions such as the parliament. The exact word the Prime Minister used in her New York address was: "Bangladesh and only Bangladesh is now the best place for investment." This was a very tall claim. She now owes it to herself and the nation to deliver.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Debate on the Caretaker Government

The concept of the Caretaker Government (CG) has become controversial. As is now a pattern with this government, two Ministers, through their conflicting views on the CG, have given cause for public concern and confusion; one hinting it will be scrapped and another mentioning that whatever is done will be done through consultation with the opposition. As usual, the BNP has drawn its own negative conclusion.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed has said in a press interview recently that the government is considering bringing the 15th amendment to the Constitution to introduce changes related to tenure of the parliament, local government system and on the subject of this article, the caretaker government. The Minister said that the view of the Law Commission would be taken before the move is made in parliament for the 15th amendment to the Constitution.

The Law Minister's comments drew scathing comments from the General Secretary of the BNP Khandker Delwar Hossain who concluded from the Minister's statement that the party in power is contemplating the 15th amendment, particularly the one related to the CG to prolong its stay in power. He said in his press interview that the Awami League and the Jamaat had fought during the BNP's term in 1991-96 for introduction of the CG system that the BNP obliged when it held absolute majority in the shortlived 6th parliament by amending the Constitution. The next election held under a CG was won by the Awami League. Subsequently, the 2001 and 2008 elections were also held under the same system and the losers in both elections were unhappy with the CG. The emergency that intervened between the last two elections during which the CG's term was illegally extended to almost two years instead of three months as require constitutionally, has also added controversy to the concept of CG.

Although the Law Minister talked about changes in the system of the CG, he has not suggested that the ruling party is contemplating scrapping the system altogether. The BNP General Secretary seems to have reached this conclusion on his own, motivated no doubt by statements made earlier by the leaders of the ruling party that the CG needed reform or be scrapped altogether. The LGRD Minister and the General Secretary of the ruling party, following the BNP General Secretary's strong remarks, has stated that the government will not bring any constitutional amendments unilaterally and that all parties would be consulted before any amendment to the Constitution is made. The LGRD Minister's views have been welcomed by the BNP General Secretary.

The views of these political leaders notwithstanding, the fact is the concept of the CG has become controversial, not as much as because there is serious problem with it but because it has been misused by the political parties who helped to introduce it. The extra-constitutional forces, who joined the CG in 2007-2008, have grossly abused it. Pinpointing responsibility for its misuse will get us nowhere but then for sake of our politics and political development, it is essential to undertake a dispassionate analysis of the CG.

The idea of a CG has been borne out of the fact that a party in power in a Third World country is usually hesitant to hand over power and has always shown the inclination to interfere with the elections to ensure that their opponents do not have a level playing ground. This is why the AL and the Jamaat, fearing that they could not win if the BNP government was left to conduct the elections, demanded a CG to be a part of the constitution to which the party in power would hand over power that would have three months to hold elections. While it is not necessary to go into details of this concept for the purpose of this article, it was widely believed at that time that this was a major contribution by Bangladesh to democracy and democratic elections. The other point in examining the CG system must focus on the fact that it was demanded by the AL and the Jamaat and was delivered by the BNP and in that sense it was one of those rare events where the major political parties had agreed on a political agenda to improve quality of politics. It was an irony that the BNP became a victim of the concept of CG because when one looks back on the slim margin of BNP's defeat in 1996, one could perhaps make out a case that if the CG had not been installed, the BNP could have easily managed to win those few extra seats through manipulation through the state machinery to defeat the AL.

Interestingly, when I served under the AL and BNP governments as an Ambassador, I found both quite eager to take credit for their role in introducing the CG. The AL felt that the concept was their brainchild while the BNP thought that the concept became a reality only because they incorporated it into the constitution through an amendment. As an Ambassador I have talked with a lot of people abroad and I found most of them appreciative of the CG. They thought it was innovative for achieving fair election. Many of them acknowledged that Bangladesh could rightly claim with this concept to have made a major contribution to making the elections more free and fair. Strangely, both the mainstream parties found problem with CG only when they lost.

The alternative to holding elections under a CG is the Election Commission where the government would be from political party with partisan interest in the elections. Given the nature of our politics, it is difficult to imagine that an opposition political party would accept defeat when elections are under a government formed by its opposition. We must spare a moment to understand that politics in Bangladesh is a very high stake game where the party that wins national elections wins not just political power but also a world of legal and illegal benefits that would make it very difficult if not impossible for them to hand over power voluntarily. For the losing political party, it is not a term in the opposition. Going by past experience it is a lot more worse; leading members of the losing political party/parties could lose business, economic interests and have cases filed against them in the court of law.

A CG leaves both parties little choice but to accept results however grudgingly. The CG has the added advantage of being led by a former Chief Justice as Chief Adviser (CA) who is expected to be more neutral than a Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) because he brings with him a lifetime experience of dealing with law and legality where neutrality and impartiality are the basic requirements of his profession. One can of course also expect the CEC to be neutral, may be even more effective than a CA provided he is, like the present CEC, not appointed by either of the mainstream parties. The incumbent CEC will end his term while the AL would still be in office and it would then name a new CEC. The culture built in politics by the two mainstream parties is one of distrust. Therefore, the CEC that the AL government would name would have a hard time gaining acceptability by the BNP even if he is chosen fairly. In fact, to be fair to the BNP, in a reverse situation, AL would perhaps reject a BNP nominated CEC straightaway as unacceptable.

It is true the CG is not perfect. But it is equally true that the concept became controversial because of the unconstitutional interference of the military that prolonged their power beyond constitutional limit arbitrarily and with contempt. President Iajuddin's gross ineptness and Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed's complicity with the military's ill motives are equally responsible for making the concept of CG controversial. If these factors are taken out of the equation and an honest assessment is made of the CG, it is still the best system for holding elections in Bangladesh where the losers have not yet learnt to accept defeat gracefully and is always looking for excuses for their defeat.

Published in The Daily Independent, Dhaka, September 29th , 2009

Friday, September 25, 2009

Asian neighbours to be given priority

THE historic elections in Japan that ended the LDP's 55 years long hold on power is set to bring about major changes in its foreign policy directions and objectives. During the elections domestic issues and the call for change captivated the attention of the voters. Foreign affairs did not figure prominently in luring voters to the DJP. However, things are changing in Tokyo. Although the DJP must satisfy the voters on a range of economic issues, foreign affairs is currently causing more attention both in Japan and outside. It seems significant changes are in the offing there in the way the DJP conducts its foreign relations, particularly with the United States. The new Foreign Minister of Japan Katsuya Okada is bringing all the attention both by his personality and the issues he is prioritizing for the new DJP Government in foreign affairs.

Okada will be more than a Foreign Minister. As a former DJP President, he could have very well been the present Prime Minister. He led the DJP brilliantly in the 2004 general elections but resigned when the party suffered a humiliating defeat in snap elections that Koizumi called the year after. Before assuming the post of Foreign Minister, he was the party's General Secretary. All these are well acknowledged within the party. Thus he will be a powerful Foreign Minister who will be likely to stamp his authority upon Gaimashu (Foreign Ministry in Japanese) unlike many of his predecessors. The Social Democratic Party, with whom it entered into alliance for leverage in the Upper House where its numbers are weak, wants a dramatic shift in Japan's polity towards the US. In focus are four secret deals that give the US unilateral rights on crucial military and nuclear issues. Okada is also aware that there is a significant section of Japanese, particularly the young generation, who would like Japan to come out of the US umbrella. However, Okada is also aware that he must steer the country in a position where the Japan-US ties are not weakened for a host of reasons. Given his stature and his close ties with US leadership, Okada is likely to achieve this crucial objective in relations with the US.

He has already focused on the sensitive issue of Japan-US relations to satisfy public curiosity. He has instructed Mitoji Yabunaka, a career diplomat and Vice-Foreign Minister who is also the bureaucratic head of Gaimashu, to inform him with facts about four secret pacts that Japan is publicly known to have signed with the United States. There has always been suspicion that Japan had at various times signed with USA four secret pacts that the government has always denied, even under oath in Parliament. The denials notwithstanding, many Japanese believe in their existence and want these to be scrapped.

One of these four secret agreements was introduced in 1960 at the time of revision to US-Japan Act in 1960 that allowed US to bring nuclear weapons to Japan unilaterally. A second secret deal was reached in 1972 when Okinawa was returned to Japan that allowed the US to bring nuclear weapons in Japanese territory at times of emergency, again unilaterally. A third secret pact allows USA to use its military bases in Japan for contingencies in the Korean peninsula without consultation with Japan. The fourth secret pact imposes upon Japan to bear the costs of returning former US military bases to their original sites. The new Foreign Ministry has demanded that Gaimashu set up committees with experts drawn from Japan and abroad to examine and scrutinize documents and papers and interview relevant officials. The process of investigation would take the whole of next year to complete, which may bring many officials to face serious consequences.

Okada's instruction to Yabunaka on the secret pacts could suggest that he holds strong anti-US views. That would create a paradox if the new Foreign Minister is serious about pursuing a path of confrontation with the USA. Maintaining Japan's alliance with USA, its only military ally where Japan is bound by its constitution not to empower itself militarily for offensive purposes, is crucial to its existence because it is under threat of nuclear attack by North Korea. Japan's historical relation with China has, within it, seeds of future conflict that makes a strong Japan-US relation vital for Japan. Fortunately, despite his instructions on the secret deals, Okada holds quite a different view personally on the US whose politics has influenced his thinking to a great extent. He studied in Harvard University for a year at the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs where his teachers were Economist Geoffrey Sachs and former Labour Secretary Robert Reich. He visits USA once a year and has close friends in US politics and administration. All these are expected to come into bearing in the way the new Foreign Minister conducts Japan's relations with its key ally the United States to tone down the anti-US views of the Social Democratic Party and sections of the public. In fact, experts believe that with Okada, the DJP will handle Japan-US relations mote realistically and differently from the way they spoke on these relations leading to the general elections.

The new Foreign Minister is also expected to set new directions in Japan's relations with its neighbours, particularly China. As a parliamentarian and DJP President, he made known his dislike for many of Koizumi's actions that he thought had adverse consequences regarding foreign relation for Japan. In his book Seiken Koutai (Change of Regime in English) written in 2008, Okada said that during the Koizumi era, Japan allowed US unilateralism the upper hand while paying little attention to its Asian neighbours that narrowed its diplomatic choices. Okada was severely critical over Koizumi's yearly visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine that honours 14 Class One war criminals much to the disgust of China and South Korea. During a debate in Parliament in June 2005, Okada sternly told Koizumi that his visits to the Yasukuni shrine will destroy Japan's relations with China and in turn affect its relations with the rest of Asia. In that speech, he went on to suggest that the yearly visits to Yasukuni damaged Japan's chances for a permanent seat in the expanded UN Security Council and sabotaged the chances of China's assistance in resolving the North Korean standoff on the nuclear issue.

His views on Koizumi's Yasukuni shrine visits that many in the LDP think will no doubt endear him to the Chinese and the South Koreans, two countries that are crucial to Japan's foreign policy needs and objectives in the Korean peninsula. A more balanced relationship with the US that Okada is likely to bring about in Japan-US relations by smoothing US' unilateralism will also help bring Japan closer to the Asian countries from whom it had gradually drifted away under the LDP. Japan under Okada's stewardship is expected to re-discover its Asian roots.

For Bangladesh, both Okada and DJP are unknown quantities. There are both opportunities and problems in the change of government in Tokyo. The LDP leadership that was in power when Bangladesh was fighting its war of liberation was strongly motivated to support Bangladesh's economic development when the country became independent. That motivation continued over many decades both in the economic and political context of Bangladesh-Japan relations. The political ties have weakened in recent times but Japan still remains strongly committed to being Bangladesh's most important development partner. Bangladesh's diplomacy must now make renewed efforts to reach the new leaders in Japan. Okada's focus on Asia could create scope for Bangladesh to re-kindle the once strong political ties while seeking greater economic relations where Japanese investment should be the key focus.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Time to put political development ahead

Louis Kahn was undoubtedly one of the greatest architects of our times. In his obituary written in leading international magazines, our National Parliament was mentioned as his greatest creation. If we can for a moment imagine that the Almighty would allow his departed soul the opportunity to come down to Earth to watch the way the National Assembly is being used by us, he would perhaps regret one element of his creation more than the other distortions we have done to his immortal building. He would no doubt redesign one part of his creation. Instead of making the central chamber shaped the way he has, he would no doubt re-design it like it is in the House of Commons in England where the Treasury and the opposition face each other with the Speaker seated in the middle in a corner.

Of course, Louis Kahn did not contemplate that his famous building would one day be used by two political parties such as the Awami League and the BNP who would keep the opposition out over the claim of a few extra seats in the front row. The BNP did this during its term of office in 2001-2006. The AL is doing the same to the BNP now. Who says there is no co-operation between these two political parties? For those aspects that damage our politics and our future, they follow each other like they are doing politics out of the same script.

The AL has done the same with the bureaucracy; politicised it a step more on the argument that the BNP had done so in its term. This time, the AL has done the same, placing the party loyalists in the nationalised banks' Board of Directors. There has been criticism over this and quite rightly so because these nationalised banks are burdened with large portion of non-performing loans that has been the result of politicisation by past regimes. Among the few things that the caretaker government had done correctly is nominate professionals and senior bureaucrats in the Boards of the nationalised banks where politics played no part. Hence the Finance Minister's outburst at the criticism over placing party loyalists, some of whom have been activists at the level of the AL's students wing, by angrily suggesting that the government has done better than what the BNP had done in its term is not exactly a correct answer to the public criticism on the issue.

It is true that under the BNP regime, many AL activists have suffered. It is also true that during its term of office, the BNP has done many things that they should not have done. Then our system of governance is not one where a government can legally do what it likes to give benefit to such victims. In USA, they have what they term as the "spoils system." Under this system, when a party wins the presidential election, it also wins with it the right to appoint to a large number of posts at various levels of the government, mostly in the administration and as Ambassadors, its own party members. But the US system should not be misunderstood because all such senior appointments under the so-called "spoils system" are subjected to Congressional approval and hence the party that appoints its own people to government posts have to be careful in selecting individuals for such posts. The Congress has the right to reject such appointments and has done so consistently.
In the instance of the appointment of Directors to the nationalised banks, the most significant problem that would soon occur is over the issue of corporate culture. In the past, especially under the system put into effect by the caretaker government, individuals were chosen with professional backgrounds as economists, senior bureaucrats that allowed them to understand and appreciate corporate culture. In this instance, the government does not seem to have taken into consideration this important issue in appointing the Directors. It has instead taken the fact of victimisation by the BNP as a major reason for the appointments. The nationalised banks are huge financial institutions but the way the way they are organised is putting them behind the private banks that are much better organised at the management and board levels. The latest changes at the level of the board are going to adversely affect their ability to compete and succeed with the private sector banks even more. The government seems to be using the BNP argument in most its actions that are facing public criticism. This is unfortunate. What the government ministers are missing in this argument by suggesting the BNP had done so is the fact that the BNP lost the last elections comprehensively because it acted the way the ministers are suggesting. The positive argument for the AL should be that they will not politicise the bureaucracy because the BNP had done so. They will not bring political elements into the Boards of the nationalised banks because the BNP had also done so. Otherwise, going by logic, the ruling party could as well be headed the BNP's way in the next elections.

I am not sure if the AL leadership is taking note. The enthusiasm that the nation felt with their massive victory in the last December elections is fading. Already those overwhelming majority who are not really supporters of either party but had voted the AL to power so massively because of their frustration and disappointment with the BNP are beginning to listen to the latter's views not because they like the BNP but because what they are saying is resonating some of the views that are also in their minds. When the people voted the BNP to power in 2001 almost as massively as they have done this time with the AL, they had hoped that the BNP would bring about a paradigm shift in our development. The BNP frustrated that hope. It would be a tragedy if the AL disappoints the people for the same reasons.

With the AL government in its ninth month, one cannot say that it is too early to express any definite views on this government. The time to wait and see is, I guess, over. It is time that the Prime Minister takes a firm grip of the government to get the negatives out of its system. Recently, I was very encouraged to hear one view of the prime minister over Tipaimukh. She had said that the country needs unity over it to succeed with its interests. It is time that she moves and motivates her ministers to seek with the opposition the same unity instead of blaming the BNP for the country's ills and then going ahead and dong pretty much the same.

In a TV talk show recently, two former ministers from the AL and the BNP were involved in what I thought was a very interesting and appropriate exchange of views. This was unlike one I saw a few weeks earlier when an incumbent minister and a former BNP minister came close to the point of physical exchange on issues of politics of the country. In this programme, the two former ministers agreed that cooperation of the ruling party with the opposition on key issues of governance such as economic development, foreign policy and the terrorist threat is absolutely essential for the future of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is hovering around the point from where both development to make it a middle income country and failing as a state is possible. Unity and bipartisanship will ensure the former that is also the AL's Vision 2021. The blame game being pursued by most of the Ministers will unfortunately move Bangladesh in the opposite direction, if it is not already taking us that way. Sheikh Hasina has a historic opportunity to make a paradigm shift in the country's future but to do so; she has to put political development ahead of the economic agenda with a spirit of bipartisanship.

Published in The Daily Independent, September 20, 2009

Bangladesh: In search of strategic relationship

WHEN Bangladesh became independent, the world was bipolar. Conducting foreign affairs was then relatively easy. One had to choose between the two super powers to assist small nations achieve their interests in international politics and more often than not, they obliged. At the time of liberation, Bangladesh joined the Soviet Camp to which India was aligned. They helped Bangladesh in many ways in its needs in the international relations and were thus its strategic partners. When Bangladesh switched sides, and moved away from the Soviet camp after 1975, it was helped in international affairs by the other super power, the USA and its regional ally China. Bangladesh did not thus feel that its interests could be by-passed. It may not have had the muscle but it had the strategic partners with powers to help it at times of need.

Bangladesh also had the support of many powerful countries who became its friends because they were inspired by the way it fought oppression and liberated the country. Japan to a major extent and European countries and Australia to a large extent helped Bangladesh to rebuild a war-devastated country. These countries still assist Bangladesh to achieve economic development. Unfortunately the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991 has taken away by default the comfort zone for countries like Bangladesh, leaving it to fend for itself when faced with strategic issues. The comfort of a bipolar world is no longer there.

The international goodwill Bangladesh earned from its liberation has also gone. The United States as the world's only super power is too involved with other major issues to have time for Bangladesh. In the meantime India, which was a not a major power when Bangladesh became independent, is today aspiring to become a world power. Unfortunately, Bangladesh-India relations have, meanwhile, lost the closeness that had brought them together in 1971 because both the countries were at fault. In the deterioration of relations, India has also stepped into areas that are critical for Bangladesh's viability as a nation. Water of the rivers that flow from India, which gives life and livelihood to Bangladesh, are now at India's mercy and it has interfered with the flow of a major river, namely the Ganges, by the Farakka barrage that started the process of desertification in Bangladesh's northwest and is going ahead with building a dam at Tipaimukh on another international river that could do to Bangladesh's northeast what Farakka has done to the northwest.

India's interpretation of the laws relating to demarcation of maritime boundary risks closing Bangladesh's access to the sea where there are rich marine and hydrocarbon resources. Myanmar has taken the cue from India and has used the same interpretation on demarcating maritime boundary that, if these countries have their way, will take away from Bangladesh a major portion of its claim in the Bay of Bengal. These are therefore difficult times for Bangladesh because its attempts to negotiate with India and Myanmar on the maritime issue have borne no result and neither country has shown the inclination of accepting Bangladesh's position. According to the Convention on UN Law of the Seas, Bangladesh must demarcate its maritime boundary by July 2011; India by June, 2009 and Myanmar by May, 2009. India has submitted their claims to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The Commission will hold hearing on Indian submission by March of next year. The process for ultimate demarcation of Bangladesh's maritime boundary with India and Myanmar is likely to be protracted and complicated where it is up against two countries holding similar positions. Bangladesh feels it has a good case to convince the Commission in its favour but it cannot be certain and must wait for the Commission's ruling on the issue. The future of Bangladesh being able to exploit the rich resources of the Bay of Bengal unhindered is therefore uncertain. In fact, Bangladesh and Myanmar faced off over the issue last year but the danger lingers.

Bangladesh is therefore in desperate need of a strategic friend with the clout for providing it the support for negotiating a fair deal with India and Myanmar on the maritime issue. Bangladesh's long friendship with China could provide it that support, at least with Myanmar. It built and nurtured this friendship overlooking China's opposition during its war of liberation and veto to its membership of the UN when it desperately needed the membership to be accepted by the international community as an independent and sovereign nation. After Bangladesh established diplomatic ties with China in 1976, the two moved forward and built up a strategic relationship where all the conceivable areas of cooperation: economic, political, social, cultural and defense were brought into their bilateral relations. Exchange of large number of high level visits has been an important instrument in building excellent bilateral relations.

The incumbent government in Bangladesh has been in office over eight months now. Yet there has been no move for a visit of Sheikh Hasina to China. Last time around, she went to Beijing within two months of assuming office. There has also not been any visit at the Ministerial level. The result of the Joint Commission that has been held recently has not been promising either. In that meeting, Bangladesh had sought over US$ 5 billion in assistance for 28 projects. The Chinese agreed to offer a little over US$ 1 billion in five projects in suppliers' credit and also noted serious dissatisfaction at Bangladesh's handling of Chinese assistance.

There appears to be a cooling of Bangladesh-China strategic relations. One reason for this could be the permission given to Taiwan by the last BNP Government to open a Trade Office in Dhaka. The permission was given at a most inappropriate time for China and embarrassed it very much. Bangladesh also did not follow the cardinal principle in strategic relationships: the need to keep the partner informed before taking a decision affecting the partner. Bangladesh's expectation that Taiwan would bring billions of dollars in trade and investment also did not occur. It has only harmed Bangladesh's relations with China on the issue of dependability. Before the Taiwan Trade Office fiasco, Bangladesh could have requested China for support to negotiate a fair deal with Myanmar on the maritime boundary, given its undoubted influence with the military rulers of Myanmar. China will not be inclined to come forward now because in the meantime, China has extended its strategic relationship with Myanmar further. One major reason of China's interest in Bangladesh is its access to the Bay of Bengal, an access that Myanmar is now providing China as a dependable ally.

At a time when Bangladesh needs friends with clout for achieving its interests in foreign affairs and foreign relations, it thus finds itself standing alone. Bangladesh has become marginalized in international politics. In its best interests, Bangladesh should now try its utmost to settle problems with India and cash upon the historical friendship between the AL and the Congress. While speaking on Tipaimukh, Sheikh Hasina has recently stressed the need for unity. She should now do her best for bipartisanship in dealing with India that will not just strengthen her hands but also enhance her standing with India tremendously. Simultaneously, Bangladesh must also seek for strategic relationships with powerful countries that value its geopolitical location.

Bangladesh must also warm up its relations with China and that will not be easy because China has tilted towards Myanmar, which can satisfy China's strategic interests in place of Bangladesh. Views emanating from USA recently suggest that the world's only super power has not lost its interest in the Bay of Bengal where, the problems with maritime demarcation notwithstanding, Bangladesh holds a crucial geopolitical location. Meanwhile, USA and India have moved ahead in their strategic relations and hence building strategic relations with USA will be a very difficult task. The strategic choices nevertheless are there; the necessity to go forward with these choices is crucial to Bangladesh's future. The task of achieving these strategic choices will be a test of Bangladesh's diplomatic ability and capability. Unfortunately, this is its weakest link.

Published in The Daily Star, September 19th, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Foregn Office Years, 1986-1990: The Fakhruddin Years

This is a part of a bi-weekly series which will also appear in The Daily Independent.

It was May, 1990. I cannot remember the date. The occasion is still fresh in my memory. The Ministry was according me a farewell on my posting as a Counsellor to our Mission in Washington. I had spent two months short of four years in the Ministry; the entire period as a Director, in the office of the Foreign Secretary. The length of the time I spent there is still a record. The other record of this unusually long stay at the post was the fact that I served five Foreign Secretaries in that period.

Anisul Islam Mahmood was the Foreign Minister then. He was chairing the farewell meeting. Foreign Secretary Abul Ahsan was also present. Anis is an old friend; we studied in Chittagong College and Dhaka University together and also taught in Dhaka University at the same time after passing out in 1969. In his speech, Anis joked a little, stating that when the file of my posting went to him, he thought he had one hard choice before him. He could keep his friend at the post a little longer but he did not do that because he thought that friendship apart, the Ministry needed Abul Ahsan more! With my "record" of seeing Foreign Secretaries out, he thought if he kept me, the Ministry would lose Abul Ahsan!

I enjoyed my stint at the Foreign Secretary's office. When I was posted there, I did not think I would enjoy it at all because of the tension and the hard work that went with the post. My posting to the office was also an unusual one. A couple of months before I arrived from my posting in New Delhi in July 1986, President Ershad had gone there on a bilateral visit. I was sitting in a corner at the Foreign Minister's suite at Rastrapati Bhavan where the Bangladesh delegation was lodged. Shafi Sami, then Director General for South Asia and later to become Foreign Secretary and Adviser in the Caretaker government introduced me to Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury and then suggested that I should be made Director (India) on my return to the Ministry. When my name registered with the Foreign Minister who was half asleep, he sat up, looked at me and the others in the room, and said that I would be his Private Secretary instead!

While in Calcutta where I was spending my six days' joining time on way to Dhaka, my friend Mohammed Ali in our Mission there informed me that it was decided that on return, I would be a Director in the Foreign Secretary's office. I was happy at the news because I did not want to serve in the Foreign Minister's office as a Private Secretary. I was also happy because Fakhruddin Ahmed was the Foreign Secretary. We at the Foreign Ministry all had extremely high opinion about him as a senior colleague and as a gentleman. Fakhruddin Ahmed had been a Foreign Secretary for a year in 1974-1975. When I arrived in the Ministry, I found my predecessor Akramul Qader, now our Ambassador to Washington, packed and ready to leave for New Delhi. He made me sit in the chair and gave me a few good tips and was gone !

Later when I got to know Fakhruddin Ahmed more, I thought it was my good luck to have landed in the job. Harun ur Rashid, then the Additional Foreign Secretary and my High Commissioner when I was posted in Canberra in 1980-83, told me an insider's story on how I landed in the office. Fakhruddin Ahmed's predecessor was Faruq Ahmed Chowdhury who, before he left, had completed most of the major postings at all levels, including postings of Ambassadors in important posts. Quite naturally, Fakhruddin Ahmed was upset but when he saw an order placing another colleague of mine, Shamim Ahmed who later retired as High Commissioner to Pakistan, as Director (FSO), and lost his well known cool. He tore the order and at Harun ur Rashid's suggestion, made me the Director (FSO).

The Foreign Ministry revolved around the Foreign Secretary in those days. He was the principal accounting officer. The Foreign Minister did not have the power to do anything without taking the Foreign Secretary on board. That position has now been reversed in favour of the Minister by an amendment of the Rules of Business. Those days, the Foreign Secretary was both the institutional head of the Ministry and head of the Foreign Service Cadre called the BCS (Foreign Affairs). Unfortunately, that was also the period when General Ershad was the President. He had a distorted notion of the Foreign Ministry and was more interested to find faults with it rather than encouraging it to be effective. Also, as a Foreign Minister, Humayun Rashid Chowdhury did not enjoy the confidence of the President. It was then a well known fact to everyone in the Ministry that Ershad made Humayun Rashid Chowdhury the Foreign Minister to make his brother-in-law AHG Mohiuddin happy. One open secret we all knew was the instruction the President gave to the Chief of Protocol AKM Faruq to ensure that the Foreign Minister made prior appointments through the CP to meet him. AHG, who worked with Humayun Rashid, adored the latter and for the right reasons. Before becoming the Foreign Minister, Humayun was fun to work with and a brilliant diplomat as well. As a Minister, he failed to motivate the officers of the Ministry positively and in fact during his tenure, he took many decisions that went directly against the interests of the cadre officers.

Humayun Rashid and Fakhruddin Ahmed were both erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service Officers; Humayun Rashid belonged to the 1953 batch and Fakhruddin Ahmed, the 1954. We expected them to have perfect working relationship to stand up to the President's contempt for the service; a contempt whose full best advantage was taken by the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan that was committed to push the foreign service as much into the corner as possible. The Foreign Minister and the Foreign Secretary who sat across the corridor in the new Foreign Ministry building at Topkhana, popularly known to us then as the power corridor, seldom met each other unless the occasion was formal. The communication between the two was through notes written in the files or by verbal communication through an intermediary, usually through one of the two Additional Secretaries or through the Directors General. To his personal staff, the Foreign Minister often made uncomplimentary remarks about the Foreign Secretary. Such criticism of the Foreign Secretary behind his back made many of us sad because the Ministry at that time needed the two to be in very close relationship to deal with the onslaught from the President's office and other Ministries.

Fakhruddin Ahmed was a gentleman in the classical mould. He was soft spoken and treated everybody with dignity and respect. It was a pleasure to work for him. He never suffered from tension and never made anyone suffer tension either. In fact, my nearly one year stint with him was not a good preparation for the tense days that I faced later as Director (FSO) that was literally a roller coaster ride. Although I had very good working relations with Fakhruddin Ahmed's successors, Nazrul Islam, Mohamed Mohsin, AKH Morshed and Abul Ahsan, the heat and tension that work generated at the office of the Foreign Secretary was enough to tax my patience and abilities to the limit. In the end, as I look back, I feel happy that I was posted there, even though the stint was unusually long, and as the Ministry bade me farewell, I can still remember that there were tears in my eyes that day at the thought that I would be away for six years between two postings before returning to the place that we loved like our second home.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Recent promotions will weaken a weak bureaucracy: Two wrongs do not make a right

Fhere is an unhealthy tension prevailing in the civil bureaucracy. A large section is happy that they have been promoted to higher posts on claims that the previous governments, particularly the BNP, by-passed them unfairly. This has left an equally large number of civil bureaucrats unhappy and they are now claiming that they have been deprived of their due promotion unfairly to promote this large number.

The number of civil servants who have been promoted to ranks of Deputy Secretary, Joint Secretary and Additional Secretary is 496. According to an unofficial source, 526 civil bureaucrats have been by-passed to promote the 496. One fact about this promotion fiasco is a significant number of these officers have been promoted although in the approved organogram, there are no vacant posts. All these promoted officers have been attached to the Establishment Division as OSD where a large number of such officers is already languishing for many months since the AL came to office. These officers have been made OSD mainly because of political reasons and therefore their fate becomes more uncertain. The Establishment Division will need a magic wand to find posts for the newly promoted officers.

According to the government, the promotions, the largest at any one time in Bangladesh's history, have been given because during the BNP's term of office, many qualified officers were by-passed for promotion on political ground. The claim is correct because during the last BNP government, many promotions were made and rejected on political ground.

But then, promotions on political grounds have been given by the Awami League government that preceded the BNP in 2001. In fact, the bureaucracy was politicised with the direct encouragement of the Awami League in 1996 when the civil bureaucrats with links to the Awami League helped bring down the BNP government through the "Janatar Mancha." The Awami League government that came to office in 1996 used politics as a major criterion in promotions and postings in the civil bureaucracy.
During the BNP term in 2001, the politicisation of the bureaucracy extended deeper and many qualified bureaucrats suffered because of their alleged or assumed political connections. The BNP had reasons initially to deal with those who worked for the Janatar Mancha because they helped bring them down by supporting the AL. But the BNP went far beyond and ensured that no one with alleged AL links was promoted or posted in important positions during its entire tenure. Many were also retired from service. There are allegations that individuals at the PMO used politics to trade in promotions and postings. In fact, one of the major reasons why the BNP lost so badly in the last election was the way they treated the civil bureaucracy where mindless politicisation literally broke the ability of the institution to deliver.
One would have thought that the two major political parties who politicised the bureaucracy while in power would realise that their actions weaken the bureaucracy that in turn make the government weak. At the same time however, the AL that is now in government has the moral responsibility of doing justice to those whom the BNP had denied promotion for their alleged political links. However, correcting an incorrect decision of the past in an institution as big as the civil bureaucracy is not an easy matter. Thus, the promotions given by the government very recently have caused new irregularities and miscarriage of justice. First, it has promoted officers without vacant posts, which is illegal. Second, most of the promoted officers are from the 1982 Special BCS batch who have superseded officers of the regular batch which is another action without legal validity. Third, by trying to do justice to those who were deprived promotions on political ground by the BNP, it has by-passed a large number of officers, over 500, who have done nothing wrong. Thus for doing justice to the promoted officers, the government has been unjust to those who are now aggrieved. There is reason to believe that this large number of officers has been by passed because they are alleged to be supporters of the BNP-Jamat alliance. Thus in effect, the Awami League Government has done exactly what it has accused the BNP government of doing in its 2001-2006 terms; it has simultaneously promoted and victimised officers based on political connections. Only, this time, the number involved in this eerie system of justice in the bureaucracy is the largest, both in terms of justice done and justice denied.

There are a few new elements here that need noting. First, the AL government will be running administration this time with bureaucrats who have all been recruited in the post-Bangladesh period. There has been a qualitative downward trend in recruitment in the civil bureaucracy between the Pakistan and Bangladesh periods. The civil bureaucracy is today in its weakest state since we have been independent. Added to this is the fact that this government is being run by Ministers who are inexperienced. At a time like this, to make a substantial number of civil bureaucrats unhappy to make a substantial section happy is going to affect the ability of this weak bureaucracy to deliver upon the promises and the objectives that this government has set for itself. The other fact worth noting is the large number of members of the minority community promoted that is significantly disproportionate to the percentage they hold in the country's population. The government should have considered a possible backlash on this issue at some point later. The disproportionate number apart, it is also revealing that there is such a large number of the minority community working in the civil bureaucracy that should be used to highlight the secular nature of the country; a point that is often lost because of the nature of politics in the country.

The civil bureaucracy in Bangladesh has been organised on the laws, principles, morals and ethics that have governed the civil bureaucracy in our British and Pakistani days. Civil servants of Bangladesh by their official code of conduct are strictly directed to perform their duties in accordance with the law. Political neutrality is at the core of such conduct. The two mainstream parties have struck the civil bureaucracy at its core and have tried to replace political neutrality with political partiality as the main consideration for promotions and postings. Loyalty to the party in power is today considered a more important criterion for a civil bureaucrat than merit that is considered dispensable when loyalty is in question.

Unfortunately, the element of loyalty is destructive both for the civil bureaucracy and the bureaucrats because we have a democratic system of election that has in the past sent to power one of the two mainstream parties to power alternatively. When AL was in power in 1996 and made political loyalty indispensable, it divided the civil bureaucracy into pro-AL and pro-BNP camps. When the BNP came to office in 2001, it followed the AL script dutifully and thanks to them, it also was not very difficult for the BNP to know who were not loyal to them. When it was the BNP's turn to do the favour to the AL on the loyalty issue during its 2001-2006 tenure, it did even better and left the AL with a more comprehensive list of BNP loyalists in bureaucracy. The loyalty issue however places a large number of civil bureaucrats who have no political affiliation in a situation where they cannot function to their best abilities because they feel that those with political affiliations will be promoted and posted to important posts ahead of them even if they have better merit and worked harder. Politicisation of the bureaucracy is thus slowly but surely destroying the civil bureaucracy if it has done not so already. The BNP and the AL's way of politicising the civil bureaucracy can work only if either can ensure that it will remain in power perpetually; if they alternate as they are doing now, this politicisation is destructive for the country.

Friday, September 11, 2009

FM's New Delhi trip: Substance left for PM's visit

A major diplomatic event has just been completed. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni has just returned from her official visit to New Delhi visit (September 8-10). A Joint Statement (JS) issued after the talks indicated that these were held in a cordial and friendly atmosphere where both sides reiterated their desire to move the relations ahead. The FM held official talks with her counterpart, Indian External Affairs Minister Mr. SM Krishna. She paid a courtesy call upon the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who mentioned that India attached the highest importance to its relations with Bangladesh. He hoped that a new chapter of Bangladesh-India relations would be written with the forthcoming visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India soon. Dipu Moni also called on Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, the Parliamentary Affairs and Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. Conspicuously left out was her proposed meeting with Sonia Gandhi according to information made available before her visit.

In the joint statements (JS), the two sides reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral relations. On specifics, the sharing of the Teesta waters was discussed. The Foreign Ministries of the two countries have been mandated to move negotiations forward on this issue. Bangladesh agreed to discuss making Ashuganj a port of call under Article 23 of the Inland Water Trade and Transit Agreement and agreed to let India use this port for a power plant in Tripura. India agreed to facilitate Bangladesh - Nepal and Bangladesh -Bhutan connectivity. Both sides agreed on containerized movement of cargo by train and trail. On other trade related matters, the two sides reviewed the existing situation and agreed to strengthen the existing institutional mechanisms to enhance trade. Bangladesh agreed to discuss use of Chittagong port by India. On power issues, India agreed to provide immediately 100 MW of electricity and to discuss the feasibility of power grid inter connectivity from India to Bangladesh. On border demarcation, both sides expressed intent to resolve unresolved issues. A couple of important decisions were made on border trade. On security, the two sides reiterated their earlier stand not to allow each other's territory to be used by terrorists and to strengthen cooperation on terrorism. The two sides agreed to conclude three agreements on mutual assistance on criminal matters; transfer of sentenced persons; and combating international terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking.

Bangladesh-India relations have been stagnating over the last seven years despite very compelling geopolitical historical relations for both the countries to be close friends. The victory of the Awami League with a massive mandate and the return of the Congress in India to power raised expectations that Bangladesh-India relations would move forward. Unfortunately, in the last eight months that the AL has been in office, relations have not moved anywhere. Instead, the Tipaimukh controversy has injected into the relations a new element of possible discord.

Many expected that traditional close relations between the Awami League and the Congress would be reflected during the Foreign Minister's visit. However, the JS does not reflect that optimism. On Tipaimukh, which is now hovering in the background as a dark cloud, the JS has simply mentioned that Bangladesh side welcomed the reassurance given by India that no steps will be taken to harm Bangladesh. It is true that the Indian Prime Minister had earlier assured Sheikh Hasina on Tipaimukh. That, however, has not set fears in Bangladesh at rest. The parliamentary delegation that visited India on the issue has also not fully rested Bangladesh's apprehensions. The JS will also not lessen people's fears and apprehensions for it does not suggest that Bangladesh's fears were fully conveyed to the Indian side.

On the water issues also the JS has given no cause for optimism. The concession given by Bangladesh to India for use of Ashjuganj port to facilitate building the Palatana power project in Tripura and assurance to allow India to use the same port as a port of call under the IWTTA is substantive concession/assurance. On trade issues where Bangladesh has very good reasons for feeling aggrieved, there is simply an expression of intent with no concrete concessions given. The JS' one positive aspect is India's agreement to facilitate Bangladesh-Nepal and Bangladesh-Bhutan connectivity that Bangladesh has more than reciprocated on the Chittagong port. India's offer for credit line in the railways sector is another positive inclusion in the Joint Declaration. The demarcation of the maritime boundary that is a major unresolved issue of tremendous importance to Bangladesh has been left out. India's requests on connectivity (transit) have also not been reflected in the JS.

There have been many visits in the past by Bangladesh Foreign Ministers to New Delhi. Those visits have failed to move relations forward. This time however, there could be a reason why the JS has not gone in depth on most substantive issues. Our Prime Minister would soon go to New Delhi for discussing our bilateral relations with her counterpart. Hence, the Indians must have left the substantive matters and in depth discussions for the summit level talks between the two countries.

The above notwithstanding, the Foreign Minister must have brought with her information and experience that could be immensely important for the forthcoming Summit talks between the two country that have not been reflected in the JS. These could now go to the preparation of the Summit talks. Going by past experience, Bangladesh-India relations cannot achieve a paradigm shift so long as it is left to bureaucrats and once in a while to the Foreign Ministers and only on very rare occasions to the highest level. It is time to reverse the pyramid to send a political signal from the top to the bureaucrats and ministers to improve relations. Neither side so far has shown this political will. The stakes are too high and too important to allow bureaucrats to spin a web around these relations and keep it stagnant. It is time to break that web for the future of hundreds of millions of people in the two countries.

India is the bigger neighbour. It has the more compelling reasons to hold out the hand of friendship. It needs to show the world that it is a responsible power by treating its neighbours fairly so that it in return wins the respect of the major powers to be in their company. It has great security concerns arising from internal terrorist threats. India's civil nuclear deal with US under which India will have many nuclear power installations in the future should add significantly to its security concerns. Bangladesh can be the soft underbelly in these security concerns for which it is in India's interest that it should see a stable Bangladesh. That will depend to a large extent on how India shares the waters of the common rivers and resolves the other outstanding bilateral issues.

For India, showing the political will can be easy and it is a matter of surprise that it has not done so thus far. Instead it has conducted relations with Bangladesh on the strictest principle of reciprocity where sometimes India has demanded more of Bangladesh than it has been willing to give. On trade, for example, India gave Bangladesh duty free access for 8 million garments but later imposed countervailing duty to protect domestic producers. Such examples are galore.

It may not be easy for Bangladesh to demonstrate political will because of the dynamics of domestic politics. Unlike India, where the political parties are united on foreign affairs, in Bangladesh the party in power and the opposition are not so and when it comes to relations with India, they oppose each other as fiercely as they do on domestic issues. Nevertheless, without unity on relations with India between the ruling party and the opposition, we will not be able to show the political will to motivate India to resolve the outstanding problems. As Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina must make great efforts to bring the people behind her so that she can negotiate with India on behalf of the nation and just not her party when she undertakes her New Delhi trip. Her massive majority should encourage her to unite the nation just as her father had done in 1971. Dipu Moni could have started the process by talking with the opposition before going to New Delhi. That would have enhanced her position much more than she could have imagined.

Published in The Daily Star, September 12, 2009

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Whose footpath is it anyway?

A leading English daily that brings into public focus news and pictures of anomalies and sufferings about Dhaka city life has recently carried a picture where the footpath has been totally taken over by materials for private construction. The picture carried a question to Dhaka’s Mayor on who owns the footpath. A picture carried in The Independent recently showed cars parked at a “No Parking” zone, a very common sight on Dhaka’s overcrowded streets. When I moved to my apartment in Gulshan, I used to take pride in the fact that I could wake up in the morning seeing the sun rise without the hustle and bustle of cars and rickshaws that are the bane of residential life in most streets of Dhaka’s residential areas as the building east of my apartment was single storied.

I guess God Almighty must have disliked my silent pride and thought of teaching me a lesson. The owner of the single storied building decided to build a multi storied apartment on his plot. In the last three months, I have been waking up every morning to most horrendous noise machines can make and they continue late into the evening. There is no respite and the machines can be heard even on Fridays that should be a point that the labour organisations should note; that our workers do not have a weekly holiday or humane working hours! When I was returning home around mid-day on a Friday recently driving my car, I found workers from this site who have already taken over part of the road as theirs by dumping construction materials, straightening rods right in the centre of the road! I could not take that, got out of my car and asked the workers to take over the neighbourhood so we could pack and leave!

A few years ago, when I was Ambassador in Japan, a neighbour knocked at my door one morning. As I opened the door to meet him, he looked apologetic and made the traditional Japanese bow. He then explained that he would be re-constructing his house and that he had the legal permission to do so. I was curiously looking at him, trying to understand why then had he come to me. He set my curiosity to rest by explaining that as the construction would take a few months, he had come to personally seek my forgiveness for the discomfort that this would cause to me and my family!

The Japanese neighbour’s apology notwithstanding, there was no discomfort at all and had he not come to me, I would not even have known that there was a construction going on next door. In fact, during my stay in Japan, a multi-storied building was built on the same road on which I lived and that too was constructed with minimum dislocation or disadvantage to anyone. The reasons are worth noting because Tokyo is as congested a city as Dhaka and many of the city’s roads are narrower than in our city. Whenever there is a construction anywhere in the city, and there are just too many of these going on all the time, the builders are not allowed to use any part of city’s area for any purpose related to the construction. The builders are also required under the law to ensure that the neighbours are not subjected to any disadvantage because of their work. This they do by netting the area so that not even a small piece of construction material falls outside the construction site.
As for the horrendous noise of the machines that wakes me from sleep every day, only an uncivilised city can allow such machines to be used in any place where human beings live. To say that these machines cause noise pollution would be an understatement of huge proportion; the noise these machines make would wake up a person in a split second even if he is having a Rip Van Winkle type of sleep. The authorities who allow such machines inside city limits allow broad daylight murder!
Our city authorities allow such violations to take place as if these are in the fitness of things. The authorities would, I am sure raise their eyebrows if I would go to them and complain about the noises of the machines that wake me up every morning. The Mayor’s office I am sure must have just shrug aside with irritation the picture and the question on the footpath that appeared in the English daily. The traffic authorities who recently gave us their stunt they codenamed “operation clean street” must have simply looked at the picture in The Independent about parking where there is a “no parking” sign and must have said to themselves what is the big deal! On our part, we, as citizens, are the ones who are blocking footpaths with construction materials. We are the ones parking our cars illegally at “no parking” zones and making those horrendous noises by using machines that civilised people should not be using.

There is really nothing extraordinary in what the Japanese are doing in Tokyo. In fact, what they are doing is the only logical and legal thing to do; that they cannot make someone else suffer for their benefit. We can do the same in Dhaka only if we act as citizen should in any civilised city in the world. My neighbour next door who is making my morning sleep hell can very well use a muffler in his machines and stop making the horrendous noise. He can very well keep his construction materials inside his premise if he just wanted to do so. The same thing goes for the culprit who encroached on the footpath with building materials shown in the front page of the leading English daily with the caption for the Mayor. The driver who parked in the “no parking “zone is in clear violation of the law and the traffic police who was on duty at the time the picture was taken should be suspended for failure to do his duty. In fact, a major problem of Dhaka’s incorrigible traffic is caused by illegal parking in which many of us contribute like there is no law or law enforcer in our city!

Yet we are doing nothing. Those in charge to see these violations of the law are complacent about it that only encourages more and more people to commit these violations. The sad part about these violations that is gradually turning Dhaka into an unliveable city is the fact it would cost no one anything to do what the Japanese are doing in Tokyo. It is just a matter of mindset; that a citizen should not act in a manner that adversely affects the quality of life of a fellow citizen. Our citizens keep their construction materials on the footpath because they do not care how adversely it affects fellow citizens. If he cared, he could have easily kept the materials in the site where the construction is taking place. The same goes for the other violations as well; in fact for the many more that are committed every day about which we do nothing.

It will be futile to call the Mayor or any of the other authorities concerned for redress. When it comes to taking action, they all prefer to go into deep slumber. But this cannot go on for long because very soon, Dhaka’s sanity could break in the seams. It is time that we, the citizens, rise from our self-imposed amnesia towards Dhaka city life and take responsibility. If any of us is building a house, let him or her first ensure that the construction will not affect neighbours or if it does, let him/her minimise the effect instead of not caring at all as he/she does at present. Let us as citizens do the same in our other civic activities for these too will not cost us money. The only investment we would need to bring sanity into Dhaka life is a change in our mindset that we will not do anything as citizens for personal benefit that would harm fellow citizens.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Government rejects BGMEA "demand"

As we can see visible signs of the Hatirjheel project take shape, I cannot help feeling how much of an eyesore the BGMEA building located inside the project is becoming with every passing day. If the building stands when the project is eventually completed, it will literally be a pain in the neck of the project. Dhaka's environmentalists have been demanding restoration of the canals and wetlands that have been grabbed since 1971 that now submerges Dhaka every time there is a heavy downpour because the water's natural flow to the rivers around Dhaka have been taken away by private individuals and enterprises like the BGMEA.

It was therefore with some curiosity that I followed the press conference of the BGMEA President where he "demanded" Tk 300 crores from the government as incentive package to provide eid bonuses and wages to the workers in the RMG sector. He took the plea that the world economic meltdown has affected the RMG sector badly where more than 100 enterprises have closed down and a good part of the rest is suffering from lack of business. In the press conference, the BGMEA high officials were quite forceful about the points they made. They "demanded" that the government should pay the amount by September 7th failing which the consequences would fall upon the government. The BGMEA president did not leave much to imagination what could happen if the wages and bonuses were not paid to the workers.

The press conference of the BGMEA and what came out of it naturally has scared the daylight out from the RMG workers. They work their heart out for their employers and look forward to the Eid festivals as bright spots in their otherwise dismal lives. They therefore brought out a procession to protest the stand of the BGMEA and sought government assurance that their wages and eid bonuses would be paid on time. The Finance Minister later rejected the BGMEA "demand" as unacceptable. The Finance Minister was also critical that the BGMEA had sought compensation for power and gas crisis stating that "such a demand from them ahead of Eid is not a good sign."
The RMG sector has been the success story of Bangladesh's economic development. From a scratch, the sector now exports materials worth in excess of US 10 billion a year to the developed countries, including USA. In building up this sector, the private sector has led the thrust, very much on its own, and today, they compete with the leading exporters of RMG in the world market as a force to reckon with. A few years ago, when the US ended the quota for Bangladesh RMG exports, it was apprehended by many inside Bangladesh and abroad that the RMG sector would collapse. It did not happen; instead the sector became more competitive and expanded its exports to the USA and markets in Europe.

In recent times though, the RMG sector has seen subjected to turmoil in which many RMG factories have been razed to the ground. Various opinions have been expressed for such turmoil in the sector, including external hand to destroy it because of its success. These opinions apart, the RMG sector has, in recent times, suffered from labour discontent that has not been inspired by external agents. Even if the contention that the turmoil in the sector is inspired by external agents is true, it is equally true that the conditions in which the RMG workers are employed are fertile grounds for such turmoil even without external encouragement. The minimum wage that a RMG worker receives is Taka 1300. In discussions that have been conducted in talk shows on private TV channels on this issue, there has been significant resistance from RMG owners to enhance this minimum pay.

While the RMG workers toiled, the sector has gone from one level of success to another. Even at this juncture when there is a scare in business around the world, the RMG sector has not performed at all badly. The BGMEA President has stated that 40 per cent of 1500 garment factories would not be able to pay workers before Eid because of 15 to 20 per cent cut in first two months of exports this year. Against this, the Export Promotion Bureau has provided statistics that suggest to the contrary. In FY 2008-09 Bangladesh exported woven products worth $5.9 billion, which surpassed the export target, set by the sector, by 4.13 per cent and 14.54 per cent more compared with that for 2007-08. Bangladesh exported knitwear worth $6.4 billion in FY 2008-09, which fell, short of its target by 2.35 per cent, but compared with the preceding year, it was 16.21 per cent more. These figures thus belie the grim picture given by the BGMEA.

The Finance Minister was therefore quite right in rejecting the BGMEA demand as "unacceptable." There are of course a lot of other things unacceptable here. First, there is no doubt the BGMEA was trying to get a share of the Taka 500 crore incentive package the government has announced to counter recession hit sectors. Its health however is, going by the EPB statistics, too good to even consider this sector as a candidate for a share of the Taka 500 crore incentive package. Second, the manner in which the BGMEA put forth its "demand" was also audacious. It left the government literally days to meet tits demand and threatened to hold the government responsible for the consequences if the "demand" was not met and the workers went on a rampage. This was tantamount to an attempt to blackmail.

The rejection of the "demand "of the BGMEA by the government, nevertheless, leaves a very important national issue unresolved. There is still no assurance whether the workers would receive their legitimate benefits before the Eid. BGMEA's reaction to the Finance Minister’s rejection is still awaited. Meantime, a fundamental question must be asked of the BGMEA. Why it is that whenever they have a shortfall in their business orders from overseas, the poor workers are the first to be asked to bear the consequences and that too with what are their fundamental rights, namely their salary and their job security?

Only a couple of weeks ago, I was attending a seminar arranged for a project a business chamber is arranging abroad for packaging Bangladesh's business. The sponsors offered a package for the trip that included among other things, price of travel by air. A gentleman sitting next to me made a few comments on the package but did not forget to mention that in his case, as he would be travelling Business Class, he would pay the extra amount knowing the package offered by the sponsors included travel by economy class. The gentleman is a RMG exporter! I would be interested to know how much of personal sacrifices the RMG owners make in their life style when they move to take away even the basics from their workers when their business go down.

There is a moral issue here. We all know as I mentioned that the country owes a lot to the RMG sector for its success. They employ a large number of people of whom a significant number are women. They thus contribute to employment generation as well as women empowerment. They also do this by first making themselves very rich. The moral question is how much of this they share with those who make them rich. The Taka 1300 as minimum wage is more than a mere figure; they should reflect this amount against the price line in the market and then rest in peace if they can.
The RMG sector is vital to our economy and therefore the government must find a way out of the issue of wages and bonuses of the workers. Going by the EPB statistics, there is no doubt the majority of the 1500 units is capable of paying this bonus and must pay. An immediate statement on this should come out from the government to avoid the threat the BGMEA has cleverly apprehended. The government could consider some relief for the sick units as a temporary measure for paying the Eid bonuses because the BGMEA's threat has already created the favourable ground for disturbances that the external agents must have already noted. After the dust settles, the government has the responsibility of sitting down with the BGMEA and point out where the latter has gone off the rails in the "demand" it has made from the government. The Finance Minister must be credited for dealing with this "demand "of the BGMEA correctly but he must also know that BGMEA has placed him and the government on a spot. By standing on Hatirjheel, the BGMEA will not have many supporters eventually and by making the workers easy target for their alleged misfortune as they have done in this case, they will lose much more.

Friday, September 4, 2009

LDP loses by a landslide on agenda of change

As expected, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost the Japanese elections and as expected very badly. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) won 308 seats in a parliament's lower house of 480 seats and sent the LDP into the Opposition, ending its stranglehold on power since 1956, which they had briefly lost for eleventh months in 1993. The LDP won 119 seats against the 302 it had in the last parliament.

The figures of the DJP victory and LDP's defeats are dramatic, a “revolution” according to the DJP leader and the next Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. But analysts seeking answers to this turn of events in Japan's politics are finding it easy to explain the LDP's defeat. Since the departure of Koizumi, the way his successors led the LDP and Government created voters' disillusionment with the ruling party. The three Prime Ministers, Shinzo Abe, Yasuo Fukuda and Taro Aso, who led Japan after Koizumi departed in 2006, failed to match Koizumi's charisma and popularity and by contrast, gave the LDP a very poor image indeed. The emergence of Taro Aso as Prime Minister and leader of the LDP was something that the party did not need with its popularity ebbing fast. Aso is well known in Japanese politics for his non-serious approach to politics and his preference for wining and dining. He made things worse for himself and his party by making frequent gaffes in public to which his colleagues also added with one senior Minister appearing at a press conference while on a foreign trip, drunk.

With the noose tightening round his neck and the party during electioneering, Aso advised poor unemployed Japanese who are the victims of Japan's worst tryst with unemployment in modern times, not to marry. Whatever his intentions were, the advice fell flat on voters and dissuaded them further to move away from the LDP. The economic crunch added to fill the quota of LDP's misfortunes because by the time election date was announced last month, Japanese voters were yearning for a change.

Indeed, the citizens of Tokyo gave both the LDP and the nation the clear indication of how serious they were for the change. They voted in the Tokyo municipal elections against the LDP that lost its majority in the Tokyo Assembly for the first time in history to the DJP. In that election, the DJP won 54 seats against LDP's 38 seats, thus setting for the nation's voters the direction for the Lower House elections. The pre-election scenario created the environment where predicting that the DJP would win handsomely easy, almost a foregone conclusion.

The seeds of this defeat were however sown much earlier, during the tenure of Junichiro Koizumi. As leader of the LDP, he led the party in his own style that was in sharp contrast to how his predecessors led the party. Koizumi broke the factions in the party that did almost everything, from management of conflicts to naming the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. During his term, he took all the major decisions. His charisma and personality allowed him to dominate not just in the party but also in the nation. Unfortunately, he did not groom his successor and he destroyed the old party structure without putting into place a new order. Although the factions that were dormant while he was in power returned with his exit, they failed to dominate and manage party politics as they did before. This was quite visible in the way LDP led the government after his departure, unsure about major policy decisions that did not fail to attract and frustrate the nation. The fact that three prime ministers came one after another since Koizumi left in 2006 in the backdrop of major policy debacles hinted early enough that LDP was on its way out.

Voters' disillusionment with the LDP was thus the major factor for the DJP's win. The winner ensured that this victory would be by a big margin by appealing to the ordinary people for votes. In a time of economic crunch, the worst for decades, the DJP promised the voters to make governance focus more on consumers instead of big businesses that the LDP favoured. Among other promises the DJP made, the one not to raise consumption tax for the next four years was most appealing. The party also promised to lower fuel tax and corporate tax for small businesses. The DJP also promised to expand on the welfare state despite rising costs in view of Japan's aging population. The DJP assured voters that it would be able to meet the costs for its promises by budgetary controls and reducing the size of the bureaucracy. In other words, the DJP promised to be a pro-people government if elected and the people of Japan believed them and that too, overwhelmingly.

In foreign affairs, the DJP promised to make Japan less dependent on USA and make extra efforts to improve relations with her Asian neighbours. The US air force base in Okinawa that the islanders want relocated could come up immediately for renegotiation. The DJP, that opposed the Iraq war, also has reservations on presence of 50,000 US troops in Japan. The White House, however, issued a statement that it hopes that the strong US-Japan alliance and the close partnership between our two countries will flourish under the leadership of the next government.

The LDP's historic defeat has introduced some positive elements in Japan's politics. Parliamentary democracy works best when there is a strong opposition, something that was lacking in Japan. Henceforth Japan will be a two party democracy where the LDP will bring into the opposition their 54 years experience in governance. The new parliament will also see 158 newcomers, the largest new faces ever elected in any of Japan's previous elections. Of these, 54 are women, mostly from the DPJ, which is also a new record. Best of all, Japan will have a new Prime Minister riding the wave of a massive victory that should give him the confidence that was lacking in the last three LDP Ministers. Yukio Hatoyama, grandson of former Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, and coming from a family called “Japan's Kennedy family” may not have experience in governance but has enough in politics to lead Japan at this critical juncture when its economy is in the most serious crunch for many decades.

The excellent Bangladesh-Japan relation where Japan is our most important development partner has been nurtured by LDP leadership led by Prime Minister Kakeui Tanaka that was deeply touched by our sacrifices and success in the war of liberation. Over the years, legendary LDP leaders like Kayakawa, helped build a relationship where we owe to Japan a great deal for the development of our economic and human resources infrastructure. The DJP's views on Bangladesh or countries such as ours are yet unknown but there is no reason why the new government would not follow and build upon what it has inherited from the LDP Government. On our part, we would need to make our best efforts to establish early contacts with the new political leadership. Our Foreign Ministry and Mission in Tokyo will now have to carry the extra burden where arrangement of high level visits from our side at the level of the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister should be pursued in all earnestness.

We have benefited tremendously from Japan's economic assistance. We have, however, failed in an area where Japan could be even more useful to us. We have badly failed in targeting and getting Japanese investment. We have all it takes to attract Japanese investment; excellent location as the bridge between South and Southeast Asia; a very large population for supply of both labour and market incentives, etc. Our failure has been in our investment regime that we have boasted as most attractive but one that has fallen far short of Japanese expectations. Let a new era of Bangladesh-Japan begin with the DJP in power where our main focus would be to make Japanese investment a prime focus of our relations.

Published in The Daily Star, September 5, 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Is Biman worth salvaging?

Every Bangladeshi with experience of flying Biman has critical experience to talk about. My own bad experience with Biman was in the 1980s when I was flying in Biman on its Dhaka-London route. When the food was served, I found in my tray very visible dirt in one corner. I called a Biman staff on board who saw the dirt and instantly told me that the fault was of the ground staff! With Biman always on the red, I have also found from personal experience most flights fully booked when I have sought to take a Biman flight. On board, invariably always, there were a significant number of seats empty! Again, almost always in Biman's Business Class, a large number of the seats were always occupied by Biman's staff flying complimentary. Biman's staff has always looked upon our national airline as "their" airlines and has misused it for themselves thus never allowing it in its nearly 40 years long existence to be a viable airline.

The sad personal experiences with Biman have led many of us to stop flying Biman. We did so because we could not take chances with Biman's regular habit of going haywire with its flight schedules. Despite all these, we have always wished well for Biman because we wanted Biman to be our image builder in the outside world, like some major airlines in our region for their countries.

Our patience, I guess, will now finally end for what happened the other day in Heathrow that has disgraced Bangladesh before the world. Bangladesh Biman flight to London and back to Dhaka was held up for 10 hours at Heathrow not for any technical problems but because all its five toilets were jammed by the passengers who had misused it grossly. Biman's Director Engineering explained that the toilet problem was overcome in two hours and then because of Heathrow's ban of night flights, there was an additional delay of eight hours. Together with this news, there was another equally bad one that came from the United Nations. A day before the "toilet embarrassment ", UN advised its staff not to fly Biman because of safety concerns and flight delays.

Biman's Director Engineering explained to BBC that its flight could not take off from Heathrow because "passengers threw bottles, cups, tissue papers and female sanitary napkins into all five toilets of the Biman aircraft ...This solid material blocked the toilets and there was a jumble in the pneumatic toilet suction system. It was a passenger-created problem. There was no mechanical fault." The Director's explanation given to BBC and thus publicised widely abroad puts Biman in the clear but only so far as its well know habit of passing the buck. These toilets were not blocked suddenly but must have happened over a period of time, apparently when it flew from Dhaka to London. What was the staff doing when the passengers were merrily flooding the toilet with the items mentioned by the Director BBC? From our experience we have seen on flights of other airlines, airhostesses, on long flights, going in and out of toilets, keeping the toilets running. There were also a lot of other things that the Biman staff could have done to avoid the embarrassing situation. If they had frequently checked the toilets, they could have seen what was coming and advised the passengers accordingly.

Biman's Managing Director, when contacted over the twin issues of the "toilet embarrassment" and the UN directive said that he was not aware of the latter. He however admitted that Biman was having problem managing its flight schedule but hoped this would be overcome once the new aircrafts ordered by Biman became available. He did not, however, say when these aircrafts would be available but by earlier reports that have come in new papers, these aircrafts are not expected to join Biman's present old and battered aircrafts sometime soon.

Biman's horrendous flight schedule record is a well known fact. It is a baggage that Biman picked up in earlier times as a trade mark when it opened flight connections without caring to relate it to the fleet available to it. Hence what the UN has underscored was something that is a well known fact about Biman. In fact, unless one has compelling reasons to fly Biman, one with some knowledge of our national airlines avoids it anyway. The UN's ban will add to the bad publicity that Biman has earned over the years for its lack of dependability. The sad thing about Biman's current predicament is that pulling it out of the doldrums has always been talked about but very little real efforts has been made to straighten things that has slipped from bad to worse.

In recent times, in addition to the failures to deal with its old fleet of aircrafts that has been one of the main reasons for the problem of keeping behind schedules, Biman has been in public focus for failure of its authorities to pay salaries to its staff. Biman has also faced string of corruption allegations. In the past, Biman had also been captive to associations in the organisation. Government interference had also made Biman employ a very high number of staff compared to the fleet it had and the business it was doing. In fact, ever since it was established as the national carrier for just not doing good business but to enhance Bangladesh's image abroad, it has been doing just the reverse; it has failed miserably in business and has damaged our national image instead of being our agent to enhance this image.

Bangladesh is a nation of 150 million with seven million of them living overseas. It is situated in a passage way of world airlines traffic. Thus there are all the reasons one can imagine for Bangladesh to have a national airline and to succeed with it. Sadly, in the nearly 40 years we have given to Biman the space, the encouragement and the indulgence, Biman has failed us badly. The episode at Heathrow and the UN directive should be taken seriously for some serious soul searching whether we would want to continue to give Biman more space, encouragement and indulgence. It is time to decide upon Biman's future. We cannot feel comfortable as a nation if we do not have a national carrier given the fact that we are a very big nation in terms of population. At the same time, we cannot likewise imagine continuing to have a national airlines creating a dubious record of failing to fly because all its toilets have been jammed. We cannot also let an airlines do business without dealing with the reasons that led the UN to ban Biman. The twin issues here are important for the government to take into consideration in dealing with the future of Biman.

The Managing Director and Director Operations of Biman have not been able to assure at all what Biman intends to do in future except passing the blame. The problem with the toilets is just a manifestation of an illness that Biman has been left with all these years without treating the causes. It had the luxury all along to be a losing concern because the country could not be without a national airline and was never expected, by government indulgence, to become competitive which is ridiculous given the amount of money needed to run an airlines and the intense competition in this business internationally.

There is also more bad news for those like us who genuinely want Biman to establish itself as a national carrier. One reason why Biman has become a white elephant is because the airlines, under government indulgence, had more staff than it could pay for. During the Caretaker government, 1800 people were retired from Biman for making the organisation viable. Many of these employees are now returning to Biman under court directives. Also, the employees' associations inside Biman that had extended to 12 at its height and has been one reason for corruption and unprofessional activities inside Biman but were banned during the Caretaker government are also returning. Added to these is the little known fact that Biman's status has been questioned by the Federal Aviation Authority of the US and the International Civil Aviation Organisation who are unhappy with the way it is being run. These two organisations have the power to ground Biman unless it can satisfy them. Biman is currently negotiating its status with them.

Biman is in difficult waters. Unfortunately, our good wishes for its future notwithstanding, it does not look like Biman is flying in the right direction and its "toilet embarrassment" and UN ban may be hints of a much graver illness in our national carrier.

Published in The Independent, September 4, 2009