Thursday, October 8, 2009

Land grabbers and prime minister's directive

One disquieting feature of this government is the fact that the Parliament is not functioning effectively to give the public the benefit of debate on national and important current issues. The discussions there are one-sided monologues. There is a government spokesman at the Prime Minister's Office who often speaks on important issues on the Prime Minister's behalf but unfortunately these statements also reveal very little. The Ministers are more courageous and they speak freely in the media on national issues but they end up confusing the people more instead of enhancing their understanding because more often than not, they contradict one another.

Sometimes of course the Ministers speak out in a manner that is not only true but what they say really scares the daylight out of the people in the context of some of the burning national issues and issues faced by the unfortunate citizens of Dhaka. The Minister for LGRD and the AL General Secretary is one politician who often speaks the truth without mincing words. In a statement made on the floor of the Parliament the other day, he said that despite the Prime Minister's very strong directive to reclaim Dhaka's canals and waterways, powerful people were opposing it. It is just not the Prime Minister's directive: there is also High Court order for reclamation without which Dhaka could be on way to extinction. The Minister's exact words in Parliament, translated from Bangla, on land grabbing were: "Despite the Prime Minister's directive and the High Court order to dismantle illegal structures constructed in water bodies and canals after dirt filling, which causes stagnation of water in the city, the authorities are facing trouble as the land developing companies are powerful."

For Dhaka's more than 10 million citizens, the Minister's statement is both encouraging and disappointing. It is encouraging because in it there is recognition at the highest political level that the present water logging in the city during the rainy season has been caused due to a small section of people of the city, mainly the land developers. The Minister's statement is disappointing because he has told us that those who are supposed to carry out the order of the Prime Minister are failing in their duty because the land grabbers are powerful and influential.
In the context of misery of citizens of Dhaka owing to our incorrigible traffic, it is unfortunately the same scary story. In this case, it is just not the fact that the Prime Minister's strong directive is being flouted as on the canal reclamation and water logging issue; here she has herself been a victim. Only recently, she ordered "Operation Clean Street." On the first day after this order was passed, she was kept waiting at the Hotel Sonargoan intersection. Only the other day, with the traffic situation having worsened since "Operation Clean Street", there was a picture in this newspaper in the front page showing the Prime Minister's motorcade stuck behind Dhaka's monstrous traffic congestion.

This time as Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina has spoken forcefully on just not these two issues; she has also spoken of a number of other national issues that have rung a favourable chord in the psyche of the nation. In the wake of rising violent activities of the student wing of her party, she disassociated herself from that wing to send a serious message that they must give up their disorderly conduct. She has spoken very strongly against extortion and illegal involvement by members of her own party. Only recently, she has said that children should be kept outside politics because they are the country's future, which is an acknowledgement of the unacceptable nature of our politics.

These facts are scary. If a senior minister of the government acknowledges on the floor of the Parliament that there are elements powerful enough to stand in the way of implementing the Prime Minister's directive, it sends to these elements signal that they have little to fear. It reminds people about the Caretaker government's failed attempts to break the nexus between politics and corrupt elements. The "powerful" elements in the statement of LGRD Minister are the same corrupt elements who are now daring to stand against the Prime Minister's directive because the nexus the CG tried to break and failed is still there as strong as ever.

The Prime Minister is making serious attempts to deal with this nexus between politics and undesirable elements within her party and the country. The opposition political parties, particularly the BNP, are not. It is one of the sad aspects of our politics that the word "reform" has assumed such a pariah status in both the mainstream parties. In fact, reform is seen as betrayal which is of course because those who talked of reform during the emergency, did so not in the context of the party but in reference to removing their respective top leaders. In fact, whoever coined the word minus 2 on behalf of the Caretaker government must bear the primary responsibility for giving the much-needed reform of the political parties in Bangladesh such a bad name. Also, the overindulgence of the intelligence in political reform and in particular their "vision" of forming a "king's party" was also a major factor in the failure of achieving reform of the political parties although at that time, the public and the political parties themselves were aware of such need.

On the issue of the Prime Minister's directives, there are a few other reasons why her orders are not achieving the desired outcome. Politics, in the absence of reform, has politicised the bureaucracy. In fact, the trend is more towards it than the other way around. We are seeing all around us the adverse side of a ruling political party's influence in governance and administration. The civil bureaucracy is the best guarantee for a country against such adverse influence provided it is efficient and neutral. If it is partisan, then the nexus between it and the ruling party for corruption is strengthened. There is another very dangerous aspect to this argument. In a recent figure released in the media, the government's performance related to utilisation of ADP funds is very discouraging. This is also something expected because in the face of rising trend of politicisation, a large number of civil bureaucrats who are neutral are afraid to work. Then there are of course those who have already been identified as partisan against the ruling party and have been cornered. When their number is added to those who are neutral and lacking in confidence and motivation, the civil bureaucracy is left with precious little to implement the directives of the Prime Minister or the objectives of this government.

Unfortunately, this is the state of affairs in the bureaucracy and politics today.
Thus the Prime Minister's seriousness and directives are losing a lot of focus because of the quality of our politics. In this context, certain ominous things are also taking place. In the backdrop of the rapes on minor girls in recent weeks, one incident in the small, remote town of Kalapara is the most ominous. In this dastardly rape, local leaders of the ruling party took law into their own hands and meted out vigilante style justice on the alleged rapists, 16 in all of which 4 are allegedly from the ruling party, with police and local residents watching! They collected Taka 10,000 each from the accused and handed Taka 160,000 to the girl's family "to protect the image of the ruling party during puja." According to newspaper reports, a local ruling party leader said that "the villagers and the victim's family accepted the arbitration as justice done." The dangerous issue here is the ruling party leaders at Kalapara have no confusion that they are the government; a view that is fairly widespread, dangerously so, at various levels of the ruling party.

The LGRD Minister nevertheless has made it clear that the government has taken up various measures to recover the canals and water bodies. The citizens of Dhaka can only sit and wait and hope. The fear of what a point 7-point earthquake would do to Dhaka may now be occupying their minds much more than the illegal activities of land grabbers and incorrigible traffic of Dhaka.

Published in The Daily Independent, October 9, 2009

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