Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Are we living in a healthy society?

"As I See It" column
The Independent
November, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

When I open my morning news paper, as part of a very old habbit, I can’t help being disappointment. Often I see half and sometimes more than half of the front page of the paper I read given to advertisements! The more well circulated the newspaper, the more is the inclination towards using as much as possible of the first page for ads.  I have lived a good part of my life as a diplomat that was spread over 30 years, overseas. Both by habit and professional requirements, I had to read as many newspapers as I could lay my hands on. I have not seen anything like this anywhere in the capitals where I have lived and worked. 

It is not that the newspapers in other world capitals have no need of advertisements or that there is no demand for space in the papers there for advertisements by the business communities of the countries concerned. In fact, these countries are much more advanced and hence the business much more vast. So is the latter’s need for paid publicity or advertisement. Yet they rarely use their front pages the way our newspapers do. The reason for this strange difference in the front page of our newspapers and those in other capitals is of course the urge for making money. Our newspapers have an extremely high rate when an ad is carried in the front page. Hence, they allow such an unusually high proportion of their front page to make money. Newspapers abroad do not do so because they do not think it as decent. 

Our independence has not just established us as a sovereign country; it has also given us the freedom of expanding ourselves as a nation on all aspects of our lives. We have expanded in many ways and the signs are visible for all of us to see. Yet today, talk to the vast majority of the people; they will tell you that their lives have become more complicated and problem ridden. However, for a small section of our people, independence has been a boom for they have been able to acquire riches and pleasures of live that they could not have dreamt when the country was not free. The life style of this small section of our people would be the envy of rich people abroad in the way they enjoy their riches.   

In contrast, those who are directly involved with building the society and the country, the civil and public servants, have a different life style for whom independence has come with a heavy price. Take for instance the case of the civil servants. In the Pakistani days, they were in the centre of development of the country. A civil servant was a respected member of the society. His respect was backed by the government paying him a salary and providing him with other perks that allowed him to maintain a decent standard of living; most importantly to discourage him from corruption. Only greedy civil servants were corrupt those days.  

Today, the honest civil servant has lost his/her respect while the salary and perks he/she receives are so low compared to the price line in the market that honesty comes with almost starvation. Unfortunately for the country but fortunately for the civil servants, the law of nature has worked where the government has been oblivious to the needs of the civil servants. Many of them have liberally used their power and position to make the shortfall in their needs that the government should have provided. In fact, those among the civil servants in powerful offices have used their power to compete successfully with the rich but for a price. They have sold their morality as the price and society has been the worse off as a consequence.  

The same is the case with public servants, the elected officials, like the Ministers, Members of Parliament, etc. In the Pakistan era, getting elected to public offices was not a costly affair as it is today. Therefore, when an elected official became a Minister or a MP or was elected to the other elected offices; he did not have the compulsion to make through his office, the crores of Taka that he has now to spend for his nomination and then for  his election.. Therefore like with the civil servants, the public servants also have fallen into the same predicament; they have been compelled to use their offices to make money by corrupt means. The recent report of TIB on the parliamentarians thus should not have raised any eyebrows. If you allow a pond full of fitly water, you create the conditions for mosquitoes to breed for natural reasons.  

Thus in Bangladesh, the sectors in which people work to build the nation have been placed in a position where the temptations of corruption are great and often insurmountable, conditions created not by these individuals themselves but by the type of country we have built upon our liberation. Those who do fall to the temptations of corruption are in a predicament from where they can hardly contribute positively to nation building. Corrupt people do not build a healthy nation. Those who are not part of this endemic corruption are in no position either to help themselves or the nation. This is why we are engaged in the process of destroying institution that we have inherited in 1971, institutions that were perfectly poised for nation building waiting only for political direction in which we have failed so far. 

As a consequence, we are today still looking to become a middle income country where the head start we got by becoming independent in 1971 should have already made us one and taken us beyond. Instead we are hovering in the realm of countries close to failing. This is why we  see things happening in Bangladesh that are peculiar to us only, like the newspapers devoting almost all of their front page to advertisement in a naked expression of commercialism where the Prime Minister has to compete with an ad model and lose in terms of space allotted. This is why we have in Dhaka so many newspapers that no one really knows how many. This is why we have 25 odd (or it is 35?) TV channels in Dhaka with many more applications for more TV channels; TV stations whose main national duty is news/talk shows and propagating their own credentials. Talk show guests and hosts are claiming they are an alternative to the parliament and the Prime Minister by her attack on them seems to be agreeing! 

These are all symptoms of a society in poor health. Of late, when we are watching thousands of crores being defrauded out of the nationalized banks, the Finance Minister and the Bangladesh Bank Governor are exchanging blames without either showing the sense to realize that they need to take joint responsibility because they are responsible for the banking sector and answerable to the public. These symptoms of ill health notwithstanding, it is the private sector that has somehow managed to remain out of the grip of bad governance in the country and the 7 million expatriates most of whom  have gone abroad despite the government that are keeping Bangladesh floating and even showing glimpses of succeeding. Unfortunately even in the private sector where the RMG sector is dominant, we see serious problems in the context of low wages paid to the garment workers whose sweat earns these RMG owners earn their huge profits. As for the expatriates, their saga of misfortunes, despite their contributions to the economy, is one of the major untold stories of Bangladesh.


The writer is a retired  career Ambassador and  Secretary to the Government



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