Friday, January 25, 2013

On the BPL and the Pakistani Cricketers

Daily Sun
January 20, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

After some degree of suspense, the Pakistani cricketers withdrew from the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) literally at the eleventh hour.  The largest number of foreign cricketers contracted for the BPL was from Pakistan. In the 20/20 format of the game in which the BPL is structured, the Pakistani cricketers are a special attraction because of their style of playing the game and brilliance. Thus their absence will take away a great deal of attraction from the BPL that had earlier also run into other problems that were overcome after great difficulties.

The withdrawal of the Pakistani cricketers has just not spoiled the quality of the second season of the BPL; it has left in its trail implications that the senior officials of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said could affect bilateral relations between the two countries. The PCB decided not to allow its cricketers to participate in the BPL in retaliation for the BCB’s decision to cancel its tour of Pakistan to play limited overs games at the 11th hour. The tour to Pakistan was scheduled for early this month.  The latest cancellation is in fact a second one. In November, 2011, Bangladesh had agreed to tour Pakistan in April 2012 despite International Cricket Conference’s (ICC) recommendation against tour to Pakistan for security reasons as a quid pro quo for Pakistan’s support for the candidature of the BCB President for the post of Vice President of the ICC. That tour was aborted by an order of the Banagladesh High Court.

Ever since the Sri Lankan cricketers were subjected to a terrorist attack in Lahore while playing a Test match in 2009, no foreign team has visited Pakistan. The decision not to tour Pakistan for security reasons was made by international cricket’s regulatory body, the International Cricket Conference or the ICC after that terrorist attack.  In fact, as a result of the terrorist turmoil to which Pakistan has been subjected in recent years, aggravated by President Bush’s war on terror, cricket teams from outside were  reluctant to visit Pakistan . Thus they were quick to accept the ICC decision not to tour Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan adopted the UAE as “host country” to play international cricket but nevertheless desperate to encourage and lure foreign teams to play cricket in Pakistan.

For Pakistan, the ICC’s stand was more than an issue of cricket. It reflected a bad image for the country that was impeding its goals and objectives in international politics outside the realms of cricket. Thus the Pakistanis have been trying their best to encourage other nations to send their teams to Pakistan, assuring them of the best security cover. Unfortunately for Pakistan, no nation except Bangladesh was encouraged by Pakistan’s efforts and the country became a pariah as far as international cricket was concerned.

Therefore for the sake of transparency and setting records straight, it is essential for those who have the responsibility of overseeing the affairs of the BCB, if there is indeed any such body,  to inquire why the Board decided twice to visit Pakistan despite the ICC’s recommendation against such visits to Pakistan. Those who are aware of what is happening in the cricketing circles of course know too well that it was not cricket that was the reason why the BCB made the first or the April, 2012 effort to visit Pakistan knowing full well that the security situation in Pakistan was deteriorating and that such visits would be unacceptable to the ICC. The reason was a matter of personal interest of then President of the BCB to become the Vice-President of the ICC in 2012 that would ensure him to become the ICC President in June, 2014, a post that was very lucrative, one that former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard aspired to assume but failed.   The ICC charter has since been amended to be effective from June, 2014 when the top and the most prestigious position in the ICC would be that of the Chairman and not the President whose role would thereafter be ceremonial.

Pakistan is a major player in ICC politics. It played a significant role in helping Bangladesh achieve Test status. In fact the two have always sided together in ICC politics. Therefore the former BCB President had a good reason to make Pakistan happy by deciding to send the Bangladesh team to visit Pakistan in April, 2012 overlooking the ICC’s recommendation against tours to Pakistan. He however had a more personal reason in the decision. His interest was to receive Pakistan’s support to become the ICC Vice-President and eventually the ICC President in 2014.  He thus   even went on a personal visit to Pakistan to see the security arrangements and in fact had also expressed satisfaction at the arrangements while on that trip to Pakistan.   Unfortunately for him, sentiments in the country ran into conflict with his desire to become the ICC President by pleasing Pakistan.  A writ was filed in the court by a Dhaka University teacher against the tour.

The Bangladesh High Court reacted positively to the writ against the tour and deferred the tour by 4 weeks that led to the cancellation of the April, 2012 tour.. The cancellation   was taken as a snub and rightly so by Pakistan not just in its cricketing circles but in its highest government circles because in Pakistan, the PCB, though an independent body, cannot function independently of the government on issues that have foreign policy implications.  The BCB unfortunately does not seem to feel that it has any such compulsions. Thus the former BCB President was able to visit Pakistan and make the commitment to send the Bangladesh cricket team to visit Pakistan in blissful ignorance of any foreign policy implications. He was able put his personal ambition to become the ICC President ahead of the need to consider the interest of the country without anyone to tell him and the BCB that it was treading into areas that were none of its business.

The current BCB President revived the aborted the April 2012 tour and agreed to send the Bangladesh team to Pakistan on a shorter tour in January this year just before the BPL because of the written commitment made by his predecessor to PCB. This time also the BCB failed to consider the foreign policy implications of reviving the decision to tour Pakistan. The BCB failed to consider the reasons for which the Prime Minister had declined to visit Pakistan for the D8 Summit in December, 2012. Although her health and preoccupation were given as reasons for not undertaking that visit, the foreign policy objective was no doubt to send Pakistan the message that Bangladesh expected an apology from it for the events of 1971. If the Bangladesh Team had gone on its planned visit, it would have directly contradicted the message that the Government of Bangladesh has been trying to send to the Government of Pakistan. Although it did not come out in the media as such where the BCB said the tour will take place when security situation in Pakistan improved, the January tour to Pakistan must have been cancelled on instructions from higher authorities in the country

The lesson of the BCB’s failed efforts to send the Bangladesh Cricket Team to Pakistan twice is that henceforth the BCB must not be allowed for the higher authority to intervene in the eleventh hour to stop it from committing mistakes that impinge upon the country’s foreign relations.  It is time to bring the Ministry of Foreign Affairs into the loop in BCB affairs, not be to interfere into its affairs but to assist it positively so that it does not tread into foreign affairs matters without even the faintest clue and end embarrassing the government and creating conflict in the conduct of the country’s foreign relations.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary

Time to focus on political development

The Independent
19th January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Finance Minister recently, in his by now well known manner of reaction to critics, expressed his utter exasperation at a particular think tank that we frequently see in the media making predictions on the country’s economy. His frustration was that this think tank did not reflect the successes of the government in economic development; spending most of its time finding faults with it and its policies.

The Finance Minister had a good reason for his exasperation and frustration. With issues of the Padma Bridge debacle, the Hallmark and Destiny frauds and the share market scam, he has been under pressure like no other Finance Minister  in the past. Yet, in the last four years, the government has earned socio-economic growth that as a Finance Minister, he should be given credit for and the Government commended. Unfortunately, with this think tank, there is no such grace for it is more interested in criticizing the government and very little in highlighting the areas where the government has succeeded. In fact in his disgust, the Finance Minister dismissed this think tank as an organization bereft of intellectual competence.

The Finance Minister is not alone in his frustration with this think tank. His predecessor in the last BNP Government felt the same way when this think tank had put him and the BNP Government under similar pressure. In fact, at that time, this think tank had taken an overtly anti-BNP stance and according to economists with pro-BNP leanings, also distorted facts and figures to show that the economy of the country was at peril at the hands of the BNP. It had indirectly sent a political message to the voters that the BNP needed to be defeated in the elections and the Awami League voted to power.

Unfortunately, a majority of our think tanks, like this particular one on which the Finance Minister expressed his anger use facts  and figures of socio-economic development as ammunition to embarrass the government to attract public attention. They do a great job in playing politics and also gaining public attention and popularity. Unfortunately for giving a few individuals at the helm of these organizations a public platform and public exposure, these think tanks do very little for furthering the objectives for which they are established. I must admit that I have not seen the charters of these think tanks but based on common sense, I am sure their objectives must be study the issues related to socio-economic development of the country and make recommendations on how to achieve goals in these sectors for the growth and development of the country.

Think tanks of course are not executing agencies.  Their studies/recommendations thus meant for the government. Their work can become meaningful only when the government acts on their studies and recommendations.  Therefore, the best way for these organizations to live up to their charters is to work with the government not against it. Unfortunately, instead of working with the government that is the rational way, most of the think tanks in our country, at least the leading ones, prefer   the media to reveal their research findings and that too in a manner critical of the government. More often than not, their findings and recommendations end embarrassing the government. Thus instead of building a partnership with the government, the important think tanks place themselves in a role against the government and behave like an opposition political party  leading  at times to public show of anger against them as the Finance Minister did recently.

As Ambassador to Japan from 2002 to 2006, I found many think tanks in Tokyo working in different areas of socio-economic and political development, including foreign affairs. They do extensive research work and in many instances, upon request or commissioning by the government. The system works two ways. The think tanks, like think tanks all over the world, do research on their own and reveal these through publications/ seminars/ conferences where there is participation by the government that uses these materials for their policy work in a pro-active and cooperative manner. In fact, these think tanks in Tokyo are a great help to the respective government ministries because these ministries do not have the necessary manpower or time to carry out extensive research and depend on the think tanks for their research needs to help them in making policies of the government.  Often, the ministries commission these think tanks to carry out research on specific issues.

The pattern of relationship between the government and the think tanks in Japan is also the pattern that exists at other world capitals in more or less the same manner. It is in Dhaka and in particular with this think tank that drew the Finance Minister’s wrath that the relationship is an antagonistic one. When the BNP was in office, its opponents were looking up to this organization for helping its anti-government role. This time with the AL in power, it is the BNP and its supporters who are looking up to this organization to further their cause against the government. In a country where non-partisan people often are anti-establishment, this think tank also has significant following among those who do not support either the two mainstream parties. In between all these, the research/recommendations of the think tanks are wasted and the government is unable to benefit for their work. Both in their respective ways fail to serve the cause of the country where cooperation and partnership would have been beneficial to both and the country.

The criticisms of the think tanks of the present government and the last BNP government on issues of social and economic development notwithstanding, Bangladesh has done very well in these areas of development. No less an authority on these issues than Noble Laureate Amarta Sen has given Bangladesh very high marks in these areas of development and has placed Bangladesh ahead of India. Of course, there is need to mention that there are no two opinions about the points that the think tanks make, in particular the one that incurred the Finance Minister’s anger, that in many areas, the government would do better to take their suggestions to achieve higher rates of socio-economic growth to transform Bangladesh from an LDC to a middle income country

Nevertheless, the undeniable fact is that socio-economic development of Bangladesh is on track despite what think tanks think. It is not the wrong policies of the government generally that is impeding the country from growing faster. Our private sector and the NGOs are quite capable of working with the government or outside it to help Bangladesh grow and they are doing it.  Unfortunately, their efforts and those of the government notwithstanding, Bangladesh is not growing at the rate needed for socio-economic transformation not because of not following the right policy options but because of matters of politics; political culture and political psychology. The politics of conflict between the two mainstream parties is just not impeding the efforts of the government to achieve Bangladesh’s fullest potentials in socio-economic growth; it is now threatening to take away all our modest achievements in these sectors. If the next elections are not held in a fair manner where all parties would be able to participate, it is not socio-economic growth that would be our concern. The very future of the country would be at stake.

It is time therefore for our think tanks and economists worrying themselves with socio-economic issues of growth to take rest for a while. It is time for think tanks and individuals with knowledge of political science; political culture and political psychology to take the centre stage and give the country the benefit of their knowledge and expertise. Let them take the centre stage not as opponents of the government but as partners, and carry out their work not in the media but in rational ways through networking with the government and the political parties.

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

Teaching in Private Universities: Who are we fooling?

Daily Sun
13th January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Daily Sun published last week an interesting investigative report on the teaching status in the private universities. It showed that at most private universities, the teacher student ratio is so adverse that to expect quality product coming out of these institutions would be wishing for something that will not happen. The University Grants Commission, the body that regulates the private universities has mandated the teacher student ratio should not cross 1:20. Against this standard, all the private universities are outside the limit with some of the universities having a ratio as bad as 1:83! These universities are flouting the teacher: student ratio with contempt, like they are the regulatory body and can pretty much do what they want. With the number of private universities growing alarmingly, mostly in Dhaka,  no one seems to ask one fundamental question. Where are the teachers coming from?  

In truth, no one seems to be bothered. I remember long ago back in the 1980s when I was in the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington I had met Ambassador Moslehuddin Ahmed who recently passed away who pioneered the establishment of the North-South University, the first of its kind in Bangladesh. He wanted the Embassy to assist him with a few appointments with people he wanted to meet in the University of Maryland, College Park. He wanted to meet them for ideas to establish the North South University in Dhaka on sound footing. I thought he was a dreamer. I could not imagine at that time that there was any possibility of a private university in Dhaka.

My reasons for a negative view on private universities in Dhaka at that time were based on a few hard to explain facts. First, I could not understand why someone would be interested to study in a private university in subjects he/she could study in the public universities with much better teaching staff for a ridiculously low fee against exorbitant fees in a private university. In fact, this aspect of the fees is something that no one has still explained satisfactorily. All over the world, as we now know, there is a mix of private and public universities where there is a difference of fees in these two types of institutions. Nevertheless, what we do not know or if we do, we seem to push it under the rug, is, the difference in fees between the public and the private universities in Bangladesh is simply unbelievable.

The fees that public institutions take from the students is so meager that one wonders why these institutions take these fees at all. Why not make education free in the public universities? In contrast, the fees that the private universities charge are so high that ordinary folks simply cannot hope or dream to send their sons/daughters to these institutions. As a consequence, in the public universities, the value of education has been downgraded to such an extent that no one cares when a student enters the university and leaves it. Our public universities have thus become something unique for which they should find a place in the Guinness Book of Records for introducing the concept of “session jams” in educational institutions during peace time!

Together with the session jams, the public universities also became extremely politicized where it was just not the students who were acting as agents of the discredited politics of the country; even the teachers were contributing their share. As a consequence, the public universities became unstable where parents with means  were sending their children to study in India, UK and the United States. The private universities have emerged as a consequence of the fear of well to do parents with the public universities. Thus when the first private universities were established, like for instance the North-South University and the Independent University, they were able to establish themselves immediately. They got good students and were also able to provide quality education. They of course made hefty sums of money from the exorbitant fees they charged.

Then as happens with anything good in Bangladesh, there was a rush to follow this initial success of a few private universities. The University Grants Commission that had the responsibility to regulate these institutions was unable to keep pace with the mushroom growth. Right under its nose; these private universities became tools in the hands of those who entered into the sector with business concerns uppermost in their minds than their desire to serve the cause of knowledge. The UGC slept and forgot to ask a few fundamental questions. First, why was this sudden rush on parts of a few to serve the cause of education in the country? Second, where were the teachers coming from? As the USG slept, the public universities came to the rescue as their teachers started moon shining in the private universities.  In fact moon shining would be an inappropriate description; the highly qualified teachers of the public universities showed more interest in teaching in the private universities because they were paid very well and the public university authorities and the UGC looked the other way.

Soon, even moon shining by the teachers of the public universities in the private universities was unable to keep pace with the mushroom growth of private universities. Thus the private universities that did not have adequate teachers working full time to start have now been stretched beyond their limits to maintain the teacher/student ratio as mandated by the UGC. The prospect of teachers with PhD or post graduate degrees from abroad with chance to serve in a foreign university or institution coming to serve in a private university in Bangladesh is bleak. With this being the case, where would these universities look for qualified teaching staff?  Hence, the ratio of teachers to students in these private universities is going to worsen till such time as the country would have teachers with PhDs or post graduate degrees acquired in the country and ready to serve in these universities.

The only way out of the doomsday scenario facing the future of public universities on the very important factor of teacher student ratio is to first, put a temporary stop to the growth of any new private university immediately; and, second, phase out the good number of private universities that is contributing nothing to the standard of education in the country but are there to allow few individuals make money. The UGC does not allow money to be taken out as profit by these universities. Nevertheless, there are many tricks by which the “sponsors” of these private universities are beating the system with the UGC as the watchdog against these tricks, unable or unwilling to take action.

One trick through which the “sponsors” of private universities are making money is the sale of degrees; now a very well established fact. Even the best of the private universities manipulate with the grades. Overall, there is just no supervision in the quality of education they provide. In fact, most of these universities dish out BBAs and MBAs so that those who pass out can enter the country’s banking industry that provides the best jobs in the country. In fact, if the private banks had not taken off after the 1990s to serve the country’s RMG sector, there would not have been so many private universities in the country. This one dimensional approach to growth and development of such an important sector as private universities cannot be good for the country.

There is immediate need to look into the state of affairs within the private universities. A few good private universities, much needed for the country, are being contaminated by a large number of such universities that are openly involved in doing business with education and breaking the backbone of higher education in the country. As a starter, the UGC should enforce the mandated teacher/student ratio to begin the weeding process.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary.

Some Good News for Dhaka, at last

The Independent
12th January, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The Hatirjheel project that was opened the Prime Minister last week was a major event in the life of the inhabitants of Dhaka. Soon after it was opened for traffic and the public, it became a star attraction for the people for sightseeing. Dhaka that was once a pretty city has lost   almost all its attractiveness as a consequence of the mindless and visionless expansion of the city over the last few decades since our independence in which all regimes that came to power have contributed their share to earn Dhaka the discredit and disgrace last year of being named as the worst livable city in the world.

This project is in sharp contrast to that infamous reputation that Dhaka earned.  Apart from the beauty it has added to a city where beauty as an element of nature has become almost irrelevant to Dhaka’s inhabitants, the mere knowledge that such a vast space at what is pretty much the centre of the city is also a breath of fresh air to the people of the city. The Hatirjheel Project will act as oxygen to the residents of Dhaka who, with the traffic jams, the harshness of the living conditions, and the other miseries, were being snuffed out of life. It was not too long ago that there was a big billboard for construction of Hotel Hilton at the corner where the road from Sonargoan meets the road leading to the Tejgoan Industrial Area as well as many other billboards of different businesses where land grabbers were selling off government land at will with connivance of those in power.

A lot of credit for saving Hatirjheel from going to projects like Hotel Hilton and the land grabbers of Dhaka city  goes to the environmental groups who got together to put the pressure on the governments under both the  mainstream parties. Credit must go to these governments for not falling to the pressure of the land sharks who, with their indulgence, could have turned the vast area now the Hatirjheel Project, 320 acres in all, into mindboggling amounts of cash. The Caretaker Government must also get a great deal of credit for initiating the project while in power and giving the armed forces the hand to lead the project. Hatirjheel stands as a lone example so far of Dhaka standing successfully against the land grabbers!

Hatirjheel is a multipurpose project. To Dhaka, this has given a much needed facelift. To commuters who were crying out to the Almighty for new roads to help Dhaka’s unbelievable and insufferable traffic jam, Hatirjheel has added 9 km of road connecting Rampura to Tejgoan, Moghbazar and beyond. The Project will also come as a much needed relief to help the residents of Gulshan and Baridhara to move towards Moghbazar/Motijheel. The project will give to the inhabitants of Dhaka 10km of walkway on either side of the lake in a city where such walkway is something of a dream. The Project will also come as a much needed relief from water logging during the rainy season. When fully completed, it will have a theatre, park, garden and a few other recreation facilities.

It was heartening to hear the Prime Minister by instructing the relevant authorities to ensure that those who lost land to Hatirjheel are compensated adequately by housing facilities elsewhere. Nevertheless, even the best of projects will have its problems; with the Hatirjheel too there would be those who would be critical on some aspects. The main criticism about the project is of course with the BGMEA building at the western end of the Hatirjheel near Sonargoan as an eyesore. The people of Dhaka wanted the government to tell them what its thoughts are about this building. In fact, they wanted it to go before the Hatirjheel Project was opened. The Government should seriously find a resolution to this eyesore. Better still, the BGMEA that makes justifiable claims for its contribution to the nation’s economy, does not really have a positive image with the people of Bangladesh on its treatment of its workers. Perhaps it could bring the building down on its own and improve its image.

Hatirjheel has been opened prematurely; no doubt because the government is aware this is an election year and thus eager to seek people’s favour. The authorities have not yet put any road signs to help people to use the roads on either side of the Hatirjheel properly. For example, users going out of Gulshan towards Moghbazar have no clear direction on how to get into the proper side of the road.  This problem will be complicated when the Mega Mall of the Police authorities standing where the Gulshan Avenue falls into the Hatirjheel road is opened soon. Gulshan Avenue that Rajuk has turned without any consideration other than a nexus of greed with the land owners where multistoried buildings are coming up like mushrooms will only add more pressure and complications to Hatirjheel in terms of traffic in the time ahead.  Unless the traffic is regulated properly at the intersection where the new road meets the Tejgoan road close to the rail gate near Sonargoan Hotel, the congestion existing there before the opening of the Hatirjheel will be exacerbated.  In fact, the meeting points of existing roads with the Hatirjheel road at various points have not been made user friendly and could cause new problems and traffic jams.

The authorities would have done themselves a great favour if they had sought some interaction with the public before putting the project into execution. They have not done so. One wonders whether it is already late to correct the problems. In the first one week after the road was opened, the public has not seen much easing in the traffic situation.  These issues notwithstanding, the Hatirjheel Project has proven that given a good cause, the government, the opposition and the interest groups can come together and achieve something that is good for all. This gives us the hope that for a greater cause,  namely to find a way for peaceful transfer of power through an election acceptable to all, all concerned will do their share by keeping the  interest of the nation above their own.

The public reaction after Hatirjheel was opened is something worth noting. Those interviewed on the private TV channels were ecstatic. They liberally compared this project with the best of the world. Some felt that this project has elevated Dhaka to the status of the other beautiful cities of the world. Many who may have never seen any big city other than Dhaka were heard saying Dhaka has become as beautiful as Paris as a consequence of the Hatirjheel. Such excitement underscores how easy it is to satisfy our people. The Prime Minister has called the Hatirjheel the government’s New Year’s gift to the people that they have accepted gladly and with gratitude. One expects that she would end the year by giving the people another gift; their constitutionally guaranteed right to elect the party of their choice to form the next government.

In reality, Dhaka has the natural layout to compete and become as beautiful as the other beautiful capitals of the world. With Hatirjheel, the city has reclaimed one of the beautiful spots. We have unfortunately lost almost all the rest. Dhaka city has been endowed by nature with rivers all around it. In fact, this sentence should be expressed in the past tense for the rivers we were gifted by nature are just there, gasping for breath with their lives on the verge of being snuffed out. The efforts of the environmentalists and the media have not been able to do much in getting these rivers back from the land grabbers and the industrial polluters. After Hatirjheel, one hopes and prays that all concerned will come together to save the rivers around Dhaka.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Secretary