• Monday, January 26, 2015

Manifold challenges ahead

Enam A Chowdhury
Photo: star
Photo: star

The first and the foremost concern for Bangladesh is to secure a 'good governance'. In my view, the only way to achieve that is to have a democratically elected government (a) responsible to the electorate, (b) committed to the establishment of rule of law and (c) adhering to the fundamental principles that the nation cherishes.
The present state of affairs has been succinctly described by Prof. Rehman Sobhan in one of his thought-provoking articles published recently, titled 'Rethinking democratic practice in Bangladesh.' He said, - "In my experience the unifying thread running through Bangladesh's 65 year existence since the end of British rule in India is the frustrated aspiration to establish a democracy of the people, by the people, for the people .... Tragically after 42 years as an independent nation state our democratic aspirations still remain frustrated. ... We have to work out a universally acceptable arrangement for the conduction of elections.... Our melancholy experiences from the 1960s up to the end of 1990 inspired the quest for elections supervised by a non-partisan care-taker regime which, by definition, was unselected... Regrettably, revealed experience could not be reconciled with our interpretation of the constitution by the judiciary, so we returned to square one through enacting the 15th amendment to the constitution, abolishing the caretaker system of supervising national elections."
It has to be borne in mind that the care-taker system of interim non-partisan government was agreed upon by all the political parties after a great deal of agitation, consultations, and introduced through a universally acceptable constitutional amendment - the 13th. All the four elections held in 1991, 1996 2001 and 2008 under a non-partisan and un-elected government (but appointed through a democratically introduced, universally accepted process) resulted in the incumbent regime being displaced by the main opposition party. Under the 15th Amendment, not acceptable to the opposition parties, the so called general elections for the 10th Parliament was held under the ruling party's supervision, and the outcome was consistent with the pre-1990 historical experience, ensuring return of the incumbent regime to office. In a majority of the seats (153 out of 300) MPS were declared elected without any contest (incredibly not even by a single independent candidate) and without getting a single cast vote. In the rest 147 seats in the Parliament, elections were held mainly through arrangement and without competitive contest. This exclusionary situation cannot be accepted as a democratic practice, and no foreign observer, either bi-lateral or international, thought it fit to even come as observers. International organizations like the UN, Commonwealth Secretariat, The OIC, European Union and all other interested foreign countries raised questions about this so called election. It was evident that a government formed in this manner would not be responsible to the people or the electorate and could not ensure good governance. The Election Commission became completely subservient to the wishes of the ruling party, electoral rules were flouted, candidates were allowed to withdraw reportedly even after the last date of withdrawal. Party symbol was allotted to a group even against the request of the Chairman of the concerned political party. Endless have been the partisan acts of the Election Commission. Before and during the election period, the central office of the main opposition party was raided by the law-enforcing authority, the office secretaries of this party arrested and the office sealed. Political activities were virtually banned, and leaders and workers were taken into custody. The environment was not at all congenial for a free and fair election, and this only proved the historical truth of repression, and tyranny experienced in Bangladesh during a general election held under the supervision of a party in power.
Democratic process has evolved through the ages, taking into account the realities of time and place. "We, the people," is a very eloquent and meaningful beginning of the US Constitution, and the words necessarily referred to the people of the country in that period subsequently it did undergo a number of amendments forced by the need of time. The constitution of the US for that matter, or any democratic country, is made not merely for the generation that makes it through popular support, but for the posterity - the unlimited, undefined, endless and perpetual posterity.

 The original "we, the people" obviously did not include the subsequent generations, and could not take into consideration many unforeseen situations and could not address the many needs and necessities that arose along with the passage of time. When a democratic constitution is framed, it is intended to endure for ages to come, and that is why the means for that endurance is also provided in the constitution- the process of amendment. The idea is this- that the supreme law has to reflect the fervent wishes, fundamental ideas and cherished values of the people in light of the realities of the prevalent situation. And for determining those, consensus building process is a sine-qua-non for a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, the fifteenth Amendment was not enacted through participatory process, it did not reflect the wishes of the major opposition parties and of the civil society, and did not take into consideration the realities of the situation and the need of time. The nation echoes the wishes of Prof. Rahman Sobhan that "Bangladesh's imperiled democracy should not perish from our soil which has been fertilised with the blood of the many who have already perished in its quest "this is the quintessential "Chetana" or message of our 1971 liberation war and subsequent democratic struggles. Our foremost and immediate duty is to bring back Bangladesh on the democratic track, amend the constitution if necessary and ensure a genuinely fair and participatory electoral process, with contesting political parties operating on a level-playing field. This would also prevent the recurrence of violence which corrupts us in the absence of democratic practices. We would, therefore, urge upon the ruling party to keep in mind their declaration that holding of the election to the 10th Parliament in the manner in which it was held was just for meeting a constructional obligation, and request them to take steps to initiate dialogue with BNP to evolve an acceptable formula. In this context, I should like to refer to the bunch of proposals given by AL Presidium Member Nuh-ul-Alam Lenin  in the "Prothom Alo" (February 5, 2014) and my personal reaction published in the same newspaper. Would the ruling party like to give serious consideration to those?
Unfortunately, the beginning of the new AL government has not been encouraging at all. No legitimate opposition party is there in the parliament. Farcically, the cabinet includes a few opposition members and the leader of the opposition party (JP) is the PM's special envoy, which is indicative of his support for the ruling party. Abductions, extra-judicial killings and cases of the so called cross-fire victims have registered a sharp growth and members of the minority community have been attacked, and in several cases there have been proven instances of complicity or involvement of ruling party elements. The alleged kidnapping of the Chittagong Goldsmith Mridul Kumar Chowdhury raised many questions. The Chhatra League and the Jubo League seem to have re-emerged in a more radical form as evidenced in the recent incidents in Rajshahi University and Jagannath University. About a hundred new inmates of Dhaka University's S.M. Hall were expelled by Chhatra League cadres for not proving their allegiance to the Chhatra League. The university authorities failed to take any action whatsoever. In Rajshahi, photographs clearly shows the S L leader brandishing firearms. The university was closed sine-die and inmates of the dormitories forced to move out causing great hardship and set-back. Interventions are being made at the time of submission of tender for obtaining work or supply orders by ruling party members or their cadres.
About corruption, the less said the better. The recently divulged 'Halaf namas' revealed how rich some of the people in power have become within a very short span of time. The Sonali Bank, and share-market scandal, Padma Bridge bribery, Railway 'black-cat' episode, Hall Mark, Destiny fiasco and many other corruption cases keep on hounding us. Corruption has expanded its tentacles  in every direction, even in cases of government appointments, postings and transfers, and for obtaining any government financed work.In the midst of all these, asking for 'cash' instead of 'Crest' by Chief Whip ASM Feroze and MPs receiving gold keys set bad examples.
We have to bear in mind that a democratic government cannot function properly unless it is supported by an efficient, non-partisan effective and strong bureaucracy. Politicization of the administration has to stop and bold civil service reforms have to be initiated if we are really serious about good governance.
The environmental issues are becoming tougher and the dangers from climate change more real and imminent. Air pollution is pretty bad in Bangladesh, according to global environmental performance index. In the list of the environmentally hazardous countries, Bangladesh ranks 169 among 178 countries, according to the index. The removal of the polluting leather industry from Hazaribagh to Savar Hemayetpur has already been delayed from the projected 2005 to 2014. Industrial filth and chemicals, along with indiscriminate encroachment, coupled with arbitrary withdrawal of water flow in the upper reaches of the common rivers by Indian authorities are literally killing our rivers. The recently set-up international centre for climate change located at the Independent University, Dhaka has been conducting some studies on the impact of Climate Change. The Bureau of Statistics (BSS) has proposed to the government for financing implementation of a scheme for assessment of the impact of climate change and natural disasters on different aspects of our economy including food production, public health, environmental degradation, salinity and even industrial development. This proposed study, if undertaken, will reveal how big a problem Bangladesh faces on this front.
Another area that demands the nation's immediate and urgent attention is economic growth, which ADB, in its quarterly economic update, has termed as 'subdued'. The growth, this fiscal year, may be just 5.7%. The bank further said that even that growth prospect will hinge on how the government addresses short and medium term risks and challenges, including political uncertainty. Unless the political problems involving the holding of an inclusive participatory election is solved, law and order problems would become worse, industrial and agricultural production will suffer, exports will fall, and investments will become scarcer -- both foreign and domestic, and even international cooperation will decrease. Already the RMG sector is facing a big challenge as a result of, inter-ala, the Rana Plaza disaster and Aminul Islam's disappearance. Remittances may decline and uncertainties regarding GSP may persist. To reverse this declining trend and to restore investors' confidence is the biggest challenge that the government faces in the economic front. The Finance Minister is reportedly making efforts to hold a meeting with the Bangladesh Development Forum which has not met for four long years since 2010. The Padma Bridge fiasco worsened the situation, and besides the World Bank, all other agencies like the ADB, IDB, JAICA and bilateral sources deserted financing the project. With the political uncertainty and human rights violations, the prospects of their financing other mega projects of the government do not seen to be bright under the present circumstances, with the ADB not getting involved even in the evaluation of the Padma Bridge tenders. For the government to depend on its own resources (ultimately Bangladesh tax payers' money) and on costly bilateral commercial loans will make all mega-projects uneconomical and in some cases, counter-productive.
Implementation of ADP Projects have become very slow and the finance ministry has already advised the planning commission to bring down the size of ADP by 18%. Asian Development Bank has warned that any re-emergence of unrest would directly affect investment, growth and poverty reduction. Workers' employment abroad has also dropped by 13.8% in the first half of the fiscal year and the prospects for the future may not be very bright.
(PPRC) The Power and Participation Research Centre, Bangladesh has recently presented its research-based report on good governance. This reveals that people's confidence is the least in political leadership. From the bottom, the next in the list is law-enforcing authority and then the judiciary. 75.6 percent of the people surveyed indicated their lack of confidence in political leadership. In the learned discussions that followed the presentation, Bangladesh appeared to be the weakest in governance. There are allegations even of efforts to influence the judicial process from the high-ups in administration. In a much-publicized case, a certain minister rang up High Court Judges to make Tadbir for a Jamuna Bank Loan Case, so much so that the Hon'ble Judge felt embarrassed enough to cooperate and asked for its transfer to some other bench. Rule of law, in Bangladesh, has become a far cry. The recent publication of a thorough investigative report by Lifschultz, an eminent journalist of international renown on the murder of Major General Abul Manzur, Bir Uttam, has thrown up a challenge to the "Conscience of Bangladesh" as Lifschultz says. He further suggests that if the prosecution fails to take cognizance of the witness accounts of Air Vice Marshal Sadaruddin, Maj. Gen Moinul Husain Chowdhury Biruttam, Ziaudding Chowdhury (Ex CSP and DC, Chittagong) and of the witness (who will appear if he is given governmental assurance of security) who personally saw the murder of General Manzoor, then the Hon'ble Supreme Court may "remove the case from the impenetrable caverns of the lower courts where the promise of justice has been hopelessly buried for twenty years". Will the nation fail to take up the challenge for some petty political convenience?
The other big problem that Bangladesh faces is the growing tide of terrorism, extremism and communalism, which globally have assumed enormous proportions. There are already allegations of international links with some Bangladeshi terrorist agencies. So far, the government policy in this regard has not produced the desired result. Rather, the situation it seems has aggravated. The government, I feel, should take up the issue in earnest and without playing the 'blame game', they should initiate meaningful discussions with BNP (and other democratic political parties) so that a common state or national policy evolves to meet this enormous threat. We have to keep in view that in neighboring India, a religion-oriented 'Hindutva' based BJP, led by intensely communal  Norendra Modi may come to power. Already his utterances about Bangladesh have irritated many. It is high time we develop bi-partisan policies in the field of foreign affairs, border- issues and foreign investment. In fact, the active cooperation of the people in general should be sought in support of national policies in this regard, as well as in fighting the menace of terrorism and communalism.
In this context, I would say that the government and the major political parties will do better if they are more careful in marginalising religion oriented parties and deal with them with more caution and understanding. It seems that despite all measures and steps taken by the government and the ruling party, the popularity and acceptability of the religion-oriented parties have increased tenfold. The outcome of recent upazila elections is a case in point. Jamaat, even without any central leadership and coordination, has forced the best results in its history and has come out far ahead of Jatiyo Party. Harping on the stale theme that Jamaat-e-Islami is synonymous with Al-Qaeda, and nothing short of proscribing the party will stabilize Bangladesh politics may prove counter-productive. Instead of painting every Islamic organisation with a broad brush as a terrorist group, the government should be more careful and discerning.

Photo: star
Photo: star

We have to seriously address other phenomena which have bedevilled Bangladesh, and more so in recent times. It is the emergence of violence and destruction as instruments of political expression and protest and the other is the repressive and tyrannical policy of the government and the ruling party in dealing with political dissent and opposition movement. There should be no violation of human rights and the political opposition should be treated with consideration and understanding so that they can operate and continue their activities. The ruling party should realize that it will be surely in opposition sometime in the future, and the opposition should realise that  violence does not pay, and that co-operation and tolerance constitute the fundamental base of democratic functioning. Violence and violation of human rights should be avoided of all costs. There can not be any excuse for committing those.
Finally, we have to note that BNP has, in the local government elections, both in the city corporations and upazilas, convincingly exhibited its strength and popularity. It has emerged as the major political party. There cannot be any meaningful democratic general election without its participation and that should be organized without any delay; otherwise, good governance and economic growth will remain elusive.
The clock is ticking.

The author is advisor to the Chairperson, BNP and a development economist.

Published: 12:00 am Monday, March 17, 2014

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