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     Volume 4 Issue 38 | March 18, 2005 |

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Voices Against Hartal


Voices against the hartal were never so loud as it is now. People from all walks of life especially the businessmen, the garments owners or the importers and exporters, the students, the professionals are calling for an end to this vicious hartal cycle. Recently UNDP has chipped in with quite a voluminous publication titled "Beyond Hartal, Towards Democratic Dialogue in Bangladesh" to join in this denunciation.

The report examines the various aspects of the hartal phenomenon--its origin, its changing features over the years, its economic cost, its effectiveness and general people's view of it--with an aim to find out a workable solution to this problem that has been dogging Bangladesh for far too long.

In the history of Hartal chapter the writer relates the circumstances that led to the first major and memorable if not exactly the first hartal on August 7 in 1905. At the time termed 'boycott' it was enforced to protest the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon. However, the first hartal in its own name was called in 1919 by Gandhi to protest the Rowlatt Bill, an act which the Imperial Legislative Council passed to curb terrorism. In the following years as the anti colonial movement was intensifying hartals were used as an effective tool of protest on different occasions. The colonial rule ended but hartals survived and in fact escalated in frequency across most of the South Asian countries. While Bangladesh certainly tops the list in terms of the frequency of hartals India where hartal is known as bandh is in the second place, closely followed by Nepal.

Besides depicting the historical background of hartals the author has taken on the Herculean task of documenting the number of hartals from 1947 to 2002 and then showing how many were called in different parts of the country, how many were called every five years and how many were called by whom. Interestingly, more hartals have been observed since democracy was restored in 1991 than the military rule of Zia and Ershad. While there were some 345 hartals from 1979 to 1990, there were 279 hartals from 95 to 98 and 332 from 99 to 02.

And we have been paying dearly for hartals. Though it is nearly impossible to work out the exact amount of monetary loss some attempts have been made to calculate the economic cost of hartals in terms of the forgone output, employment and lost earnings. According to the report, the average cost of hartals to the economy during the 90's is 3 to 4% of the GDP. The report also mentions the key sectors namely the export sector, particularly the readymade garments (which accounts for 76% of the country's foreign exchange earning), the transport, retail and small business sector which suffer most because of hartals. Apart from the loss of export earning due to missing of the deadline Bangladesh is earning the bad name of becoming an unreliable market, which is undoubtedly going to have negative impact on the future of our garment industry.

Another major area that is badly affected by hartals is the education sector. Since movement during a hartal day involves great risk almost all sorts of schools, colleges and universities remain closed during hartals. Classes are disrupted and consequently the syllabus is not completed, examinations are postponed that often result in lingering session jam and the regular rhythm of studies is disturbed. Interviews with a large number of students, teachers and guardians from a number of educational institutions reveal an overwhelming disapproval of hartals.

Many of the educational institutions have adopted different strategies to cope with hartal induced disruptions, creating another series of problems in the process. Some schools and universities are kept open on weekly holidays to make up the missed classes on hartals, but, many of the students and teachers interviewed feel this way of compensation upset their social life by occupying their weekends. Besides, especially at the university level, hartals often lengthen the academic year inflicting extra financial burden on individual families. The report then presents a set of probable solutions including those offered by heads of various educational institutions. A prominent one is lobbying with politicians on the part of the civil society, students groups, teachers and parents to keep educational institutions outside the purview of hartals.

The legal dimensions of hartals has been scrutinised at great length in a piece headlined "Hartals and the Law". The article cites the international human rights treaties, the UDHR ( Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the ICCPR ( International Convenant on Civil and Political rights) both of which Bangladesh is a signatory to, as well as article 37 and 39 (2) of the constitution of Bangladesh that enshrine citizen's right to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assemble, and the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers , either orally, in writing or in print among others. The article also cites a couple of cases, one in India ( Bharat Kumar vs State of Kerala) and the other in Bangladesh (Khondaker Modarresh Elahi vs The Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh 1999). So, taking the issue to the court hasn't and perhaps will not yield any immediate solution.

So what is the way out then? Most people agree that hartals are harmful. Hartals not only devastate our economy, particularly our export industry including the garment and cripple our education sector, but also earn a bad name for the country deterring foreign investors. Hartals as they are staged these days are far from spontaneous as the hartal callers would have us believe. The report under the title of "Anatomy of Hartal" reveals how criminals, mastans and street children are hired to organise hartals from plastering posters to participating in the procession to picketing and from making bombs to pelting at the vehicles if found within targets. In addition hartals have long lost their legitimacy as part of a broad based social movement to promote the development of society as a whole. Today hartals are perceived to be serving largely the petty party interest than any national concern.

But these are not exactly new discoveries and fortunately our politicians who have remained blind to people's disappointment about hartals so far somehow sseemed to have woken up to the reality and started to think rationally. At least it seems so. Current opposition parties have tried some peaceful alternatives to hartals like the human chain which has created great hope among the general people. The optimists want to see this development of this novel form of protest as the beginning to the end of the vicious cycle of hartals.

However, given the complex character of the problem any hasty, drastic measure will only aggravate the crisis. The better option will be a long term plan and to follow it patiently. The report which has attempted to find out a means to get rid of this self-destructive practice has some suggestions to offer. It offers a two pronged strategy--implementing longer-term reforms to strengthen the democratic institutions while introducing and nurturing some of the more constructive alternative forms of social mobilisation in the short term.

And to advance that way there will have to be a minimum level of political consensus and good will on the part of the major political parties. Side by side, the civil society, the business community, different professional groups and the media will have to act as the pressure group, suggests the report. The report is well researched and well done. At the time of publication, a series of focus group discussions on the idea of a possible code of conduct for democratic dialogue have taken place. The people behind this publication hope the report will act as a catalyst to further dialogue on this issue.

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