• Friday, December 26, 2014

Freedom in the air

Tour de horizon-2013

Shahedul Anam Khan

The coldest spell in 45 years that we experienced in January was offset by the heat generated by acrimonious politics that lasted the year with the prospect of spillover in the next. In 2013 the country endured the aftermaths of the biggest disaster in the RMG sector. Rana Plaza in Savar, that housed three RMG factories, collapsed taking the lives of more than 1,100 workers.
The parliament, for the first time, had a woman Speaker when the incumbent, Advocate Abdul Hamid was elected as the President of the Republic. The opposition continued with their boycott of the parliament, except very briefly in March, the Budget Session, and in October to place Khaleda Zia's proposal for a poll-time government.  
Several important legislations were enacted last year. International Crimes (Tribunals) Act, 1973, was amended to allow the state to appeal against the verdict of the court, which was not the case heretofore. Some of the other enactments were Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act 2013 (ICT Act), Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Bill, and the Bangladesh Labour Law Amendment Act, 2013, some of which came in for severe public criticism. (See page 8).
The courts delivered several important verdicts. Ten verdicts were delivered by the International Crimes Tribunals in nine cases that awarded death sentences to eight of the accused. Golam Azam was awarded 90 years jail term. (See page 5)
The Special Court trying BDR killings also passed a landmark judgment. It sentenced inter alia 153 accused to death.
The redeeming feature of the year, that unfortunately ended on the same violent note as it had started, was the carrying out of the verdict of the Supreme Court in respect of Quader Mollah in the ICT trial for war against humanity. One hopes that it will, though not in full measure, soothe the wounded hearts of the hundreds of thousand of the victims of the atrocity of 1971 perpetrated by the Pakistan army and aided and abetted by Quader Mollah and his ilk. It will, we hope, soothe the souls of the martyred freedom fighters.  
What was unexpected, though not surprising, was the reaction of Pakistan to the execution of the verdict. It was not only Pakistan's insensitivity to the wounds of the Bengalis but also its unwillingness to acknowledge the guilt and own it up, that was extremely shocking. The reaction of the government has been sharp, and we reiterate the demand of the nation that Pakistan make an unqualified apology to Bangladesh for the heinous acts of atrocity in 1971.

In terms of the human rights situation there was considerable drop in custodial deaths as well as encounter killings. We made considerable progress in ensuring safety of women and children. New legislations were made to combat domestic violence and human trafficking. (See page 8)
In terms of corruption we fared slightly better than the previous year but the endemic effect of corruption needs an ACC with more teeth. The change in ACC rule that requires obtaining government approval before ACC can proceed with cases in respect of public servants makes it more difficult to curb corruption in the administration, where it is most rife. (See page 27)
A matter that was drowned in the din of politics was the Padma Bridge scandal. Although the ACC filed an FIR in the latter part of 2012, the WB panel of experts in its final report in February 2013 felt that there were strong grounds to include the name of the former communications minister in the FIR. The curtain was drawn on the matter, temporarily one hopes, when the Finance Minister wrote to the WB withdrawing Bangladesh's request to fund the project.
We had several achievements that the country can feel proud of. Three years after the successful genome sequencing of tossa jute, Bangladeshi scientists led by Dr. Maqsudul Alam unravelled the genome sequence of white jute. This completed the genome sequencing of both genres of jute -- tossa and white -- thereby opening up scope for developing more productive jute varieties in future.
The year was dominated entirely by politics. (See page 32)
After lot of speculations about the CTG, and lot of agitations that saw more violence than ever before, the government managed to put together a so-called multiparty government and had the EC announce a poll schedule. The much anticipated dialogue between AL and BNP could not proceed beyond the telephone conversation of the two party chiefs.  
The final act of the election drama was played with H.M. Ershad as the main cast. However, Hasina had to settle for a one-sided election whose outcome is a forgone conclusion.
The last political programme, ”March to Dhaka to save Democracy” on December 29 was announced by Khaleda Zia on December 24.
The country had the pleasure of the company of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General as well as the UK Senior Foreign Office Minister Baroness Warsi, both of whom made more than one visit last year to Bangladesh. And we had the Indian Foreign Secretary too. The purpose of these visits was to take a stock of the prevailing situation, in one case to act as mediator between the two, and in another, persuade some parties to participate in the polls, as well as to stress the importance of free, fair and transparent elections in 2014, an election free from intimidation and violence.

By all indications, Sheikh Hasina's 'election-time' government is determined to uphold the constitution to the hilt. So elections to the less than half the parliamentary seats will be held on January 5, 2014. As it is, 154 contestants have been elected 'unopposed,' an international record, and more than 50 million voters deprived of their right to choose their candidates as a result.  
The fact that the 10th Parliamentary election would lack moral validity even if it was constitutional was acknowledged by Sheikh Hasina herself when on December 19 she made an offer to the opposition that she would dissolve the 10th Parliament provided BNP accepted her conditions.
The shenanigans that Sheikh Hasina played in order to lend a semblance of credibility to the elections and get some sort of acceptability from the international community had failed to draw their approbation. They expressed their rejection of the election by deciding not to send election observers.  
The opposition's agitational programmes to realise its political demand was debased by the unacceptable level of violence. The casualty figures in only two weeks of BNP oborodh between November 2 and December 18, more than 120 dead and more than 300 injured, had elicited cautionary notes from the head of UN Human Rights Organisation of liability of leaders for deaths in political violence. The year's death toll due to political violence stands at 492 dead of which 120 were killed following the announcement of poll schedule.
The focus in 2013 was also, not surprisingly, the 15th Amendment, which is the villain of the piece in the current political chess game. And this amendment and the court verdict have been flaunted to justify all that have been done by the AL to hold the next election under its supervision.  
Sheikh Hasina's position on the issue of a poll-time dispensation was also confusing, whether it was a deliberate ploy or a display of fickle mind is hard to tell. But at the end of the day she had gone back on her commitment to prorogue the parliament before elections and stood firm on her NO to a caretaker system to run the elections.
The year, regrettably, was witness to a violent 12 months mostly due to the hartal and oborodh programmes of the opposition led by BNP. The frequency of hartal increased in 2013 and in fact the month of March saw 11 days wasted on hartal. Between the last weeks of November and December, 22 days were lost to oborodh.
2013 started with abduction of BNP leader Iliyas Ali. The first of the many strikes in the year called by BNP was on January 6,  and the reason that it merits mention is that it was perhaps the only strike that was called on account of a public interest issue, that of oil price hike.  
And in January too the ICT delivered the first verdict, sentence of death to Bachuu Razakar, who had managed to make good his escape before he could be arrested.  

The country witnessed a new phenomenon in the form of Ganojagoran Mancha, which appeared in February as a protest against the verdict of life sentence of Quader Mollah. Its demand forced the government to amend the law and insert the clause of allowing the governments to appeal ICT verdict, which was not the case before. The 6-point demand of the Mancha was endorsed by the parliament. In fact we could say that the death sentence of death of Mollah on appeal by the state is the result of the Mancha's effort. (see page 11)
The year saw regrouping of the radical elements in Bangladesh and the rise of a religious group, the Hefajat-e-Islam. It managed two large gatherings in Dhaka and raised consternation in the minds of the people with its 13-Point demand. (See page 4)
It was a bad year for our economy. Naturally, the worst sector to suffer was the RMG sector. Demand for our RMG came down by nearly 30 percent over last year's. This was due of course to the combination of indiscipline in the garment sector including the Rana Plaza tragedy and political unrest. The RMG sector suffered yet another blow when the US temporarily stopped GSP facility till we improved our record of safety, work condition and wages of the factory and workers. The EU made no secret of their intention regarding GSP facility on the same conditions. Happily there was an understanding on the RMG workers wage issue, after a great deal of haggling though. (See page 14)
For the first time in more than a decade, the GDP growth came down to below 6 percent last year, and the forecast is even worse for 2014. According to the Bangladesh Bank, the country's GDP growth is likely to range between 5.7 percent and 6 percent against the government's budgetary growth target at 7.2 percent for the current fiscal year.  (See page 14)
Despite claims by the minister for overseas employment the sector witnessed slump both in terms of remittance and number of foreign employment compared to 2012. (See page 10)
The only reason the country recorded the highest foreign exchange reserve of $18 billion is because our import bill came down owing to a slump in the industrial sector with very little of industrial goods in demand. According to BB report, retail and wholesale trade, hotel and restaurant business and tourism faced a sluggish demand due to frequent shutdowns during the year. The report also indicates low growth in cement production (3.61 percent) and negative growth in iron and steel production showing slowing growth in the construction sub-sector.
For the first time Bangladesh per capita income had surpassed a thousand dollars. We had produced more food than we need, and, in spite of all odds, Bangladesh held its position as the second largest RMG exporter after China.
In the power sector Bangladesh achieved electricity generation of 10,000MW for the first time. That includes an additional import of 500 MW from India through Behrempur --Bheramara interconnector. But there still is divided opinion whether the rental power production has been cost effective given that these were costly liquid fuel based power plants. ( See page 16)
On October 2, 2013, the PM laid the foundation stone for the construction of the   Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant. It will be built by the Nuclear Energy State Corporation of Russia, Rosatom, at a bargain-basement price of $2,000 per kW. The issue had evinced criticism, primarily because of the safety related issues. (See page 18)
The security situation in the country saw a sharp downturn in the month of November and December. There was a ratcheting up of violence by the opposition agitating for caretaker government. But that was cashed  in by Jamaat who let loose a reign of terror following the verdict of death sentence to its political leaders by the ICT and even more so after the execution of Quader Mollah on December 12.  Their acts of terrorism targeted particularly the minority community. The situation took such a turn that not only was the government compelled to undertake joint operations by the police-Rab-BGB but had eventually to employ the army in Satkhira, known to be a stronghold of Jamaat.  
The Election Commission (EC) came in public focus for the wrong reasons. It surprised everyone when the EC on its own volition suggested cutting its own powers. The amended RPO has in fact opened the prospect of horse trading among other things. That some of the changes in the RPO were made with an ulterior motive to help the ruling party has to a great extent reinforced the perception that the EC has become a handmaiden of the ruling party.
On the diplomatic front the issues of land boundary agreement and sharing of Teesta waters dominated BD-India relations. India's fast Bengali speaking president choose Bangladesh as the first country to visit, in March. It was encouraging to see the LBA Bill tabled in the Indian Lok Sabha although its fate is predictable given the pathological resistance of the BJP, which is likely to form the next government in India, and Paschim Banga Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, to the idea of exchanging lands between the two countries. Similar is the fate of sharing of Teesta waters. The Felani killing verdict by a court in India, that absolved the accused, came as a disappointment to Bangladesh. Treaty of extradition was signed between the two countries, the first time that Bangladesh has signed such a treaty with any country. The maritime issue with India came up for hearing at the ICJ, which is expected to deliver its verdict in 2014.
The much anticipated TICFA was signed between BD and US on 25 November amidst questions about the legality of the so-called election time government to sign such an agreement. There are misgivings too about the TICFA itself in Bangladesh (See page 14). But apart from that, the US continued with its support in advancing Bangladesh capacity to oversee the sea territory by providing it several fast patrol crafts and a frigate.
The biggest arms purchase in one go from one country indicates a definite tilt towards it. While, apparently, this was done with a view to diversifying the sources of arms and equipment, this purchase along with the agreement on Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant with Russia suggests a degree of strategic reorientation.
As we take leave of the pre-election year and step into the election year of 2014, we do so with a great degree of uncertainty about politics in the country. Uncertainty about not only whether the elections are going to be held peacefully, for whatever seats that are open for contest, but more about how things will turn out after the elections.
But our apprehensions notwithstanding, we wish the readers a VERY HAPPY 2014 and end with expressing our hope about man's ability to do more good than bad and reposing on our politicians the trust to deliver us from this uncertainty.

The writer is Editor, Op-Ed and Defence & Strategic Affairs,
The Daily Star.

Published: 12:00 am Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Last modified: 9:36 pm Wednesday, January 01, 2014

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