11:00 PM, October 02, 2009 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:00 PM, October 02, 2009

Two reviews from Shahid Alam

A perspective on the Tipaimukh issue . . .

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Nazmul Alam, a retired senior bureaucrat, and M. Abul Kashem Mozumder, Professor and Chair, Department of Public Administration, Jahangirnagar University, spell out their intent for writing Tipaimukh and Beyond in my paraphrased version: espousing conciliation, rather than confrontation, in crisis management, rejecting the notion of the construction of large dams because they might turn out to be economic, environmental and geopolitical liabilities, urging consultation, and still more consultation, for solving contentious issues like Tipaimukh, and for doing away with the “rhetoric of mass meetings/utopian ideas of long march on any critical issues” because they are confrontational in nature and, consequently, inimical to the more rational device of consultation. Granted that Mao Zedong's Long March (1934-35) or, a little earlier, of Mahatma Gandhi's march to the sea to collect salt, were probably more suited to the era and in their particular contexts, one could also reasonably contend that, even in this age of information superhighway and communication revolution, mass protests might yield results that no amount of consultation would be able to. However, the authors' urging for resorting to continual discourse for coming to a viable and amicable solution over a complex problem is well taken.
As a part of their theme to do away with the construction of large dams altogether, the authors allude to the conclusion reached by Indian writers Dr. Debabrata Roy Latiunmghom and Dr. Soibam Ibotombi (as spelt in Note 11 to Chapter 1, Introduction, although in the main text the spellings are given as Laifungaham and Ibatombi, respectively) that the concept of a big dam in a seismic-tectonic active zone like Tipaimukh is a “geotectonic blunder of International dimensions.” They bolster their contention by providing several instances of major earthquakes that have periodically hit the area, and apprehend that others will do so in the natural cycle of such visitations. They refer to the Farakka Barrage, which, besides having “already led to anthropogenic and natural upsets in Bangladesh”, the Kolkata port itself has not benefited the way it was meant to by the construction of the dam. The authors cite the instance of Kapil Bhattacharya, then chief engineer of the West Bengal government, to illustrate how sane and sagacious warnings would fall flat in the face of malevolent political agenda and officialdom. He had warned that the plan for flushing the Kolkata harbour as a bequest of the barrage was preposterous, and, moreover, the dam would result in massive floods in West Bengal and Bihar. Reportedly, he was dismissed from service for his dire warnings, although his predictions were realized almost as soon as Farakka became operational!
Alam and Mozumder bring up China's (who already possess the Three Gorges Dam, the largest of its kind in the world) plan for diverting the Brahmaputra waters northward, and its manifold ramifications: “...the Chinese plan to divert Brahmaputra by constructing a mega dam in Tibet at Yarlung Tsangpo to divert 200 billion cubic meters of water annually to green the Gobi desert outmatches the Indian one to divert the same river to green Rajasthan and other dry states, both conveniently forgetting (the) plight of the lower riparian Bangladesh. This development threatens to divert approximately 60% of the Brahmaputra-Jamuna River in Bangladesh and would essentially turn the fertile farmland there sustaining the country into a near desert.... Thus both the Sino-Indian ventures stands (sic) to devistate (sic) nearly half a billion people in both India and Bangladesh. Tipaimukh is just a mere part of the entire scheme.” One is not sure if it is, because the Chinese project would simply overtrump Indian designs (assuming that they could be used as political leverage against Bangladesh), and the two countries would more appropriately be adversaries, but, in any case, the realization of one or both of the projects would surely have at least some adverse effects on Bangladesh.
The authors are also categorical about one purported benefit for this country from Tipaimukh: “...the possibility for electricity sharing by Bangladesh, as suggested by some, is simply a travesty of truth. This is firstly because of the meager net output and secondly, because of absence of any such facility in the design.” They reject the idea that “well-designed and constructed rock fill dams are the safest type for large height dams. There are instances of such rock-filled dams meeting accidents.... And Tipaimukh is not going to be constructed on such secured grounds, rather on softer grounds (emphasis in original).” The authors, in what presumably constitutes the “beyond” in the book's title, urge more talks within the parameters of the Joint Rivers Commission (JRC), while primarily blaming Indian reluctance for using that mechanism on a regular basis, but also Bangladesh's actions, more like inactions or non-actions, to further its own interests. They also advocate taking up the issue in international forums, particularly the UN (although the UN's limitations in going beyond the wishes of the great powers on major issues are well documented).
They refer to a recent (October-November 2008) case to back up their advocacy: when Pakistan threatened to take up the matter to the International Court, India released the agreed upon quota of water from its Baglihar dam over the Chenab river that it had initially failed to do. They do not fail to point out that a strong catalyst for India's subsequent action was the reality of Pakistan being a credible nuclear power, and, towards the end of the book, very broadly hints that Bangladesh should go nuclear, too (“...there is definitely some element to deter the opponent if it is known that the other side too has the capability to match its bragging about Weapons of Mass Destruction.... we do not want to live at the mercy of any mighty.”). Ah! From the idealism of repeated consultation and conciliation to hard-headed realism, even if it holds remote possibility of being realized! They do, however, suggest that we should focus on biogas, solar energy, photo catalytic generation of hydrogen and other similar options for power and energy generation. And they also bring up a not-so-outlandish point, even if a little too strongly and sweepingly: “Future major conflicts are surely to erupt over sharing the Nile, Congo, Volga, Amazon, Indus, Ganges and 260 other international water courses.”
Tipaimukh and Beyond suffers from some careless editing, suggesting that it might have been rushed through the press. Glaring spelling mistakes like “hence men” (for henchmen) intersperse with obviously typographical ones as well as grammatical errors (the river swang to the east). Cachar district is spelt in at least three different ways, and the word “premonition” is inappropriately used on a number of occasions when the correct term should have been “prediction”. Then there is this for you to decipher: “...basin physiographic pornographic (?!!!) factors conditioned by the geo-morphology of the site....” I sure cannot! And all those Germanic and non-English words and phrases (weltgeist, Weltschmerz, weltanschauung, douceur, gesinnung, Gesinnungsethik, Verantortungsethik, zeitgeist, Schadenfreude, and more)! If they were introduced to give gravity to the work, they failed, and, instead, have introduced a dense element to the entire exercise, rather than enhancing it intellectually. Similarly, there is an abundance of mixed metaphors, unnecessary similes, hyperboles, and frequent literary allusions that seem, at times, out of place (“zillions of watts of renewable energy”, “Orwellian nightmare of being inside the whale”, “woes wrought by Farakka like one tale leading to another of the Scheherazade of the Arabian Nights”, “stale knowledge stink more than a rotten fish”, “big dams are big blunders and aiming at taming of a giant is not that easy as taming of a shrew”, to mention a few)! The overall style of the writing might be a little too grand for some tastes, some may find it unnecessarily didactic, while others a rhetorical diatribe.
Nevertheless, there are a number of interesting observations to ruffle a few feathers. “The mighty B'Putra, though in name masculine, all the rivers are in fact, feminine in nature because of their unpredictability” should raise some eyebrows! And, “...unreasonableness of sectarian intellectuals with built-in ideological proclivities, the stuff that most of our veterans of the civil society are made of” should alternatively draw some chortles and bulging necks in conjunction with, “For whose benefit and for what benefit the issue (of Tipaimukh) is drummed up on the despicable cable-TV talk shows of 'the mandarin class of specialists'...and in the print media by articles in obfuscating the real facts?” And India's envoy to Dhaka, Pinak Ranjan Chakravorty, comes in for some hammering for his by now well-documented diplomatic gaffes and media outbursts. One might be bemused at times by the style of Tipaimukh and Beyond, but surely one would not be bored by its contents!

. . . World Bank insiders looking in on Bangladesh poverty

“...governance cannot be narrowly about structures and rules. It is equally about process, outcomes and the agency potential of the citizenry. From the vantage point of the poor, there is a necessity to combine four critical goals within the governance agenda, namely, development outcomes, behavioral norms, process efficiency and ethics. A uni-dimensional pre-occupation with a narrowly deterrent-centric anti-corruption agenda misses the point that, unless desired economic outcomes such as the price control of essentials and ensuring minimum livelihoods are simultaneously addressed, social support for governance reforms may wither.” Sanctimonious stuff, this, considering that the reality of governance in Bangladesh is that the structures and rules are so often abused by those in authority, including by the particularly devious and disastrous last caretaker administration, of which the writer of the piece (Chapter 10, “Poor and the Governance Process in Bangladesh”), Hossain Zillur Rahman, was a part. The process, outcomes and agency potential that indubitably are critical to good governance are themselves in an unsatisfactory state, and it would be an interesting debate trying to figure out if the narrow set is hampering the healthy development of the broader set, or if it is the other way around.
The ten chapters making up Breaking Down Poverty in Bangladesh have been written, both singly and collectively, mostly by World Bank (WB) insiders (eleven in all), two Dhaka University Economics department faculty members, a UNESCO senior policy analyst, and Zillur Rahman of PPRC. The period from 2000 to 2005 has been taken as the time span for studying poverty in Bangladesh in almost all the articles. The editors explain the background to the book and its objective: “This book is an edited compilation of select background papers produced for the World Bank (2008) report “Bangladesh Poverty Assessment: Creating Opportunities and Bridging the East-West Divide.” These papers cover a range of areas related to recent trends, patterns and determinants of poverty reduction in Bangladesh, each aiming to contribute to the debate on policy directions for the country.” The articles end with policy directions all right, but several could conceivably be hotly contested on grounds of simply carrying social engineering agenda of WB (and bilateral western donors) without taking into consideration certain deep-rooted social and cultural realities of this country.
Marcin Sasin in “Making Work Pay: Growth, Employment and the Labor Market in Bangladesh” (Chapter 4) advances the rationale for focusing on the period 2000-2005: “...this was the period in which Bangladesh witnessed a spectacular decrease in the extent of poverty, in which the labor market, employment and productivity played an important role. In addition, relatively good data was available for this analysis.” Interestingly, an elected government, pronounced serious dysfunctions and all, was in office during that time, reinforcing a general wisdom that, in a democracy, an elected government, rather than any concocted potpourri like the caretaker system, has better credentials and latent capacity for delivering the development good, even if the path taken may be strewn with self-made craters, and the process of democracy twisted, very likely for an extended period. Almost all the chapters begin with a rephrasing of the mantra set in the Preface: “Bangladesh represents a success story in poverty reduction among developing countries, particularly since the early 1990s.” Not a few specialists in the field of economics qualify this encouraging assessment with cautionary notes pertaining to it, and a couple of these will be taken up in due course. Before doing that, however, let us find out what the editors have to say: “The primary contributing factor behind the reduction in poverty was robust and stable economic growth along with no worsening of inequality.”
But the inequality factor is serious, grave enough for the editors to acknowledge: “For all its progress, however, Bangladesh remains a poor country --- with...wide disparities in incomes and human capabilities across income and occupational groups, gender, and regions.” In Chapter 1, “Trends and Patterns of Poverty in Bangladesh in Recent Years”, Ambar Narayan, Nobuo Yoshida and Hassan Zaman believe that labor-intensive manufacturing, particularly RMG, micro- and small-scale non-farm enterprises, and remittances from migrant workers have been the driving forces behind economic growth. This has led to reduction in consumption poverty, a phenomenon “also mirrored by substantial improvements in living conditions --- including housing characteristics, and access to sanitation facilities, electricity and communications” (Chapter 2, “A Profile of Poverty in Bangladesh: Household Attributes, Location Effects and Changes Over Time” by Aphichoke Kotikula, Ambar Narayan and Hassan Zaman). The inequality factor within Bangladesh is exacerbated by regional inequality, with attendant problems cropping up for the entire country, one aspect of which is explored by Forhad Shilpi in “Infrastructure, Migration and Regional Inequality in Bangladesh” (Chapter 5).
The debate regarding higher growth leading to greater inequality has long been a familiar one, with the book under review generally echoing the WB line on going for economic growth. Mirza Azizul Islam, in an op-ed piece in The Daily Star (3 September 2009) concludes that “increased inequality is an inescapable consequence of growth, if not a precondition.” A number of economists, other social scientists and policymakers have strongly made a case for the kind of growth that takes reduction of inequality into consideration. Nonetheless, Islam passionately advocates the growth strategy: “Bangladesh needs to accelerate growth in order to alleviate poverty at a faster rate. At the present stage of development, poverty alleviation should receive the highest priority, not inequality of income distribution.”
And Breaking Down Poverty in Bangladesh holds that the percentage of Bangladeshis living in poverty fell significantly from 57 percent in 1991-92 to 49 percent in 2000 to 40 percent in 2005 (Chapter 9, “Are the Poor Protected?: Vulnerability and the Role of Safety Nets” by Shaikh Shamsuddin Ahmed, Ambar Narayan and Hassan Zaman). However, the authors note, by the 1990s, it became clear that the microfinance programs were not able to reach a large proportion of the poorest of the poor, an unsatisfactory situation that has led them to advocate “a comprehensive social protection strategy.” Others have noted the limitations of microfinance in poverty alleviation. Alistair Orr, et al, in Pathways from Poverty: The Process of Graduation in Rural Bangladesh have found that microfinance has inbuilt limitations as a graduation tool. “Although microfinance was useful in climbing the ladder from poverty,” they conclude, “small loan size and weekly repayments limited the number of rungs that households could climb. Graduation needed bigger investments with higher returns. This meant relying on formal sources of credit that demanded collateral.”
Bazlul H. Khondker and Selim Raihan's “Poverty Impacts of Remittances and Garments: A Computable General Equilibrium Analysis” (Chapter 6) is both interesting and instructive. They find that “...almost a quarter of the poverty decline between 2000 and 2005 in Bangladesh is attributed to the combined impacts of growth of RMG export and Remittance.” Furthermore, “...remittance growth might have played a greater role in reducing poverty in Bangladesh over this period than the growth of RMG exports.” So, if remittances were to go down, it stands to reason that poverty alleviation would at least be badly affected. But remittances have been increasing at a record pace over 2008-09, as given out by Bangladesh Bank, alluding to a promising future in poverty alleviation. However, the number of Bangladeshi workers in foreign countries has also been retrenched in worrying numbers over the same period. Could it be, then, that the increased remittances represent the money of the retrenched workers who had no option but to sell all their properties in those countries lock, stock and barrel, and remit the returns before returning home? That would mean a monetary reserve situation flattering to deceive, and the imperative for the government to explore new places for this country's migrant labour force.
In “Bridging Gaps Across the Health Sector” (Chapter 8), Tania Dmytraczenko, Tahrat Shahid, and Nistha Sinha come up with a judicious statement that should be applicable to governance in general, beyond that of the specific area that it alludes to: “If the political commitment remains strong to introduce further reform while sustaining effective policies from past experiences...the country may well overcome...challenges on its path towards better health and nutrition outcomes across the Bangladeshi population.” If one can look beyond the obvious WB agenda advocated throughout the book, particularly those that one does not particularly care for, Breaking Down Poverty in Bangladesh is worth reading, not the least for insights into various aspects of poverty afflicting the country.

Dr. Shahid Alam is Head, Media and Communications Department, Independent University Bangladesh (IUB)

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