Ershad Shaheb perhaps had a Maoist idea when after seizing power in 1982 he proposed, ordered and then displayed what he and his cohorts at the time thought would become the trendiest phenomenon since Marilyn Monroe lost her purdah to the winds.
His chosen luxury to bicycle from home to office on a barren Cantonment road while wearing a 32-tooth smile and being guarded by over two dozen security personnel tucked in four-wheelers was never the epitome of civil Dhaka, but it made good photographs for the media and good pumping for his ever-so young heart.
Considering himself a popular palli bondhu (friend of the villages), the military president wildly dreamt that urban commuters would follow suit, abandon buses and cars, even motorcycles, and the capital would be Beijing. The bicycle revolution never took place because the roads were unsuitable, vehicular traffic was rowdy, and almost nobody knew Chinese.
Quixotic Ershad today should be happy to see cyclists on our roads, including ladies, increasing manifold. The roads are however still dilapidated, drivers appear to have recently migrated from hell and we wish we knew Chinese to understand what deal they are brokering with Myanmar over Ro... shhh! The Pope recently got back from Naypyidaw.
Ershad Shaheb's propagandist idea would not be the first nor the last public endeavour to be rejected by the powers that be, that is—in case we forget—the people, because they were not made aware, nor involved in the decision-making or sought for approval.
Another day, another government in 2002 slammed a ban on bags of polythene a few micrometres-thick (that must mean very thin) because they were clogging our drains, up to which point the government's finding was correct, the idea suitably buoyed by recurring flooding of city streets. However, the slapstick ban was no less than severing the head to relieve a headache because the vast majority of the population had no clue about all the fuss.
Housewives lost sleep wondering how they would carry home gooey goods from the market, and husbands with gooey fingers felt helpless. Seizures and fines could not deter the practice. As recently as February this year a mobile court not only seized 127kg of illegal polythene bags from superstores and bakeries in the capital's Mirpur, but also fined the guilty nearly Tk 3 lakh. But the bags, they are not going away.
Embargo on factories that manufactured polythene bags could not cut the supply. Net, cotton, jute and paper bags became trendy, but the so-called polybags remain a favourite with vendors and the public. A suppressed underground revolution sustained and the polybag emerged victorious with all its competitors reduced to the ranks. This despite information, admittedly known only among the learned, that food wrapped in polythene can cause cancer.
In another jhatika move, one fine morning in 2012, residents in posh residential areas of Dhaka and Chittagong awoke to three big, and I mean big, surprises at their front door. There was this green and a yellow and a blue thing made of plastic. I say "thing" because 75 percent of the residents and their house-helps did not know what they were and what they were for, and 15 percent did not know which one was for what, and the 10 percent that probably had some idea were fast asleep; 11 am was early.
In no time, three in the family and buas too in some houses claimed ownership of the bulky bins without even thanking the Department of Environment (DoE), which distributed some 60 thousand colour-coded bins for trash segregation.
The green bin meant for kitchen garbage and organic waste became a laundry basket, the yellow one for plastics, glass, metal, and paper was soon filled with toys for keeps, and the red one for battery, electrical and other toxic wastes took over as rice storage.
DoE's 3R Pilot Project for “Reducing, Reusing and Recycling” of domestic wastes, despite the support of the respective City Corporations at least in distribution, failed to take off because there was no effective education or training, and publicity to build awareness among the end users.
The Rebuff, Reject and Refuse project reached comical proportions when even the very few residents, who cooperated with the system by depositing separated rubbish in three different coloured bins, saw their garbage being emptied collectively in a City Corporation van for onward journey to perhaps a dumping station. The rubbish were all relieved to be reunited after their short-lived painful separation.
Most recently, DNCC and DSCC worked together to “decorate” simultaneously some parts of Dhaka municipal areas with blue and yellow waste bins along pavements. No separation of blood from battery, or glass from paper, or between food and metal, many of the tin canisters did not last a week. We were dumping waste around it, not in it. Some were full beyond the brim, neglected and not emptied. A few months later, some were humiliatingly lying face down on the sidewalk, with passers-by offering bemused pity at best. The lucky ones had been stolen and perhaps found a home, or probably ended up in a metal workshop where they are likely to be given a new shape and a more productive life.
As will be evident from the Tk 5 crore joint municipality exercise that went bust, citizens would rather steal and mutilate equipment, and make fun of a project without realising that much of it was aimed for their quality of life. Citizens are seemingly reluctant to adopt welfare measures enforced on them externally.
Most public ventures, such as non-formal education, work because the communities were involved in the decision-making. The beneficiaries were informed and alerted on the cause and effect of an undertaking. Suspicion breeds faster than mosquitoes when external ideas are imposed on the populace.
Culpability of taxpaying citizens remaining uneducated, untrained and unmotivated about the philosophy of life remains with the government, the municipality and the concerned authorities. Well, to some extent, our education system (for those fortunate to find an institution of learning) can feel responsible. However, if we are uncooperative towards an initiative it is because we choose to be so. To progress as a society, helping hands should be a two-way traffic: service from the provider and cooperation from the public.
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.