The foreign input and the ugly outcome
Our officers are (in)famous for making foreign trips as part of any government project. Executives of some private enterprises are also keen to enjoy such privileges during development works until good sense prevails that the business house is paying for the 'sojourn' through their nose.
Now this nose bit (pun not intended) goes back to the 9th century Ireland, where a nose tax was imposed to punish offending and negligent taxpayers by having their noses slit. (Ouch!) During my recent visit to the Emerald Isle or while covering Bangladesh's 1999 cricket World Cup match, I do not remember coming across anyone thus mutilated. I reckon plastic surgery would be a profitable profession in lands with such austere measures.
Professionalism is to be valued if a country has to progress standing on a pedestal built on its history and culture, language and climate. Whereas the important learning trips should be undertaken by technically-sound professional people involved in a project, it is not unusual for the consultant to be left behind. Haa? The teams are more often than not overcrowded by bureaucrats who may not be able to make an iota of contribution towards the project, except the habitual hamki-dhamki.
For the admin officers, steered by an all-powerful project director ominously addressed as PD, the visits abroad during the feasibility study stage and before all purchases of equipment are more like rewards earned by their rank and position. The costs of the study (?) trip/s, the most important (!) component of a viability report, are built into the project budget. It is made to appear that expenses are being met by the consultant, but in reality the government is paying the bills plus the consultant's profit though reimbursement. It's like I will pay you to buy my birthday gift. Some people do that.
In one such trip to a global industrial power, for a surreptitious scheme revolving around the "beautification" of an important road in Dhaka city, the touring team comprised of every profession but architects, landscape architects, urban designers, town planners, sculptors, painters, and historians worthy of their respective professions. The Bangladesh delegation, sponsored by a trade concern, (yes they were very much concerned about their trade) was being looked after well by a Chinese supplier of street furniture, pots and plants, equal to the task of commercial transaction.
Overwhelmed by the courtesy of the vendor, represented by some very dignified ladies, our non-technical PD, his wife's avatar looming large over his head, managed to stammer at one point, 'Bon sai', meaning he wanted the ladies to be his sisters. Innocent enough.
The sales ladies, eager to further beef up the Chinese economy, exclaimed in a chorus, "Bon sai? Bon sai?"
Our godo-godo karmokarta (beguiled officer) was ecstatic, "Yes, yessss".
"How many?" the ladies crooned in chorus.
"Many, many" drooled our man of the hour. Avatar now a bit hazy.
"But they are all Chinese-looking," the foreign landscape manager tried to explain, "and will not be at all suitable for Bangla-desh".
"Our people very fond of foreign, many-many people from everywhere living in our beautiful country", clarified the idiot.
"Yes, of course! But it is beautiful because of your Parul, Chandan, Neem, Shimul, Mahua, Aparajita. . . "
"Oh my God, you know many-many Bengali girls' names," blurted PD mohodoy. The landscape architect waved his arms in disgust, rolled his eyes in bewilderment, and walked away, an embodiment of dejected failure.
All the while, the PD's new-found bons were gleefully giggling, at the possibility of a big contract.
"You have Facebook?" asked the PD to one of the girls, now uncomfortably writing a voucher under his breath.
"Sorry, no understand fesbuk tree," said she, "I shall have to call our landscape architect."
That, in short, is the speculative tale of how the roadside opposite the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport became bedecked with bonsai trees. Ugly, yes. Portraying Bangladesh, no. Condemned by professionals, yes. Aesthetic, no. Was national interest washed in the waters of the Yangtze? Yes. Expensive, very!
Some of our minds are in a constant state of bonsai. So many Bangla words defining 'inferiority' come to mind. Why else should some government as well as private orgs still consider recruiting foreigners for projects that can easily be handled by Bangladeshis?
Bangladeshis are now constructing, metaphorically speaking, it seems one flyover per month. And yet, once upon a time we were shown the 'high court' when the first one was erected at Mohakhali. Its commissioning was delayed for months because the bideshi constructor was purportedly importing STUs (shock transmission units), an earthquake damage inhibitor, whose design philosophy has since been substituted by the now preferred method of structural isolation. Since the Kuril Interchange project was entrusted on local expertise, led by a famous Bangladeshi, our home-grown engineers and constructors are flying over with confidence.
Sceptics will finger-point safety lapses, albeit a couple, at Bahaddarhat ("13 dead at Chittagong", November 24, 2012) and Malibagh (one dead at Dhaka, 13 March 2017). But, that has everything to do with our generally slack safety comportment and disregard towards any regime, and little with the ability of our professionals.
The situation was no different when a private university, despite having the option of employing a local consultant through a design competition, did a north to south, and swayed from east to west to opt for an Indian consortium that had apparently met the technical specifications to a greater degree. To be fair to the university, the decision was of a jury comprising of several Bangladeshis. Since then, many university campuses and buildings in this country have been designed by indigenous architects.
The government-managed Inter Continental/Sheraton/Ruposhi Bangla saga is equally painful. It is an important part of our glorious Muktijuddho. Designed by Architect William B. Tabler, the hotel was an illustrious landmark of the city until its renovation was assigned to a mediocre foreign consultant. More than forty years since its opening in 1966, on the pretext of expanding parking and central facilities, the perpetrators reduced an 'architectural piece' to a mere 'building'. It was executed by people who have no knowledge of architecture, no respect for history, no mastery over juxtaposing new form with the old. A second attempt is now going on to mend the cracked vessel, but by a Singaporean company!?!?
A nation has to have faith in its own people, which is why we are a nation. China grew to become China with the help of the Chinese. With patriotism in place, one day we too shall export full-grown Krishnachura trees to Beijing to adorn the gardens of the Bangladesh embassy.
The writer is a practising Architect at BashaBari Ltd., a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.