Of rats and rains
On July 2, 2017, the Anti-Corruption Commission sued 61 individuals associated with Bangladesh Water Development Board (BWDB) for corruption and mismanagement in the construction of dams in the haor region in Sylhet, pushing back against claims that nature rather than human action was responsible for the devastating effects of the recent flash floods there.
The anti-graft body has also asked the government to take action against the secretary of the water resources ministry, the BWDB director general and 14 other officials for "gross negligence in discharging their duties," according to a report by The Daily Star.
This is a laudable step in the anti-corruption movement in Bangladesh. It marks a welcome departure from the long-held tradition of showing leniency to state-level corruption, which has been repeatedly cited as the single biggest challenge to development in the country. In their defence, the ministry and the BWDB had mentioned reasons that would seem extraordinary. They blamed excessive rain and rats for the internal erosion of dam foundations, which were either damaged or washed away as soon as floodwater hit them. They did not, however, pause to consider what made the foundations so weak in the first place, and completely overlooked the possibility of any irregularity that may have taken place in the construction process.
Frankly, I was rather intrigued by these claims by the BWDB. Not only did they have the audacity to refuse to see what was obvious to everyone else, they also offered a cathartic experience for anyone troubled by the sufferings of the haor people when they accused the rats of foul play. In their minds it made perfect sense. Rats and rain made fine bedfellows.
I remember visiting an installation exhibition sometime in 2016 that dealt with rats. More specifically, the effects of rats, on the Santal community that lived for hundreds of years as hunters-gatherers before choosing an agrarian lifestyle. The exhibition sought to show how rats emerged as a public nuisance in the process of this transformation, invading the households, village bazaars and farmlands after farmers turned to fertilisers to boost agricultural productivity. Rats can be resistant to toxins. So while other rodents and insects started to perish under the effect of pesticides, the rats started to grow. And who doesn't know what happens when rats overpopulate!
The idea behind the show was impressive. The whole gallery was swarming with earthen rats and relics from a bygone time; a projector nearby was playing some surreal music that added to the appeal of the past-meet-present theme. However, I couldn't help but notice an absence – or tacit denial – of the 'human' factor in all the problems blamed on our non-human neighbours.
Nature, contrary to popular belief, does not work in mysterious ways. Conventional wisdom acquired over centuries as well as the rise of technology have made it possible for us to foresee changes about to occur in the natural world. It's human nature that seems mysterious to me. And the fact that we often tend to ignore the consequences of our own action makes us very dangerous, too.
This same tendency to deny, and accept responsibility for one's own action, has been noticed during the flash floods in the haor districts of northeastern Bangladesh. One fails to comprehend how rats and rain could possibly have such a devastating impact on a region that is no stranger to flood. The haors, because of the nature of their formation, remain under water most of the year, and during the dry season when water starts receding, farmers use the opportunity to cultivate crops, especially rice. This seasonal submergence is also kept in mind when the human settlements are built, on earthen mounds, making them look like islands during monsoon.
This year, flood came about a month earlier than usual, sweeping away the fragile dams and inundating vast swaths of land before the farmers could harvest their crops. It was met with lukewarm response initially. Those in charge of ensuring the safety of the life and livelihoods of the residents seemed to be in a state of denial. But after the media started to produce shocking details about the situation on the ground, officials scrambled to control damage, distributing relief supplies including food and medicine in the flood-hit areas and so on.
In the end, more than two lakh hectares of agricultural land in Sunamganj, Netrokona, Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Kishoreganj were submerged, and nearly a million tonnes of Boro crops were lost. In Sunamganj alone, according to an estimate by the district administration, the number of the affected peasant families was over three lakh.
In the haor, the dam is the only thing that separates life from death. It keeps the floodwater at bay, saves the crops, and keeps people safe even though combat against natural calamities and harsh weather conditions is a daily reality. BWDB engineers, contractors and other staffers play the vital role of ensuring that the dams stand when they are needed. But the ACC move, against such a high number of officials, laid bare the truth behind the shiny promises and questioned the board's capacity to function without being eroded by corruption.
As for the ACC, despite all its limitations as an institution essentially controlled by the government, it will now be expected to follow up on its move without bias and prejudice, and demonstrate its willingness to see it through till the end. Hopefully, those playing with the lives of people for their petty gains will not be able to escape justice, and the haor people can live without having to worry every time there is a flood around the corner.
The writer is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.