We are in the clutches of syndicates whose pernicious presence pervades almost every walk of our life. And there is no guarantee that we would be able to come out of it soon, or ever if at all. The nation has suffered since the very first day the flag of the newly born nation fluttered on the soil hallowed by the blood of the martyrs, inflicted by these leeches, which these groups are. They have only one interest and that is to maximise profit, people be damned! And like all powerful cabals, they are well-linked, with powers that be to shield them or bail them out when in trouble. The protectors are a beneficiary of the syndicate’s largesse.
How else does one explain the fact that in spite of the country receiving enough blankets to go around each one of us immediately after the Liberation War, many had to suffer the rigors of winter without one? Bangabandhu decried and warned the “kambal chors”of dire consequences. But not only have they survived, they have also spawned a progeny that is carrying on with the gainful trade of profiteering on the woes and plight of the people.
It was shocking for those of us deployed along the international border in early 1974 on anti-smuggling duty to find among the seized goods being smuggled out to India such items as milk powder and baby food, essential medicines and, of all things, second-hand garments, something that had kept a good part of our middle class population comfortably clothed, particularly in winter. And imagine what was smuggled in from India. Lac-dye (alta) lipstick and ruse and all manner of toiletry items and, ball bearings.
Smuggling has its own dynamics, but one cannot imagine that at a time when we were struggling to keep the wolf from the door, toiletries would be in much demand in Bangladesh. The Indian syndicates knew what was good for India and so did our syndicates, who too knew what was good for India and delivered those to India—at our cost!
In spite of the administration’s efforts (whether it was the best of efforts or not only time will tell) the transport sector remains one of the most ill-disciplined and completely out of the administration’s control. The only power that they are amenable to is the coterie of leaders who head the main segments of the sector—the owners, the drivers and the general transport workers. The general mass is held constantly captive by the triumvirate. They derive their unlimited bargaining power from the leaders of these groups who happen mostly to be politicians, belonging to all political parties. And some are senior members of political parties allied to the government. At one time there was a weird and most unusual situation when the minister for transport happened to be also the executive president of Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation. The glaring conflict of interest was apparent to everyone except the administration. It was like employing the fox to guard the hen house. It is thus not surprising that the administration yields to this group despite its brave pronouncements to not wilt under pressure.
Is it any wonder then that the number of road accidents and casualties therefrom, during that particular period, saw a quantum increase? One wonders how these leaders would take the observations the sessions judge made while delivering his verdict on December 1 on the killing of Rajib and Dia caused by reckless driving. He observed that everyone—students, youths and even elderly, run the risk of being runover by buses driven by careless and apathetic drivers and helpers. And these people, and those so-called leaders of theirs, have done everything to thwart efforts to bring sanity on the roads. The Road Safety Act 2018, which took years in the making, and it was perhaps the student agitation which compelled the authorities to get it passed, may be diluted following the threat of the triad we have spoken about.
One would like to believe the former commerce minister, now the chairman of the house oversight committee on commerce, that no syndicate was involved with the onion price debacle. It was a disaster brought about by a concatenation of actions and inactions. First there was a pathetic lack of planning by people who the public pay to do exactly that very thing. And then there was the sudden ban on onion export by India, our biggest supplier. And during the ban on onion export to Bangladesh, India did not halt exporting the same item to the Maldives.The Indian ban couldn’t be passed up by the onion traders. The decision by the traders to stock up was a well-orchestrated and coordinated action, typical methodology of the syndicates.
While the onion saga was a severe but a temporary bruise, hopefully, what the people suffer every year because of market machination before Ramadhan and Eid and other national festivity, defies all laws of economics and market theory. The prices of fast-moving items rise without any reason, no shortage no natural calamity or any kind of force majeure. And as always, all the thunder and bellowing by the administration turn out to be merely sound and fury signifying nothing at all. The syndicate, from the importers to the wholesalers make more profit in those 30 days than the rest of the 335 days of the year.
Unfortunately, we will continue to suffer till such time the government goes after these elements regardless of their party or political affiliation. Like terrorists, the syndicates do not belong to any party. And like combatting terrorists, the entire might of the state should be brought to bear against the syndicates to deliver the people from their clutches.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.