Religious festivals come as blessings to people; in Bangladesh they come as blessings too, but perhaps more so for a coterie of a few, and looked forward to with both hope and trepidation.
Ramadan is the month of Blessing most of us anticipate with a mixed feeling, because the month of Allah's Blessings is turned into a month of man's exasperations caused by a handful of people, which often times turn into collective anger at the helplessness of the many in the hands of the few. I am tempted to appropriate Churchill's famous saying, extolling the RAF pilots' gallantry during the Battle of Britain, and apply that to our country in the negative sense—never has been the life of so many made hell by the dishonesty and inefficiency and incompetence of so few.
Cost wise, life for the majority becomes worse, though it is a month that comes as a boon to the traders who spike prices manifold for no good reason. For them excuses are not hard to come by. They will invent the pretext of excessive rain when there was no abnormal rain at all. Shortage is a common refrain that the consumers have to hear, when actually everything is plentiful, being held in stock only to be released at the “right” time so that the profit that traders in civilised countries make in a year, ours can make in a month.
“Bad harvest” of vegetables that are in greater demand during the month of Ramadan is a shamefaced explanation for spiking prices of items that were in abundance only a few days before the start of the fasting month. One has heard of some countries where during this month shops bring down their prices much below the normal levels so that people would be less burdened. They forego profit for the month. While that would be too much to expect from our traders, the least they can do is to keep the prices at the normal level and not increase them in a Mephistophelian manner.
And as usual, the commerce ministry's promises to keep the prices at the normal level and warnings of dire consequences for dishonest trading turn out to be only sound and fury signifying nothing. The city corporation officials look sheepish at their inability to do anything either. Not that they do not benefit from the price hike though.
But we as consumers do add to our own woes. We are overtaken by an overwhelming urge to overindulge, and a month of abstinence becomes a month of lavishness. Hotels with all kinds of stars attached to their name offer so-called economy rates for Iftar and Sehri encouraging extravagance in a month whose fundamental teaching is sobriety, moderation, and abjuration of actions and behaviour which are blatantly ostentatious.
Commuting in the streets during this month in Dhaka, which has the most disorganised traffic system in the world (not entirely the fault of the police), becomes a nightmare. And that is particularly so when people are making for their homes after office. The snags are further compounded by VIP movements that disrupt normal flow of traffic. It is irksome to see everyone that is anyone with a staff on his car and an escort to boot forcing their way through by stopping other commuters on both sides of the lane. One thought it was the prerogative of the honourable president and the prime minister to have exclusive use of the roads, and we have come to get used to it. But manifestation of the VIP culture on the busy streets of the capital inflicts great pain on the common man.
Eid travelling has become a nightmare too. The prospect this year is more frightening than the previous years. A mix of nature's whim—untimely rain, effects of climate change I understand—and poor planning of various departments has left the traffic system in a shambles. The end of the fiscal year has coincided with the month of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr. That is why the spending spree to expend the budget allocation, particularly on road repair and extension. But bad roads are a repetitive phenomenon as is the yearly assurance we get from the minister for road transport every year that the highways would be in a better condition than the previous year and the journey home on Eid holidays would be more comfortable, only to be disappointed. Regrettably, normal flow of traffic on highways, wherever possible, is hampered by load carriers being stopped by the police for illegal toll. After all, this is the month of Ramadan, and everyone needs the extra buck! And this is one of the reasons why prices of essentials are hiked to defray the extra cost and it is the poor consumers who suffer.
Every year, we hope and pray for a hassle-free month, but it turns out to be worse than the previous years. That is perhaps a way of expiation for our individual sins suffered collectively. And the only comfort we can take from these travails is that this suffering may lessen our burden in the hereafter. Amen.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.