Saturday, October 12, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 1

For the last few weeks I am in Bangladesh. This week Muslims are going to celebrate the Eid-ul-Adha commemorating the sacrifice that Prophet Abraham [Ibrahim (AS)] vowed to God the Almighty. The Hindu community is also celebrating their Durga Puja in Bangladesh – the largest festival for the Bengali Hindus.

The entire country is now in celebrative mood with many offices closed for the extended holidays. As usual, the shopping centers are full with customers. A visit to any of the shopping centers is sufficient to show that this once poverty-stricken country is no longer poor and people have lots of money to spend. Although the price of most food items is as expensive (sometimes more) as in the USA, no one starves to death. The purchasing power of ordinary folks here has multiplied several folds in the last couple of decades. Outside the mosques, temples and Buddhist monasteries hardly one can see beggars.

The city streets are abuzz with rickshaws, baby taxis, cars, buses and trucks round the clock. Every day, hundreds of new cars are infiltrating the crowded roads in all major cities. Even in the late hours of the night, thousands of vehicles move from one place to another on any of the major roads every hour making it difficult for all those people residing in homes near the roadside to have a quiet, sound sleep. I happen to be one of those victims. More than half a century ago when my parents moved to Khulshi area of Chittagong, once a beautiful coastal city lying on the Bay of Bengal, there were hardly a dozen residents in our neighborhood, and the adjacent road had little traffic. It was truly a residential area. Now it is difficult to demarcate between residential and commercial areas in most parts of the city, and our adjacent road has become a major artery connecting other parts of Bangladesh to the port city of Chittagong.

While the city population has grown at least twenty times in the last half a century, not too many new and wider roads have been built in the last four decades in Chittagong, thus aggravating the pains of most commuters. This Saturday, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was in Chittagong and opened some major flyovers in the city, which would help to lessen the traffic jam situation in this city of over eight million people.

Most of the footpaths along the roads are occupied by the vendors or shopkeepers thus forcing pedestrians to walk on the roads, further narrowing down the effective width for the vehicles to drive along. As expected, crossing any of the major junctions of roads is a very time consuming process taking anywhere from two to ten minutes. A three-mile commute inside the city, thus, can take anywhere from half an hour to a full hour. At this rate, as one real estate developer once told me, Bangladesh is losing or wasting away more than a quarter of its GDP because of poor transportation system alone.

As I see it, unless Bangladesh prioritizes improving its ground communication or transportation network – easing the pains of its commuters, it will fail to maximize its true potential. The government, therefore, ought to take a serious look to improving its communication network. In my opinion, there is no alternative to improving the rail communication system, especially given the fact that Bangladesh is energy-poor. I am told that most of the inter-city railroads don’t have dual lines. As such, at places when another train has to go in the reverse direction, even the non-stop trains have to wait in certain areas, thus allowing the other train to pass along. Given the fact that train communication is both cheaper and could take much less time than alternative means (minus air transportation), this negligence to improving its infrastructure is simply mindboggling. I am here told that the bus owners are opposed to any such improvement proposal, which would in turn reduce their share of the profit. Many of the politicians also own bus services, thus lingering the overall crisis in this critical sector.

This reminds me of California when the automakers in the early 20th century were at the forefront of such opposition against public transportation system. They wanted residents to buy cars and not use public transportation – trains and buses. And they were successful for almost a century. I recall that when I was a student in California in the early 1980s, cities like Los Angeles still didn’t have rail transit system. All these have changed for better now. Los Angeles has a great rail transit system allowing its people to move from one part to another at a much cheaper cost and less time.

Bangladesh must overcome its inertia and political gravitational pulls to deciding for and improving its railway infrastructure not just for the benefit of the intercity commuters but also for its people in the inner cities, with huge rippling benefits in other sectors. With a good rail transit system in place, most commuters would eventually switch to it under-burdening its otherwise faulty road transportation system. This would lessen Bangladesh’s dependence on oil and gas, freeing such vital resources for other better usages.

When the Mahajote Government of Sheikh Hasina came to power nearly five years ago, two of the major promises her government made were to improve the gridlock situation within the city roads and energy demand. Her government has a positive score on both counts. As typical of Bangladesh, however, some of the newly constructed flyovers are named after family or party members of the prime minister. The newly opened flyover in Jatrabari of Dhaka has been named after late Mayor Hanif and that in the Baddhar Hat area of Chittagong has been named after an Awami League minister - late M. A. Mannan. Both were exemplary politicians who deserved such recognition.

Interestingly, just last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Emon, son of late M.A. Mannan, in my parents’ home. Mr. Mannan was a labor and social welfare minister who was much revered for his honesty and sincerity. He returned three hundred crore Taka to Bangladesh Treasury when the above sum of money was given as a gratuity money to him on a foreign contract signed with a Middle-eastern country. I don’t know of any politician in Bangladesh who has demonstrated such a level of honesty!

On the energy sector, Sheikh Hasina’s government has succeeded in improving the overall capacity. However, its supply lags behind the ever increasing demand. Some of the initiatives towards curtailing energy dependency, e.g., energy from coal plant in Rampal area of the Bagerhat district, near the pristine Sundarbans, have been highly controversial and criticized by some activists. The latter see the construction of the proposed plant in Rampal as threatening the eco system in the Sundarbans.

Many neutral energy experts, however, consider such opposition to the government plan as misguided, hypocritical and dishonest. None of these energy-crusaders, touted as Bangladesh’s prominent intellectuals, is, sadly, willing to walk the talk by living an Amish life by residing in huts or homes that don’t require electricity or gas. As a matter of fact, each one of them is known to live in air-conditioned homes. Many see them catering to foreign, e.g., Indian, interest thus, making Bangladesh entirely dependent on other countries on such matters. Lest one forgets, the previously imported coal from India has been known to be of very low quality generating higher carbon emission.

So, what is better for Bangladesh – an energy-starving policy for a developing country that continues to rely on Indian coal for its vital energy demand while capping its own resources or a smart policy that has learned to harness energy without compromising on ecology, ethics and energy self-sufficiency that would help grow Bangladesh’s economy?

To be continued>>>>

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