Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 5

It is said that if you want to find out about a city look at its manholes. Why – manholes? Well, those manholes probably tell us quite a bit about the overall health of a city. If those are missing, we can assume that (1) the city municipality may be financially insolvent, i.e., it does not have enough fund for emergency needs, e.g., to replace the missing manholes promptly, or (2) theft is quite common in that city, i.e., it is unsafe and that life is insecure for anyone living in that city, or (3) the police force is inadequate and/or ineffective to stopping such petty crimes in that city, or (4) the city dwellers are nonchalant about such crimes, or (5) the city dwellers, in general, are very poor, etc., etc.
If you are looking for missing manholes there are plenty to be found in any major city of Bangladesh. There are not only missing manholes that are death-traps for many pedestrians and commuters, which often remain uncovered for years, but potholes are also quite common in many roads and highways to both slow down the traffic and add to the repair cost of vehicle owners. These observations are sure to frustrate many who know that the country has made significant economic progress in the last four decades bettering the quality of life for most people. For example, I am told that Bangladesh has made significant strides in primary education, basic or primary health and sanitation.
Thus, we are forced to ask: why do such problems exist? In my opinion, one of the major causes is corruption, which is quite rampant in Bangladesh. Every sector in this country seems plagued by this chronic disease, which has transformed Bangladesh into a perpetual leaking faucet. A significant portion of the budget leaks out, i.e., is wasted, in the form of bribe and corruption.
Consider, for instance, if there is a budget of 1 billion taka for a road construction project, I am told that a minimum of 250 million taka may simply leak out and be pocketed by others. Of the remainder amount left for the real work, the contractor must take its own cut of profit minus all the expenses. As such, often times, less than 50% of the allotted budget amount is spent on such projects and low quality work becomes the ultimate outcome. Such jobs lead to cracks and potholes within months of the construction job, especially so after the rainy season, demanding frequent repair works, let alone adding to the suffering of the general public. But such potholes are almost never patched up or covered up promptly to avoid more expensive full-repair job later. I am told this negligence is deliberate: such potholes left unrepaired start the domino effect of triggering new funding for resurfacing of the road. That way, again all those involved with the project – from approving the fund to providing the finished job – can get rich! One may argue that the process helps cash flow and eventually benefits the society with circulation of money. But, at whose expense, may I ask?
More annoying to me is to see that in many such road construction works, no provision has been made for water drainage. This is inexcusable in a country with an annual rainfall of nearly hundred inches. If adequate provisions for removal of rainwater are made the life of many of the roads and highways in Bangladesh could be significantly prolonged, saving precious money and time for all. I am sure this fact is not unknown to any engineer, esp. those civil engineers involved in such road projects; so I am forced to believe that such provisions are deliberately ignored to allow the vicious cycle to continue.
Many municipalities around the globe keep aside a fraction of their budget for such repair jobs, let alone for emergency needs. I shall be surprised if city corporations in Bangladesh have left no such provisions!
As I hinted above, corruption is very rampant in Bangladesh. Not a single sector touching the public life is immune from this curse. There seems to be a race for becoming filthy rich at everyone else’s expense.
Consider, e.g., the case of education. There are now as many privately managed schools as there are government-run schools. Profit making is the primary reason for the existence of most of these private schools. I don’t mind the fact that for successful sustainment of anything, one needs to make it profitable. But when profit becomes the sole motivation, everyone suffers. I was simply shocked to learn that not only must a parent with kids going to schools from the first grade to the tenth grade pay monthly tuition fees it must also pay a hefty re-admission fee every year, which can run anywhere from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of taka. When I was a student in primary schools, many years ago, there were not that many private or non-government schools. But nowhere was such a policy of readmission fee; nowadays it has become rather the norm and not an exception!
What is quite disquieting is that the teachers in most of these private schools remain very low paid while most owners are making hefty profits! For example, a high school teacher with a B.A. degree in a privately-run school may be paid only 2,000 taka per month, and must now depend on other sources of income to survive. Usually, that income comes in the form of private tuition, which has become rather popular these days. For every subject there is a teacher providing extra tuition beyond the class hours. What is even horrifying: a student may be deliberately given poor grade by a teacher if he/she has not enrolled in the teacher’s coaching class! My niece Tanita was a brilliant student all her student life. Yet she could not take the scholarship exam in her 5th grade from her school simply because her school teacher won’t let her take the exam for not having enrolled in his coaching class. She eventually took the exam from another school district and got the scholarship. Hers is not an exceptional case, but rather quite common. And this is really scary within the educational system, which cannot afford such extortion from a teacher.
Many of the successful teachers (we should probably call them businesspersons), providing such coaching services at home or in rented places, are known to make hundreds of thousands of taka per month. But if you ask them - how much tax are they paying - don’t be surprised to learn that they pay nothing.
When I asked a school principal who happens to own it about the justification of paying such low salaries to her teaching staff she told me that this was done to avoid overcharging the student’s fee, and thus to remain competitive with other private schools, and that teachers are expected to make up their losses in income via such coaching classes. What she failed to understand was the implication of the entire system. The quality of education during class hours provided in all such institutes – government or non-government alike in which a parallel coaching system exists - is going downhill. Students there are learning hardly anything, but are told to come to the after-school-hour coaching classes to ‘really’ learn the subject matter!
Such extra costs, almost extorted, unfortunately are becoming a terrible burden for most parents who have school going kids. If they have fixed income, and are honest in their profession, it is almost impossible to cope with, and must find other sources of income to make-up the cost of education. Many are forced to take bribes in their own professions, while a lucky few with immigration opportunities are settling overseas where education is free up to the 12th grade. This latter case should not surprise us. I know of many such cases in which parents making reasonably good salaries were forced to immigrate to the USA so that they could avoid paying hefty readmission charges and tuition fees for their children.
With hundreds of thousands of students appearing in various exams these days, it is important that a student do extremely well – GPA 5 Golden – to be even considered eligible for taking an admission test in government-run universities in Bangladesh. Other aspirants must, therefore, attend private universities, which may cost anywhere from 300,000 taka to a million taka for the 4-year program. At the end of an expensive university education there is no guarantee of a good job waiting for the graduates since the job sector has not kept up the pace with student population.
Many of the newly rich executives running companies and corporations behave like hardcore capitalists of the early 20th century that care less about what their employees make. I was simply shocked to learn that a graduate with a BBA degree and a high GPA score from a prestigious university program was offered a paltry salary of Tk. 7,000 (less than 100 USD) per month at an entry level position. The MD of the corporation, an old friend of mine, by the way, was making over 20,000 USD monthly (a large sum of money even in the US). There was no moral bite felt by the employer that the salary offer won’t have even covered the cost of commuting to the office by taxi! How about if the employee were to rent an apartment? How would she survive with that salary? (She decided not to take the job, and instead continued her education towards an MBA. She is now settled in the USA with her husband who is doing doctoral studies in computer science.) Many are forced to take bribe simply to survive! It may sound odd, but that is the reality for many folks in Bangladesh.
As I see it, the system here in Bangladesh is forcing many to emigrate out of the country for a plethora of reasons including corruption. Those working as temporary workers (mostly with no college education) in the Middle East and Malaysia or Singapore may one day return to Bangladesh, but those with higher degrees from universities or technical knowhow, which this country needs badly to move up in the economic ladder, may never return because of corruption.
In my BUET (the MIT of Bangladesh) class of 1977, 80% of those who graduated with a first class are now settled overseas. Most of them went for higher education leading to M.S. and/or Ph.D. degree(s) and were absorbed by the system in their adopted countries. Most of the universities inside Bangladesh, thus, don’t have their best students as their faculty members any more. In my department, for instance, my classmate who had a much lower grade is now a faculty member there. Five others who had better grades are overseas. And this trend is common in every department, and has been going on for the last few decades.
With all the best students gone, the universities inside Bangladesh naturally now must run with what is left behind – the fifth, sixth, seventh best! This brain-drain phenomenon is sad, but a reality with Bangladesh today! In spite of much talk the government has failed to attract those talents back home. As demonstrated in places like Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia without such returning expatriates it is virtually impossible these days to make the transition to a developed country.
What is also problematic, in most of the prestigious government-run universities in Bangladesh research has taken a back seat! A faculty is promoted for years of academic teaching (and political affiliation may also help!) and not published research work. Many of the professors don’t have a single paper (beyond their doctoral work) published in any peer reviewed international journal. As such, the gap with the rest of the world in advances made in any given field is increasingly widening. Consequently, many of the science and technology professors are still intellectually locked in their doctoral training years and have no knowledge of the advances made in their own fields ever since.
While the pay-scale of faculty members in government-run universities has increased significantly in the last three decades, it is still quite below those offered in private run universities. As a result, many faculty members serving in government-run universities now take long leave of absence to work for higher-paying private universities. Many run side businesses to better their financial condition.
When I was a student at BUET, students from many parts of Asia would be part of the foreign student community. Such was the case also with many of Bangladesh’s medical colleges. Nowadays, Bangladeshi students are going to those countries. In this way, not only Bangladesh is losing a source of income but a fraction of its hard-earned foreign exchange is spent to pay for such undergrad education overseas.
Politics is also ruining the university campus atmosphere. Faculty members run in the senate elections in panels that are distinctly politically affiliated. Promotions and hiring practices have naturally been compromised. Student politics has also become poisonous and extremely violent. Strikes have become also quite common in campuses, thus, delaying graduation of students, sometimes by two years!
A fraction of the students, affiliated with student groups that dominate the student union bodies, has found unethical and illegal means – e.g., tender, extortion - to make more money than they would ever make by graduating. As such, many of the student leaders have become professional students, thugs and killers these days, and not real students. They run criminal cadres that are responsible for all kinds of heinous crimes including murder in and outside university campuses. Many of them are also used as musclemen for political parties and politicians. So vicious has this nexus become that without such collaborations many politicians could not have gotten elected in their own areas. For one to win, it must feed those cadres.
Why such endemic sickness within the education sector when this country once prided itself of having Oxford and Cambridge-like universities of the East, and had produced towering geniuses like Drs. S. Bose and F.R. Khan?
Well, teaching ethics and morality – and walking the talk – may be the starting point to correct this grave problem – bottoms up. I am told that nowadays children don’t get any teaching on such matters in their primary schools, which was so common when I grew up as a child. If a society fails to instill such life-giving values to its young mind it is doomed to failure. And as studies have repeatedly shown the price of failure is worse than the price of gains made without such values. Let those who formulate educational policy of Bangladesh reflect on this time honored fact. The sooner the better!

To be continued >>>

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