Friday, January 3, 2014

Thoughts on Bangladesh - part 7


Sunday, January 5 is the day when the 10th parliamentary election is set to be held in 59 districts across Bangladesh. One hundred and fifty three seats have already been elected unopposed because of boycott by the main opposition BNP and its allies. As such, no voting will take place in 5 districts -- Joypurhat, Shariatpur, Madaripur, Chandpur and Rajbari where the candidates got elected unopposed. For the remaining 147 seats, 390 candidates from the ruling Awami League (AL), Jatiya Party (Ershad), JP (Manju), Gonotontri Party, Gono Front, JSD, Bangladesh Islami Front, Bangladesh Khelafat Mojlish, Bangladesh Tarikat Federation, National Awami Party, Worker’s Party of Bangladesh and BNF are contesting in the election. The participation of the Jatiya Party in the polls, however, remains uncertain due to contradictory statements by its leaders.

Meanwhile, the BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia has termed this election a ‘selection’, ‘farce’, and has urged the voters to boycott the polls. The BNP-led 18-party alliance has also enforced a 48-hour strike from 6:00am on Saturday to discourage anyone casting his/her vote.

While it is a foregone conclusion that Sheikh Hasina of the ruling AL will again be asked by the President to form a new cabinet, it is not sure for how long could she run the government amid serious constitutional crisis that the country has been subjected to for the last three months. I shall not be surprised to see that the 10th parliament may be short lived. What the country needs is a formula that is agreed by the two major parties – AL and BNP - that have ruled the country for all but two years since 1991. Instead, the election-time crisis has become a regular feature stymieing the country’s much needed progress. Many Bangladeshis feel that nothing good is going to happen politically in their nation as long as these two major parties remain the most important players in the national politics and are led by leaders who hate each other. Since politics affects everything important in life, Bangladeshis must, therefore, endure their troubles for an unforeseeable future until their situation changes for the better.

As I have pointed out in an earlier article, the cost of defeat in election has become simply too unbearable for those in opposition in Bangladesh, which remains an illiberal democracy. This issue is at the heart of the current political turmoil plaguing the country. Those in power always have the wherewithal to amass massive benefits, a fact once again proven by the affidavits submitted to the office of the Election Commission by the political candidates from the ruling party. In the last five years, the income of some MPs rose several hundred times, which cannot be explained by any math. If these be the declared assets, what about those assets that remained undeclared? We can only guess!

Corruption remains the most important driving force that creates the vicious cycle for enriching oneself and all those that are involved with it in whatever capacity. And crime follows. The existence of the one without the other is improbable, to say the least. We shall have more opportunity to see the manifestation of corruption inside Bangladesh.

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Let me now get back to where I left my readers on my 3-month long trip to Bangladesh. [See here for continuation.]

After arriving in Dhaka from the port city of Khulna in the morning of the strike day in November, my brother-in-law Bahar and I took a rickshaw and decided to stop by my late uncle’s home in Malibagh which is closer to Kamalapur Rail Station in Dhaka than my mother-in-law’s home in Paribagh. It was also a safer mode of transportation during the strike. Late at night we took a baby taxi to arrive at the Paribagh home where I stayed for the next two days before returning to Chittagong. Bahar had other plans and stayed in Dhaka in his sister’s home.

As usual, travel by rail was deemed safer for me. On the day of my trip to Chittagong, the opposition had not fortunately called strike and my brother-in-law Ikrar was able to drop me off at the train station in his car. The train left on time. It was supposed to have been a non-stop journey from Uttara (the Dhaka airport) to Chittagong. But near Brahmanbariya station – almost halfway between Dhaka and Chittagong – the train suddenly came to a jolting halt. We learned that there was a derailment nearby. After two hours, the train again resumed its course and I arrived late at night.

Inside my compartment the passenger who sat next to me was a doctor who worked for a famous medical research university in Dhaka. He was visiting his wife who lived in Chittagong. During our casual conversation when I mentioned that doctors were making good money in Bangladesh while they were not paying attention to the needs of their patients, he agreed and blamed it on the system. He pointed out that patients always like to be seen by doctors that are older and famous, and not by young doctors who may sometimes have better knowledge and skills, and are more caring to their patients. Many of the famous doctors don’t spend the necessary time required to diagnose the case properly. They usually spend less than five minutes (sometimes just two minutes) of their time per patient. Sometimes before the patient could mention all his/her symptoms, the doctor has written the prescription.

Many of these doctors are affiliated with government-run hospitals and research centers only to promote their own private practices. Years of affiliation with and work in those institutions have promoted them to become full professors and with that title the recognition as a knowledgeable and famous doctor came easily. Thus, it is quite normal for them to have hundreds of patients waiting every night. Unfortunately, rather than limiting their numbers they like the money and thus, do a terrible disservice to their patients by not spending enough time. They end up writing prescriptions as if they already know what the patient really needs towards cure.

Some of these famous doctors are so busy that a patient sometimes must make an appointment weeks in advance. If the patients instead had opted to see less famous younger doctors who are more caring, this chronic problem in the health care sector could have been mitigated.

The Government of Bangladesh now requires newly trained doctors to spend their early years in rural areas. But most of them have found ways – usually by bribing government officials - to defeat the system, and spend those years in major cities.

Doctors have their own favoritism as to which brand of medicine to prescribe to their patients. That choice is mostly dictated by the connections that they have made with the pharmaceutical companies. [By the way, this practice is also quite common in the USA and probably the rest of the world. As a former Director with Merck & Co., one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, I am well aware of such practices. The sales reps would often arrange all-paid vacation packages for doctors in the Caribbean or some fancy resort areas to promote their products.]

When the sales representatives from the pharmaceutical companies try to promote medicine from their companies the doctors in Bangladesh would often times demand huge kickbacks to promote such brands. In this regard, it may be worthwhile sharing the example of a doctor I know of. This young Hindu doctor lives with his wife as a tenant in our 6-story house ‘Aranika.’ His entire apartment – from refrigerator to sofa, beds, etc. - has been furnished by pharmaceutical companies. My brother-in-law Ikrar has been in the stent business which many cardiologists insert in the veins of patients to open up blocked arteries of heart patients. He told me that to promote his business (i.e., selling J&J and Boston Scientific stent products), he had to pay first class tickets for some doctors visiting or attending conferences in Europe. Worse still, some famous doctors who had used his stents in their surgical operations, charging hefty amount of bill to their patients, did not pay the price of the product (which costs more than $1000 per stent).

Just imagine the level of corruption that is eating away the moral fabric of Bangladesh! As a result of such unscrupulous attitudes and practices, the patients are suffering and dying. Many patients end up dying in the hospitals because of wrong diagnosis and treatment. I am not aware of any medical doctor or hospital in Bangladesh that had faced criminal charges for wrongful deaths of patients. It is no wonder, therefore, that those who can afford prefer to be treated in places like India, Thailand and Singapore. I am told that the major portion of the income of many of these hospitals in those countries come from Bangladeshi patients. I know of some of my friends who go to Singapore and Thailand for regular health checkups. I am sure if the patients have found caring doctors and nurses in Bangladesh many would not have spent hard earned foreign exchanges for their health care needs abroad.

Just as in every other sector, except probably the civil, administrative, judicial, police and defense forces, the health care sector suffers from lack of well-trained doctors and nurses to care for their patients. The best of them have found ways to work or settle in the more prosperous countries in Europe, America and the Middle East. The services provided in many of the hospitals – government or private run – are simply horrendous. Even in government-run hospitals the patient often must buy prescribed medicine. In private hospitals the patients are often overcharged while they are not treated properly. These facilities are very poorly managed and governed.

After arriving at home in Chittagong that nigh I spent the next few days in the company of my parents and did not go out; the opposition parties again had called hartal (strike), and it was not safe for anyone to go out. On Tuesday the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led alliance enforced the 48-hour blockade that began at 6:00am in protests against the announcement of the schedule for the 10th parliamentary polls by the Election Commission for holding ‘unilateral’ polls before reaching an understanding over the election-time administration. On Tuesday at least seven people, including a paramilitary soldier, were killed and several hundred injured as opposition activists battled with lawmen, attacked rivals, torched and vandalized vehicles and government offices and removed rail tracks to enforce the 48-hour rail-road-waterway blockade across the country.

The railway was made a major target of Tuesday’s vandalism as protesters uprooted tracks, removed fishplates causing derailments and tried to set fire to carriages forcing railway authorities to suspend the service of DEMU (
Diesel Electric Multiple Unit ) trains. Several intercity trains got stranded at places for uprooting of tracks. Pickets torched three carriages of Dhaka-bound ‘Sirajganj Express’ at Ishwardi railway station around 7:00am, halting train service on Dhaka-Khulna and Dhaka-Rajshahi routes. The Netrakona-bound Haor Express derailed at Shyamganj as fishplates were removed. Thirty people were injured as six carriages and the locomotive of Dhaka-bound Agnibina Express derailed at a place between Rajendrapur and Jaidebpur stations around 10:30pm as pickets removed fishplates. Rail tracks were also uprooted on Akhaura-Gangabari, Imambari-Gangabari and Imambari-Kasba routes snapping Dhaka-Chittagong train service. Five trains got stranded at Akhaura for uprooting of tracks.

Road links between Dhaka and outlying areas remained snapped as no buses operated on long routes and trucks carrying goods got stranded at places after opposition activists blocked stretches of major highways with logs.

What is so outrageous is that the criminal elements within the opposition parties would start their criminal activities – torching vehicles and vandalizing - at least 12 hours before the scheduled time for start of the hartal. It was a sheer tactics to terrorize everyone. In spite of the personal risks, employees were expected to report to their workplaces. Many employees took rickshaws to move around although even those rickshaws were not safe from attack of the terrorists. Many innocent commuters got killed for just trying to move from one place to another.

My return date to the USA was approaching fast. With Bahar’s help I managed to buy a ticket and reached Dhaka on a day when the opposition political parties had not called hartal. After arriving in Dhaka I met some of my old friends. One of these friends, Dr. Tahir Shah has now become the Honorary Ambassador for Uzbekistan. He was gracious enough to invite me and some of our BUET classmates in his home in Gulshan. My ORCA friends from Cadet College also threw a party in Bar-B-Q Tonite – a famous restaurant in Dhanmondi (Road 16), which was owned by my late friend Major (retd.) Talebul Mowla Chowdhury (Rumi). (Thanks to Mosharraf Hossain for hosting the get together.)

In the next few days I met some of my relatives before hartal was called. I also met Alam Ara khala, a close friend of my mom since their school days in Calcutta in the British era. My mother was a student at Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in the 1940s where she met Alam Ara Khala, who hailed from a highly educated family of West Bengal. It should be noted here that the school was opened by Begum Rokeya, a social reformer, educationist, prolific writer and campaigner for human rights and gender equality in British India. Before the partition of British India, my mother returned to Khulna to complete her high school degree. She later earned her B.A. and M.A. degrees after getting married to my father. I have met Alam Ara khala many times when I was a teenager. She lived with her husband, Mr. Kamal, in Chittagong where he was the Superintendent of Police. He later became the Inspector General of Police after the emergence of Bangladesh, and died soon thereafter. She and my mom – both now 80 years old – have remained close, contacting each other by phone. 

During my visit this time to khala’s residence near the Habibullah Bahar College, I learned that her cousin is Mrs. Farhat Qader Chowdhury’s mom. What a small world! Mrs. Farhat is married to Salauddin Qader Chowdhury (commonly known as SaQa), MP from Chittagong, who was recently found guilty of committing war crimes of 1971. SaQa and his elder son – Fayyaz (Fazlul Qader Chowdhury) – were behind the criminal land-grab of our family properties in Khulshi, Chittagong, during the BNP rule of 2005. With a criminal syndicate they forcibly evicted 16 tenant families from our premises and demolished ten homes. It was purely a Mafia-style crime when hardly anyone dared to come to our aid. Alhamdulillah, we got our family properties back. But the scar remains and will probably remain so until ultimate justice is done – if not in this world, surely in the Hereafter!

I knew of Mrs. Farhat’s siblings and have met some of them during our family ordeal in 2005, including her youngest uncle Dastgir, who remains a close friend to my brother-in-law Istiaq. Her youngest brother is indebted to a sister of mine, and another sibling to Istiaq – for a plethora of reasons. They were all very apologetic for the crimes of their ‘untouchable’ brother-in-law (dula bhai) – SaQa Chowdhury, but did neither have the guts nor the courage necessary to stop him or his notorious son. But Mrs. Farhat, SaQa’s wife remained shamelessly arrogant; she was seduced by her husband’s power and supported the crime wholeheartedly. [Interestingly, she was planning on running on the BNP ticket from her husband’s constituency in the parliamentary election.]

In my discussion with khala about Mrs. Farhat’s role, I remarked that it is commonly believed that the influence of a mother towards a child’s character-building is paramount. I asked her, “How could your one-time ‘nice’ niece be the mother of a criminal like Fayyaz who was behind the criminal ploy to grab our family properties?” Khala replied that it was all a matter of bad company – her niece Farhat is married to a wrong guy (a Mafia Don type character), and the older son has been spoiled by his dad who believed that with power crime was easy to commit and would remain unpunished! But for how long? History has failed to educate the SaQa family! Will they ever repent?

The day before my flight on November 29 when I tried to check the status of my flight in the Qatar Airways I was surprised to see that the flight had been delayed by 12 hours, and instead of the scheduled flight at around 3 p.m. it had been moved to 3 a.m. the next day. It was a day of strike. So, the new timing came as a relief since it was deemed safer to take a car ride late at night to the airport. On the day of my trip, Shahanshah, younger brother of Dr. Gowhar Rizvi – Adviser on international affairs to the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, came to see me at the Paribagh home with his nephew. It was a strike day, and still he took the risk of coming in his car. When I asked, he exclaimed that people had to take such risks once in a while!

Just hours before my departure, the criminal elements of the opposition parties set fire to a bus near the Sishu Udyan (Children’s Park), which is close to my in-law’s home in Paribagh. Some of the passengers later died of burns suffered during this criminal activity.

I can understand that the opposition parties are upset with the government and feel cheated and neglected in the coming election. But what right do they have to victimize innocent human beings who must work to survive, who must go out of their homes to find work, report to work, buy groceries, visit family members or friends, attend to business, etc.?

Because of the political impasse almost everyone inside Bangladesh is now suffering – from an ordinary rickshaw driver to a fruit or vegetable vendor to a mason to a businessman. Life is sacred. But the way innocent people are getting killed as a result of this political madness, absolute criminality, I don’t think these killers have any regard for human lives. I am told that they get paid for such criminal activities – the larger the target they hit the higher the payment.

Bangladesh is losing hundreds of crores of taka every day because of this political insanity, and people are dying and suffering for getting caught in the midst of a political tug of war, but compromise between the major parties is not in the air. Politics continue to betray our people! It is sad time to be in Bangladesh.

I left from Paribagh around 11 p.m. Ikrar’s drivers dropped me off at the airport and fortunately there was no problem reaching the airport safely. The Qatar Airways left Dhaka on time and reached JFK (New York) via Doha on time.

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In 1853-63, Elahi Baksh, who was born in Bengal, wrote a book named Khurshid Jahan Numa (approximate meaning: Sun of the World Show) in which he discussed the history of Bengal until 1863. In this book, he quoted excerpts from Riaz-us-Salatin, written by Syed Ghulam Husayn Saleem Zayedpuri, who was born in Ayodhya (Ajodhya). This latter book was written in Farsi in 1788 at the behest of George Woodney who was the Commercial Resident in India when East India Company had taken effective control of Bengal. Both Baksh and Zayedpuri were highly critical of Bengali Hindu character of their times. Zayedpuri wrote, “Nobody in the world is as corrupt, shrewd, deceptive and hostile as a Bengali [Hindu] in matters of business dealings, trading and family affairs. They don’t think that they have to pay off their loans ever. If they make a promise of completing a task in a day, they don’t fulfill their promises even in a year.”

I wish the Bengali character has become better compared to the above highly critical observations made by Zayedpuri. But alas, corruption remains a serious problem and has actually become much worse than what it was some 225 years ago during the early stage of English colonization of Bengal.

To be continued >>>>

[For the previous article on this series, click here and here.]

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