Saturday, November 29, 2014

Reflections on my latest trip to Bangladesh


I was in Bangladesh recently visiting my relatives and friends. The air flight from Philadelphia was long via the Qatar Airways. Previously, like many airlines Qatar Airways did not have a direct flight out of Philadelphia. Now it does, which allowed me to avoid traveling to nearby JFK airport in NY or Dulles airport in Washington D.C. to catch the flight.  

The flight from Philadelphia to Doha in late October was half-full and I was able to quickly spot some open row seats, and took advantage of one such row in the middle to rest better there than the seat I was assigned to. The flight entertainment system with access to many latest movies was great, and so were the foods served. The flight attendants were highly professional and very courteous. The toilets were clean and tidy.

I had bought the ticket on-line. Unfortunately, it required a stop-over at Qatar’s capital Doha for more than 12 hours. Per rules established by the airlines industry, I assumed that the Qatar Airways would provide a hotel to take rest, and that was the impression given to me by the Qatar Airways counter lady while checking in Philadelphia airport. However, after nearly 14 hours of non-stop flight to Doha, at the transfer deck I was informed that I had a promotional ticket and as such no such hotel accommodation would be provided to me. I felt cheated. But what to do other than pass the time in the airport lounge given the fact that one needs a visa to get out and then pay a hefty hotel fee for less than half a day of stay! No food voucher was issued either by the airlines, which meant one has to buy food from any of the restaurants. As expected, the prices there were unusually expensive.

Doha airport is one of the most modern airports in the world. It is top of the class in terms of cleanliness and ample of facilities it provides for its passengers. There are many Quiet Family Rooms for passengers to relax comfortably with feet stretched out as if in a business class. If need be, after prayer or between prayer times, one could lie down on the carpeted floor of some of the prayer rooms.

The flight from Doha to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, was a much shorter one, nearly five hours long. The flight was full with hundreds of Bangladeshi laborers returning home from their jobs in the Middle East.

After arriving late in Dhaka by nearly an hour, past the midnight, it was a grueling waiting for more than an hour before the luggage eventually arrived on the carousel belts. My childhood friend Siddiqur Rahman who was waiting since about 10:30 p.m. at the airport received me with a big hug. I reached his home in the chic Gulshan area around 2 a.m. His wife had left some food for us to eat, which we devoured quickly and then went to sleep.

The next morning after eating a hefty breakfast, Siddiq and I went to visit some of our friends from BUET and ORCA. I was glad to attend a meeting of the ORCA and see all the good works it has been doing, including blood-drive inside Bangladesh. The next day, Siddiq dropped me at Mosharraf’s office. The latter is a foremost expert on tea industry. He informed me that Bangladesh, thanks to an ill-fated government decision, has become a net tea importer, threatening the lives of tens of thousands of families who solely rely on the industry to make a living. Many such decisions by the ruling government seemed to be wrong and short-sighted, harming the interests of local growers and businessmen.

Without any real opposition inside the parliament, such issues that are directly related to people’s bread and butter (or dal-bhat) are hardly discussed.

The road communication within and between towns and cities is so bad that it takes at least twice the time for any trip. The highways are full of ditches due mostly to heavy locomotive uses from India carrying goods. It seemed that Bangladesh government is more interested in expanding roads and rail tracks than repairing (or sustaining) such. Most of the major construction jobs in the transport communication sector have been taken over by the Chinese contractors who instead of doing the job firsthand have learned the easy way of making money by sub-contracting all such jobs. As a result, less than half the money is truly getting spent in such infrastructure developmental projects, the remainder lost to the greedy Chinese businessmen and other middlemen. The Bangladesh Army Engineering Corps, on the other hand, have done some outstanding jobs in the construction front and are widely respected for their workmanship and quality of job delivered. Rather than giving jobs to the Chinese and outside contractors who are in the business of drying out the hard-earned foreign currency and savings of Bangladesh the government would be better advised to give priority to its local engineering groups who are more mindful of their obligations and ties to the soil.

As I have witnessed before, traffic jam remains a major problem faced in most big cities. I was reminded by my friends that Dhaka has a capacity to handle some 200,000 cars on its roads, but it has more than a million cars frequenting its roads now. And if one were to add another half a million rickshaws, it is not difficult to understand the daily pains suffered by commuters in cities like Dhaka. The traffic police force is poorly prepared to handle such congestion problems. With lack of underpasses and overpasses for the pedestrians to cross streets it is simply a nightmare to tackle such issues. And add to that problem, the attitude of pedestrians who would rather not use such alternatives considered longer than the riskier short-cuts that they had gotten used to. Only the imposition of hefty fines by the traffic police can probably remedy such chronic problems.

Trash collection remains a big problem in some of the major cities, esp. the port city of Chittagong where I spent nearly 3 weeks of my vacation time. I am told that while the city mayor is an honest guy he is less effective as a city administrator than his highly corrupt predecessor; less than 15% of the municipal job gets done now while under the former mayor who would pocket 5 to 10 percent of such contract jobs, at least 80% of the assigned money would be spent on the job.

So, here is a dilemma that many city dwellers like the Chittagonians routinely face: what is preferred – an incompetent or ineffectual administrator who is miserably failing in delivering the basic needs to his residents or a competent and highly corrupt administrator who delivers results. It is a sad, morally reprehensible choice, which many are forced to choose!

Bangladesh is now in the midst of its dry seasons with hardly any rainfalls. Because of the open sewerage system in many cities, mosquitoes breed abundantly and can be found almost everywhere even during daytimes. There is nothing like mosquito extermination campaigns anymore to relieve people’s sufferings.

A reading of any major newspaper in the country would give one the overwhelming impression that the law and order situation is deteriorating badly. More than half the news is about who got killed where and how. It is really depressing!

The government has recently cracked down on vehicle owners to check fitness. Such measures however are widely perceived as easy ways to make some money for the government agencies and those involved. An ambassador friend of mine told me that his car had to pay more than 55,000 Taka for the fitness permit! Apparently, the permit is for all road-users, including rickshaws, taxis and Tom-toms.

What struck me most was one such report about a tom-tom wala’s death. The family-owned tom-tom was the only source of income for this person who had to support a large family. When he was told that his tom-tom did not meet fitness required by the government and that he could not use it any more to earn his living, he suffered a heart attack and died on the spot.

I have since then pondered on this sad demise a number of times. In the eyes of her many critics, the government in Bangladesh has miserably failed to guarantee the basic necessities of life to most of its citizens. It is wide perceived as a usurper who knows only to take and nothing to give away. Its government agencies are full of corruption, and nothing gets done without paying bribes. A building permit from CDA or RAJUK which cost Tk. 300 some three decades ago now costs at least Tk. 300,000. Is that the progress Bangladesh is craving for?

Let me share a story to make the case here. A couple of months ago, a police officer visited an elderly person in Chittagong who has been wrongfully accused in a criminal case lodged by a land-grabber. When talking with the elderly gentleman, the police officer presented a very gloomy picture of corruption within the government sectors stating that corruption had spread so widely that only less than half a percent of the people working in the government sectors are not corrupt, i.e., a hefty 99.5% of the government employees are utterly corrupt.  So, this elderly gentleman assumed that the police officer in charge of the inquiry was one such rare (i.e., honest) individual who belonged to that 0.5% good-guy category. It did not take too long for him to get a rude awakening when before leaving the premise the officer demanded that for him to write a police report of his innocence, the elderly gentleman must pay him a bribe of Taka 20,000. The sad thing is even after the payment was made the police report did not surface since the officer in-charge of that inquiry had transferred to another city. A new officer came in who had to be paid bribe likewise.

Innocent citizens in Bangladesh are easy preys to such government vultures and wolves who know no mercy and have no fear of their accountability to people, or anyone including God!

In the economic ladder Bangladesh is considered a success story with an emerging, vibrant and booming economy. However, the government has very little, if any, to take credit for her success. It is the hard-working people like that tom-tom wala who are making that difference in Bangladesh against all the odds. It is the Bangladeshi entrepreneurs – males and females – who put up long hours seven days a week who are behind the Bangladeshi economic miracle. They refuse to be cowed down, defeated and fatigued by government bureaucracy, which come in their way to rob and dispossess them.

What right does a government have to take the life of that tom-tom wala who was making an honest living by driving his tom-tom on the streets when the government has not done anything for him since he was born?