Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

24Oct/080

Ensuring our right to know

For most of the Bangladeshi citizens, some of the worst and horrid experiences perhaps involve dealing with public institutions and government officials.

From getting a passport to a tax paper or just a birth certificate, include weeks, and more often months of running from one desk to the other, standing at the gates and corridors, coaxing the sleepy and ignorant officials to get through the officer-in-charge.

In the first week, you will probably try to figure out who the actual person responsible for providing your information is. This will involve you going to one desk, wait for a few hours and be told to go to another desk and the week will end by the time you know who to contact.

If by some luck, you get through the actual person who will get your work done, you must wait for a few more hours until he finishes his cup of tea, or even just sit up from his slouching position, reach his hands out, and take out the piece of paper from the file.

Most often, it will depend on his mood really. If he wishes to, he may ask you to come back anywhere between the next day to the next one year, to inform you that either he does not have it or as a responsible official he cannot disclose it.

‘It’s a nightmare to even think of approaching any of the public institutions for any form of information,’ says Golam Mostafa, a businessman. ‘You would rather pay your way through, than to run through months, from one desk to the other, one place to the other to get any form of information out. Go ask any relevant government institution that – just from starting up your own business to wanting information concerning investing, banks and license – you are bound to go through this painful and lengthy procedure.’

Similar are experiences at a police station. ‘It’s an experience you would rather not have,’ says Imran Asam, a student. ‘This one time, I went to the station to find out about the status of a report we had made about our stolen car. I was asked to sit for hours, and then at the end asked to come the next week. Three weeks down the line, I was told the file was not found and that I should come later- it’s been two years, and do I dare ask the status of the case?’

If you are a journalist, who is ought to be able to enjoy outmost press freedom and the right to information, it’s not any different. One of the most dreadful task for you then will be to get a comment from a government official or just a piece of information- a document from a ministry.

You call his office repeatedly only to receive the ‘sir is at a meeting’ or ‘please call an hour later’ reply. Then, having tried and failed to get him on the phone for a couple of days, you decide to go to the relevant ministry or division or department.

Inside the ministry building, you move around from one room to the other, if ‘sir is not in his seat’, asking the grumpy assistants for his whereabouts. The personal officer takes time to inform ‘sir’ that you are there. If you have the patience, and you are persistent enough, ‘sir’ has a minute for you before a very important meeting.

He informs you, on some occasions eagerly and on others dismissively, that either his superior officer is only authorised to speak on the matter or a junior officer is better informed to speak about it. Of course, the senior officer refers you to the same or a different junior officer. Only the most polite official will take his time to explain to you that as a government official he or she is bound by the ‘Official Secrets Act’ not to speak to you. Not that he wants to speak either.

In case of the many policies and laws being drafted and approved, there is hardly any information that a citizen is aware of. ‘One week you hear a lot in the news about debates over a certain policy or law being drafted, and a few months later, one fine morning you hear that a new policy or a law is in place, and you hardly know what it is all about and it is supposedly impacting your life,’ says Salma Huq, a lecturer at a private university in Dhaka.

Supposedly, a citizen, according to the constitution of Bangladesh, has the right to information. Over the years, across the globe it has been constantly stressed that every citizen must have access to information in all spheres of life. According to experts, access to information in specifically public bodies have been of outmost need as the public bodies hold information not for themselves but as custodians of the public good.

‘They should provide us with those pieces of information that they hold because it is our information entrusted in their hands, not their information,’ says Ayesha Khanam, President, Mahila Parishad. ‘A democratic society must have access to information, as it is a tool of power and development which are crucially important for the growth of a nation.’

In 1997 the UN Commission on Human Rights issued a request to the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression to look closely into the right to seek and receive information, as the earlier provisions did not impose a corresponding duty to any entity. In 1998, the Special Rapporteur reported on the issue and notes that ‘The right to seek, receive and impart information imposes a positive obligation on states to ensure access to information, particularly with regard to information held by governments in all types of storage and retrieval systems.’

According to article 19 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, and article 19 (2) of the Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, both of which deal with freedom of expression and both of which Bangladesh has ratified, the right to seek, receive and impart information is an inalienable right of every individual. Bangladesh is further party to the Vienna Convention, the Limburg Declaration and the Bangalore Colloquium, which makes it a legal obligation of the state to introduce the right to information in domestic laws. So far, 75 countries in the world, including neighbouring India, have ensured the ‘right to information’ of its citizens through the enactment of laws under different titles.

Right to Information Ordinance 2008

In a modern democratic state, ‘the right to information,’ more popularly described as the ‘right to know,’ is a prerequisite. It is in view of this, that last month, on September 20, following years of debate, that the Right to Information Ordinance 2008 was finalised.

According to Article 4 of the Ordinance, section A states that ‘Every citizen shall have the right to information and every citizen, through application or request, shall know any decision, written proceedings of or any work performed or proposed to be performed by any authority’.

‘It’s a step that was long over due and certainly something we welcome,’ says Abdul Matin Khasru, former law minister. ‘Although initially the government had undertaken a participatory approach in drafting the ordinance, it was not so later on. There was a need for participation of many stakeholders throughout, but since the ordinance will be placed in the parliament for approval, it can be amended.’

The finalisation of this act comes in two folds- for one it is, as Khasru points out a step that has been long overdue, and indeed a progressive move. The other overriding impact of this ordinance is the fact that it has not taken into consideration of various issues and points, tabled by various stakeholders including the media.

‘Earlier on, Bangladesh did not have any specific ordinance that related directly to people’s right to know. Rather, what it had were certain clauses,’ says Khasru.

These clauses are Official Secrets Act 1923, Evidence Act 1872, Rules of Business 1996, Government Servants (Conduct) Rules 1979, and the oath (affirmation) of secrecy under the constitution act as an impediment and barrier to getting access to information.

While clause 5(1) of the Official Secrets Act has been designed to protect military and strategic secrets, on many occasions, it has been the most popular excuse of government officials to deny information. Section 123 of the 135-year old Evidence Act stipulates that only the head of the department of any government machinery holds power to disclose information. The more recent Rules of Business specifically bars government officials from disclosing information to members of the press. Crucially still, government servants are bound by both their oath and service rules to refrain from disclosing information.

In 2002, the Information Commission drafted the ordinance which was in pipeline till date. The proposed act included clauses such information being properly recorded, catalogued and indexed, the publication of information, the procedure for the access to information which includes a fee of Tk 5 and a time limit of fifteen days, as well as exceptions and enforcement measures.

The ordinance provides for a three-member autonomous information commission headed by a chief information commissioner, mandated with a four-year term, to enforce the law and deal with complaints from the information seekers.

According to reports, the government will appoint staff at the suggestion of the commission to discharge its responsibilities across the country. The president will appoint the chairman and members of the commission at the suggestion of a five-member selection committee headed by a Supreme Court judge.

The others who will be sitting on the commission will be two lawmakers from the treasury and opposition benches of the parliament nominated by the speaker, the cabinet secretary and a government representative.

People will have the right to seek information from public offices in a prescribed form with a fee. The public offices will also maintain information so that the people can get information on demand. In this case, people living below poverty line can apply in white paper without paying fee.

According to experts, there are various dimensions and spheres of life that a Right to Information Act can address, economy being one of the major focuses.

‘Over the years people have been kept in the dark about the economic policies pursued by the government and the direction the economy is taking,’ says Dr Anu Mohammed, a professor of economics at Jahangir Nagar University. ‘That we have signed the GATT and have become a part of global capital control is known and understood by few. Ordinary citizens, who had to pay for this through rising cost of living, did not have a say in it.’

‘In the future, all major contracts including that of oil, gas and coal and strategic papers such as the PRSP will come to the public domain hopefully through the right to information. People can then decide what is best for them and we can avoid events like those in Phulbari,’ adds Anu.

Grey areas

The approved Ordinance, which is expected to be signed into law, has many areas that need ratification, say experts.

According to the Ordinance, ‘As per the ordinance the related officials will supply primary information on issues including arrests and releases within 24 hours.’

‘The scope of the current ordinance is restricted to only “primary issues”,’ points out Rubana Huq, CEO, Mohammadi Group.

‘This clause of the ordinance had 48 hours, following objections, this was reduced to 24 hours,’ says Manjoorul Ahsan Bulbul, Head of News, ATN Bangla.

The ordinance further stipulates officials sitting in new posts to be created in most government offices and NGOs give the people information within 20 days of receiving applications.

Organisations funded by taxpayers’ money and NGOs run on foreign funds are required by the ordinance to ensure people’s right to information, officials who attended the meeting of the council of advisers said.

‘Under this, we feel other organisations including private institutions should be included,’ says Shawkat Mahmood, president, National Press Club. ‘Many functions of private bodies are relevant, the information held by them can equally be important for citizens. People should also have the right to access to those pieces of information held by private bodies that are necessary for the exercise or protection of any other right. This can only ensure a transparent system.’

According to private institutions, however, they should not be liable to such information acts. ‘We provide our balance sheets to joint stocks and other report platforms, what more is required. We are a profit making organisation and all across the world, private institutions are not liable to such laws,’ says a businessman, preferring anonymity.

‘The public sector itself lacks the required infrastructure to provide adequate information. That is an area that needs to be worked on. Right to information is indeed a valid demand. But the public sector has to be first covered completely before moving on to the private,’ says Rubana Huq.

In addition to this, the ordinance has made exemption on six security and intelligence agencies from the reach of the new ordinance. These agencies are often accused of overstepping their legal jurisdiction, point out experts.

‘Criminal Investigation Department of the police will routinely have information it cannot divulge for fear of hampering an ongoing investigation. But the CID personnel are also often accused of harassing innocent citizens and the law should instead have made a distinction in what kind of information this agency would divulge so that a modicum of checks and balances could be ensured,’ says Bulbul.

Similarly, the financial irregularities, the budgetary indiscipline, the lack of accountability, and the alleged political machinations of many of the other agencies, cannot be brought under democratic public oversight under the new law, say experts.

Although welcome, the ordinance did not include the explicit points that the Press Association and others had indicated earlier, says Mahmood.

‘Odhikar believes that the draft Ordinance will curb, rather than extend press freedom, and the people’s right to know,’ says Adilur Rahman Shuvro, director, Odhikar. ‘The draft ordinance proposes the establishment of an Information Commission, which will eventually help the authorities concerned to evade the responsibility of giving information. If the ordinance is promulgated, people- even a journalist - will need to apply in a prescribed form for information and the authority will have the power to reject the application or provide the information sought.’

Challenges

While the ordinance, in many ways does conform to specific rights of citizens to know, many feel that the country does not have the given infrastructure or system to follow this law.

‘RTI has now become a hot topic,’ says Shahdeen Malik, the eminent lawyer. ‘But, practically, the government in its present capacity does not possess the ability to implement the law. Government offices and NGOs registered with the government, who have also been considered under the same law, will need a totally new budget and will need to introduce a new section to disseminate information.’

Government offices will have to change the way they operate and keep efficient computerised records of everything for rapid release of information. The administrative management will have to change. ‘At its current state, it is next to impossible,’ he adds.

‘The idea and its benefits must reach all levels of society and reach throughout the country for it to function properly – which was essentially one of the major reasons for demanding units to be set across the country,’ says Khasru. ‘A person living in Rajshahi or a remote village will not be able to access the provisions of this law.’

‘In a society which is dominated by the culture of secrecy, male domination and conservatism, the right to information can actually empower women, given this is followed,’ says Ayesha Khanam.

It is for time to tell the actual impact of this law, point out experts. ‘Given that time is given and proper system is developed, the country can see the benefits in a few years, if not now. In addition to this, in due time, amendments can also be made to make this RTI an indeed empowering law,’ points out Khasru.

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12Sep/080

Rebuilding and reforming

A few years back, having spent more than two weeks running from one desk to another at the Dhaka City Corporation for a trade licence, Jalil Rahman was about to give up and go back to his village in Naogaon.

‘I came to Dhaka in the hope of starting a business,’ he recalls. ‘I had sold the last piece of land that my father left us and come to a cousin’s house. He had told me the prospect of opening a decent furniture shop is immense. However, little did I know about the bureaucratic process that lay ahead.’

Soon Jalil realised that running to countless desk with the forms was a complete waste of time and that all he needed to do was bribe the officials. ‘I paid about Tk 4,000 for my way through and Tk 1,000 more for the forms to be filled up properly.’

Jalil now has a furniture shop at Panthapath in the city.

‘Trade licence was the end of it,’ he says. ‘Money has always been an issue for me. Two years after I started the shop, I ran into a serious financial crisis. I had no choice but to apply for a loan. That was another nightmare.’

At the Sonali Bank, one of the leading nationalised commercial banks in the country, Jalil was asked for countless documents. ‘I had no idea what those documents were about and my application just gathered dust for months.’

Jalil’s is not an isolated case.

Businessmen across the country face and complain about the hassle of starting up, running or closing down a business. ‘Why should it take so long and so many procedures to allow a person to start a business in Bangladesh, compared to much fewer procedures and days in the US, the UK and even Thailand?’ Lila Rahman, an owner of a boutique shop based in Dhanmondi, asks. ‘In a country like Bangladesh, where income and growth are major issues, you expect that people should be encouraged to start a business by making the process as friendly as possible. But the reality is quite different.’

Even bigger businesses call for desperate actions. ‘I still remember how we had to run to 32 different desks with documents for exporting our goods,’ says Rubana Huq, CEO of Mohammadi Group. ‘Fortunately, just before Ramadan, the government took an initiative to keep all the depots open except Eshak 24/7. Even if our trucks reach during the early hours of dawn, we are able to hand the documents over.’

‘Accommodation in the depots still continues to be challenging,’ she adds. ‘The trucks, at times, had to wait a long time before they are unloaded. Recently, it took us 72 hours to unload 13 trucks. This is a clear indication that there is a need for massive improvement.’

The infrastructure and capacity problems aside, bureaucratic bottlenecks and regulatory impediments, businesspeople complain, hinder the growth of business in Bangladesh. The constraints to the growth of business are numerous. Several studies indicate that Bangladesh needs to improve significantly. According to the recent World Bank Group’s Doing Business 2009 report, Bangladesh has achieved significant improvement in three of the ten indicators covered, and yet, its global ranking has slipped by a few places – to 110 out of 181 countries.

Syed Akhtar Mahmood, senior program manager, IFC Bangladesh Investment Climate, Fund and one of Bangladesh’s leading global experts on regulatory reforms, explains this paradox: ‘The world has become much more competitive even with regard to the pace of reforms. All kinds of countries are going big with reforms. For example, the Doing Business 2009 list of the top ten reformers includes countries such as Senegal, Liberia, Burkina Faso and the Kyrgyz Republic. Countries now have to run to remain in the same place and run faster to move ahead. Bangladesh’s regulatory reform efforts during the past year are commendable but we now need to go for faster and bolder reforms.’

Over the years, the trend for Bangladesh in this ranking has been downward, particularly due to the costs of dealing with licences, the number of signatures required for importing and exporting, and overall bureaucracy involved in starting a business.

Experts agree with these assessments. ‘Most of the requirements for regulation of business commencement and closures are derived from the earlier colonial legacy,’ says Professor Muzaffer Ahmad, chairperson of the Bangladesh chapter of the Berlin-based Transparency International. ‘There is a need to update and liberalise the overall legal structure.’

‘The regulatory business environment has been costly and poorly administered. Laws and regulations that govern business activities are mostly out of date, inadequate, inaccessible and ineffective,’ says Abdul Matin Khasru, a former law minister. ‘Citizens, not just businessmen, have had to go through terrible forms of harassments and all kinds of bureaucratic processes due to the poor regulations. Areas outside Dhaka call for further desperate measures, as the situation is worse and the overall administration and regulations are in a terrible state.’

‘These laws and regulations need to be reviewed and the Law Commission cannot do it unless requested by the government. Therefore, a commission can look into these reforms, make recommendation and monitor the implementation,’ says Muzaffer Ahmad.

He cites the example of countries such as the United States where there are regulatory bodies for food and drug, and the system is transparent and the monitoring is strict and effective.

In order to tackle some of these problems and promote a conducive and business-friendly investment climate, a 17-member Regulatory Reforms Commission was formed by the government in October 2007. The commission was tasked with updating the decades-old rules and regulations of the country so as to infuse dynamism into governance, administration and the economy.

The commission focuses primarily on cutting through the layers of red tape that surround and affect entrepreneurs. ‘The aim of the commission is essentially focus on the rules related to the country’s investment, commerce and trade that are complex and fraught with procrastination,’ says Apurba Kumar Biswas, CEO of the commission. ‘Apart from that the commission’s aim is to look into various issues that call for reforms – pensions, services and more.’

The working areas of the commission include identifying all rules, by-laws, and government orders in force in Bangladesh; identifying unnecessary rules, sub-rules and making recommendation for repealing those; and examining necessary rules and orders and identifying all complexities and procrastination created by the existing rules.

As part of its work, the commission prepares recommendations for necessary reforms in existing rules and government orders to simplify them and remove red tapism, and ensure due public services.

‘Chaired by Akbar Ali Khan, the commission truly feels that the country is neither overregulated nor under-regulated – rather ill regulated,’ says Biswas. ‘Therefore, the focus is to examine and research some of the areas that require reforms or amendments and make these recommendations, and once approved, pass it on to the relevant ministries. Having done so, the commission is also involved in the monitoring phase, ensuring weekly updates so that the old age practice of shelving away documents is limited.’

Some of the major recommendations of the commission in nearly a year of operations include processing and approval of foreign private loans, formulating necessary rules and regulations for recognising private courier services, amendment to the land registration law, reforming location clearance certificate and environmental clearance certificate rules, streamlining the duty drawback and exemption system, and simplifying the capital machinery import clearance system. These recommendations are in various stages of implementation. Till date, the commission has made a total of 33 recommendations, eight of which are under implementation.

Critics of the commission say legal complexities and lengthy procedures do not affect the businesses alone. Major public utilities such as transport, courier service, land registry, certificates, pension funds and many more are entangled in the bureaucratic process and legal complexities.

‘I strongly feel that the Regulatory Reforms Commission should focus on more than just business-related rules and regulations,’ says Muzaffer Ahmad. ‘Specifically, in the case of public utility services, there is a major need for the age-old laws to be amended.’

‘The commission has had a wider focus than just business-related rules and laws,’ says Biswas. ‘A high-powered task force focused on land administration has recently completed an extensive study tour to India, where they saw for themselves the status of reforms in this field that have led to a simplified land administration framework. The task force is currently in the process of finalising its report for submission to the commission.’

A generally unknown facet of life in Bangladesh that the commission has focused on recently is the status of the mushrooming courier service providers in the country. According to the Post Office Act, 1898, courier services are illegal, and should be penalised. However, it is well-known that such services are integral to meeting the demand that is currently left unfulfilled by the government’s official postal system.

‘It’s strange that courier services in our country have been illegal for over a century,’ says Rajib Ahmed, a banker. ‘But without them, it would be very difficult to conduct business and ensure that our correspondence gets where it needs to be.’

To address this issue, the commission has recently recommended amendment to the Post Office Act, 1898, and the draft amendment has been finalised by the posts and telecommunications ministry in consultation with the stakeholders and sent to the Cabinet Division for approval by the council of advisers.

The commission has also recently turned its focus on the pensions system. Although different schemes have been undertaken over time in preventing tardiness and complications in providing retirement facilities and ensuring payment of pensions to retired government employees, the reality on the ground has remained more or less unchanged.

‘The commission has received many requests from people at various levels to tackle this issue, and responded by drafting recommendations for significant changes to the pension rules and regulations to reduce procedural complexities and curb inherent corruption in the existing process,’ explains Biswas.

The major recommendations focus on automatic processing of pension for public servants, removing the need for applications. Given this is effectively implemented fewer documents will now be required to claim pensions. As the retirees are compelled to submit complex documents such as citizen certificates and bonds to pension forms; implementation of this recommendation would mean that simply showing the national ID card or birth certificate will be sufficient.

Moreover, public servants who have no outstanding liabilities or cases in their careers will receive their pension cheque in their bank accounts within two and a half months before their LPR ends, and monthly pension cheques will be transferred to the recipient’s account automatically. Further, public servants who have worked 10 years in temporary posts under the revenue sector will be entitled to pension under the new recommendations. ‘It is now for us to give it time and see if this is actually effective and paves ways for an effective regulatory system in the country,’ says Muzaffer.

Next month, as the commission completes its first year of operation, there have been repeated calls for extension. Advocates of the reform agenda claim that the reform process is continuous and cannot be completed within just a year. Others have stated that continuity and sustainability of reform processes are central.

‘If the commission does not exist after the caretaker regime, subsequent political governments may find it difficult to implement the recommendations, or they may simply disfavour the current reform agenda. There may, therefore, be a need to ensure that the reform agenda continues, by ensuring that it is institutionalised in some form,’ says Khasru. ‘We must remember that the reform process is continuous and we must give it some time.’

There is also a drastic need for due diligence in ensuring that new and draft regulations and laws do not impede the investment climate, whether directly or indirectly. This would involve increasing the mandate of the commission to allow it to conduct impact assessments of draft and proposed rules and regulations.

‘Ideally, there should be a central unit which would vet proposed regulations from the point of view of business or citizens (whomever it is relevant for) and that central unit should ask the line ministries/agencies to justify their proposed rules or regulations. Currently, only the law ministry vets the proposed rules and regulations and it does so only through a legal lens, i.e. whether they are consistent with existing laws and other rules and regulations,’ says Syed Akhtar Mahmood.

He says the sponsoring ministries should be required to answer questions such as: What problem is the proposed regulation going to address? Is regulation needed or are there other ways of addressing the problem, such as through increased competition in the market? What are the expected impacts? Where stake-holders consulted and, if so, what were the results of the public consultation? How will compliance be achieved? Is the regulation comprehensible and accessible to users?

According to Mahmood, government officials at different levels have a role in regulatory reforms. ‘We are currently working with a group of 40 deputy secretary level officials who would be trained in private sector related issues and good practices over a six-month period. In addition, they would carry out exercises where they would take some proposed regulations and answer questions such as the ones above.’

As much as the commission’s work is being praised, many remain apprehensive about its administration and legality. ‘One of the major questions about the commission concerns the legality of its establishment, came as it did under a state of emergency,’ says a former minister on the condition of anonymity.

As President Gerald R Ford said when he first started a regulatory reform programme back in the 1970s, ‘A necessary condition of a healthy economy is freedom from the petty tyranny of massive government regulation. We are wasting literally millions of working hours costing billion of consumer’s dollars because of bureaucratic red tape.

‘Although most of today’s regulations affecting business are well-intentioned, their effect, whether designed to protect the environment or the consumer, often does more harm than good. They can stifle the growth of our standard of living and contribute to inflation.’

His words held true for the US then and hold true for Bangladesh now.

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11Jul/080

‘Businessmen will only invest when there is political stability in the country’

How did you become associated with Bangladesh Better Business Forum?
The forum basically included the heads of trade bodies and also several government officials. I was nominated because of my long standing association with the tea garden, being the president and also because, my position as the president of the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce back in 1998. At the moment I am also the managing director of Kaderpur company.

The BBBF includes several working groups- I am working specifically under the skill development groups that aims to focus on skill development and hence greater accessibility to employment.

How did the forum come about and how does it exactly function?
Forums like BBBF are present in other parts of the world, for example Vietnam also has a forum that aims to improve the business environment of the country. The group includes a mixture of both government and private sector officials who work together towards ensuring a better investment climate within the economy. These members work together and send their recommendations to improve the business environment.
Now, this forum includes five working groups- each focusing on specific areas such as Macro economic policies, skill development work and more. Under each of these groups we have these members.
In case of skill development group, of which I am a member, we are formulating a comprehensive plan for training young people in the hope of increasing skills and productivity and higher accessibility to job market.
A comprehensive set of recommendation of what should be done has been already sent to the government and those will be implemented once approved.
This is the first time ever in Bangladesh that such an initiative has been taken up and it is indeed a challenging work.

What are your views on the investment climate in Bangladesh?
There are several well documented barriers to a better investment climate in Bangladesh.
However, in my opinion it is the method by which businesses are run and government runs that becomes a major barrier. There is no transparency or accountability whatsoever.
Moreover, you have several other issues at hand, for example, when people look for approvals for starting a business or an investment, there is the whole lengthy procedure and red tape, which further disturbs the climate for investment. Added to that, it is hard to get something done without political connection and personal contacts and even when you have both, there are several cases where you must pay your way through. The success of businesses now lies greatly on these contacts and issues.

With the current ‘state of emergency’ in place along with the barriers that come with it, how do the BBBF intend to go ahead with the implementation of its recommendations and has there been any tangible implementations so far?
Firstly, the recommendations that the BBBF are working on is to enhance the business and investment climate in the country –which is our main objective - where our five member groups are working on for instance the simplification of regulations, economic issues and skill development. There is no conflict of interest with the interim government as the forum is represented by advisers while all the recommendations are handed in directly to the chief adviser for processing.
The World Bank, for instance, has identified the lack of skill in our work force as a major barrier to economic development in the country. This is an issue which is being addressed by our skills training group in a coordinated way with the government, wherein, 14 ministries are involved to provide marketable skills training, as we aim to standardise and upgrade the skills of the people entering the job market.
There have been tangible implementations in association with, for example, the Bangladesh Bank, in terms of financing of SME’s and reducing the spread of interest to name but a few.

Do you feel that the current political scenario is in any way conducive to business environment?
It is not. The businessmen will only invest when there is some form of political stability in the country. We are hoping that when elections finally take place and the BBBF functions properly, these problems can be solved.
As far as the functionality of the BBBF is concerned, if there is a desire for cooperation than this forum will be very effective in fulfilling its aim. Moreover, this is the model that the country should adopt fully in the field of business, education, investment and human resource development. The model is unique, in the sense that it shows how both the government and private sector can work towards a certain goal and do so effectively.

Are there proper legal frameworks and infrastructure for this?
We need to improve a great deal. There is a dire need for simplification of rules and regulations. Moreover, there is also the need for capacity building. For example, BOI should be given proper manpower. These problems should be addressed so as to achieve economic growth.
Infrastructure is all in shambles. The government has to be energised. In a country where the issues of ‘power’ are so intense, it is difficult to attract investment.
There are also the issues of the Chittagong port, gas situations and fluctuating prices. It is inherent that we need stability in the economy and also a lot of determination and cooperation.

How is the Bangladesh economy functioning today?
At the moment, we are definitely burdened by many problems, such as the price of diesel and gas going up. Power is an important factor in the business world and the increased cost of transportation is definitely having a detrimental effect.
Some of these are international issues, but there have been domestic crises such as the electricity problem which hasn’t been addressed in the last five years or so by the previous government.
Also, with the cost of, for instance, food, going up, workers are demanding more wages and the general cost of production has gone up. We have to absorb all these problems, as in a competitive world, we cannot increase the price of our products even though the cost of production has gone up.

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18Apr/080

The people’s war

Those who have lived through the war of independence in 1971, speak of it with tears of pride and inexplicable melancholy. Often, they struggle to fight back tears and find words that would perhaps justify the depths of the movement- the depth of the extraordinary power, resilence and belief of the people.

More often than not, they say, words fail to do justice- to the desperation, to the strength, to the struggles, the desperate cries, the haunting memories, the images, the bloodsheds and more.

True, words fail to justify even the bloodiest war of the twentieth century. And more often, words seem to die and with that a part of history seems to fade. So has the history of 1971 in so many ways. Even though the war stands till date as the worst genocide of World War II era - the number of deaths being well into seven figures, outstripping Rwanda (800,000 killed) and probably surpassing even Indonesia (1 million to 1.5 million killed in 1965-66), it remains to be a largely unacknowledged event in the history of the world.

The larger part of the world population seem to have very little knowledge and awareness concerning the campaign of violence on the part of the Pakistani army as the Bengali people of the then East Pakistan sought to achieve political sovereignty.

Thirty seven years on, the war remains to be a contested issue- those who had seen the war continue to fight to pass on the true stories to the next generation and at the same time fight between emotional and psychological intensity that the war left within them.

In the past 37 years, so much has been written, so much told, yet it is felt that none of it could bring to the life the true images of the war, none of it could justify what this people’s war meant.

Yet, amidst these, photographs speak the tale of the war that time may have forgotten. It is also true that war photographs remain to be powerful in history- because of the intensity – both emotional and physical that it portrays, but also perhaps the photographs of 1971 stand out for several other reasons. More than anything else, the photographers seem to stand out for the one fact that it was the people’s war- not the armies- but people- farmers, villagers, man, woman and child.

This month as an exhibition titled ‘Bangladesh 1971’ takes place at the Rivington Place public gallery in Shoreditch, East London, they retell the tale of the war visually, bringing back painful memories to Bangladeshis and leaving others in awe. These photographs of the war taken in 1971 bring to life the very images of the beginning of a dream- the movement of people and the birth of Bangladesh.

In this exhibition, most were amateur photographers at that time, men who just happened to hold a camera when they found themselves caught up in the war. For almost two decades, Shahidul Alam - director of the Drik, the photography Library in Dhaka and a curator of the current exhibition along with Mark Sealy, director of photographic agency Autograph ABP – went beyond the struggle to justify the war with words and collected these photos, visiting the photographers in their homes and saving their negatives.

These images taken by these accidental archivists, 37 years later have gone on to become an intimate, reflexive portrait of the war, ranging from photographs that are well known to others that have never been seen in public.

The exhibition consists of more than 100 images organised in loose chronology that begins with the first resistance of the Bengalis, to the Pakistani occupation. The exhibition portrays some powerful images. The spirit and resilience of 1969-70, when war was imminent is captured most powerfully by Rashid Talukdar’s image of a ten-year-old bare feet boy, leading a street march and shouting ecstatically and leading the group.

The collection includes many iconic images of war: Abdul Hamid Raihan’s image of two children staring into the distance, a carpet of missiles scattered at their feet; Mohammed Shafi’s portrait of a freedom fighter - a boy who could be from anywhere - reveals a young man’s fear despite his attempt at studied resolve. Other images depict the horror and the haunting night mares that many speak of till date.

On the night of December 14, knowing they were about to lose the war, the Pakistani army and its local paramilitary allies massacred the future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and writers of Bangladesh in an effort to cripple the new nation. The bodies were not found until after independence, when a mass grave was discovered in the city. The exhibition includes a powerful image of this massacre- a ghostlike face surrounded by submerged bricks and covered in a thin sheen of mud.

Bangladesh 1971 also showcases the many portraits of the slaughter. A photograph shows a uniformed man circled by a large crowd, stabbing a civilian with a bayonet; the caption tells us that it is not a Pakistani soldier but a Bengali one, attacking a local man who has collaborated with the army, is outstanding. According to reports, at Alam’s first exhibition of war photos in Bangladesh, the government had requested that he removed this image, in which the roles of victim and perpetrator are reversed. His refusal led to the exhibition being shown at a private gallery rather than at the National Museum.

It is here that Alam is most successful in bringing the untold tales of the war and the complexities of the many roles played. The exhibition in all, documents the political story, the landslide election victory of Sheikh Mujib, the betrayals by collaborators, the massacre of intellectuals two days before the surrender of the Pakistani forces – and at the same time it reveals other stories- some untold, some silent.

Walking out in the newly liberated town of Mymensingh, the photographer Naib Uddin Ahmed had come across woman who had been raped and tortured by the Pakistani army: his picture of a woman covering her face with her hair bears witness to the contradictory state policy regarding such women and the powerful image seems to speak louder than words.

Another powerful image that showcases women’s struggle and their actions in the war is the image of women preparing for battle prior to the crackdown of March 25, 1971. The exhibition includes many more photographs- idyllic image of two women wading through a pond with a basket of flowers, carrying grenades covered with water hyacinth- show the strong role played by women. The countless images, a visual testament to the trauma and hope of independence.

Some of the photographers were also of actual freedom fighters, like Mohammad Shafi, whose diaries, buried underground and recovered after the war, are the only non-photographic artefacts on display. Alam characterises these Bangladeshi photographers as freedom fighters for the huge personal risks they took to preserve the only ‘physical documentation of this war’.

As Bangladesh 1971, a visual journey into the birth of Bangladesh brings to life the memories to many and awes the rest, thousands of miles away from home, in many ways at an important political time such as this, important questions once again appear and linger on- have we as a nation paid respect to those who fought for independence? Are we still fighting another fight?

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29Feb/080

Doctor, negligence and death

About four months ago on October 29, 2007, when Bangladeshi software engineer Masum P. Mohammad, flew back to Bangladesh to see his ill father struggling for life at the Central Care Unit (CCU) of LabAid Cardiac Hospital, he was in shock.

‘I saw my father lying on a bed, full of blood. I asked the nurse to show me where he was operated, and I was speechless to see the unhygienic condition he was put in. I stood there for the longest moment, not knowing what to say,’ he alleges. ‘That was when, I took out my cell phone and recorded the bed and the blood on which my father lay unconscious.’

‘My family was wrong to believe in the so-called expertise and skill of the hospital,’ says Masum, on the phone from his resident in Wollongong, Australia. ‘Today, I sit here, miles away from home and regret that I had not taken my father abroad for treatment and relied on the ailing healthcare system in Bangladesh.’

Masum’s father Late A.K.M Fazlum Haq was admitted at LabAid on October 25 under the treatment of Dr Prof. Baren Chakraborty, after he was struck by a sudden chest pain.

After Haq had a massive heart attack on October 26, he was given injection and later a ring was put around his heart on October 27. Later that week, Haq’s chest x-ray revealed dark areas over the lung, after which Prof. Ali Hossain was involved for the lung treatment. ‘On November 2 that day, Hossain told us, food was stuck in my father’s lung and he wants a Bronchoscope immediately.’

After the Bronchoscope Prof. Hossain provided cough samples for the Tuberculosis (TB) test in two different diagnostic centres-one in LabAid, and another in Monowara Diagnostic, at Panthopath, Dhaka. Three days later the result was completely different in the two hospitals.

‘LabAid results showed that my father does not have TB, and the Monowara Diagnostic test result showed that the report was actually positive!’ he alleges.

Masum explains that later they also learnt that his father had suffered from massive brain injury right after being admitted to the hospital, which was not detected by any of the doctors. ‘When he had a heart attack earlier, blood was stuck in his brain. So, he was not being treated for his brain injury during all these days. My father’s TB test was sent on November 3, 2007. My question is, why did it take so long to send the TB test for diagnostic, and why did it took so long to detect this TB? Even the TB diagnosis result was wrong,’ writes Masum in an email to New Age.

‘After he was given a medication, my father could not recognise us anymore. At that time we requested Prof. Chakraborty to call a neurologist to check my father’s brain, but again he did not bother to listen to us. Two days later, on November 11, my father was announced dead,’ he says fighting back tears.

‘Masum’s story is nothing exceptional,’ says Dr Quamruzzaman who heads the Dhaka Community Hospital in Malibagh and has himself been a victim of medical negligence through which he lost a perfectly-functioning kidney. ‘We have countless other cases of medical negligence and ignorance. But, it is important to realise that one of the biggest flaws of our health care system is that we have no accountability what so ever.’

Indeed, Masum’s case is not an isolated one. According to an investigation of a Dhaka-based NGO, Ain-o-Shalish Kendra, between January to October 2007 alone, there were over 76 death cases reported to be caused by medical negligence.

When Shafiqul Islam’s one-and-half year old baby Afia, under went an endovascular atrial septostomy at LabAid Cardiac Hospitals- an operation through which a catheter is passed into the heart to make the hole bigger so that it doesn’t close up completely, he was relieved. After the successful operation on December 25, last year, Afia was moved to Labaid Specialised Hospital and kept at the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) under a ventilator machine as she had also contracted pneumonia.

‘I knew we would have to go for further treatment and I began to prepare papers for India,’ said Shafiqul to Banglavision Channel, which telecasted medical negligence victims last month.

But, two days after the operation, on the 27th, the ventilator machine at the NICU stopped working, alleges Shafiqul. He was asked by the hospital authorities to immediately shift Afia to another hospital with a ventilator machine. He went to two hospitals where he was turned away because their ventilator machines were not available and finally he found it in Salahuddin Hospital and Shafiqul went back to LabAid to take his baby. But he was further delayed for bill payment and when they finally arrived at Salahuddin in a Labaid ambulance, Afia was already dead.

Malpractice cases are numerous, and even affect some of the country’s senior-most and reputed doctors because they see scores of patients daily, giving each little time or thought, points out Dr Zaman. ‘It’s just the whole system that needs to be fixed.’

While an alarming number of cases go unreported and the issue of accountability is hardly in the agenda of health care sector in Bangladesh, Masum’s case has been exceptional in the sense that, he was the first to have raised his voice and reach out so far.

In the past three months, Labaid’s foundation and the health care system’s foundation has been shaken to a great extent, say the health sector insiders. ‘Nothing much is really going to change. But at least, for a change we a have sense of threat and perhaps we can expect at least the slightest degree of accountability,’ says a doctor at a Dhaka-based private hospital.

In the past three months, Masum has reached out not only the Bangladeshis but also an international community through emails, the recorded video of his father’s state released on You-tube and also a blog titled ‘LabAid’s real face’ which has had more than 11,000 visitors till date and also groups on social sites such as facebook. ‘Somehow, whether his allegations are true or false, it has triggered the health sector seriously. More and more patients are now speaking up,’ says a LabAid official, preferring anonymity.

‘We operate a huge system and we are truly dedicated to delivering the best possible health care service,’ explains an official of the LabAid Consultant management, preferring anonymity. ‘Mistakes happen and we work everyday to fill up the gaps and move to provide better services.’

In an e-mail to Masum, following the nationwide response and also six other negligence cases brought forward in a press conference, the LabAid consultant management wrote, ‘We are all aware of the unfortunate incidents you faced at Labaid which was basically the work of a few of our worst kind of employees and does not in any way reflect our service standard or customer service and behaviour.’

‘We, including our Managing Director, sincerely apologise for the incidents that occurred in your case and we hope we can now move forward. We have investigated the whole situation and have already taken administrative measures against those responsible. We sympathise with you and hope that you will also accept our official apology,’ reads the e-mail sent to Masum two months ago.

‘Afia’s case was also exaggerated. She was in a critical state already,’ explains Mesbah Aajad, Media Coordinator, the LabAid Group. ‘As for Masum’s case, mistakes do happen, but you do not take it that far and add more dimensions to it.’

According to Dr Mohammad Saiful Islam, Paediatric Surgeon and Dean of Faculty of Surgery, BSMMU, one of the biggest flaws in Bangladesh’s medical system is that there is no monitoring mechanism which checks whether doctors are administering wrong treatment which results in patients’ deaths. ‘The organisation that is to oversee such cases of negligence, the Bangladesh Medical and Dental Council, is now dead.’

‘In other countries there is a system in place which requires doctors to resit exams every five years or so as a way to reappraise his skills,’ says Dr Zaman.

Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, the chairman of Dhaka’s Ganashasthaya Nagar Hospital echoes these concerns. In an interview with New Age, he says that the Bangladesh Medical and Dental Council should be responsible to investigate such cases but this doesn’t happen because of a ‘medical mafia’ that forbids doctors from testifying against their fellow professionals. ‘In Dhaka, certainly, you will not be able to find a case where even one senior doctor will be willing to testify to a gross malpractice by another,’ he says.

‘The question of a doctor’s negligence is intricately related to whether he is seeing more patients on a given day than he can handle,’ says Dr Zafrullah. ‘There are good and bad doctors just like there are good and bad architects or lawyers, but a good, skilled doctor can still give bad treatment because he prescribes medicine without giving a patient enough time to tell him the problem in detail.’

‘And make no mistake,’ he stresses, ‘that is negligence.’

Then why not lodge a case against such negligence?

As much as LabAid officials regret the cases and deny further allegations that has been born following the incidents, they ask why was not a case lodged against them, if they had been unfair to such extent?

‘The reason is that the law does not support Masum or anyone else’s case and this is a reality for the healthcare in Bangladesh,’ explains Obiadur Rahman, Co-odinator, Legal Advocacy, ASK. ‘Under the existing law, it is impossible for patients and their families to successfully take doctors to task for negligence or oversight.’

According to Obaidur, Masum had in fact approached ASK and they had sent a letter to the civil servants in the health ministry and an enquiry committee led by Dr. Mumtaz Uddin Bhuiyan was also formed to oversee the case. ‘Officially, we do not know if anything has actually been done, as of yet.’

In the eyes of the law, medical negligence typically comes under the ambit of Tort laws, since it is a civil offence as opposed to a criminal offence, says Bangladesh Supreme court lawyer Faustina Periera, in an interview with New Age.

The concept of Tort applies to an act which is a ‘wrong’ or ‘breach of duty’ as distinguished from a crime. The idea is that the doctor has a duty towards a patient who entrusts his health to the doctor’s care with the reasonable expectation that he will get a certain standard of treatment, even though there is no specific contract between them.

The Penal Code in Bangladesh allows a victim of negligence to file a case if the doctor involved did not possess the educational or professional degrees he claimed he had, or if he failed to take the patient’s consent before operating on him, as well as a slew of other fraud scenarios, explains Dr Pereira.

‘The doctor has an escape clause in Section 88 of the penal code which exonerates him from wrongdoing if his act was done in good faith with the patient’s benefit in mind,’ says Pereira. And that escape hatch of ‘good faith’ lets doctors off the hook in many cases, she explains.

Moreover, the concept of a civil offence is intricately related to the idea of whether the law sees the act of administering treatment as a service which a patient is purchasing, and if so, whether there are minimum standards of the quality of this treatment that a doctor has to meet, say legal professionals.

‘The monitoring system that is supposed to ensure that doctors and clinics are up to par are so riddled with corruption that it is surprising the health system works at all,’ says Rahman. ‘We file medical negligence cases under the same act that applies to reckless driving, imagine that,’ he says.

‘We need to enshrine a Consumer Protection Act that will detail the responsibility that a doctor has towards his patient, or any other service provider has towards a consumer,’ says Pereira. ‘Without an umbrella act, victims don’t have faith in the system, and we don’t have the confidence to tell them that they will get justice.’

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11Jan/080

The rice market (with Turaj Ahmad)

Had the government taken steps beforehand the crises would not have been as disastrous as it has turned out, believes the beggar on the street as do economists.

‘It is always the poor who are affected,’ says a frustrated garment worker and a mother of three, Mumtaz Khatun. ‘In the last one year, tell me about one thing that has been done by the government that would benefit us?’

The recent rice crisis and spiralling prices have indeed hit the poor hard this time. In the past one month, the price of coarse rice increased by 26 to 30 per cent and the increase in last one year was by around 70 per cent, shows the data of the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh.

According to the corporation, price of rice rose by 65 to 77 per cent in a year. This past week, however, the rice prices have been the highest rate recorded in the past years.

Last Friday, the prices of coarse rice soared up to Tk 35 per kilogramme and in some retail stores it was as much as Tk 42 to Tk 45. According to market sources, the rice price rose by more than Tk 10, in a span of less than one month.

The government on the other hand, has taken a number of measures including steps to import 10 lakh tonnes of rice from different rice exporting countries, including India, Thailand and Vietnam to contain the price hike.

According to wholesalers in Karwan Bazar, the demand is beginning to fall as the 40 BDR-run fair price shops in the capital sell rice at Tk 25 for a kilogramme. ‘We are supplying coarse rice imported from India and selling it at Tk 25 per kg,’ says a BDR official at the fair prices shop located in the field on Dhanmondi road 8.

‘Each individual is allowed to buy three kgs a day. The prices have been fixed at this amount, so as to bring the market prices down.’

Although, since last Monday, the prices of rice began to decline by about Tk 1 to Tk 2 in the wholesale markets, it was not reflected in the retail prices at kitchen markets. ‘We have not seen a decline as of yet,’ says a retailer at Mohammadpur. ‘We are buying rice at Tk 38 and selling it at Tk 40. We are not to be blamed for the high price, rather it is a section of rice sellers and top officials who set the market prices and manipulates the situation. The government needs to take more concrete steps to handle this.’

Some traders in Karwan Bazar say that they could not sell rice as the number of customers declined and others said that customers bought extra rice stock well ahead, fearing the rise in price. ‘The overall market situation has been rather distorted,’ says seller Barkat in Karwan Bazar. ‘The issue is more complicated and it is concerned with the syndicates and price games.’

On January 9, the wholesale markets including Kawran Bazar and Mohammadpur are selling coarse rice at Tk 31 to Tk 32 per kilogram.

On average, the prices for all varieties of rice have decreased by Tk 1 in most kitchen markets in the city. The lowest price as of Monday was Tk 31 a kg which was Tk 33 two days ago. According to retailers, the Swarna and Parija, two varieties of rice imported from India, were Tk 32 and 33 per kg while they cost Tk 33-34 in the retail market. The price of Guti and Irri dropped to Tk 31-32 per kg from Tk 32-33 a day before.

The continuing crisis of rice is a result of the government’s failure to ensure timely import, point out economists. Although, the twin floods and cyclone Sidr hampered rice production, experts feel, the market could be stabilised had concrete and faster steps been taken.

Reportedly, the economists have mentioned that at least 18 lakh tonnes of rice was needed to be imported in the first seven months of the last fiscal year to prevent the shortfall against the domestic demand.

‘Short term price fluctuations have been triggered mainly due to non economic reasons, namely, injudicious comments by government officials as well as syndicates,’ says economist MM Akash, who also believes that the philosophy of the government should alter.

‘At the moment, we have an open market economy but the government needs to intervene to tackle these spiralling prices,’ he adds. According to Akash, the insufficient buffer stock of rice which has triggered the import of rice from other countries —where the minimum cost price of the commodity is much higher— also needs to be addressed before the next Boro cultivation in April.

‘A possible solution to this circumstance could be the introduction of a subsidised food committee,’ he concludes.

Meanwhile the open market sale of rice began on Wednesday, January 9. According to officials of the food and disaster management ministry, the programme will start in around 1,990 centers across the country, in an attempt to supply rice to the lower income people and also to arrest the price.

While the capital awaits the fall in wholesale market prices to be reflected in the retail prices, other parts of the country such as Khulna show no sign of solving the problem of overheated rice market.

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1Jun/070

Middle-class feels the pinch

As soon as the door opens, ten-year-old Saadman lumbers in with his schoolbag. Exhausted and drenched with sweat, he drags himself into the house. The spark in his eyes soon fades, as he realises there is no electricity. He lies straight on the floor near the window, where the sunlight is streaming in. The moment his mother walks in, he gives a faint smile, but she knows that he has walked all the way from school in Dhanmondi again, just to save fifteen taka for household shopping.
‘The last six months have been dreadful,’ says Mrs Alam, the mother of four children, as she sits beside her exhausted son, in their Zakir Hossain Road residence in Mohammadpur. ‘Many may find it difficult to accept that the incessant rise in the price of commodities can affect families so much. But the truth is that it has affected families like us who have a fixed income. Every day the prices of necessary goods like rice, oil, sugar are increasing and if we have to pay so much for just food, how will we manage other costs?’
‘There are fights at home about money every day,’ says Saadman. ‘I am just trying to save up so that things get a little better and so that we can pay my school fees and also get to go out as we did before!’
Shafiqul Alam, who has a small-scale fish business, earns around Tk 20,000 every month. The family consists of three sons and a daughter. ‘Before, this was sufficient for our family, given that we live in our own house,’ he says. ‘But now that the cost on just food has doubled, I have not been able to pay Saadman’s school fees for five months. I took a loan from a friend to pay my son Syman’s fees because he won’t be allowed to sit for his final exams.’
According to Mrs Alam, their overall expenditure has exceeded their income for the past three months. ‘I am teaching students and trying to pay my fees and transport cost, because I know we are in a crisis,’ says their 21-year-old daughter, Surabhi, who is studying pharmacy at a private university in Dhaka.
Like many middle-class families, their family have felt the pressure of price increase in the past six months. More recently, with the interim government’s anti-hoarding drive, spiralling price of essentials like rice, oil, sugar and others, and overall market instability, households across the country are finding it more difficult to afford the rising costs and their standard of living has been deteriorating. This is because their salaries have remained unchanged and now with the value of money falling fast their income is no longer adequate to afford the same goods and services they could well-afford just a year ago.
That the spiralling prices and hence rising inflation is getting out of control is no longer new. A recent New Age investigation reveals that the prices of essentials have increased from 5 to 50 per cent since January. A number of economists and international organisations fear that we are already having a double-digit inflation and the consequences will be dire for the market and households.
‘Just the other day the price of rice was Tk 27 and today it is Tk 30,’ says Mrs Rahman, a housewife residing in Azimpur. ‘Over the past five to six months, our costs have doubled and I have been struggling to cut back on costs, but now we are starting to feel the pressure. I am scared that we are spending all our savings in a bid to afford the prices and soon we will run out of cash.’
‘Most of the households are feeling the pressure due to the fact that their expenditure only on food has increased so much, that they barely cover the other costs,’ says Barkaat-e-Khoda, a professor at Dhaka University. ‘For a normal family, with fixed income, it is impossible to cope with the incessant rise in the price of essentials.’
In an attempt to cut back the costs that have ‘doubled’ in the past few months, some families are, in fact, looking to consume less of some food. But according to nutritionists, the minimum essential intake of 2400 kilocalories of food per person — which marks the poverty line — requires a combination of rice, meats, fish and vegetables. In current market prices, accounting for the cheapest options of rice and fish available as well as the commonly consumed vegetables such as potato and spinach, a New Age calculation (see table) reveals that a four member family would still end up spending a staggering Tk 4,188. Which means, even if the family’s monthly income is double of that, they would have only about Tk 4,000 left to deal with all their other expenses.
According to the commodity price comparison compiled by the Consumers’ Association of Bangladesh, the price of rice has increased by around 1.65 per cent every month since January. The price of oil has increased from Tk 70 to Tk 76 in just a month in April. In between January and April, the prices of basic commodities such as onion, ginger, potatoes and several other vegetable items have increased by around Tk 10.
‘We have cut back on beef which now costs around Tk 200 per kilogram, double the amount it was just a few months ago,’ says Selina Khalid, a mother of two and a part-time schoolteacher. ‘The price of lentils increased to Tk 70 in April and just this month it has gone up to Tk 80. On one hand, it is important to eat the minimum required food items and on the other, the prices of these items are soaring up literary every day!’
Selina and her husband’s total income totals Tk 40,000 and the expenditure is exceeding their income for the past two months. ‘It is not just the food, but also the transport cost that has doubled. Add to that there is the house rent, education expenses and other costs. Just last month, I gave up and took money out of the fixed deposit of my husband and I had opened a year ago. There is just no other way out!’
‘Last month our landlord hinted at increasing the rent that is already Tk 10,000 now,’ says Khurshed Abdullah, a banker who lives in Green Road. ‘I know landlords have nothing else to do because they are also victims of the price rise but then again how are we going to survive?’
Among the families interviewed, a significant number complained about similar problems. Moreover, a large number household, feel that the rising price of essentials including transport is taking a toll on their children.
‘I stopped private tuition for my son last month, because I could not afford it any more,’ says Mrs Rahman. ‘My daughter who is just twenty-two has started working three months ago, so that she can support her brother’s O’level fees.’
Mrs Alam, who is also struggling to afford her son’s expense, fears that she might have to change Saadman’s school because, as she says, ‘prices never decrease and if we are to survive, we have to take steps immediately.’

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18May/070

Up, up and away

In the past week, two international financial institutions and the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a Dhaka-based economic think-tank have confirmed our worst fears. That rising prices of essentials are no longer one-off market fluctuations but indicate rising inflation i.e. a rising trend in the general level of prices.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the inflation rate has crept up to 7.43 per cent in March, compared to 7.28 per cent just a month earlier. The estimates strongly point out that the rate has been increasing at a faster pace, since January this year.

The spiralling inflation rate has reached a point where the government is not being able to tackle or combat it, says economists. The result has been soaring prices of essential goods such as sugar, rice and commodities. Last week, New Age reported that the prices of essentials have risen between 5 and 50 per cent since January. BBS data also shows that the inflation rate of food items increased by 0.17 percentage points in March in comparison to the figure released in February. The inflation rate of food items in March, this year was 8.53 percent.

As prices increase incessantly, the larger question remains if the prices are going to come down or if the inflation will continue to creep upwards? ‘In Bangladesh prices never decrease,’ says Khaliqur Rahman, a wholesaler operating in Mohammadpur for over fifteen years now. ‘Prices are rising by 70 per cent and there is no likelihood of a decrease, because even if steps are taken, prices will not be allowed to come down by powerful people who can influence the prices.’

‘There are various factors that have been fueling prices in the last five years,’ says MM Akash, professor of economics at the Dhaka University. ‘It is the weak regulatory system of the government over market, as a result of which there was a continuous increase of the market power of the illegal hoarders, rent seekers or middle man’s influence in the supply channel, increasing transaction cost of business and the increasing power of the import syndicates.’

This week, New Age’s consultations with a number of economists and government officials revealed the strong possibility that prices will increase further leading to threatening consequences. In fact, many economists predict that the actual inflation figure is much higher than the ones being officially quoted.

Last year, during the BNP-led four party government’s tenure, the inflation rate hovered around 7 per cent reflecting the increase in the price of necessary goods including the kitchen markets. This year, with the military-backed interim government’s anti-hoarding policy and the multiplier effects of various factors prices have been soaring and inflation in Bangladesh continues to creep up.

According to a study, released last month, the average price level of essential commodities are expected to rise another 3.16 per cent due to high fuel prices, hinting at an annual inflation rate which could cross the 10 per cent marker this year. ‘Increase in the inflation will slow down the economic growth rate by nearly 1 per cent in terms of GDP at constant prices,’ said the study titled Oil Price Increase: Assessing Impacts and Policy Recommendations prepared by AK Enamul Haque and Sajjad Zahir of the Dhaka-based Economic Research Group.

‘Two-digit inflation in the coming months as a result of fuel price increase will have the most adverse effects on the productive sectors of the economy — agriculture and the small and medium industrial and other enterprises,’ observes Enamul.

In the meantime, tens of millions of people, from the working class and moving upwards into the higher middle classes are feeling the crunch of the recent 15-22 per cent hike in fuel prices. In order to reduce the losses incurred by the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation (BPC), the price of diesel and kerosene was increased to Tk 40 from an earlier price of Tk 33. Similarly, the prices of octane and petrol have been increased to Tk 67 and Tk 65 per litre from earlier prices of Tk 58 and Tk 56.

Most ordinary Bangladeshis have found their standard of living deteriorating significantly as they find their salaries inadequate to buy the same amount of good and services they used this same month last year. Fuel is that essential item that determines prices in public transports, power generation, irrigation of land and other activities.

‘It seems like every government has something against us poor people,’ says Khalil, a bus conductor. ‘The rising prices have done nothing to the rich, but it has taken away our meal and peace. Can the government say it has done something for us?’

The net impact of recent fuel price and other essential commodities have hit the poor the hardest. ‘The toll is likely to be significant unless alleviated through targeted means of transfers, preferably in cash,’ said a BB report released this month.

‘Increasing the petroleum price suddenly at a significantly high rate and in the name of eviction causing unnecessary troubles to the huge informal business sector has increased the cost of supply and has contributed to the rising prices and hence inflation,’ points out Akash.

‘The caretaker government has addressed various issues to combat corruption, but concrete steps to address these issue are yet to be taken,’ says Barkat-E-Khoda, professor and former chairman, economics department, Dhaka University. ‘While price hike can have dire economic consequences, it is also affecting the consumers, especially the poor. Moreover, the restrictions on the amount of goods that can be transported over time has resulted in the increase in the transport cost and affected the supply of goods to a great extent.’

The government’s anti-hoarding drive that led to disruptions in supply chain and also lower than the targeted production of food grains fuelled the prices of essentials and hence driving the rate of inflation at an alarming rate, say economists. ‘The issue needs to be addressed from the root. If we are to combat inflation, we need to look at the factors that have been at work for so long…growing number of syndicates that influence prices, limited supply of goods compared to the demand ,’ stresses Khoda.

According to the food ministry and the Department of Agricultural Extension, production of food grains such as Aus and Aman in July-March of the fiscal 2006-07 dropped to 124.12 lakh tonnes from 125.55 lakh tonnes in the same months in 2006. Low production and short supply of rice in the market caused price hikes in the last few months and sources predict more hikes in rice prices in the current month.

‘The price of rice has been increasing by three taka, per kg and to make things worse the stock of rice is limited,’ says Belal, a seller in Karwan Bazar market. ‘Now when we order rice, it takes days, and often more than a week to get it as the stock of rice has been fast decreasing. Since the restriction on the amount of goods that can be transported has been imposed by the interim-government, prices have spiralled up more and more.’

Last week, however, the interim government reset the government’s procurement prices of Boro paddy (winter crop) and rice in view of the present market rates to provide fair price to the growers.

While many producers are hoping that the measure will encourage the farmers and help increase the government’s domestic procurement of paddy and rice (the government will procure 300,000 tonnes of paddy and 1M tonnes of rice this year), many believe that this to be an eyewash as it will do little to stabilise the spiraling price situation in the country.

Although, this step is likely to go in favour of the sellers, many sellers are skeptical about it. ‘We are waiting to see a miracle happen after this step,’ says Md Abu Bakar Siddique, a rice retailer in Karwan Bazar. ‘We already have limited stocks of rice and over that the government is buying up huge amount of rice and releasing it at a cheaper price. How is that going to do any good in the long term? The government needs to help us increase the stock.’

‘Suppliers could transport double the amount earlier, now they are not being able to cover up the costs with the limitations imposed on the amount of goods [a truck can carry]. Add to that we have a high amount of import, where the global inflation is making the matter worse,’ points out Mustafizur Rahman, research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue. ‘Much of the present economic state is stemming from the gap in demand and supply side factors,’ he says.

But, according to Bangladesh Bank, it is no longer in their hands to control the inflation. ‘We are doing our best to look into the demand side policies but it is supply of goods that need to be taken into account to stop the price hike,’ said a high-official of the central bank, requesting anonymity. ‘It is the duty of other government agencies and authorities to control supply side pressures stemming from anti-hoarding drives, fragile supply chain management, eviction of hawkers and hikes in price of fuel and electricity,’ he further added.

While a tight monetary policy—where the government less cash to circulate in the economy by selling its bonds—was implemented last year, this year central bank officials feel inflation is here to stay. ‘This time it will not work. There has been reduced rice production and this has led to a fall in the growth in agriculture although we had predicted a higher growth earlier.’

‘If prices continue to rise in such a pace, how will we survive?’ asks Shaheda Khatun, a Dhaka house-wife. ‘The price of food items like rice, sugar, vegetables are running further away from our reach every week.’

‘This is Bangladesh and nothing is transparent, not even the steps that the caretaker government is taking,’ says Dhaka CNG driver, AftabUddin. Like many, his frustration over price hikes for over a year is clear. ‘The poor will never be better off. Has the government made things easier by ensuring lower prices and driven the syndicates out? Has the government ensured that those farmers are not affected?’ he asks.

‘The overall economic activity has been disrupted with power-tariff hikes, allowing syndicates to run amok in the market and many other factors,’ points out Khoda. ‘It is important to take steps that will be faster and more effective.’

Experts feel that the next budget should take into account the realistic picture of the present state of the economy and then propose the measures for sustainable development to favorably improve the living standards of the rural poor and purchasing power of the urban working and middle-classes.

VOX POP It seems like everyone has agreed that the poor should die

Monjurul Islam Monju (38)
Telephone Operator (Monthly Income: 3,200, Expenditure: Tk.4,000-5,000)
Prices are sky-rocketing but what about our income? My income has been the same despite the wild increase in the prices. Ever since this mayhem and increase in the prices of essentials, my life has become unbearable. I had to send away my family: my wife and three children to our village, because I could not afford to feed them here anymore. The house-rent was raised by Tk 300, because the landlord had to save himself. There were days I could not feed my children properly, days I could not buy rice because everyday the price kept increasing. If this continues I don’t know how the poor- the worst sufferers like me can survive.

Md Bilal (30)
Rickshaw-puller (Monthly Family Income: Tk 5,000 Expenditure: Tk 4,500 and more)
Earlier my expenditure use to be around Tk 3,000 and now it has increased so much that I had to take a loan to pay my the house rent last month. It’s not that prices are increasing once in a while; they are fly further out of reach every other day. My wife keeps complaining about the prices of goods, especially rice which is increasing every day. There are days we save up rice for our three children and not eat ourselves; we have reached a point where we can no longer afford to pay so much. This price hike is killing the poor like me and where will we go if our income is not as much as what we need to spend just to stay alive?

Mohammad SR (45)
CNG driver (Monthly Income: Tk 5,000 Expenditure: TK 5,000)
I cant keep track of the rising prices anymore. It seems like every government that comes into power has something against the poor. The price of rice was Tk 25 two days ago and today it is Tk 27. And in Bangladesh prices only increase, they never decrease and the poor are always worse off. The price of oil, rice and other major necessities are increasing in this way because of the incapability or ignorance of the government to ensure our rights to live a decent life with three meals a day.

Morjina Begum (30)
Garments worker (Monthly Income: Tk 2,200 Monthly Expenditure: Tk 5,500+)
The prices are increasing everyday and it seems like everyone has agreed the poor should die. My family has been suffering and my income is no longer enough because our expenditure is growing weekly. My husband, a rickshaw-puller, has lost hope and we do not know how to cut back costs. I have to stop the education of my children, if we want to live. Had my income increased with the price increase, I would have been able to afford their schooling but now I am struggling to put three meals in front of them. This price increase will not stop until we all die.

Humayan Kabir (34)
Security Guard (Monthly Income: Tk 4,500
Monthly Expenditure: Tk 4,500+)

For the last three months or more, I have been surviving on loans that I took from my brothers. My expenditure has doubled in the last few months and there is nothing I can do about it. My income has not increased but the prices of essentials like rice are soaring higher every other day. I can no longer support my parents back in the village because I cannot afford to maintain my family here. The price of oil and food has increased and to make things worse landlords are increasing the rent. The worst part is that the expenses are increasing and the income is not.

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11May/070

The new face of Dhanmondi

It is a different kind of a morning in Dhanmondi, this week. Dhanmondi, better known for the towering buildings, private schools, hospital, community centres, universities and more importantly the hub of traffic jam and pollution, has transformed to a great extent.

While the sight of immovable traffic and children lumbering with their bags and walking to school in the mornings and afternoons was a common sight and almost something that characterised Dhanmondi even a few days back, many Dhanmondi dwellers find it difficult to absorb the fact that it is not the same anymore! ‘It is incredible that there is a smooth flow of traffic, no honking and the common scenes of cars pushing in the middle of nowhere and creating a jam that lasted for more than hours, is not there anymore,’ says exhilarated Dhanmondi resident, Nuvia Jabeen.

On May 6, this week Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) banned honking on a number of major rickshaw-free city roads and a few streets in Dhanmondi residential area to minimise noise pollution. Moreover, a number of roads in Dhanmondi were made one-way from 7:00am to 9:00pm to reduce traffic that took place during the peak hours.

‘It is clearly the most effective step that has been taken to improve the frustrating state of traffic in Dhanmondi,’ says a banker and also a Dhanmondi resident, Salma Hafiz. ‘It is almost unbelievable that the sight of the most unbearable, long line of cars has disappeared.’

Opinions were not similar, however, on May 6, Sunday, when a huge traffic struck Dhanmondi streets, with drivers and city dwellers confused about the new traffic regulations. ‘It was a terrible morning, worse than the usual jam packed ones,’ remembers Samira Khan, a school teacher. ‘While a number of policemen stood before the roads with the posts that said one way, many cars had come through the wrong way and the result of the confusion was a huge jam.’

The confusion had aroused as no one had any idea about the exact details of the roads made one-way and hence the roads were packed for about an hour. Meanwhile, the rickshaw-pullers charged extra fare, as they had to take a new and longer route.

‘Most of the students and even teachers could not make it to school that day and opinions had turned sharply against this new rule,’ points out Khan. ‘Infact, we are still quite sceptical about the consistency of the traffic police’s performance. It is quite unlikely that they are going to be as strict and ensure that the rules are not broken in the long run.’

Roads 6, 7, 8, 6A, 7A, 8A, 9A, 10A, 11A, 12A, 13A, 14A and some other Dhanmondi roads were brought under the purview of this Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) traffic plan. However, the one-way traffic system will not be applicable on holidays.

‘The plan is likely to work well and we have not heard any complains as of now,’ says Salma A. Shafi, an urban architect and treasurer of Centre for Urban Studies (CUS) based in Dhanmondi. ‘But, if the traffic police are not as serious as they are now, people will not adhere to the rules.’

Reportedly, some 150 members of riot police have been deployed to enforce the one-way traffic system and it is being monitored seriously.

There are still divided opinions concerning the effectiveness of this plan among others.

‘This has made our work harder. While, we could go through a two way road before, we have to take a longer route now,’ says Abdul, a rickshaw puller. ‘We had to increase the fare because of this.’

‘It has saved time,’ argues Shafi. ‘It is better to be able to take a less congested route than to be stuck in traffic for hours. Moreover, if you look at the map carefully, one or two main roads were made one way, keeping the rest of the roads two-way. Therefore, traffic is likely to improve, because vehicles will enter through a road and exit through another.’

The Dhanmondi Poribesh Unnayan Jote, a resident’s rights group formed by Dhanmondi residents and researchers, agree that this may be an effective plan and they will follow its impact in the days to come.

There were however, traffic jams after around one in the afternoon in the bridge in road 8 and 32, this week. ‘It is unlikely that this plan will work,’ says a mother, Tahmida Chowdhury, residing in Dhanmondi 6A. ‘At the end, it takes the same time to reach your destination.’

‘Traffic jam has decreased significantly,’ argues Hamid Rajon, a police sergeant in Dhanmondi. ‘There was considerable traffic on the first day due to confusion about the exact routes, but now it is turning out to be very successful.’

The DMP has also banned the honking of horns on some roads in Dhanmondi to curb noise pollution. The road from Shahbagh intersection to Shaheed Jahangir Gate was declared horn-free a few months earlier. More roads were made horn-free including the Airport Road from Shaheed Jahangir Gate to Uttara and Abdullahpur, Kemal Ataturk Avenue up to Phoenix Bhaban via Gulshan-1 and 2, roads from Gabtoli to Azimpur via Russell Square, from Bijoy Sarani to Mohammadpur Traffic Office, from Hotel Sheraton to Kakrail intersection, from Matsya Bhaban to Rainbow crossing, from Science Laboratory to Matsya Bhaban, and from Matsya Bhaban to Golapshah Mazar via Old High Court intersection.

Reportedly, the police who will be in civil clothes can fine vehicles up to Tk 200 if found guilty of blowing horns in the horn-free zone without unavoidable reasons.

‘I think preventing honking has been a commendable step,’ says Shafi. ‘This is perhaps the first time, that such a step in the local level has been taken and it is indeed very appreciable.’

‘Living in Dhanmondi and main roads, had been a night-mare so far,’ says Anwar Hassan Lablu, a program manager at a Dhaka-based NGO. ‘Although this step should have been taken much earlier, it is a laudable step. The kind of torture that many people like me had to endure early in the morning due to incessant honking and chaos on the roads is simply inexplicable. This is the right of every citizen to be able to live in peace.’

While these seem to be laudable steps, majority feel it needs to be consistent and further steps need to be taken to improve the city planning and rules in the residential areas. ‘Factors such as parking facilities, allotment of plots, pedestrians rights, segregation of commercial and residential areas, rickshaws and cars need to be taken into account in order to ensure proper city planning,’ says Shafi.

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22Sep/060

Bangladesh’s gulags (with Saad Hammadi)

Jamila Khatun (34) still remembers the helpless wails of her husband Shah Alam Babu as a High Court judge sen tenced him to death two years ago. ‘He kept saying that he was innocent but the judge Shamsul Alam Khan gave him a death sentence, even though there was no proper investigation into the case,’ Jamila says, forcing back tears. Shah Alam Babu was acquitted of all charges against him last week, having spent two years in prison, in death row, because of a case of mistaken identity. In these two years Shah Alam lost his business and property in fighting the legal battle to prove that he was not the ‘wanted’ criminal Sundar Babu- who was the accused in the murder case for which he was imprisoned. His wife and children’s lives were shattered, and they were driven into penury.

Shah Alam was arrested on August 18, 2004, accused of killing Gazi Liakat Hossain, a secretary general with the Auto-Tempo Union. Two years after his imprisonment in the condemned cell, the country’s legal system finally realised that Shah Alam was innocent. On September 14, Shah Alam was released from Dhaka’s, Kashimpur Jail.

The High Court on August 29, 2006 ordered Shah Alam’s release upon finding the earlier verdict invalid. The High Court further ordered stripping the session’s judge, Shamsul Alam Khan, of judicial powers on charge of condemning an innocent person to death by portraying him as the accused without any reasoning or evidence.

But as the second case of mistaken identity of an accused, surfaces in our legal system within the span of two months, human rights groups are underlining the need for serious reforms in policing to reduce the collateral damage in meting out justice.

‘This is nothing new in our country. It is because of the media and wider awareness that people today get to know about such flaws in the legal system of our country. Many such instances were overlooked ten years back because neither people had awareness nor were the media and human rights organisations so strong,’ says advocate Alena Khan, executive director of Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR), a Dhaka based human rights group.

She cites the example of the very recently closed Tania rape case where Obaidur Rahman alias Mora was falsely accused of raping the six year girl. ‘It was the conspiracy of the police to save their image and I had to stay in dreadful conditions in jail for ten long years,’ says Mora. ‘Who will compensate for those ten years?’ he asks.

Human rights workers point out that victims like Mora and Shah Alam are unable to go back to leading normal life. Furthermore, the alarming conditions in the jail and the flawed system indicate that these prisoners undergo inhuman forms of torture and live in dreadful conditions.

‘Shah Alam is just one case out of numerous men and women who are wrongly kept in jail for a long time, some running up to years,’ says Dr Faustina Pereira, advocate of the Supreme Court and a director of the Dhaka-based NGO Ain-O-Shalish Kendra (ASK). ‘There are innocent prisoners who spend years in jail as they have been misidentified. There has to be an effective system of checks and balances to ensure that a wrongly identified or willfully misidentified person is not imprisoned,’ she further adds.

Owing to these flawed investigations, these victims end up spending years in inhuman conditions in jails. What one rarely ponders is the years that they spend behind the bars, the dreadful conditions they live in and how tremendously this experience affects their lives.

Having spent two years in condemned cell, Shah Alam is unable to adjust himself to a normal life. ‘For two years, I did not see the day light. My world was dark and repugnant,’ recalls Shah Alam. The condemned cells are less than the size of a semi-double bed, where four people are kept. ‘I could not move and it was in itself a torture’. It was due to the dreadful conditions which also included inedible food and sanitation that has resulted in serious health complications.

Within the central jail, the condemned cells are located far from other cells to restrict communication. ‘Nobody was allowed near the cells except for the guard on duty,’ says Shah Alam. ‘The prisoners are separated from human habitation to give them a sense of afterlife,’ adds Alena. Indeed, the jail conditions in the country be it central or district jails is extremely unhygienic. Alongside the poor ventilation and sewerage, even food and access to proper medical treatment is not provided adequately.

According to a BSEHR investigation, the common forms of diseases spreading across the central jail are skin diseases, dysentery, tuberculosis, jaundice, and drug addiction.

A UNDP report from 2003 reveals, although there are 80 jails in the country, 16 of these are not yet functioning. More adverse is the fact that, whereas the official capacity in the remaining 64 jails is 21,581 prisoners, the actual prison population is 45,444 – over double the capacity. Of these 31,020 are under trial i.e. detained prior to conviction, while only 13,078 (less than one third) are convicted prisoners.

There are over 9,900 people detained in the Dhaka Central Jail alone against its capacity of 2,682 people. At present 432 women are detained inside the jail against its capacity of 134 female detainees.

‘There are many media reports and research that point towards the fact that one of the major problems in the jails, be it Dhaka Central jail or districts jails or sub jails, is overcrowding and mixing of the various categories of prisoners,’ says Pereira. ‘In several cases there are detainees who have not been produced in court even for a single day, in other words, these are persons held as prisoners who are innocent, since they are yet to be judged guilty.’

If they are indeed found innocent at the end of their trial, how can their lost years or indeed a single minute of wrongful imprisonment be compensated?’ she asks.

According to Periera these revelations are just a tip of the iceberg. ‘There are prisoners who are kept in jail even after they have served their sentences which again amounts to wrongful imprisonment of innocent persons, and this is a grave violation of human right,’ she says. According to her, a large number of prisoners are under custody for minor offences and some of them have already stayed beyond the sentence they were likely to receive under the charges framed against them.

A major reason behind the terrible condition of jails across the country is due to the overcrowding of the prisoners owing to adjournments, delays in investigation, and political mass-arrests that strain the prisons system beyond its allocated resources.

An important point focused by Noor Khan, director, investigation and documentation unit, is the fact that the increase in arbitrary arrests made to suppress political dissent has also added to the overcrowding of prisoners in jails.

‘The government has used the law enforcement rashly without considering the consequence of the situation. The mass arrest and later convicting innocent people are likely to worsen the coming days in terms of criminal activities,’ says Khan.

Reports suggest that there has been mixing up of various categories of prisoners. Often juvenile prisoners and are kept along with convicted and notorious criminals. ‘Not only does it affect the vulnerable but these criminals motivate the young generation within the central jail, most of who are likely to get released, to expand and operate an already established criminal network,’ points out Khan.

In the past investigations have revealed that unethical practices such as bribery, abuse by political prisoners, and systemic irregularities are making things worse. Moreover, criminals inside the central jail are maintaining their outside network with the help of the jail officials.

‘Some of the high profile criminals use cell phones inside the jail with the help of jail officials,’ says a prisoner who was released recently. Ongoing investigations suggest there is increasing corruption and flawed system within the jail.

‘I am aware that some of the officials are involved in such practices but the number of such activities has decreased owing to rigorous monitoring,’ says Major Shamsul Haider Siddique, deputy inspector general, Prison of Dhaka division.

He mentioned that a large number of prisoners are shifted to Kashimpur jail in Gazipur where around 8,000 prisoners can be accommodated. ‘Last Thursday we shifted 181 prisoners there and by the end of this week we plan to shift another 1,500 prisoners,’ he says.

The ever increasing flaws in the jail administration and overall system require a proper implementation and monitoring, say human rights groups. Concerning the severe forms of punishment visited on prisoners, Periera highlights the fact that the Jail Code specifies very clearly, as to how and in what condition such punishments should be given.

‘We, as human rights group are more than willing to come forward and do our part to ensure that the system is properly and humanely implemented. We have over the years written to the government to allow us to be on the jail visitation board. We are yet to receive any kind of acknowledgement or response,’ she says.

Pereira agrees that a large number of cases emerge where it has been found that the prisoner has been languishing in jail for several years beyond the jail term. According to her these prisoners also include foreign nationals from Africa, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, who are often held for reasons such as expiration of visa. ‘These languishing prisoners eventually get lost in the system.’

Dreadful conditions and inhuman torture inflicted upon the prisoners in jail often lead to the fateful death of many. According to a report ‘Human Rights in Bangladesh 2004’ an Ain O Shalish Kendra Publication, 41 convicted prisoners and 63 under trial prisoners had died in different central and district jails. Their investigation revealed that in many cases the death was a result of late treatment, absence of medical help and torture.

Such was the case of Anisur Rahman, a rickshaw puller who was arrested along with his friend, in Jessore district. They were arrested by police on the ground of suspicious movements. On August 03, 2004, when Anisur asked for a match to light his cigarette, he was furiously beaten by the jail warden. According to jail authorities, Anisur was admitted to Jessore hospital, as he had high fever. As his condition deteriorated, two jail wardens brought his mother from Bishnupur to the hospital where he was admitted.

The report further revealed how they forced Anisur’s mother Rabeya to sign a paper. She had no idea what the paper said. Afterward, Anisur was sent back home although he was in a dreadful state. Anisur told his mother how he was tortured in the jail. As his condition became worse, his mother admitted him into the hospital where he died.

According to the doctors who treated him, Anisur bore several injury marks on his body. When Anisur was arrested in the first place, Rabeya was unable to pay Tk1,500 which was demanded by the police as a bribe to release her innocent son, the ASK report claims. Shockingly, after undergoing inhuman torture and admission in the hospital, Magistrate Moshfequr Rahman acquitted both Anisur and his companion. The jailor Abdur Gaffar Mallik refused knowledge of any such incident and claimed that Anisur’s mother took him in custody with a written undertaking and he had died at home.

Another innocent victim, Falu Mia was arrested for three robberies carried out in Savar. He was 32 and had only been married three months. After having spent 22 years of his life behind bars he was proved innocent. Eight years after his release Falu died, still fighting for compensation for the injustice done to him.

The government is at the moment taking steps to reform certain provisions in the Jail Code and in the administration of the prison system according to reports in the media. The cabinet on September 18 approved the amendment of the existing Jail Code of 1868. Out of the 1,388 sections in the Jail Code the cabinet approved reforms in 419 sections while 230 others were rejected.

Chaining up prisoners en masse has been a practice that the jail authorities carry out among many other cruelties. Without any fault, Nazrul Islam was arrested in charge of 11 robbery cases at the age of 12. The case was filed by one of his relatives to deprive him of his ancestral property. Remembering his experiences in jail Nazrul told a human rights worker, ‘I did not know why I had to carry chains for 11 years’.

Among the amended acts, the system of shackling prisoners is now prohibited. According to the act, only the notorious prisoners were confined to the system of shackling. The new act further relieves the prisoners by closing one-third of the present punishments.

An important aspect that Periera highlights is the fact that many of the provisions of the Jail Code do include fair terms and basic minimum standards of treatment. ‘Our organisation has always stressed that if the Jail Code was properly implemented, the prison system and treatment of prisoners would have been a lot better,’ she points out.

It is evident that the jails in Bangladesh need to be properly monitored and rules need to be properly implemented say human rights groups. ‘One of the first steps to improving the system is to have open and transparent system of sharing information. We need to have accurate statistics on these jails, their under trial and other prisoners, in order to be able to assist the government in expediting the cases of these prisoners, including Jail Appeals,’ says Periera.

‘Bangladesh has a history of judges making sudden visits to the jails and seeing the conditions for themselves,’ points out Periera. ‘We even have important Commission Reports on Prison Reform,’ she adds. But even if some of these recommendations were implemented the prison system would not have been so dire.  Indeed this was the case about decades ago. But today, there has been very little done to better the miserable state of these jails across the country, she adds.

Human rights workers says that Bangladesh can draw from the example of India where several effective and pragmatic steps were taken to improve the system, including the use of close circuit cameras in some of their jails, which certainly helps to strengthen the state of administration and monitoring.

‘Provision for taking witness testimony through television and phone connection between the court and the prison could also better the system in many ways. There have also been improvements in effective separation and rehabilitation of certain kinds of inmates, such as those mentally unstable, old and infirm, children born in prison and juveniles,’ she adds. ‘Learning from such working practices from other countries will take us a long way,’ says Periera.

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