Tahmina Shafique The Complete Portfolio

7Nov/080

‘Other countries will not be waiting’

Four major international reports released this year including World Bank’s Investment Climate Assessment report released two weeks ago, indicated a drop in the investment in Bangladesh, how do you see the situation?

Only one report – the UNCTAD report on FDI – discussed investment flows and indicated a drop in the flow of FDI into Bangladesh. The other reports looked at the investment climate and concluded that while some dimensions of the investment climate has improved in recent years, there has been deterioration in others. The bottom line is that the overall climate that affects investors’ decisions to invest has not improved to the extent desirable.

The slow improvement in the investment climate has two major implications. Firstly, investment is lower than it should be – this includes not just foreign investment or investment in large domestic companies, but investment in small businesses – the small tool-maker, the irrigation pump repair shop, the road side grocer, the small farm producing vegetables for export.

Most of these small enterprises may not be very dynamic or productive but they create large numbers of jobs which is critical in a country with widespread unemployment.

Secondly, the poor investment climate discourages innovation and dynamism. We don’t expect all enterprises to be dynamic, but in any economy, you need some enterprises which are trail blazers.

To what extent are we really open to such opportunities? If dynamism could impact the economy positively, then why is it that new businesses face so much hassle in terms of registration, getting loans and other procedures?

Access to finance continues to be a major problem-in terms of getting loans and interest rates. Moreover, most loans are short-term; about 70 per cent have to be repaid in less than three years and 50 per cent have a term less than a year. Businesses also have to put up a lot of collateral in order to get a loan and in most cases, banks insist on land as collateral.

The root cause is the inability of banks to differentiate between less risky and more risky clients. The banks themselves do not have the capacity, and the systems and institutions that help banks differentiate, such as a credit information bureau, are absent or under-developed in Bangladesh.

The credit information bureau has a very narrow coverage, in terms of the number of borrowers covered – and it only has information on recent loan repayments, not a long history of repayments, and excludes other payments such as utility bill payments which also can tell a lot about the credit worthiness of individual borrowers.

The main victims of this conservative attitude are the good investors and innovators.

Apart from the results themselves, what do you feel are the major constraints? Would you agree that this has been largely the failure of the government?

I do not see a sense of urgency in government to deal with the investment climate issues. At the very top level of this government, there is understanding of the need to improve and change things. But, overall in the government machinery, including in several top policymakers, the sense of urgency is absent. There is a fear of moving away from traditional practices and adapting to a change. The typical response is that things need to be carefully thought through, proposals need to be reviewed, and a host of people need to be consulted before a reform can be enacted or a policy can be adopted.

Of course, the government needs to do its due diligence. But there are instances where the government machinery has done things fast with all the due diligence and consultations.

So it can be done and has to be done. Other countries will not be waiting just because we are slow. They are reforming fast and we need to run faster if we are to survive in this competitive world.

Isn’t this here that the central Bank of Bangladesh should take appropriate measures?

The Bangladesh Bank also has tremendous influence in shaping the climate for investors, in some ways even more than the other bodies such as BOI and Ministry of Commerce. While there have been many improvements in Bangladesh Bank over the years, this important institution still lacks adequate capacity to understand the globalised world and what it implies for business in Bangladesh.

There is a conservative and risk-averse behaviour on the part of the central bank that is preventing our entrepreneurs from grabbing many of the opportunities that the globalised world is throwing up. Business people often complain, for example, about onerous foreign exchange regulations.

In the past two years, the caretaker government has taken a number of reform initiatives, to what extent have these reform initiations been effective, especially when reports point out that no tangible evidence has been seen as such?

The caretaker government has taken two major steps that are of strategic importance – Bangladesh Better Business Forum (BBBF) and Regulatory Reforms Commission (RRC). This has led to a structured form of dialogue between the private sector and public officials for the first time in the history of Bangladesh and this has been a major achievement.

The BBBF has representation from several ministries and agencies and because, it is headed by the head of government, it can address the inter-ministerial issues. The private sector has also done their bit by coming up with 250 plus recommendations, some of which have already been implemented.

There is of course still a long way to go and the bureaucracy needs to be faster in implementing reforms, but this a very promising start.

The RRC is another institution that has come up with some very good recommendations including two recent ones on reforming land administration and pension administration.

But the challenge is the same: how can you make the bureaucracy more pro-active in implementing the recommendations?

The chairman of RRC, Akbar Ali Khan, himself said this week that ‘there was lack of cooperation from different government bodies, especially the environment ministry, Board of Investment (BOI) and Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms’.

The office of the Registrar is an important office in any country. A good business registry has comprehensive information on the birth, death of enterprises, its operations, annual reports and more.

The role of this office is crucial and it has not been carried out well. There is a need for streamlining processes, reducing discretionary power and eliminating corruption, improving staff capacity and office facilities. Recently IFC has supported the computerisation of the office but this system needs to be adequately utilised.

The Board of Investment is supposedly an investment promotion and facilitation body but has turned out to be an essentially regulatory body, and a poor one at that. Most of the BOI staff once worked for the Directorate of Industry and have an old petty regulatory mentality. Fresh blood is needed in the BOI. There is also a need for a change in the board composition, bring in more officials from the private sector, build better investment promotion and advocacy capacity, and move from being a regulator to a facilitator.

Work started on a three year Strategic Plan in February this year. But again you have the same problem – the Plan has been discussed by the Board several times but not approved yet. It has been nine months and we don’t know how much longer we will have to wait.

There have been many examples of projects of international agencies where developing countries like Bangladesh has been hampered tremendously – following years of criticism, now countries like India and China are resisting their need for aid. How should the governments of developing countries address these issues?

It is true that international agencies bring a lot of experience but this does not mean that they never make mistakes. Development is a complex exercise and sometimes our approach may be deficient. The important thing is whether we learn from our experience. The World Bank Group has rigorous evaluation procedures which help us do so.

The Government also has an important role in ensuring that aid is used effectively. It should do a better job at identifying the needs of the country and deciding where aid is required - in what form and for how long. It needs to coordinate donor activity better so that there is no duplication. There is also a need to develop the capacity to negotiate better with international agencies. We have seen this in India and China where they have dealt with donors in a much more sophisticated manner - it is not that they did not use foreign aid, but that they did it sophisticatedly.

It is important that the role and activities of donor agencies are subjected to continuous monitoring and assessment. But this has to be done based on sound logic, reliable data and good understanding of how donors work.

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10Oct/080

‘I don’t think I am that stupid to take the idea of a national government seriously’

It’s been about a year since the anti-corruption drive kicked off in Bangladesh - till date the government has arrested scores of politicians -including two former premiers and dozens of ex-ministers and lawmakers. It was said that the aim was to clean up graft-ridden politics in Bangladesh. Following various turns in the recent events and release of several politicians, how do you see the future of this drive and the Anti-Corruption Commission itself (ACC)?

In short, the future is bleak, if we end up electing corrupt politicians again. However, if reasonably decent politicians can be elected or re-elected, the present anti corruption drive may not lose its momentum. Secondly, our expectation from the anti-corruption drive was probably unrealistic- prior to 2007 we had our main anti-corruption law (prevention of anti-corruption 1947) in the books for the past 60 years. But in the past 60 years, there has not even been 60 successful prosecutions of high profile corrupt persons.

Anti-corruption establishment - the bureau of past anti corruption drive, and present - hardly had sufficient or even reasonable expertise, skills or experience in nailing corrupt persons. The present anti-corruption establishment inherited a large numbers of officials from the past tenure.

The past bureau has been in one word, dysfunctional. The present commission does not have even a single full-time trained prosecutor or lawyer. It has very few investigators with expertise in anti-corruption investigations as such. Given this institutional background, it is not surprising that they have not succeeded tremendously. It is due to these reasons that I am not terribly disappointed. These institutional flaws can be corrected without much difficulty, but one has to recognise these weaknesses and take appropriate steps.

Do you feel that any steps are being taken for these institutional flaws to be corrected, especially after the $150m loan for a good-governance programme granted by ADB - a major portion of which is targeted to go towards the Anti-Corruption Commission?

I am not aware of any form of comprehensive actions or interventions that are being addressed as of yet.

There has been much anticipation over the two top leaders - Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia’s meeting for the first time after almost a year, in the coming days. What are your views?

I do not expect much from this meeting, honestly. Though the meeting has hit the headlines constantly, one or two discussions among these top leaders will not resolve any of the major problems that the country is facing today. I do not think they have any magic lanterns to do so. Since my expectations are too few, I am honestly not much bothered about this meeting.

What are your views concerning the upcoming elections? What do you think this election will bring about?

Logically, the only aspect I can think of is that we would be coming to a formal understanding - meaning this is an umbrella to the legality or validity to the actions undertaken by the present government.

Clearly, there will be constitutional issues to the legality of the caretaker government being in place for a period of more than two years. It is for us to see if the two leaders will validate all the deeds of the present government in the next few weeks and that will probably give a clearer picture for the upcoming elections.

You mentioned the legality of the present government taking over for a period of more than two years. How will this be treated ahead of a ‘credible national election’?

This issue cannot be considered as void. Earlier I had fewer doubts concerning the constitutional validity and continuity of the present government, but increasingly I am becoming doubtful. I feel, some kind of indemnity will be required or at least this will be too important an issue, for the parliament not to consider.

With the elections set to take place after two years, how do you see the idea of a national government in Bangladesh?

I do not think I am that stupid to take that seriously.

It’s been almost a year since the separation of the judiciary. It was assumed that this will result into a well co-ordinated justice system for the country? How do you evaluate its performance?

The public perception, as I understand is that the judiciary is subservient to the government than it was in the recent past. Clearly, so far, I do not think there has been much of a positive outcome or impact of this separation seeking justice in the court of law. Institutional and infrastructural support necessary to the truly separate judiciary is yet to be provided. More disturbingly, there has not been any form of visible effort at enhancing the administrative and managerial capabilities of the judiciary to enable it to administer independently.

A number of dialogues and discussions are coming up for the political parties, how do you see the future of the political parties in Bangladesh?

The purpose of a parliament is to provide a platform for the political parties to oppose. In other words, by definition, a parliament is a place for dialogue between political parties. I do not see why these discussions and meetings need to take place elsewhere. The issue of these meetings have arisen, however, due to the fact that these political parties have not been engaged in the parliament. An alternate to this problem should be to engage them in meaningful dialogues in the parliament.

You have worked extensively in the field of juvenile justice and how do you see the state of the justice system for juvenile at present?

The state has clearly improved to a certain extent. Now if there is any news of arrest regarding children below 16, automatically it creates a stir among the relevant stakeholders. In many instances, judges of the High Court division have taken up their own initiatives.

Secondly, the average number of children detained in jail has gone down significantly - figures show a substantial fall. In major cities across the country at least, police has become aware of juvenile rights. In addition to this, the Department of Social Welfare has started to take appropriate steps - some probationary officers have been appointed. All of these indicate that the juvenile justice system is actually moving ahead. Having said that, there is a need for provisions in the Children Act 1947.

State responsibilities regarding protection and children in distress is hardly being implemented. The State has only taken into account immunization and provision of primary education, to some extent, as a major responsibility while there are many areas that need to be addressed. Children clearly remain marginalised from the standpoint of state responsibilities’ and this certainly calls for desperate change.

There have been various comments made concerning the legality of policies and establishment of commissions during the state of emergency. Is there truly a legal question to such steps taken by the interim government?

I do not really take into account of comments of legality made by Tom, Dick and Harry.

The right to information act was drafted in 2002 and has been under various criticism and debate. According to reports, the act is soon to be finalised and implemented, how do you evaluate the existing draft and also the result of finalisation?

The Right to Information Act has become a sexy topic, at the moment. But, in very short, the state does not possess the system, infrastructure, expertise or capacity to be able to pull of this act. There are bridges that need to be passed before such a system can actually be effective.

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5Sep/080

‘Children need to be brought in for early detection’

You have worked in the area of children with mental disabilities for decades. How do you see the overall state now?

Previously, there were huge stigmas attached to children with disabilities. Parents felt socially ostracised, and, hence, were reluctant to disclose the child’s problems in public. A major part of my life was spent on campaigns to increase social awareness amongst parents, families and the community. A lot of time we had to also spell out the differences between mental illness, which is a psychiatric problem; and mental retardation, which is a developmental problem where early identification and intervention can go a long way in ensuring optimum educational skills and quality of survival.

What are some of the achievements that Bangladesh has made in provision of care services and research for these children?

Bangladesh today has a National Policy on Disability 1995 passed by the cabinet; and a Disability Welfare Act 200, passed by parliament. Another Human Rights Law on Disability, in tune with the UN Human Rights Convention, has been drafted. These have legal implications and also provide children with disabilities, parents and the community ammunition to challenge their exclusion from normal life, ie, schools, sports, extra curricular activities etc.

I also started the Bachelors and Masters in Special Education degree courses within the Institute of Education (IER) of Dhaka University; also in the Institute of Special Education of the Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation affiliated with the National University.

Every year special teachers are graduating from these institutes of whom many are being employed or have started their own special schools.

Given the burden of the problem, these services are nominal. All schools need to address the special needs to children in every class, as a normal routine procedure, with no stigmatisation.

What do you feel the challenges are in working in this area? Is there appropriate support available?

The challenges are manifold. Brain development is occurring at a rapid pace in the first three years. Therefore, it is already too late to identify children at school entry. That is why the primary health care sector needs to be brought in for early detection of children with impairments and disabilities. The second challenge is to provide special education needs to all children. These vary from child to child. For example, one child might benefit from a hearing aid, another from glasses, and another by being given extra time to complete class work.

Do you feel the government should put more focus in this area? If so, what role could the government could play in improving this state?

Only about 50 per cent children are able to complete primary school today, according to the Education Watch Report. So, do we think all the rest have special needs. In a way I feel that they do; or that the schools are only catering for the top 20 per cent students. All children need to be assessed in every subject and their strengths and weaknesses should be determined, so that the latter can be helped. Special needs should a subject which all school teachers must be competent in, at least the basics.

What specific areas of mental disability require further focus according to you?

There is a growing concern about disorders affecting communication and socialisation, specially childhood autism. These children need very specific intervention programmes in very controlled environments, with a one-on-one teaching; be it the parent, teacher or any other person. We need to have a country-wide epidemiological survey to determine the burden of the problems, which should include determination of the full range of special needs and developmental disabilities. The government of Bangladesh should initiate this. We have the technology to conduct such a survey. Only then resource allocation on a national scale can be made.

How did you begin your journey in this field?

This story dates back to partition or way back. But, it became more meaningful when I decided to get a Bachelor’s degree in education, and then a Master’s in the same vocation, which I then followed with a master’s in psychology. Immediately after I completed I was offered a post at the University of Dhaka. We lived in Narayanganj at that point and I would commute 25 miles each day to drop the children to school and then go to university.

That phase was also a decade for changes. While there was a visible change in the political climate, the need for focus on psychology was becoming slowly visible. But, then again, the mentally disabled were not really brought out into the open.

Often I would visit the psychiatry ward of Dhaka Medical College Hospital where children with handicaps were treated, but with little knowledge. It was at that time that many parents approached me and I truly wanted to help, but I also needed the proper training.

So, after victory, I went to Atlanta to obtain a doctorate. After coming back, I started talking to parents whose children had disabilities but there was no standardised test. Sometimes, you could not even tell whether a child was disabled and parents would not know until very late. My greatest challenge was to standardise a test for screening but it was also a difficult task.

You did introduce a standard test for screening?

It was a lot of hard work and miles of walking from one area to other. But I was full of zeal and determination and nothing could stop me. With financial support from Colombia University, in around 1987 we conducted a door-to-door testing and covered slums in Dhaka, adjoining areas of Elephant road, Dhamrai, Barisal, Kurigram, Rangpur and Chittagong. This consisted to of mostly children aged 3 to 9 years. Everyday, we would test 20 children which was based on performance, verbal and non-verbal testing.

By then you had also started the first school for mentally disabled children.

Yes, I had organised a parent’s movement – gathering parent’s whose children had disabilities. I had started talking to these children and at the same time designed different tools for IQ, psychosocial stimulation. And in a small bamboo hut on the corner of Willes Little Flower School, my first school for these children started. At the same time, I was keeping international contacts, meeting other centres across India and other parts of the world and work on creating similar facilities in Bangladesh.

How did Protibondhi Foundation come about?

Bangladesh Protibondhi Foundation, also known as Kallyani was formed with twelve of my students.

Between developing distance training packages and conducting centre-based and distance training, I also introduced the department of Special Education, at my alma mater Dhaka University.

You were also the one to have introduced inclusive education. Tell us about that.

The importance and rights of every child to inclusive education was based on the established Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien, Thailand, 1990), the convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the United Nations Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Disabled Persons (1993).

Inclusive education is yet to be a prevalent concept in Bangladesh but we are working tirelessly. The recognition for schooling for children with special need within regular education system or inclusive education means that teacher in regular schools need to be prepared for this challenge of handling children with special needs.

Most often, teachers in school do not have the appropriate knowledge or expertise to be able to teach these children. We started these trainings and are still advocating this in our school, whereby children with disabilities are mainstreamed into schools.

Tell us about your new school for the mentally disabled children.

The new school is a second school of the Prantibondhi Foundation. It’s titled Bangladesh Protibondhi Punarbasan Institute located at Mirpur. The government allocated some land for this school and we are now starting an all service centre – where screening, research, training of teachers and schooling will be available.

We hope we can move forward and reach out more children and be able to provide them the much needed services.

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22Aug/080

Ready to go the distance

If going through a lengthy process and setting up a research unit on art and culture can bring the government to include art and culture as important issues like health, education and others in their agenda, then Israfil Shaheen would gladly go through it all.
‘As much as religious studies is important in school education, so is art and culture, we must work in reshaping the whole system, where the next generation knows the richness and beauty of our art and culture,’ he says on a sunny afternoon, sitting in his office in Dhaka University. ‘There are many gaps in our system and it is time to reshape it, its time to assemble this important topic into the system.’
The chairman of the Department of Theatre and Music, Israfil Shaheen has many dreams. He envisions the department, the art and cultural scenario as a tool that can move on to shaping the country- socially and politically. He does not blame electronic media, or the many mediums of entertainment that has made theatre, less visited by the younger generation. ‘I do not have anything against the progress that the entertainment industry has made, but it is inherent that we must have an institutional system through which rich art forms such as theatre can move along,’ he says.
Israfil is better known for his longtime involvement in Arayanak Mukto Natak (Arayanak’s Open Theatre), where he acted, directed and worked tireless since the beginning. In the past decade, Israfil has conducted numerous workshops and training programmes and given a new dimension to improvised plays. Some of his celebrated directions include ‘Three sisters’, ‘Macbeth’ (2005), ‘The Would be Gentleman’, ‘The Mousetrap’ (2003), ‘Waiting for Godot’, ‘A Doll’s House’, Mrrichhakotika (Indian Classical Play), ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘Uru bhangam’ and many more.
Born in 1964 in Poncha ga, Thakurgaon, Israfil had an idyllic childhood in the small village. His father was a farmer and they lived a simple life. The three siblings would swim in the river, steal mangoes and run around the open field. While at the government school, Israfil showed keen interest in public speaking and annual dramas. ‘Little did I know that I would grow a passion for theatre later on,’ he laughs.
After completing his HSC from Rajshahi government school, Israfil moved to Dhaka in 1983 and started his honours degree in University of Dhaka - it was then that he truly discovered his niche.
‘Being at the university was a life changing experience. Becoming a part of Aronok Natya Dal was like finding what I wanted to do,’ he remembers. ‘After that there was no looking back, I did almost everything in the group, from being a helping hand, to be an actor and a director.’
Working with Mamun-ur-Rashid was an experience in itself, says Israfil. ‘His work related a lot to the social and political scenario and that instilled within me a lot of passion to work along similar lines - to be able to depict everyday life and struggles and issues that needed emphasis.’
His first works were in fact directed by Mamun-ur Rashid - Guinea pig and Naan kar pala.
Aside from that, Israfil worked with the liberated theatre team and played in various remote villages.
After his graduation, in 1988 Israfil received a scholarship from the Indian Government to study at the National School of Drama, New Delhi. ‘Going to India and studying this art was a learning experience. It was a great exposure as we had the opportunity to work with experts from abroad, and learn different forms, styles and methods.’
As soon as he finished his Masters, Israfil saw new doors of opportunity through a fellowship he received on non-verbal/gesture theatre in India at the National School of Drama. After completing his fellowship, he pursued his doctoral programme at Rabindra Bharati University again with a scholarship. ‘At Bharati, I had the opportunity to teach what I had learnt and at the same time research and learn more.’
Coming back to Dhaka around 1996, Israfil was left with hunting for jobs and exploring ways he could contribute what he had learnt. ‘Right after coming back, I conducted 40-day long workshops in Dhaka, Kurigram and Nilphamari with the play Romeo and Juliet,’ he remembers. ‘The opportunity to teach at Dhaka University came after that, besides that I also started teaching at North South University and University of Stafford as a part-time professor, where I had the wonderful experience of directing numerous plays with a group of young and vibrant students.’
Israfil says there is a need for the media and the institutions to have better knowledge concerning art and theatre. ‘Most often the culture pages that we have in newspapers do not do justice to these forms. Which is why, I go back to my stress on the need of a research unit on art and culture- which will actually show the lack of knowledge and its importance, and at the same time pave ways for art, theatre, drama and cultural aspects to be a part of our lifestyle.’
At the moment, Israfil is busy with the Theatre festival, where fourteen plays, featuring world classics and contemporary ones, directed by students of batch six of the department are to be staged.
‘There are many obstacles and challenges, but despite that we continue to run the plays throughout the year and our struggle will continue till the very end,’ he ends.

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8Aug/080

And the bells ring on, in my feet

If her passion for dance could be justified by words and even brought to close proximity to how she feels about dancing, the celebrated dancer Minu Haque would perhaps gladly write many many books on them.

‘It seemed like we were meant to be- dancing and I,’ she says smiling, as the afternoon sunlight streams in through the colourful curtains of her apartment in Dhaka. Her big, doe shaped eyes sparkle with this inexplicable joy at having to speak about her work and her future plans in restoring the heritage of pure classical dance in Bangladesh.

Right she is, she is perhaps a born dancer, and you can see it in the way her fingers move, the way she steps up or sits- her every posture is characteristic of the aesthetic dancing queen. ‘I was always inclined to colours and shades and I always incorporated it in my every dance, every choreography, every beat to which we danced with bells on our feet,’ she tells me.

Born on June 1, 1953, Minu Haque grew up in a family that valued art and culture immensely. Passion was something that was natural in her family, she says. And why not? Minu is the daughter of her father, her sister is the celebrated thespian Shimul Yousuff, her late brother-in-law Altaf Mahmood, the legendary music composer whom we lost during the liberation war, needs no introduction at all.

‘My father insisted had a powerful voice and I still remember the prayers that he used to sing. My mother also had a beautiful voice and I cherished the sound of her singing from the Qu’ran each morning. They both believed in religion but at the same time, they also stood strong in holding on to art and culture.

My father we learn singing and dancing, that too at a time when such practices were not approved by many,’ she says proudly.

Minu and her five brothers and two sisters shared an idyllic childhood- singing, dancing, studying, and growing up in a cultural environment. ‘Those were the best parts of our lives,’ she remembers fondly.

Minu started dancing from the age of six- and like her sister, she was a regular participant in radio programmes. ‘Back at the time, these radio programs were organised so well, and even though it was only audio, we would still dance- and the whole element of commercialism was absent back then. And perhaps that’s what exactly kept us on the dance stage so firmly. We did not bother about the money. And even though it was difficult to carry on with that limited income, we were happy.’

Minu speaks of her first tutor Dulal Talukdar, an exceptional dancer who was in the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts in those days. It was from there that Minu graduated with a diploma in classical dance.

But her dancing career had seen many halts, the most prominent being the events in 1971, that left her family shattered, the scars of which linger on till date. ‘I do not think I can ever explain those events in words or be able to justify any of it today,’ she says softly. ‘It is so difficult to explain how jarring it was to be a woman and hide away for safety. As I was a dancer, the Pakistan Army had come to our house asking me to perform in cantonment, but I refused outright. On their third request, when I refused, they threatened me but that really did not change my perception of Pakistani Army or my decision, but at the same time I knew I had to run away.’

It was during that time that she hid in places for safety. ‘Back then groups used to be formed for escaping and I was going to be sent with Altaf bhai and others, but it was afterwards decided that he would join us later as he needed to record his songs, and it was sheer fate that I left, and right after that he was killed,’ she says looking away.

Thirty-eight years on, it still aches the same, yet she feels that period only made her stronger as a person, and her passion for dance only increased. ‘I continued dancing and worked with young dancers in restoring core classical dance. That is something that is fading away today sadly,’ she says.

In an attempt to keep the dancing culture alive, Minu had to struggle a lot and the struggle continues till date.

In 2001, Minu along with her family formed ‘Nrityashara In search of Heritage in Dance of Bengal’ a platform under which different dancing schools are run by artists like Tamanna Rahman, Munmun Ahmed, Kabirul Islam Ratan, Anisul Islam Hiru and others who focus on specific areas of dance- Kathak, Monipuri, modern and folk, Bharatnatyam and more.

Minu’s school Odyssey that is now running for years focuses on classical dance.

‘I feel, for a dance, every move, every step, posture, outfit- everything must present that aesthetic look and aura of the dancing spirit,’ she says passionately. ‘It is that essence that I would want the younger generation to take forward.’

The absence of sponsorship and support from the corporate sector, halls and organisations, make such initiations more difficult than ever, she says with a hint of disappointment.

‘We keep fighting, keep taking funds from our own and try to move forward. One of the most disappointing issues remains to be the fact that there are no halls for dance performances as such, and it must be a dance drama for you to be able to run it. And while the National Museum is available, the cost is too high. Moreover, there is whole issue of how can we keep this young and talented group here without supplementing them financially?’

Most of these young dancers that Minu and others work with come from remote villages or areas, and they must be given a little amount so that they can afford to continue dancing. ‘Despite the many challenges, we have made it a point to run our programs- our initiative to restore this rare art is not going to stop,’ she says.

Every month on the 16th (indicating the date of freedom), Minu and the group run their program at the Teachers Students Centre (TSC) of Dhaka University for a ticket of taka 10.

The theme for each month is in line with the cultural relationship- in February- the theme being language movement, in March, the theme was independence, later Pahela Boishakh, Rabindra and Nazrul and in July it was Monsoon.

‘It is difficult to find halls, or to fund each one of these events that are run by the whole group, but at the same time we know, that the dance must go on- and this art needs to be kept alive.’

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25Jul/080

Live and commit

Playwright, dramatist, director, actor, writer, thinker, advisor, friend, father- Abdullah Al-Mamun was each one of them and many many more. For some, he is a maverick, and for others he is a man of many avatars- his versatility and immense contribution to a whole era of theatre works, film-making and writings remains to be unparallel till date.

This month, as the eminent artist, fights against major brain haemorrhage and lies unconscious on the hospital bed, with fat tubes sticking out of his mouth, his friends and family continue to pray that he would walk out of the hospital door and touch their lives the way he had always.

Mamun’s contribution to the art and cultural fraternity has been immense, and today it is safe to say that he has shaped a major portion of the TV serials, films, plays and scripts that we have today.

‘I know Mamun since 1961,’ says Ramendu Majumdar. ‘I had just gotten into University of Dhaka and witnessed Mamun’s enthusiasm towards theatre. In a few years we had formed a student’s theatre group and since then Mamun took several initiatives and moved on to shape a whole era of theatre and film works. His contribution to the film fraternity and art has been immense and incomparable.’

Mamun has been known for his versatility- the kind that is rare. Over the past four decades, he has managed to contribute immensely to the films and theatre world, at the same time, he has brought many talents under the limelight, all of whom continue to look up to him till date. Some of his lauded theatre works include Shubochon Nirbashone, Akhon Durshomoy, Chardike Juddho, Shena Poti, Akhono Kritodas, Tomrai, Kokilera, Desher Manush, Krishno Kanter Will, Meraj Fakirer Ma, Meher Jaan Arekbaar.

Some of his timeless films are – Gibon Niye Juya, Shareng bou, Oshikkhito, Akhoni Shomoy, Shokhi Tumi Kaar, Mane na Mana, Jonom Dukhi, Dui Jibon and Domka.

‘My father was extraordinary and will always be so,’ says his daughter Deeba Nargis, a reputed TV actress. ‘His compassion and his dedication is something that always awed us.’

Born on July 12, 1943, Mamun was always quiet and lived in his own world. ‘He was never the loud kind- always composed and calm, which was the reason why he was often mistaken as pompous,’ says the renowned actor Tareq Anam.

‘But he was certainly someone who was supportive.’

Tareq’s career began with Mamun’s play and he worked with him in several occasions. ‘Mamum represents a whole new era, a whole new age where he shaped up the whole theatre and film culture and scenario.’

‘You can’t compare him with anyone; he was absolutely unique,’ says Kabori Sarwar. ‘He was a major support system for many of us.’

Mamun’s career began as a television producer in 1966, after he had acquired a degree in history from University of Dhaka. While at University, Mamum was inclined to plays and had already started working with a group of students in plays. From the late 70’s, Mamun played a major role in the theatre movement.

Decades on Mamun only went on proving himself to be one of our most talented thespians of time. More importantly, he created a new dimension to television serials.

‘One of unique things about Mamun was his rare ability to capture audiences attention. We might have had differences of opinions on his themes, but that was one thing that we always recognise and salute him for,’ says Tareq.

Mamun has left behind three daughters and a son, all of whom have grown up with his fundamentals. While his wife passed away in 1984, his children feel, he played the role of a mother and a father at the same time. His fundamentals in life - live and commit - has been deeply embedded in his children.

‘He spent his lifetime in building talents and finding actors and talented players, back at home, he wanted the same thing- he wanted to see the artist in us,’ remembers his daughter fighting back tears of pride.

‘He is my father and he is the best. But above all of that, I know he is incomparable and irreplaceable as a man, a guide, as an actor, as a philosopher, as a thinker, as an individual- he was a man of class.’

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4Jul/080

Nasreen Awal Mintoo

As the WEAB president how has the present business environment affected women entrepreneurs?

One of the harshest truths about women entrepreneurs is the fact that they have constantly faced challenges in being able to push forward and to do well. The present business environment, as we all know has been affected tremendously and the business confidence level has gone very low. As much as it may affect the businessman, for women entrepreneurs it has become a greater challenge.

Moreover, in case of WEAB, the women entrepreneurs have been having difficulty in being able to take loans and registering.

What are some of roles of WEAB?

WEAB was formed in 2001. Their aim was to create a platform to help business women establish themselves in a competitive field, dominated by men. The main object of WEAB was to develop a support system for women entrepreneurs to not only improve the quality of their products, to meet the changing market demands, but also to impart training on technical know how, design development and to create marketing links for their products.

In these two years, we have gone places, taken these women’s products abroad and so much more.

What are some of the challenges that you face while working with these women?

I feel the greatest challenge has been the sheer criticism and the social attitude that is yet to change towards women’s work and their dedication. Some of the times working with women have been challenging because their own families have not been supportive of them being independent and self sufficient.

We need a women’s bank, taking loan has been increasingly difficult. Moreover, women’s representation in businesses in yet to improve- for example there is no woman representing the FBCCI and in case of Bangladesh Better Business Forum we have one women out of 60 members.

As a woman yourself, what were some of the challenges that you faced?

Some of the greatest challenges were the fact that people did not appreciate our initiations and we had to face constant criticism- something that is very common when it comes to women stepping up. The struggle has been also evident in keeping the 2420 women that we work with.

Personally, I was lucky to have the support of my family and my husband.

What is your take on the present

political state?

I would say that the present political situation has brought a lot of changes, and we are all looking forward to the elections and to a better business environment. But, at the end of it all, like any other citizen of a country, I would like to see a democratic state as well.

How do you feel about the crisis that your family had to undergo as a result of the state of emergency?

I do not feel it is appropriate for me to speak about it. But the whole situation has been very stressful and emotionally draining. In the process, we also lost my mother-in-law and my family kept struggling to hold on and be able to carry on despite such odds. It is still very difficult to be able to cope and hang on, but I guess we have to.

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13Jun/080

Annisul Huq

How does the recent success of being elected as the FBCCI president feel? How has your life changed since then?
Winning elections can be euphoric and a humbling experience at the same time. It feels great to have won the support of the business community, but there’s also a huge sense of responsibility that pushes me 24/7. My life, today, is all about less hours of sleep, more hours of seminar, more sessions of brain storming and whirlwind meetings.

As the former BGMEA chief, what were some of the challenges that you faced?
The biggest challenge was the issue of minimum wage. In a world where we are plagued by inflation and price hikes, it’s incredibly difficult to set limits on wages. Yet, since the garments sector depends hugely on price competitiveness, there were multiple factors which had to be considered and appropriate checks and balances had to be put in place.

How do you see the worker’s unrest, clashes and the on going criticisms concerning the garment owners and the overall system?
If you closely follow the developments of workers’ unrest, you will very often realise that more stories are done on a negative incident. There is more hype on negatives and nearly zero or nothing on the positives. The unrests are at times is justified, yet there are also times when a bus tragedy has been enough to have the workers resorting to a frenzy resulting in damaging any and every factory that’s situated close to the spot. Would I call it a reasonable outburst? No.
Hence as much as all the criticisms are not well founded, there are also incidents where the factory owner has actually defaulted. There are grey areas at both the ends.

Where do you feel the problem of this on-going clash lie?
The problem of this clash lies mostly on the workers’ resentment and their inability to cope well with what they take home, at the end of the day. At the same time, the owner too, is facing a competitive world that disallows him to be more generous. The export volume may be on the rise, but the margins are all gone anyway. In such a situation, where the Catch-22 parallel can be drawn, there must be an efficient bridge between the two parties. We need to address our workers directly and not allow any other intervention to take place.

What are your views concerning the BGMEA Bhaban that was constructed o n a protected wetland in the city and is subject to a debate over whether it should be demolished? How do you think the impact will be?
The impact will not be positive for sure. The Bhaban was endorsed by two former prime ministers; the BGMEA has already been penalised for the loopholes that it earlier had. Therefore, even after legalizing, if the question of demolishing persists, the business community will be demoralised.

Before the state of emergency was imposed, a number of businessmen had requested for the state of emergency to be announced so as to bring peace in the country and bring a stop to the damages done to businesses. Where you a part of it? How do you look at the impact of this imposition today?
No businessman wants his factory to be vandalized. No businessman wants to face road blocks when he/she is attempting to export an urgent shipment. No one wants a disaster that violates the calendar of commerce. With the imposition of the emergency, hartals and road blockades had ended. But any conscious citizen opts for democracy. I am no exception to this.

What are your views concerning the present political economy in Bangladesh?
We would want more investments to pour in and this has not happened. It is natural for business communities around the world not to invest in a transitional climate and therefore sufficient FDI’s have not blessed our economy yet. With the new budget around and with the hope for the elections in December, Bangladesh may just see a new dawn in terms of economic progress. Going forward, business community would want to see timelier and a more focused negotiations and interventions from the administration in case of a crisis.

Your life as a television anchor was indeed very successful- when you look back to those times, what are the best times and lessons that you learned?
Media has taught me how to cherish spotlight and how not to let any viewer or any audience down. This has left reflections on my professional path as well. I think of any transaction as a transparent and a commitment dialogue. One can’t cheat the camera and similarly, one can’t fool the common eye either. For me, the best is only what happens today.

How did you shift away to a different sector? Do you feel it was a good decision?
I did not shift to a different sector. I was a young man back in the 80’s and media was a passion. But along with age, during mid-80’s, there were responsibilities to be taken care of and I had to choose a career. I have, in reality never disassociated myself from television. I have always been a part of that virtual reality.

Throughout the time, you have played many roles- anchor, owner of Mohammadi group, BGMEA chief, president of FBCCI and many more. Which one made you feel the happiest and satisfied? How so?
I am happiest being ‘me’. None of my roles are conflicting. They all belong to the same package. I am all of them rolled into one.

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16May/080

An abiding passion

This past week, when twenty-six-year-old Andrew Biraj picked up his phone, in the middle of his sleep, in muffled voice, he heard something that took him hours and, in fact, days to absorb. For a young photojournalist like him, the Joop Swart Masterclass grant of the World Press Photo Foundation is indeed a dream come true. ‘It is yet to sink in,’ says Biraj, a week after the news broke. ‘I am not sure how to react.’

Biraj is among the 12 journalists, aged under 30, who have been selected by the foundation from among 132 photographers of different countries, and the only photographer from Asia Pacific in the group.

Biraj is no stranger to accolades. He has bagged the first prize in the ‘Environmental Picture Story’ category of ‘Best of Photojournalism’ by the NPPA this year, bronze in the third China International Press Photo Contest 2007; second prize in the photojournalism category in the Venice International Photo Contest 2007 and a lot more.

His recent fame is not what defines him; his abiding passion for photography does. The passion began long before anyone even heard of him and finds expression in his exuberance whenever he talks about his work and years that he spent clicking away, trying, in the process, to discover and rediscover himself.

‘Had it been a profession, I would not have been able to find myself, my own identity in the photographs. I guess more than anything else, it is that zeal with which I worked that pushed me forward despite the barriers,’ he says.

Biraj focuses on people living on the fringes of social, political, and environmental spectrum. His ongoing work on ‘State Excluded’ that captures the lives of the Bihari community, the jute mill stories, or even the aftermath of cyclone Sidr bring across powerful messages and have stories to tell.

Apart from New Age, where he has been a photojournalist for about five years, his work has also been featured in reputed international papers and magazines such as The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Guardian, The Observer Magazine, Courier International, Saudi Aramaco World, and Himal Southasian.

Biraj’s interest in photography grew when he was a student of Notre Dame College. ‘Before that I had never thought of photography. I had wanted to be a truck driver. Apart from, of course, the constant struggle of being able to pass my exams at school,’ he says. ‘But when I saw my cousin’s Pentax K1000, I grew immense interest towards photography. I would hold it and click various scenes and capture random objects.’

In just a few days, Biraj knew he wanted to learn the trade and joined the South Asian Institute of Pathshala for a basic course. ‘It was also then that I began to discover the pleasures of photography. People like Shahidul Alam, Azizul Rahim Piu inspired me greatly and there was no looking back.’

Biraj would pass days going through books of photography, observing different forms and styles. ‘I realised that photography had the power to speak the thousand words. And the next step for me was to explore through my lens.’

Taking up photography as a degree was a challenge itself, says Biraj. ‘At that time – and, to some extent, even today – it was certainly not acceptable to middle-class families who prefer degrees in, say, business administration. Had it not been my mother’s support and trust, I would not have been able to move forward and be able to do it.’

He started his photography diploma in the same institute that had instilled within him the passion. While studying, in 2000, with the SLR camera that his uncle had gifted him, Biraj started out with street photography — photographing people, places, incidents and events. ‘I had the chance to travel a great deal and experiment. I took all sorts of photographs, of events, of countryside, of just inanimate objects.’

To afford the cost of photography was difficult. ‘I had to teach students and gather the money so that I could continue photography,’ he remembers. Having grown up in a middle class family it was always difficult to maintain a hobby and passion alongside education.

Later in 2001 he joined Shaptahik 2000 and in the same year, the students of Pathshala together formed a group and arranged an exhibition. The theme of the exhibition was ‘how do we see freedom’. ‘My participation in the exhibition inspired me even further.’

By 2002, Biraj had experienced a transition. ‘That was the time when I began to find myself and my values and beliefs began to be stronger and led me further.’

In 2003 was a turning point for Biraj. ‘Joining New Age gave me a new dimension to photography, because it was ready to accept photographs that break local conventions and so the scope was immense.’

At New Age, Biraj captured powerful and varied images — of city, natural disaster, people’s movements, events, glitzy shows, and on human rights.

In 2004 he finished his BA in photography on a full scholarship to the University of Bolton in the UK. ‘Coming back was a new opening. I was more flexible as I was done with studies and I had the opportunity to visit places, and capture even more varied and powerful images through the lens,’ he says.

While his award winning works define his independent style mostly in the form of photo essays, some of the powerful works he finds in his collection are the personal projects. ‘When my great grandmother was 95 and was practically counting her days, I worked with her and captured her expressions —her fine lines of age, her hands, her smile and every little expression. That work remains, till date as the most important work to me, partly because personal works tend to be more challenging.’

Biraj remembers another work of his own fondly — on cancer. ‘I was photographing this boy of my age, Shaon who was suffering from cancer. This was an assignment for Shaptahik 2000, but in the process of that work, I bonded with him so much that, it made each of the shots more meaningful. And at the end he died.’

He begins to pack up and rush to get his visa for Myanmar, where he is assigned to capture the aftermath of cyclone Nargis— a project for New York Times. So, what next? ‘It is a journey— you never know what I do, but wherever I go, I will always be back home and work here. As long as I have the zeal, both photography and I will move forward.’

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26Mar/080

‘History needs to be rewritten’

‘WHATEVER I am today is because of those days,’ she says and remains silent for a long moment. Her silence seems to take her back in time. Thirty-seven years on, the memory of the guerrilla war, the moments of desperation, the struggles, the joys of believing in a liberated Bangladesh and finally being independent are still fresh in Naila Zaman Khan’s memory.
‘It was while caring for those who were injured in the war along with my mother Sultana Zaman and sister Lubna Marium that I realised I want to be a doctor. Because that meant no one could send me back from a battle field, that meant I could be within any combat to fight for my country,’ she says, seated in her office at Dhaka Shishu Hospital. ‘I was a first-year economics student at Dhaka University back then and I had never known I would move to medicine and become a doctor – but the war certainly paved my way.’
Today Naila is not just one of the leading professors of child neurology in the country but also one of the pioneers of child development centres and a campaigner for access to health for women and children.
But more than anything else, Naila remains one of the countless war heroes. ‘From the war, I also brought back strength,’ she says. ‘The war had brought men, women, children – everyone – together, irrespective of social status, background or anything. And in many ways, women were the true heroes because we had come to realise that none of the patriarchal forces could possibly protect us – we were the most vulnerable in the war and constantly targeted and brutalised, and suddenly found that we were on our own.’
In 1971, when the war broke out, the war heroes also included countless women like Naila. In many ways, in the mainstream history, the role of women is largely ignored, denied and misconstrued, she says. ‘Our history needs to be rewritten with the role played by women recognised and recalled – every battle, every guerrilla action, every escape, every heroic act. The recognition of all those unsung heroes is still due.’
‘Perhaps we should write it,’ she says. ‘Many of our women authors have written in the guise of fiction but facts in this case would be even more brutal, barbaric and dehumanising. We need to revisit those demons, i.e. the Pakistani army and their razakar collaborators, resurrect them from our nightmares into paper.’
Naila says she cannot control her emotions when she speaks of those days, yet she travels through those moments and speaks of stories of strength, of determination and dreams of a Bangladesh. She struggles to keep her smile, and fights back tears – often of pride and inexplicable melancholy.
‘As soon as the war began, we had to leave home – my father Colonel Zaman was a sector commander and joined the troops immediately. My brother had also left for the war. My mother along with me and Lubna, had to go into hiding,’ she remembers.
Throughout April, they hid in a remote rural area in Tangail. ‘We were constantly on the run – villages would be burnt or bombed one after another, and we would have to be prepared to escape.’
At night, while still in hiding, they would listen to Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra. ‘By June we got a letter from my father asking us to come to Dhaka,’ says Naila. ‘The next week, we wore burka and travelled by bus to Dhaka and reached my uncle Siddiqur Zaman’s house. Crossing the border, by then, was an intricate work and Waheedul Huq organised the crossing.’
The war was becoming only more intense by then. ‘My mother and sister would assist the refugees near the Jessore border in the Kalyani orphanage,’ she remembers.
It was then that Naila joined the young troupe of musicians, called Bangladesh Mukti Sangrami Shilpi Shangstha, who were travelling through refugee camps and ultimately crossing the border zones into the liberated part of Bangladesh at that time.
‘We sang patriotic songs to keep up the morale of people. Through that camp we had been to Delhi to speak of our work where Bangladesh was first recognised,’ she says.
By mid-October they left Kalyani and went to Sona Masjid where Naila encountered the fiercest operations to take place.
‘We saw brutal deaths including that of Captain Jahangir’s. We brought back bodies and buried them,’ she says. Naila, along with Dr Moazzem and her mother, set up an advanced dressing station, where they treated thousands.
On the Women Development Policy, Naila says, ‘We yet again face the same struggle for equal rights. In the inheritance law, for example, women are not entitled to equal property.’
For a woman who had contributed equally as a man in bringing to life this country, how does it feel? ‘It’s a fight yet again,’ she says. ‘We must get together and ensure that we receive equity in formulation of policies, in parliament, in local governance.’

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