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A forgotten craft

The clanging sound of blacksmiths and metal workers was once a distinct part of the beautiful sounds that make up the rhythm of rural or small towns of Bangladesh. Although oblivious to many, metal craft has been an important part of Bangladesh’s artistic tradition. The art of metal craft dates back to 3000 B.C when skilled artisans indulged themselves in making some of the greatest masterpieces of time. Each sculpture included elaborate and detailed designing. The beautiful figurine of a dancing girl belonging to the Indus Valley civilization or the magnificently sculptured deities or merely the intricately designed Nakshi bowl indicate the high-level of workmanship and skill attained by ancient craftsman.

Despite the richness and exclusivity of these metal crafts, today, the legacy of this art-form is becoming extinct. It’s a pity that a large number of Bangladeshis themselves have very low level or no awareness of the existence of such art-form while a good number of foreigners seem to appreciate this rich heritage to a great degree. Every year they visit the main centre for metal casting in Bangladesh. Located 20km North of Dhaka, Dhamrai, is a glimpse of hope for reviving this lost art-form. This particular region was once the living testimony of metal craft where almost every family was involved in this art-form using unique 2000 year old techniques.

With the passage of time and introduction of inexpensive machine made aluminum and plastic products, many families involved in metal craft shifted away from this sector. Today the metal art has almost vanished but despite that, there are still chances of reviving this rich heritage of Bangladesh. It’s especially true, when you walk inside the beautiful village called Dhamrai. As you walk past every road, every nook and every corner, you know that the struggle and hope of people to keep this craft alive has yet not died away. The village in itself is a mere reflection of rich heritage- the temples, the majestic houses of older times and the distinct sound of the metal work which keep the rhythm of the beauty of village intact. A perfect example of a family who has struggled to revive this rich heritage is the Banik Family. Involved in the craft for more than 200 years, for Baniks it’s more of a bond and something with which they have seen time pass by.

‘I grew up hearing the clanging sound of metal beating and testing. My everyday life has been associated with this art,’ says Shukanto Banik. Young, energetic and undoubtedly passionate, Shukanto is the man who is determined to revive the lost art of metal casting. While studying Political Science, Shunkanto helped his uncle and father in the family business. It was during this time that metal craft industry experienced a sharp decline. After the death of his uncle, Shunkanto took over the responsibility of managing the business in 2000. By then, most people had lost hope in this sector. Many started shifting to other profitable businesses.

‘There was a time when I didn’t have money to even produce something. It was my mother who gave me 8000 taka to restart the business. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve such heights of success especially when I was one of the handful of people trying to revive the metal craft that had experienced an extremely sharp decline.’

It was then that Shukanto started from the scratch with the handful of craftsmen who knew the true skill of metal craft. He maintained the quality and the ancient process of handmade metal craft and at the same time introduced contemporary sculptures as well.

‘What makes some of the masterpieces stand out is the use of lost wax method which is not widely used. A distinct feature of this method is that it can only be used once. Therefore a particular piece cannot be copied exactly as we do not use any shapes to clone objects.’

Indeed, Lost Wax method is a very ancient method which has withstood the centuries, visually telling the tale of past cultures, their religion and social structures. Most of these casting symbolized deities and religious sculptures. Shunkanto’s work today evolves from different sculptures of Pal Empire, religious figures and also contemporary and everyday objects with elaborate designs.

Shukanto moved on working on every detail with his excellent team of workers. The result has been worth it. In the last few years, Dhamrai Metal craft Industry has captured the attention of many international buyers and others. Today, a large number of these works are being imported by Western Europe, USA, India etc.
‘I must thank Mathew S Friedman, my friend and guide,’ says Shukanto, ‘He didn’t only appreciate this rich heritage but helped me portray the skill and art of metal craft in different International clubs and organizations. He also wrote a book on the Metal Crafting titled ‘Bangladesh Metal Casting-Five Techniques’.

To help revive this art-form, the US embassy and many others who believed in this art and realised the true essence of this heritage came together and worked on keeping the Metal casting industry alive. To portray the metalcraft and revive the lost tradition an exhibition was held recently at the Bengal Art Gallery.

This exhibition portrayed some of the masterpieces of all time. Shunkanto managed to strike a good balance in highlighting the religious sculptures such as Radha and Krisna, Ganesh and at the same time the Pal Empire and other objects such as animals, bowls, candleholders and such. One of the most attractive item that captured various visitors was an immense traditional Indian Chess set- Satranj. The chess set worth more than 1 lakh once again highlighted the delicate designing and above all the true traditional art. Other exclusive items which were bought by not only foreigners but also Bangladeshis included Shiva Parvati, Nataraj, and Wedding Procession. Each of these pieces highlight the extraordinary skill and time that are put in the making of them. Its incredible how smallest of items like the deity sculptures or even ordinary objects take about three months and involve processes in exactly the traditional manner.

When you look at each of these items, you can see not only the creative ideas involved but also the kind of passion and dedication with which each of these items are produced, and how each of the sculptures and items speak of the past heritage. Shunkanto’s work today involves much of the contemporary touch and summation of different cultures yet he maintains the flair of metal craft that his older generation had passed on. It’s not only for Shukanto but also the rest of us Bangladeshis moral responsibility to revive this lost art that builds up an important part of the true Bangladeshi essence of art.

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‘A government driver and peon gets paid more than a primary school teacher’

Since her childhood, Kalpana Khatun had heard of the honour and prestige of being a teacher. She dreamt of being standing before a bunch of vibrant children and shape them through their impressionable years into the great men and women they were going to be. And she struggled hard to turn her dreams into reality.

‘I belonged to a very poor family where I was expected to do household and agricultural work and eventually get married. But I had my own dreams ever since childhood, dreamt of being a respected person, an honourable teacher,’ says Khatun, who completed her degree and made her way to become a primary school teacher.

It’s been now twelve years since she has been teaching in a Government Primary School in Tangail. Over the years her perception and passion towards teaching has changed a great deal. The job that she felt gave her so much prestige is now a job that has become a cause of great distress to her.

Like other teachers Khatun’s work starts early in the morning and goes on till late afternoon. ‘I have to wake up early in the morning and feed my children and be at school at 8 am. It’s a lot of hard work as we have to teach in two shifts. I get a half an hour break and teach till 4.15 at noon. My husband left us about six years ago and I have to feed my three children and the remuneration I get is not enough to maintain my living costs,’ says Khatun who lives in a cramped house with two rooms, one of which doubles as a kitchen.

‘I constantly live in the fear of not being able to pay the house rent and sustain the day to day expenses. There is so much uncertainty involved even with my own children’s education. On one hand if I pay for the daily expenditure and education expenses, I do not have enough to pay the house rent. If I can’t pay the rent where will I go with my children?’ asks Khatun helplessly.

It these distressful conditions in the lives of primary and community schoolteachers that has prompted last week’s indefinite strike by them. The 37,000 teachers who have called a fast-unto-death programme have left over 30,000 primary schools in the country closed this week, in their demand for better pay.

‘A government employed driver gets a higher salary than we do. Moreover, we receive much less than any other government teachers. The discrimination is simply intolerable and we have waited enough. This time we want a change’ demands Khatun.

Had the teachers thought years back that the state of schools and the remuneration structure would not improve, perhaps the number of teachers entering the primary schools would have not have increased as much as it has today.

It was years back when the government recognising the importance of primary education, made universal primary education a major objective of its educational development plans, which focused on increasing access to school, improving teacher training, and revising the primary school curricula. As a result, in the mid 80’s the country saw a significant rise in the primary government schools across the country. At present there are about 37,000 government primary schools across the country employing about 1.8 lakh teachers.

Although the introduction of compulsory primary education seemed to bring a ray of light to the nation and it is supposedly an important element of government expenditure and policy making, the primary teachers are not paid anywhere close the amount paid to other government officials be it high school teachers, workers or even a clerk. “In spite of having the same qualifications, a government high school teacher gets Tk 5,100 per month while a government primary school teacher receives Tk 2,600 only,’said Kazi AK Fazlul Haque, general secretary of the association of primary school teachers.

‘The wage discrimination is so acute even in the higher posts. A headmaster gets only Tk 2,850 per month while a government high school headmaster receives Tk 9,000,’ he added.

He also urged the government to introduce school-based examinations at the primary school level for greater interest of primary school students and teachers. Now the examinations of government primary schools are held under Thana Education Officers (TEO).

‘Primary school teachers should prepare questions for the examinations because the teachers know the ability of the students,’ says Harun-ur-Rashid, treasurer of the association.

While the condition of primary schools in Dhaka is moderately endurable, the conditions of schools in other parts of the country are atrocious, say teachers.

‘Electricity is a major problem and most days students have to do classes out in the open,’ says Mansoor Huq, who is a teacher for the past eight years at a primary school in Gazipur.

‘Primary schools are meant to encourage children to learn and have fun. But the classroom in which they study is grimy and suffocating. During the monsoon the rain enters through the roof which go unrepaired for years despite repeated requests,’ he added. Like thousands of other primary school teachers across the nation, the low remuneration affects his family badly, he says.

‘I am not able to get my oldest daughter married yet as I am having difficulty managing the daily expenditure of maintaining a good standard of living for my two other daughters, wife and my parents,’ says Huq, tired of waiting for a pay raise and improvement in living condition for the past years.

‘Although we play a vital role in teaching children how to become good citizens and work hard in bringing about a more educated future for them, our contribution is never recognised. It’s truly a pity that even government drivers get more paid then us. Is this the kind of respect and honour we deserve to get after being qualified and being a teacher?’ asks Jamal Uddin, one of the teachers.

With the passage of years at various times the desperate cries of teachers like Mansoor, Kalpana and Jamal has been left unheard. The state of the primary schools and mainly the remuneration of these teachers have become a matter of prime concern.

‘There is no other choice left for us other than going on an indefinite strike as the government did not take any measure to meet our demands even after we had observed a strike in all government primary schools on June 10,’ Abul Kalam Azad told the rally.

According to him, a 20-member team from the association met Prime Minister Khaleda Zia on October 20 last year and she assured them of taking effective measures to eliminate wage discrimination. ‘But the government did not take any step to meet our demands even after eight months of the PM’s assurance,’ he said.

The rally of teachers took place in Central Shahid Minar and Muktangan where thousands of teachers from different parts of the country gathered carrying banners, festoons and placards. They also submitted a memorandum to the prime minister through Acting Speaker of the Parliament Akhter Hamid Siddiqui. At the rally, leaders of the association vowed to continue their strike at government primary schools until their demands are met. Furthermore, they said they will lay a siege to the Prime Minister’s Office on June 24 if their demand for increasing their salary are not met within seven days. Although discussions with the state minister has taken place, no specific assurance has been given.

This unresolved situation and indefinite strike has put the future of around one crore primary school-going students into jeopardy. Though most of the schools were kept under lock and key, a few primary schools in the capital were seen open with classes in progress. A teacher of Mirpur Government Primary School said they did not want to hamper the students’ academic life. Most schools at Tejgaon, Moghbazar, Mohammadpur, Sutrapur, and Demra in Dhaka remained open; some schools at Motijheel and Mirpur were locked up.

An assistant teacher of the BG Press Government Primary School at Tejgaon, Saidur Rahman, said ‘We do not want to affect the lives of these students. The closure of schools is affecting thousands of children’s education. We prefer movement only when the schools remain closed.’

‘The association, led by Azad, launched the programme all on a sudden with an ill motive,’ he said. ‘Education at primary schools has been severely hampered. Foreign donations depend mostly on the results of primary scholarships. If the schools remain closed for days, how will the students do better in the examinations?’

‘Children usually do not want to go to school and we always try so that they love going to school. If the students find their school closed without any reason, it would discourage them. Apart from general strikes, there are so many other reasons for keeping schools closed which only hampers education. Unfortunately, the teachers have now gone on a strike. They could continue their agitation programme on public holidays to push for their demands,’ said a concerned parent.

The country in the last few years has seen a drastic drop in school enrolment in the primary level. With such unresolved issues and closure of some 37,000 schools across the nation, the students are being adversely affected. If this continues on, it is feared that drop out rates may slowly rise.

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Forgotten children, forgotten dreams

Many years ago his mother had left him at the platform of Sadarghat. She had given him his favourite ‘butter bun’ and promised to be back by dusk. He waited until evening gave way to night, but she never came back. For him the memory of that day is vague but the dull pain stays. He doesn’t remember what happened next or how he ended up working from dawn to dusk in a drab shoe factory in Lalbagh. It’s been about five years since Saadul Islam started working for a living, and most days, he is happy to make do with a little extra sleep.

At the beginning he would scavenge things from rubbish and try to sell them and spend most of the nights on the roadsides or railway stations. Later, he was adopted by a family and he grew up there. But in exchange of the shelter they gave him he had to work and pay for the household expenses. The journey of hard labour started for him.

‘I had to wake up early in the morning and go to work. I had to carry heavy loads of goods up to five floors and down. It was a risky job and I got injured many times. I was constantly scared of losing my balance and falling off the stairs of the top floor’ says Saadul.

Soon he left the work which paid him a pittance compared to the hard work he had to put in, but this brought new troubles. He was often beaten at home for not being able to earn. ‘He was threatened to be kicked out if he didn’t get back to the work and bring in money. He was miserable. He was beaten up at home and asked to leave. He pleaded me to get him a job and finally I got him a work at a shoe factory,’ said Aslam, a neighbour who took pity on Saadul and gave him a job. ‘I helped him because I had spent my childhood in the streets working as a rubbish picker, tea-seller and in many other cruel and hard professions and I didn’t want him to suffer the way I and thousands of other children suffer.’

So, the fear of being abandoned again dragged Saadul back to the life of working day and night without any respite.

Like Saadul, there are countless numbers of children who do not know the true joy of childhood, the pleasures of being pampered or loved. Today Saadul works in a dinghy shoe factory till about three or four in the morning. ‘It’s a lot of hard work. Sometimes I don’t get any sleep. I have to work from dawn and it’s very tiring. Most of the time I suffocate from the smell of the gas and paint. After work, I also have to pack the shoes and take the van to Islambagh,’ says the gutsy twelve-year-old. Despite the hard work Saadul tries to look at the brighter side. ‘I get Tk 600 per month which is a lot more than what I used to get. Besides, my family wont kick me out of the house now.’

Unbeknownst to us, we come across children like Saadul involved in different forms of hard labour, children who tolerate extreme forms of cruelty and misery, almost everyday. You can see them almost everywhere in the bazaar, commercial areas, bus terminals, hotels, parks, on the pavements, around the stadiums, gutters and in the hundreds in Dhaka slums. Most children live on streets and try to earn money in any possible way, be it through collecting garbage, breaking bricks, pulling rickshaws, serving tea, begging, scrounging or even through prostitution and petty crimes like pick-pocketing.

Saadul is one of hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi children who face a miserable plight at such an early stage in their lives.

The life of ten-year-old Shujon is not a very happy one either. Although he has a family, he has been working for the last four years, first as a tea seller and now in an aluminium factory. ‘I have to work because my father drinks and my mother works as a maid and it’s not enough to serve the family’, explained Shujon. ‘I want to go to school and study and become a doctor, but if I go to school who will look after my family?’ Shujon’s dreams seem to fade away with each passing day of hard labour at the aluminium factory, despite having a family, poverty seems to be a major reason behind his predicament.

Recent trends suggest that child labour is increasing at a drastic rate and a factor behind the drastic rise is the lack of job opportunities for adults; consequently a good number of factories prefer employing children as that ‘reduces their production cost due to cheaper wage’. Sources from International Programme on Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), a project of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), points out that employers running small factories are usually keen to employ more children for cheap labour and although a bilateral agreement has been signed among various unions and employers, the number of child labourers has not gone down in the country.

The exploitation of child labour is rampant. Millions of working children, unable to assert themselves, have no collective bargaining power and are usually unaware of their rights. They are made to work long hours and frequently under inhuman conditions. An employer in a motor repairing shop said, ‘They are nimble and have keen eye sight, eat less food and their size enables them to crawl in small spaces, and best of all, they cost less to employ.’

The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics(BBS) in the National Survey of Child Labour 2003 shows that among approximately 42.8 million children, aged between 5-17, in Bangladesh, 7.4 million are engaged in some sort of economic activity. On the other hand, 3.2 million children are directly selling their labour to earn a living, Moreover, 1.3 million children are engaged in the worst forms of child labour that leads to adverse effects on the child’s health, physical and mental developments. These hazardous forms of labour are mostly at chemical factories, leather factories, matches workshops, welding, domestic work etc.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) Asian Child Labour Report, published in 1999, there are some 40 industries in Bangladesh which use child labour, often under hazardous conditions and with little regard for health and safety. Children have been injured while engaged in underground mining, in maritime work and while operating or cleaning machinery in motion. Child workers are regularly exposed to dangerous levels of dust, gases, fumes, heat and noise. Muscular-skeletal and respiratory-related ailments are common among these child workers.

The elimination of such great numbers of child labour seems impossible. Surveys show that average household income includes about 20-23 per cent contribution of child labour. If child labours is to be eliminated, then this percentage of income needs to be provided in some form. For example an innovative programme introduced by BRAC was the ‘Targeting the Ultra Poor’ in 13 districts across the nation. The aim of the programme is to transfer assets such as cows, goats and other forms of income to families in exchange of reducing child labour.

The impact of this is yet to be seen, especially with so many factors such as lack of awareness, socially acceptable norm of having children working, and the lack of proper policy making, the elimination of child labour seems far fetched.

It must be noted that the introduction of Learning Centres offering informal education for working children seems to be an innovative way to improve the state of child labour. ‘Aparajeyo-Bangladesh has given me the chance to experience a great life at their learning centre. Although I don’t get to attend most classes due to workload, the only thing I look forward to in a week are these classes where I not only get to learn but also meet my friends,’ says Saadul. ‘Maybe someday I can study full time and become a rich businessman.’

“This kind of informal education has been designed especially for these children who cannot be enrolled in formal schooling. The programme includes a chain of strategies whereby we start from the street children who are enrolled in these learning centres, once a child does noticeably well and attends classes, we shift them to other centres which include food and shelter facilities, vocational training etc,’ explains Evan the programme Manager for Aparajeyo-Bangladesh, an NGO that has been working to help working children find a foothold in life.

With the help of UNICEF who provided us with educational books, we are trying to at least ease the working condition of these children and provide them with some amount of informal education and awareness,’ he adds. Dhaka Ahsania Mission has also been providing non-formal education to children involved in hazardous work. The aim is to prepare them to join the mainstream education system after they are through with the one-year free education provided by these centres. There are a lot of organisations who are sensitive about this issue and are implementing programmes to help working children. The battle is an uphill one, however, as very little progress seems to have been made in eliminating child labour.

‘With so many factors at hand, child labour cannot be eliminated in the years to come. So we have tried to introduce certain code of conduct that reduces harmful elements at work (implemented recently in KuriGram and underway at Lalbagh) and ensures reduction in workload, timing etc that would at least ease the work for children” says Khodadad Hossain Sarker, a programme manager at Save the Children, UK.

‘We have plenty of formal policy objectives in the country but what we need is an informal policy objective for Child Labour,’ he adds. Indeed, the country lacks a proper policy objective or focus. Although an informal policy on child labour was made in draft format, it is yet to be finalised. It is important to note, that although the government has made primary education mandatory since 1993, the school enrolment figures are not satisfactory. ‘A poor family looks at the opportunity cost of sending a child to school, their logic tells them that the time put in school could earn them at least Tk 100 if they worked. Moreover, there are certain elaborate criteria set out for the enrolment which cannot be satisfied by most children; with the irregularity, poor quality and minimum amount of money involved in primary schooling, the shift of number of Child Labour in worst forms of trade is on the hike,’ says one researcher working on the issue of child labour.

Across from every plush apartment complex and multi-storied shopping mall in Dhaka, in dilapidated factories and crowded bus ports there are children like Saadul and Shujon who long for a day without labour. With their big brown eyes they look around their surrounding yearning for a better tomorrow, a day without work. They smile through tears and hard work and hope against every hope. As the eight year old Rahima puts it ‘Someday, I will become a judge and send everyone who makes us work to jail.’ These are the forgotten children of our country who despite all odds have not forgotten their dreams for a better day, a better life.

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