The hassle faced by people at utility service delivery points or the helpless wait of the families around offices of the law enforcement authorities in search of their missing relatives, indicates the character of the state.
Who would believe this state was formed by the people through a long struggle including an armed war only 47 years ago? And this is a nation named the ‘People’s Republic of Bangladesh’.
A true citizen is expected to hate corruption and be committed to honesty, protest against misdeeds, uphold rights and accept critics as well-wishers.
The authorities constitute just a small per cent of a country, the rest are the general people, the “unseen”, Syed Abul Maksud observed in an article a decade ago. These “unseen” masses, he wrote, decide the character of a country through their works, aspirations and practices.
When each citizen as a the micro unit of the state expects the best services as well as fair and just behaviour from the state, represented by the government, run by a group, the responsibility of individuals is hardly witnessed.
It is a common scene in Dhaka city to see people cross roads carelessly, to spit at random, litter their surroundings and urinate by the roadsides.
“These are not signs of mature and well-behaved citizens,” Jahangir Hossain, a businessman in his late 40s, from Mirpur-1, said when asked about public behaviour. “Abiding by the laws of the land is a priority as we want to raise our children in a better environment.”
Some people smoke in public places in violation of the law when there is no enforcement of the law. The smokers show no respect to the law, to other people or to the environment.
The issue of responsibility of the citizens came to the fore when high school students took over enforcing traffic rules, after two students in Dhaka were hit and killed by a bus.
Many people of the older generation, no matter where they were working, have become indifferent to the mayhem on the streets, roads and highways as reflected in the frequent road accidents that claim hundreds of lives. Apart from acknowledging the necessity of improving governance on the roads, the government emphasises the need for responsible behaviour of the citizens.
A 40-year-old corporate official, Nayeem Tanoy, recalled that when he was growing up in Dhaka, his father taught him how to use the pavement and asked not to cross the yellow lines while driving.
“Those days, I used to discuss such issues with my school friends and boasted about knowing the rules and regulations. But this is not the case today,” he said adding that these days people from all walks of life just criticise the rules instead of following them and blame others.
However, both Jahangir and Tanoy believe expecting the people to behave properly is not a one-way trip.
“Authorities must also learn how to behave well. People will throw trash all over if there’s no garbage can nearby. There also have to be an adequate number of public toilets,” said Tanoy.
Jahangir referred to soil and sand piled up on the roadsides during construction work or the filth left lying in the open after cleaning drains and sewerages. He said, “How can you expect good citizens when the people in authority themselves are not behaving like responsible citizens?”
A responsible citizen is someone who is respectful of everyone’s fundamental freedoms irrespective of identity or status, according to Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) executive director Iftekharuzzaman.
By ‘fundamental freedoms,’ he referred to basic human rights as well as civil and political rights enshrined in the constitution, drawn from ‘the true spirit of our liberation war’, not the types used for political mileage or other forms of personal gain at the expense of others.
“A responsible person realises the implications of these fundamental rights beyond self-interest; it is someone who practices, protects and promotes these rights to the best of capacity consistent with the position and status the person holds," Iftekharuzzaman added.
Selim Rahman, a school teacher from Ishwardi, Pabna, admires “a well-informed, morally upright person, who protests against unjust activities.”
“We need citizens who honour sovereignty of the country, cast votes with honesty, pay taxes on time, rear children in a proper manner and respect other’s opinions,” he shared his thinking over telephone.
The teacher regretted that politicisation of the administrative and legal regime and stopping people from expressing their opinion are “in no way helpful for building responsible public.”
Iftekharuzzaman added, the most challenging obstacle to creating an environment for responsible citizenship is “a deep-seated confrontational political culture obsessed with power and devoid of values, ideologies and public interest.”
Today, such citizens appear to be hostage to a cut-throat zero-sum game of politics, he laments. “The way out lies in value-driven politics, anchored in enlightened public interest.”