People have become poorer during the coronavirus pandemic, losing their employment. According to a survey of BRAC and Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), 24.5 million (2.45 crore) people have newly become poor. Has the government programme to assist them been adequate?

Surveys carried out by various organisations and individuals including CPD and SANEM revealed similar findings. The important question is, why had the state of poverty deteriorated so much in just one hit of coronavirus. The poverty estimate was faulty from beforehand. A large population has been shown to be above the poverty line and their lives hang on a fine thread. The number of people having a permanent or stable job won’t be more than 5 per cent of the population in Bangladesh. Eighty per cent of people are in a precarious situation, in uncertainty and insecurity. Initiatives taken up by the government offered nowhere near the amount of assistance required for these people during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the past, people from different strata of society, especially the affluent, stood by the distressed during any disaster. It is no longer like that. Is the sense of humanity on a wane?

No, the sense of humanity still exists. The big difference between other disasters and this one is that it is also difficult for concerned people to take up big initiatives because of tough health rules and social distancing. Despite this, we have seen that several left wing parties, student organisations, various youth groups have taken initiatives in various places of the country including Dhaka and Chattogram as much as possible or even more.

Actually it is the big parties, NGOs and business groups who always seek publicity, that strangely have fewer activities. We have tried to take up many initiatives. Like us, many people have also been involved in relief activities online. We had also tried to draw the attention of the government to the specific issues it should address to tackle coronavirus. Recommendations have been made on behalf of physicians, teachers, writers, artistes, lawyers and journalists in several phases from March to May of 2020. If these were implemented, the crisis of both treatment and earnings would decrease. And we would not see this anarchy after a year.

Do the development policies of the government protect the interest of the natural environment and human society?

Our country is enriched with biodiversity, surface water and ground water resources, fertile land and hardworking people despite being geographically small. This is the strength of Bangladesh, but all this is being destroyed by so-called development activities. ‘Development’ projects are killing the rivers, destroying forests, making people refugees. On the other hand, project costs are highest in the world. Air and water pollution also rank highest in the world. This is the consequence of the government being run by local and foreign vested groups. Look at the government’s priority projects -- a coal-fired power plant along the coastal area means increasing danger for Bangladesh. The Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant means placing this densely populated country at the risk of grave danger. If the interests of the public, the country, life and nature were taken to consideration, development policies would have been very different.

You protested against the government’s energy policy, but the government has made adequate development in the power sector.

The development in the power sector is just a slogan. Many people still don’t have access to electricity and electricity is not uninterrupted as yet. Besides, a frequent hike of power tariff affects everyone including individuals and organisations. The government’s policy is not for bringing electricity to all homes rather making way for high profit for local and foreign groups in the name of electricity.

Millions of taka is being pocketed by several groups that are sitting idle. Life-threatening high-cost destructive projects are a part of this. There are many better ways for power. We not only protested but also placed an alternative mega plan in 2017 showing how the production of sustainable, affordable, environment-friendly, safe and uninterrupted electricity is possible at every home and in the agriculture sector by increasing national capacity and using gas resources of the country and renewable energy. But the government is not interested. Everyone all over the world has been distancing from coal-fired and nuclear electricity whereas the government has been pushing Bangladesh towards this destructive path.

Almost all countries have adapted development policies to the pandemic situation. Has there been any change in the development policy of Bangladesh?

It is the aggressive global system bent on making profits that has led to this great danger like coronavirus. Everything including the seas, oceans, the atmospheres, rivers, hills and the ecology has been torn apart by the lust for profit. The world is in a distressed state because of the excessive consumption, greed and brutality of some people. More is spent on war and arms than on health and research. Militarisation and a proliferation of plastic has been taking over human beings. Breathing air and drinking water are being replaced by weapons of mass destruction and toxins. It is clear from the coronavirus outbreak that a big change will have to be made in development philosophy. And the big changes include (1) Keeping business out of the health system and increasing the responsibility of the state in this regard, (2) ensuring meaningful social safety nets with full-fledged rationing, (3) stopping all projects that are killing living beings and nature, and (4) ensuring laws to establish people’s right to expression and rights to participation at all level including in development projects.

The government has given stimulus worth Tk 1.2 trillion (1.2 lakh crore) to tackle the impact of coronavirus. Big entrepreneurs have received most of it and small ones don’t. What is the remedy?

All countries of the world have given stimulus during the coronavirus pandemic. There are a few examples like Bangladesh where the majority of the people haven’t been taken into consideration. That is why lockdown didn't work. The stimulus amount in Bangladesh is at the lowest in proportion to the country's GDP. On the other hand, only large business groups that maintain good ties with the government have got the stimulus. It is not only workers and professionals who have no income due to losing jobs but also small entrepreneurs. They are far from this stimulus. Women of these categories also face crisis during coronavirus as well as ethnic communities of the plains and the hills, but no specific arragnment has been made for them.

If there are human rights violations or infringement of freedom of expression in any country in the world, civil society protests. How how far does the civil society of Bangladesh play this role?

The government wants to stay in power by oppressing people, not with public support. Teachers, writers and journalists are going to jail or even dying for writing a single line to criticise the corruption and errors of the ruling coterie. Cartoonists and artists cannot work. Singers are going to jail for their songs. Students are being picked up from university. Crossfire, disappearance, torture in custody – nothing stops. Trial of many killings including the Twaki, Sagor-Runi and Tanu murders remain in limbo. In the name of the spirit of the liberation war, government is going quite against the spirit. This has been protested, but the protest is weaker than the attack. The big crisis is that a section of civil society leaders including teachers, writers and intellectuals has settled at various levels of power and business. They play sycophantic role, remaining silent to injustice because of gain, greed and fear. The government want to continue a reign of fear, keep people passive and making them silent puppet. Our responsibility is to eliminate this fear, become active and vocal and increase the number of people instead of the puppets.

* Sohrab Hassan is a joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

*This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Hasanul Banna