The government constantly spews out rhetoric about Bangladesh being a role model, but all over we see death traps -- from Nimtali-Churihatta to Banani, from the streets to the buildings, from factories to offices, the roads, the pavements everywhere. These incidents reveal how people’s lives and property are destroyed by the full-fledged support for the relentless pursuit of profit and wealth.
It’s a set pattern where an event occurs, rescue work is carried out, there are threats and warnings, committees are formed, reports are promised and then everything falls back into that dark chasm of nothingness.
Every year around 7,000 people are killed on the roads. These untimely deaths, the grief, the bodies piling up every day – does nothing of this matter? The manner in which this vicious cycle continues year after year, nothing really seems to matter.
Buildings had been erected on landfills all over, in place of the canals, marshes and open fields. Last year RAJUK carried out an inspection, finding 150,000 of the 200,000 buildings in the city to be faulty. No measures were taken. In 2010 the High Court directed the government to set up a National Building Code Enforcement Agency to oversee all the construction work in the country, but that has not been done. Billions of taka is allocated to keep the people under surveillance, but there is no adequate allocation to ensure safety of factories, buildings, roads and other sectors, there is nothing done to address the lack of equipment, manpower etc.
Rivers are the life of Bangladesh. Encroachment and pollution have rendered these rivers into mere drains. In 2009, the High Court issued a 12-point directive to prevent encroachment of the rivers around Dhaka. Another High Court verdict in 2011 was issued against dumping waste into the rivers. Random steps may have been taken here and there, but these directives have not been implemented in all these years. It really doesn’t matter that these directives have virtually been delegated to the wastepaper basket.
Dhaka has set a record in air pollution too, the worst in the world. This has been caused by unplanned brickfields cropping up all over, exhaust from old vehicles, less trees, dead or polluted rivers, disappearing canals, open spaces being encroached upon, and so on. The fallout of all this cannot be noticed overnight. People’s lungs, hearts, brains and all organs are being poisoned. Children are being crippled by this pollution. Ailments increase and so do health costs. Life force is dwindling. The trend of ‘development’ is the outcome of this toxic surge. Pure and safe air to breathe, safe drinking water, safe food, a safe life – all this is now going out of the people’s reach. Does it matter at all to the government?
The ‘unprecedented’ election of 30 December has been followed by a trail of elections run on this model. In the city corporation polls, the DUCSU election, the upazila elections – everywhere the ballot boxes have been stuffed on the night before, voters were obstructed from going to the polling centres and the administration, party and law enforcement all join hands to ensure the predetermined results. There was no resistance other than in the DUCSU elections, for which the government-backed student front has lashed out in violence. The people are thus moving away from voting, boycotting this strange farce of elections. In bringing the election system under full control, the entire system has crashed, the institutions have been rendered ineffective. Does it matter at all to the government?
At the outset of 2009, there was 220 billion taka in default loans in the banking sector. Towards the end of 2018, loan defaults have increased to almost 940 billion taka. And written-off loans stand at around 380 billion taka. That means there are 1.3 trillion taka default loans in the banking sector. To solve this problem, the finance minister has decided to facilitate the loan defaulters further. By depositing a down payment of only 2 per cent of the total loan, the default loan will be regularised. The remaining dues will have to be repaid over a span of 12 years. Simple interest will be only 9 per cent. This penalises those who regularly repay their loans, and rewards the defaulters.
The banking sector has been handed over to the hands of a few persons and billions of taka are being looted and transferred out of the country. This is crippling the economy, but dos that matter to the government?
The costs of gas and electricity are constantly being pushed up unjustly to facilitate LNG, LPG and the power business. This has pushed up expenses in the agro-industry and in households.
Looking after the interests of other countries, too, has pushed this country towards peril. There is the danger of nuclear power which has no bounds. Given the dense population of the country, and the dependence on the water and croplands, this danger is more than anywhere else in the world. There is no clear cut provision for disposal of nuclear waste. The government is on one hand insisting that there will be no accidents at the Rooppur nuclear power plant, but on the other hand has drawn up a law granting impunity to the persons involved in this project of Russia and India.
Then there is the Rampal coal-fired power plant that poses as a threat to the Sundarbans mangrove forest and all its biodiversity. Centring this project, certain quarters have grabbed the forests and lands in the area to set up over a hundred commercial ventures around the Sundarbans. The government has also approved of coal-fired power plants in Maheskhali, Barguna and Patuakhali, putting the forests, which protect the coastal areas, at risk.
Bangladesh is one of the countries hardest hit by climate change. By setting up coal-fired power plants in the coastal areas, the government is making matters even worse. In the meantime, Asia Energy or GSM is illegally using the Phulbari coal mine to do business in the London share market, while the government back here is signing a deal with Power China for this mine. This is how the country is being run! It doesn’t really matter to the government, does it?
In a country where warehouses are not relocated from Old Dhaka even 10 years after over a hundred people died, where people are meeting untimely deaths, where high rises are shooting up one after the other in total violation of the regulations, where unfit and unlicensed vehicles are killing thousands of people ever year, it is little wonder that nuclear power plants are being declared risk-free! The government which has failed to prevent the river by the side of the secretariat from being reduced to a mere drain, now proclaims that even burning 4.7 million tonnes of coal every year will not harm the Sundarbans. Who will be held responsible when it happens? From their attitude it is clear that nothing of this matters to the powerful.
All that matters is the GDP numbers and gleeful smiles of those raking in the commissions.
* Anu Muhammad is an economist and professor of economics at Jahangirnagar University. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir