The Good, the Bad, and the Uncertain

Will 2024 bring a better life for the teeming millions in Bangladesh?Reuters file photo

Another year has zipped past, as years tend to nowadays, and we've stepped into another year filled with its fair share of hope, fear and promises of a bumpy ride ahead. The only predictable aspect of the year, perhaps, is its unpredictability. Looking back in retrospect, and looking ahead in anticipation, we see some good, some bad and a continuous cascade of uncertainty.

Commute moves forward

For those who live in the outer peripheries or Dhaka city and have to commute to the centre for work, or vice versa, the Elevated Expressway and the Metro Rail have come as manna from heaven. An arduous trip to office would take a couple of hours due to traffic congestion, pitiful traffic management and general chaos prevailing on the streets. But now with the expressway and metro rail, the commute has been cut down to 15 to 20 minutes max. Miraculous, marvelous and a penny-saver too. "When I reach office now, I'm all revved up and ready to work," said a young co-worker who recently started using the Metro Rail, "Before I'd arrive all sweaty, hassled and in a bad mood, hardly in a condition to drum up enthusiasm to work. Energy drained before the day even begins and then dreading the journey back home." His words echo the sentiment of many denizens of the capital Dhaka.

The elevated highway offers the same sense of relief to those who can use it, as does Padma Bridge or the tunnel that'll take you to the other side, under the river Karnaphuli.

The flip side

That goes for the good part of the year that was and the year that is and the year to be, where commuting is concerned. But there is the bad side too. Communication is not all about speeding down the expressway or hopping onto the metro rail. The man below continues to chase the overcrowded rusty monstrosities called buses, and other forms of dilapidated transport, where he is squeezed in tighter than a sardine in a tin. It is worse for the woman who is groped, pinched and sexually harassed aboard crowded buses and other public transport. Rape on moving buses, hitherto unheard of in Bangladesh, pops up in the news too nowadays, a sordid, cruel and horrific side of commute.

Then there are the road accidents. Bangladesh continues to have a record in this area, with an average of 64 persons losing their lives a day in road accidents, resulting in an annual death toll of 25,000, according to Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity (Bangladesh Passenger Welfare Association). Other than the sheer trauma and tragedy that ensues, in economic terms this costs a 5.3 per cent loss to the GDP, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), as over half of the victims are the earners of the family. The bottom line is that, non-elevated lives matter too.

The bills to pay

Uncertainty lies in how to pay the bills. All these mega projects come with a price. There is the proverbial debt trap, and that that's not only about China, by the way. How to pay the bills? Depleting forex reserves, flagging remittance, dwindling investments and a banking sector on the brink of disaster, do not paint a pretty picture. Will the new government (no prizes for guessing who it will be) have a pragmatic plan up its sleeves for a solution as smooth as the bright and beautiful highways? We can only hope.

A resurgence of politics

Given the decade and a half rule of the Awami League government, politics in the true sense seemed to have gone into hibernation. The opposition seemed to have been assailed by a political fatigue. The major opposition party BNP, no less in size and support than Awami League, had ostensibly sunk into oblivion. Its leader Khaleda Zia was incarcerated and ailing. The next in command Tarique Rahman remained in exile. Public appearances of the others were few and far between.

Some political pundits ominously predict a one-party rule with the semblance of a multi-party system, a cursory opposition in place. How does that bode for democracy? It does not bode well at all, not even for the hybrid variety

Then in 2023, the party shrugged off that ennui and took up a movement in full swing and full force, demanding the government's resignation and elections under a caretaker arrangement. BNP secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir and co, were up in arms, holding massive rallies, human chains, meetings and processions, peaceful and non-violent, and drawing in the crowds. Other smaller parties, enthused by BNP, also joined the movement and politics was back with a bang. In that sense, it was a positive year for politics.

Then the bad side crept in. As it is, all along the political programmes of the opposition had been hindered by counter programmes of Awami League and its affiliates. Rallies were attacked, leaders and activists were assaulted, and the law enforcement apparently donned a more partisan role, either looking on in silence or joining in the offensive. However, the opposition proved to be refreshingly resilient and level-headed. But then all hell broke loose on 28 October when BNP was staging its grand rally in the capital city.

The ruling camp felt things were a bit too hunky-dory for the opposition. They swooped down and used force, sound grenades, tear gas and everything at their disposal to disrupt and disperse the BNP rally. Top leaders of the party like Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, Mirza Abbas and others were picked up and placed behind bars. Old cases were revived against other leaders and new charges filed. The courts functioned in full throttle, sending one leader after the other to prison. It continues.

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What lies ahead?

Once the election is over, what will the fate be of these leaders and the political opposition as a whole? Some political pundits ominously predict a one-party rule with the semblance of a multi-party system, a cursory opposition in place. How does that bode for democracy? It does not bode well at all, not even for the hybrid variety.

But will the opposition and the people swallow this down without as much as a hiccup? What about the West, so vocal in its disapproval so far? The Awami League camp says it will be back to business once the elections are over and the West will pull its claws back in. But political analysts do not see such complacence on the cards. So will there be more sanctions, harsher action? Time will tell.

The good, the bad, and the uncertain

This weaving and wavering through the good, bad and the uncertain continues in all sectors. IMF released two tranches of the much-needed loans. Good. Bangladesh is hardly prepared to meet the conditions for release of further tranches. Bad. Will IMF be so pliable this time? Highly unlikely. Hence the uncertainty.

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Education saw new systems for a supposedly more creative and effective system of studies. Good. Neither the schools nor the teachers are equipped to impart lessons to the students under the new system. Bad. Will all this bring an improvement to the inadequate system of education? Uncertain.

Questions pile up on the near horizon. Will the media find a voice or remain gagged? Will the gag be tighter? Will the gap between the rich and poor grow even wider, or will the disparity be assuaged to an extent? Will the money launderers continue to siphon off their ill-gotten gains overseas? Will banks continue to be plundered? Will hard earned remittance continue to be squandered by manipulators of mega projects? Will the educated youth still remain unemployed? Will drug dealing kingpins fuel their frustration? Will the rule of law not reign? Will victims of climate change continue to be displaced? Will Dhaka grow into a bigger slum? Will children still beg on the streets? Will bribes grow bigger and ethics fall lower? The questions continue ad infinitum.

American poet Robert Frost said, "In three words I can sum up everything I have learned about life. It goes on." Yes, life goes on. But can it go on in this manner? Will the poor continue to drag their lives through the dregs and dirt of survival, while the wealthy wine and dine on the Swiss Alps and the French Riviera? Maybe not. Justice has a way of settling the score. What goes around, comes around.

* Ayesha Kabir is head of Prothom Alo's English news web

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