It is the misfortune of the people of Bangladesh that before the lingering excitement of a grand event can fade, a deluge of sad news rushes forth. When the Padma Bridge was inaugurated on 25 June this year, it was felt that this time the people of the south would be able to travel home at ease and celebrate Eid in peace. It would even make an affordable and easy journey for those travelling to Kuakata, the Sundarbans or Kolkata to spend their Eid vacation. Those who crossed the bridge to go south on 26 June, did so speedily and unhindered. We hope their return will be equally good.
But not everyone in Bangladesh will travel across the Padma Bridge. The large number of people who are travelling home on other routes, are facing all sorts of suffering and hassle. The newspapers and television show people being shoved ignominiously through the windows into trains, like bags and baggage. Many are even travelling on the roofs of the trains. Even so, they travel home to enjoy Eid with their families. These people may live in the cities for livelihood, but the cities do not take them as one of their own.
Then again, there is a large section of these working people who cannot go home for Eid as they haven’t received their wages and allowances. On Friday, Prothom Alo reported that not all factories' workers have been paid their wages and allowances. Till Thursday, 56.56 per cent of the factories had paid the June wages. And 84.34 had paid bonus. The factory owners reason, if they are paid both wages and bonus in full, the workers will stay back at their homes for long. This will hamper the factory production. The workers are not asking for advance wages. It is their right to be paid the wages for the month they have worked. The owners only see their own interests. Every Eid the owners come up with all sorts of excuses. If they paid the wages and allowances earlier, the workers wouldn’t have such a hassle in travelling home. Till yesterday, there was tremendous traffic congestion on almost all the north-northeast highways. Fares were high too.
Leaders of both the parties had their photo sessions and returned. Had they just for once cared to look at the ragged clothes and bleak faces of the people seeking assistance, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to be so smug. They would be ashamed
There has been repeated floods up north. Thousands of people have lost their homes. The crops in their fields, the grains they had stored, all have been washed away. Many have been unable to save their livestock and poultry. Water has risen anew in some areas. Thousands of people by the haors (wetlands) and by the river Someshwari have been deprived of the joy of Eid. A businessman of Gaonkandia, Netrokona said in anguish, “The floods have finished us. We have no Eid this time. It is impossible to buy a qurbani animal.” Yet last year he had bought a qurbani cow for Tk 110,000. The people of the flood affected areas are at a loss. They have no food. How will they celebrate Eid?
In the past we have seen politicians coming forward to help the people in times of natural disaster. But now they have taken the back seat. A few days ago a team from BNP held a gathering in Sylhet and distributed relief. This was followed by a large team of Awami League who went there and also distributed relief. Leaders of both the parties had their photo sessions and returned. Had they just for once cared to look at the ragged clothes and bleak faces of the people seeking assistance, perhaps they wouldn’t have been able to be so smug. They would be ashamed. When I see long lines of suffering people waiting for a handful of relief or helpless youth jostling with the elderly in front of fair price sales centres, then I feel there is a big deception in our development. The larger population has not benefitted from the development. Only a handful have.
The BNP government did nothing to improve the state of electricity. There was load-shedding for hours at a stretch. When the Awami League government came and took up mega projects in the power sector, the people lent them support, despite the harm to the environment. Millions of taka was spent in subsidy to rental and quick rental power plants as an emergency answer to the power crisis. These power plants were even granted impunity by a bill passed in parliament.
We may not have been able to bring about equitable development, but we certainly have equitable load-shedding. Surely that is quite an achievement
However, while the government was enthusiastic about setting up new power plants, it lacked the enthusiasm about extracting the country’s natural resource, gas. Gas exploration, discovery and extraction involves a lot of labour. Rather than choosing that laborious task, the government’s policymakers turned to importing oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG). The government has settled the maritime dispute with India and Myanmar and took full credit for victory over the sea. But it make no effort to explore and extract the gas that lies offshore. Myanmar has already started extracting offshore gas. We have failed to do so. Surely the blame for this can’t be placed on BNP which has been out of power for 15 years now.
When the price of fuel was low in the international market, the government made a profit. Now as prices have gone up in the international market, they want to slash oil imports. It is to be discerned just how pragmatic this is. Electricity can be saved to an extent by shutting shops and malls early, banning elaborate illumination at social events and shortening office hours. The use of electricity at home can be curbed to an extent too. But if power supply to industries is reduced, production will decrease. If production decreases, exports will decrease. This will push the import-dependent economy into dire straits.
The prime minister’s energy advisor Tawfiq-e-Elahi has expressed hope that the power situation will improve around September. On what basis has he expressed this hope? If the Ukraine was doesn’t end by then, if the prices of oil and gas continue to increase in the international market, then no austerity plan will be effective.
There had been power outages outside of Dhaka for long. Now the load-shedding has hit the capital Dhaka. We may not have been able to bring about equitable development, but we certainly have equitable load-shedding. Surely that is quite an achievement.
* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He may 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 Ayesha Kabir