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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 1, December 26, 2009 - Annual Number 2009

Bangladesh: Promise of Change

Saturday 26 December 2009, by Kamal Hossain

Citizens of Bangladesh have persevered in their effort to establish a working democracy. The movement to restore democracy had resulted in 1990 in an agreed commitment amongst all political forces to restore parliamentary democracy and to strengthen democratic institutions—the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a media committed fearlessly to truth and to give voice to the people. These aspirations for a transparent, responsive and accountable mode of governance were powerfully re-affirmed in the concerted efforts for political and economic reforms between 2004 to 2008.

People had sought to rescue themselves from a political process which had degenerated and become captive in the hands of black money and armed musclemen. A universally shared goal was to regenerate healthy politics to rescue the overwhelming majority who had suffered as virtual hostages and felt powerless under a system of governance which had become authoritarian. A highly centralised structure of the government had excluded citizens from participation. A confrontational political culture had excluded not only the Opposition but the people in general from participation in governance. People expected transparency, accountability and the rule of law to be an integral part of the democratic political system which had been the aim of the electoral and political reforms demanded by the people. The election held in December 2008 promised to bring about change.

It is nine months since a government elected by an overwhelming majority has been in power. People have been awaiting the adoption of polices and strategies and the strengthening of institutions needed to deliver good governance, and the changes promised by the election manifesto.

As people continued to await the promised change, they expected to see a change in the mindsets of those in power and the strengthening of democratic institutions so that these could begin to function effectively. They looked forward to a vibrant Parliament that played a dynamic role in regenerating democracy. Lively debates were expected on policies—on the national economy, on industry, agriculture and education, health, economy, environment and other vital national sectors. Committees were expected to ensure that the executive branch and the administration remained responsive to public needs and national priorities. The Opposition has yet to present itself in Parliament as people expected it to play a positive role. It would be a giant step forward if the Opposition, in addition to pointing out deficiencies in official policies or actions of the government, would itself put forward well-thought-out alternatives.

Voters had wished to put behind them the past when, under a hierarchical governance system, public servants were reduced to being party functionaries. This tendency persists. There is a legitimate expectation that appointments and promotion in the public service would be on the basis of merit and competence, through a transparent process, and not arbitrarily on the basis of party loyalty. The administration, manned by public servants, is expected to discharge its functions strictly in accordance with law and in the public interest and not be made to suffer from harassment and persecution on partisan considerations.

Citizens would not be kept in the dark on the plea of official secrecy, and human rights guarantees would be effectively enforced. The enactment of the Right to Information Act was welcomed as it would prevent a veil of secrecy being placed over official decisions. The newly established Human Rights Commission needs to be made fully operational with the resources and capacity to fulfil its mandate. Resources must be committed to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and to fully implement its separation as mandated by the Constitution in order for it to play its role as the guardian of citizens’ rights and of the Constitution.

The government should welcome the citizens’ participation by consultation through Parlia-mentary Committees, and through advisory groups involving stakeholders and others who can contribute to improving the quality of governance. Periodic progress reports need to be published on actions taken towards fulfilling the pledges made to the people.

The most critical sphere in which such progress reports must be made transparent is in relation to the awarding of major projects, in sectors such as power, telecommunication, oil and gas, and major infrastructure. Procurement guidelines must not exist only on paper but must be respected and effectively implemented by all those who are to apply them. Absence of transparency in taking recent decisions regarding petroleum exploration contracts has led to public controversy, which could have been avoided.

The educational sector has rightly been accorded the highest priority as a national goal to ensure meaningful change and overall progress. The educational system must be rescued from being an arena of unhealthy power politics. It is a legitimate expectation of the people that educational institutions must be terror-free and the armed cadres which had operated there must be demobilised and campuses made free from their predatory activities. This is still awaited. This particular malaise has undermined the integrity and effectiveness of the major public universities and important educational institutions. Universities must regain their reputation of excellence in academic standards. Not only must the time targets for making education available to all be met but the quality of education must be raised across the system.

A fundamental pillar of democracy is the rule of law and access to justice. The key element which demands urgent attention at every level of governance is the constitutional mandate of equality before the law and equal protection of the law. No one can be above the law. No one can claim or enjoy impunity if s/he transgresses the law. There must not be any party political interference in the impartial and effective implementation of the law. The nightmares of the past must be buried when powerful “godfathers” could interfere with the police in major investigations giving impunity to those charged with war crimes, murder, and rape, major corruption and extortion at every level. It is time that people are rescued from continued persecution of extortion by organised groups. Restoration of the rule of law is imperative.

A systemic change must be brought about in relation to the police. The draft of a new Police Act has been put on the shelf. The nineteenth century Police Act and the mindset on which it was based require to be replaced by a system where the police is seen as the protector of the rights of citizens and the community where they are posted. The feudal order, where the powerful could terrorise and practice extortion on a scale that reduced ordinary citizens to a kind of serfdom, must become history. It cannot be allowed to continue in the twentyfirst century.

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Given the terrible eruption of brutal violence in the BDR headquarters last February, urgent action is needed against those responsible, through effective investigation and expeditious trial. Not only is this required by the dictates of justice, but is imperative in the interest of national security. It must, therefore, be given the highest priority. It is part of the basic structure of our Constitution that coercive use of armed force, vested in the defence services, is regulated by law. There is thus no room for any private militias and/or armed cadres. The internal security forces and the police are required effectively to be regulated by law. It is imperative that the professionalism and neutrality of the defence services, entrusted with national security, are not interfered with for any party political considerations. Appointment, promotion and advancement should be strictly on the basis of merit, keeping in view that the highest professional standards are to be aimed for. The best international practice should be incorporated in their Manuals, if this has not already been done, since our defence services are now internationally respected for their significant role in the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces.

There is an urgent need for the state-owned electronic media—radio and television—to become an autonomous institution for dissemination of information. People do not want to see the state-owned media become a government public relations agency, a relic of the past. The voices of people must be heard over BTV and state-owned radio. An Independent Broadcasting Trust, led by trustees who enjoy public confidence and respect, could significantly contribute to the process of change. The muted voices of the silent majority could then be heard throughout the country so that these can reach their public representatives and expect them respond to their needs and priorities.

The pledges made in the Constitution, need to be strongly reaffirmed in the goals set by the government, because it has been given a generous mandate. A great deal of time has been lost. The time-worn alibi for delay and inaction, namely, “you can’t have change overnight”, therefore, cannot be invoked. If the strategic goals set for 2021 are to succeed, meaningful change has to be made—in our institutions and our political behaviour. The magnitude of the challenge that lies ahead has been focused in a recent DFID study, thus:

It is predicted that the population (of Bangladesh) by 2030 will be nearly 200 million with 40 per cent under the age of 15. An additional 6-8 per cent of Bangladesh will be permanently under water; flood-prone areas will increase (from 25 per cent to 40 per cent of the country by 2050). Three-quarters of the Himalayan glaciers may have vanished with disastrous consequences for areas dependent on the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers. Environmental refugees from rural areas will be flocking to the cities where flood defences will be concentrated and over 80 million people will live in urban slums; Dhaka will be one of the world’s largest cities with 30 million people. In rural areas, this urban migration could mean that the countryside is abandoned to the elderly, women-headed households and the very poorest of the poor. Arsenic could remain a massive health threat, reducing crop productivity and contributing to food shortages.

Time-targeted goals are called for. There are indeed goals which will require five, 10, or 15 years. The announced 2021 plan itself recognises that it will be implemented in successive stages, but the process must commence NOW. The past has to be put behind us: the insensitivity, the inertia, the failure to take timely decisions, the lack of coordination as powerful groups fought over the spoils, while people suffered and the nation’s progress was impeded. The need to work together applies to all without exception. Barriers to change have been identified which need to be overcome. These are the dysfunctional institutions, a run-down educational system and a social environment afflicted by violence and terrorism, and major deficiencies in infrastructure.

Dr Kamal Hossain, a prominent public figure in Bangladesh, is a former Foreign Minister of that country.

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