19. What it says in the papers: overview of issues

It’s sometimes difficult to fully grasp the reality that I am living in Bangladesh. Yes, I am experiencing the actuality of living here to a certain degree. However, I certainly don’t experience living with the constant threat of danger, as do so many of my fellow inhabitants. At times it feels strange to read about incidents (e.g. severe flooding) occurring on my doorstep and yet feel so physically detached. There are times when I question the difference between reading about a disaster in Bangladesh and reading about that same disaster while in Ireland. Because I have no TV and only very occasional Internet access here, it might even be easier to gain a fuller understanding of an incident reported in Ireland, with the aid of TV and Internet coverage (assuming of course that there would be coverage). I suppose the nature of my work also ‘removes’ me from the day-to-day lives of those in most need who might experience such disaster (though I did attempt to address this and the results remain to be seen:  see post 25 and post 48). It is this need to gain a deeper understanding of my surroundings that compels me to read the daily newspapers. In turn, the stories that I read force me to make an effort to get out and travel and see as much as I can in Bangladesh, and to talk to as many people as possible about their lives and their experiences. After all, I will be living in this country for thirteen months and am a potential actor in the lives of some of its people. Therefore I need to immerse myself in the local culture, rather than simply passing through as an observer.

Many of my blog posts reflect my subsequent learning and experiences in relation to current issues, and therefore also reflect the stories dominating the dailies e.g. stories of health and environmental concerns or disasters (post 53); stories of violence perpetrated against women (post 44); stories of workplace unrest (post 52); stories of political conflict at universities  (post 28); stories about abuses of the rights of children (post 35);  stories about governance and corruption (post 51); stories about festivals and the arts (post 31); stories about conflict in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (post 43), and so on.

During my time in the Apollo Hospital (see post 15), I started to read the Daily Star English-language newspaper every day. (Read an interview with the Chief News Editor, Syed Ashfaqul Haque, in which he talks about journalism, intimidation, corruption and his favourite books on Bangladesh.) I also scanned other English language dailies (e.g. The Independent) from time to time – the stories covered are similar across papers. At the time I was in hospital, there was a lot of coverage of the fallout from the violent Pilkhana massacre that had occurred on 25th February – shortly before I arrived in Bangladesh.  [The bloody massacre was the result of a mutiny by rank and file guardsmen from a faction of the army that guards the nation’s borders (the Bangladesh Rifles – BDR). Over 50 army officers were gunned down in Dhaka, together with a number of civilians, some of whom were wives of officers.]

There are stories, almost on a daily basis, relating to the inadequacies of the legal system and the need for justice to prevail. Many of these reference unresolved issues emanating from the time of the Liberation War. (See post 14.) Others suggest failures to address abuses of human rights (see post 57).

Stories about traffic accidents appear every day: an issue I haven’t touched on in any other post, though I have witnessed scenes of bad accidents during my travels in Bangladesh.  Therefore, a paragraph on this issue is in order. It’s difficult to get accurate, comparable and verifiable statistics in this regard, and from a quick perusal online almost all available data is contradictory. Problems of non-reporting and under-reporting, together with inconsistencies in data-collection methods and analysis systems, compound difficulties. In general, there would appear to be two measures used: the first is the number of road fatalities per 100,000 population, or to put it another way the fatality risk. The second is the number of fatalities per 10,000 vehicles, or the fatality rate. With regard to the former, I found a table showing the risk levels for a list of countries, including Bangladesh. There are 12 categories going from less than 5 deaths per 100,000 population (e.g. UK, Sweden, Switzerland) to over 40 deaths per 100,000 (e.g. Libya, Eritrea). The number of deaths in Bangladesh per 100,000 is put at 12.6 which is lower than that of its neighbouring country India with 16.8 fatalities per 100,000 population. (Incidentally, the figure for Ireland does not compare well to that of its neighbours at 7.8.) There is also a map there for those who prefer a visual. With regard to the fatality rate (the number of deaths per 10,000 vehicles), Bangladesh has a much higher number of deaths compared to the rate in developed countries, and compared to some of its regional neighbouring states. Again, it is difficult to find a reliable figure – I have come across everything from 60 to 160 – but from my very preliminary research, I’m leaning towards a figure of 85 i.e. 85 deaths per 10,000 vehicles. The corresponding fatality rates in developed countries are around 2 per 10,000 (for example, 2 in the US, 1.2 in the UK). In India and Thailand the rates are somewhere around 15 and 16 respectively – though again I found varying figures here. One article stated that 60% of fatalities in cities in Bangladesh are pedestrians, while 40% of all those killed in rural traffic accidents are pedestrians. None of the above-mentioned data takes into account the numbers injured and crippled. DFID (The UK Department of International Development) estimate that, in the developing world, 30-35 people are being injured for every life lost. Whatever the inaccuracies in this paragraph (and there are no doubt many), it is safe to surmise that road accidents, and the resultant fatalities and injuries, are a very serious problem in Bangladesh. This is borne out by the daily reports in the national newspapers of accidents, deaths and injuries on the roads. A recent headline on BRAC’s (see post 8 part 12) webpage stated that road accidents kill over 20,000 people annually, of which 52% are pedestrians, with child fatality standing at over 3,400 per year. Alarmingly, they predict that these figures will rise by at least 80% over the next 20 years.

Postscript: A related topic is the dozens of fatalities resulting from ferry accidents every year. In November 2009, there was harrowing coverage of one such accident in Bhola district, in the south of the country, where a ferry capsized in the Tetulia River near Lalmohon. At least 56 people died and a similar number were reported missing at the time. (See Guardian story coverage.) This is a familiar story every Eid (see post 37). Ferries are in poor condition and overcrowded. Captain Hussain Imam, a retired merchant navy officer, wrote an interesting (and justifiably angry) piece in The Daily Star (2nd December 2009) on the frequency of such disasters and the failure of government to address the root causes. He makes the point that during his 10 years (1971-1981) of service with the (national) Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), not one passenger vehicle sank or capsized. These were the paddle steamers – originally designed and built during the British period. He contends that it is always vehicles operating in the private sector that result in fatal casualties.  He goes on to say that this is probably his fifth time writing a column on a launch disaster (the last time was in February this year when a launch sank near Barisal with a loss of over 40 lives). Each time he repeats the same message – one that he has been bringing to the notice of the government for years – to no avail. There are major faults in design and construction, lack of adequate safety measures, absence of qualified crew, weakness in inspection procedures, overloading, disregard for weather forecasts and negligence on the part of the crew and controlling authorities. Imam continues to point out that the underlying reasons are simple: if the government machinery is corrupt, it is easier for private owners to flout rules, build substandard vessels and get licenses to operate. All they need do is bribe corrupt officials. (For more on corruption, see post 51.)

Another story that I haven’t touched on in a separate blog post relates to abuses of the rights of Bangladeshi overseas migrant workers. It is estimated that there are close to two million migrant workers in the Middle East, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei and, to a lesser degree, many EU nations and the US. Their experiences, particularly in the Middle East, are not always positive. Many have dealings with unscrupulous recruitment agents before departure, who charge astronomical fees for working visas and then fail to fulfil their parts of the resulting contracts. Often, the promised jobs do not materialise, or the conditions are not as agreed. Complaints are met with threats and sometimes passport confiscation. Having spent all the family money to secure the job, the migrant and his/her family at home in Bangladesh face financial ruin in the face of such corruption. Many have been driven to migrate because of difficult circumstances in the first place e.g. floods, cyclones, soil salinity, etc. (There’s a side-story too in that, sometimes, migrants may be won over to more militant, fundamentalist strains of Islam when overseas: a situation that was very well-captured in the film Syriana, in the plotline relating to Wasim.)

Below are two examples of migrants’ negative experiences: the first is from Bahrain.

A Bangladeshi worker was brutally beaten by his sponsor when he asked for his wages, according to a report in The Weekly Blitz (Bangladesh). Akteruzzaman Akhter, who worked as a pipe fitter for a construction company, arrived at the Bangladeshi embassy last week to lodge a complaint against his employer, who he feared might kill him.

According to an official from the embassy:

“He was beaten black and blue by his sponsor until he had fallen unconscious. His body bore marks of the bruises on his back and legs… The worker said when he asked for his pending salary he was subjected to harsh treatment by his sponsor,”

The embassy has now lodged a formal complaint against his employer with the police, who are investigating the company to see if other workers had been abused on asking for their salaries. (Source)

Below is a reference to a report from the UNDP newsroom relating to female migrants, dated 24th November 2009:

Bangladeshi women migrants face abuse and health hardships abroad

Dhaka – A majority of Bangladeshi women migrants work as domestic workers in the Arab States. Many of them face physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers.  Subject to mandatory testing they are deported when they test positive for HIV. These are some of the findings of a study released here today by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and OKUP (Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program).

As I said at the outset, many posts in this blog reflect current issues in Bangladesh. The purpose of this one was to provide an overview of the categories of stories that dominate the daily news – especially for those of you, like me, who need the ‘global’ view. (Of course there are international sections in all the papers focusing predominantly on regional news from India, Pakistan, Nepal and Afghanistan. My primary purpose, for now, though, is to gain an understanding of Bangladeshi issues.)

I have to admit that after a few weeks of reading the newspapers – bearing in mind of course that I was restricted to English language versions – they began to seem repetitive. Many of the same stories began to appear again and again. Another problem was the standard of English, which made reading tiresome at times. My own English was becoming scrambled in the process: there were days when I felt that I couldn’t string a sentence together after reading the papers. A consequence of lack of language facility in Bangla on my part, on the one hand, and loss in translation on the other. Finally, there are many times that I have read an article that I had previously read elsewhere (on the web for example) reproduced word for word, but attributed to a different author. (For more on the problem of plagiarism see post 48.)

I would love to be able to read the much respected daily Prothom Alo (meaning ‘First Light’), founded in 1998 by Matiur Rahman, an award-winning journalist and social campaigner. He is still the editor today and his paper has the largest circulation amongst Bangla-language newspapers in Bangladesh. He has written and spoken on the subject of media and social change, drawing on his experience at Prothom Alo, a topic he touched on in his acceptance speech for the Magsaysay award. [For more on media and freedom of speech see post 37.]

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