Monday, May 16, 2011

SC Decision On Caretaker Govt. Fraught With Danger

The verdict of the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court last Tuesday ( May 10 , 2011) by which it declared the system of installing a non- party caretaker government during the general election for the Jatiya Sangsad to be ultra vires Constitution and thus invalid indeed puts the Awami League into shame rather than the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. This is because it is the Awami League which had forced the BNP in 1996 to amend the Constitution making provisions in it for setting up non-party care- taker governments. The Awami League-led continued hartals and agitation had let loose a reign of violence in the first quarter of 1996 in the name of resisting the constitutionally valid, indeed obligatory, parliament election in February 1996 , followed by a month-long non-cooperation movement that brought the country to stand-still.    The allies of the Awami League in that campaign were the Jatiya Party of General Ershad, Jamaat-e- Islami of Prof. Golam Azam and Moulana Matiur Rahman Nizami, NDP of Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, and another party led by Suranjit Sengupta. Some left parties also supported the combine. Their movement for a neutral care-taker government during Jatiya Sangsad elections began in 1974 after the parliamentary by-election at Mirpur and Magura. They charged that these elections were rigged by the ruling BNP and this proved that fair elections under the ruling party was not possible. BNP, on its part, argued that the government ought to be run by elected representatives. It offered various proposals for reducing the influence of the majority party on the administration during the run up to the general election but Awami League and it's the then allies rejected all. An effort by the Secretary General of the Commonwealth by sending a special emissary, Sir Ninian, former Governor General of Australia, also failed.    After the controversial results of the Jatiya Sangsad elections in February, 1996 , public support for a care-taker government grew. Those elections were marred on the one hand by violant attacks on polling centres by the Awami League-led opposition and inflated voter turn-out shown by BNP and others who took part in the election. BNP, which had won that election, finally amended the Constitution, on the very line demanded by Awami League, dissolved the parliament and resigned from the government. Awami League won the first elections, held in June, 1996 , under the care-taker government system but lost the next one in 2001. It began to criticise the present system of non-party care-taker government and demanded reforms. On the other hand the BNP wants the non-party care- taker government to continue charging that otherwise the fascistic Awami League will capture seats by means of bullying, terror tactics, mayhem and corruption. The Appellate Division, on the risk of being criticised for issuing contradictory orders, has allowed the non-party care-taker system to continue through two more general elections (theoretically next twelve years) but has asked the Jatiya Sangsad to keep retired judges away from heading it or making them its participant. This, however, gives the ruling Awami League to reform the system to its liking to a large extent. No wonder then that Awami League leaders have praised this decision but BNP has opposed it. The two parties have changed their positions.    The present situation is fraught with dangers because Bangladeshi politicians have shown themselves to be very poor negotiators. Their suspicion of each other and mutual hatred is all-consuming. Moreover, they have not been able to show themselves above corruption, especially when in power. This attitude permeates the present AL regime although it berates the BNP for corruption. The lure of extra- legal benefits from having one's fingers on the levers of power make resolution of problems by negotiation quite difficult.

Govt's Political Plan To Banish GB's Micro Credit?

The government is launching a massive micro-savings scheme to cut the micro credit habit of the poor. This is a move, political observers here believe, to put in place to knock out Grameen Bank ( GB) from its franchised activities or bring it under pressure in rural Bangladesh.    The saga of the Grameen Bank ( GB) and Prof. Dr. Mohammad Yunus as the pioneer of micro credit as an effective tool of poverty alleviation is thus turning into a bad story now with increasing government intervention at all levels.         Tk. 5 ,927 cr scheme    According to a news item filed by state news agency BSS last week the government is going to spend Taka 5 ,927 crore to push the new micro savings scheme for the rural poor to be implemented over several years. It plans to bring 51 lakh poor families as against 85 lakhs borrowers now covered by micro credit under the scheme to be organised through 85 ,000 village committees comprising of 60 to 100 members each.    Under the scheme, the government plans to provide Tk 200 grant per month to a member who will in turn contribute a matching fund of Taka 200. This will ensure a saving of Taka 400 per month and by year-end the amount of savings will turn to about Taka 5 ,000 with interest. In two years, a member will thus have a saving of Taka 10 ,000 and this is how the country's poverty level may be reduced to 20 per cent by 2015 from 40 per cent at this moment. This is an ambitious strategy as spelled out by the project director of the new scheme Prosanta Kumar Roy. However, it looks more like a political project to take away the poor from the cover of micro credit in one hand and thereby create a new socio- political platform in villages to further strengthen public support for the government prior to next election on the other.    The authors of the new scheme say, micro credit puts the poor in the chain of slavery, micro saving will make them self-reliant.    And through this the Nobel winning Grameen Bank (GB) along with its pioneer Dr Yunus is now facing increasing pressures from many directions. It seems the government is making effort and doing experiments to end micro credit activities.    Apprehensions of destabilisation of the GB are on the rise in one hand when the government is planning to restructure GB, and thereby dislodge it from its poverty alleviation activities on the other.         GB man abducted, six cases    Earlier quarters close to the government have lodged at least half a dozen cases against Dr Yunus at the districts to bring physical harassment to him.    Only last week a leader of the GB employees' association, Sagir Ahmed Chowdury was abducted by a group of unknown persons. They gave him severe beating in the captivity indicating that things may turn further worse.    The abductors later released him with the warning not to protest the government move to restructure the GBand refrain from creating noise demanding the appointment of Dr Yunus to the post of GB chairman.    The GB employees are demanding this following his controversial removal by Bangladesh Bank from the post of its managing director. He is holding the post since it was set up in 1983 and there is no secret that his removal is a politically charged decision to harm the organization. GB employees and every other sensible people believe that there is no alternative to Dr Yunus in running the organization and now to protect it from threats to its existence.    The removal order has already saw several legal battles in the country's higher judiciary and Dr Yunus has lost all such battles which had challenged the justification of the action of the central bank.    Meanwhile, a large number of people who claim themselves to be former employees of GB and victims of Dr Yunus' repression as they were forced to resign from jobs, are also holding routine press briefing in the city, in addition to staging public rallies in front of GB at Mirpur demanding that they get back their jobs.         Disrupting GB's functioning    A chaotic situation is in the build up around disrupting the normal functioning of GB while bringing threats to safety and security of its staff from different quarters drawing support from ruling political establishments.    Eye witness in the spot said most people taking to the streets in front of GB head office are not known face although they claim themselves as former employees. They are outside elements. Witness said involvement of outside provocateurs may eventually turn worse.    Even some of them may stage an attempt to break into the GB premises with tacit support of the government nominated chairman who is there, say critics say to lead the government takeover easier. They are being held back now by heavy presence of police and RAB personnel at the entrance of the GB head office building working as a buffer with the GB employees holed up inside.    The GB employees observed one- hour work stoppage every day at the Bank's heads office last week demanding restoration of peace and stability and on top of everything, appointment of Dr Yunus to the chair.    No one can better protect the organization than its founder, they say demanding peaceful transition without destroying the character of GB as the bank of the poor.         Owned by poor women    They further raise the question: how long will this chaotic situation continue and especially why the government is bent upon taking over it although it is entirely owned by poor women borrowers, except a 3.3 per cent government paid up capital in terms of GB's latest resource base.    The government is however planning to raise its stake at controlling level now from an official 25 per cent stake and observers believe that certain vested quarters are at work to establish control and grab its wealth.    Analysts believe that certain elements mainly comprising of former GB employees who lost jobs in the past on grounds of indiscipline, inefficiency or moral turpitude are at work supplementing the government efforts of the take over.         Internal discipline    Sources blame, the present chairman Khondker Mozammel Haque has been recently nominated by the government for sheltering outside forces. They say that he was forced to resign as he had violated the internal discipline by marrying a subordinate staff.    Mozammel was already married; and when his first wife made formal complaint Dr Yunus asked him to leave. He was initially recruited by him at his research unit at a time when he was denied of a post of lecturer at Chowmohoni College in Noakhali. He was then slowly promoted to senior posts.    He is on the scene again joining hand with the government and claiming as a co-founder of the GB. Moreover, his claim as Oxford research fellow has at least no tangible proof with the GB, said a source.    Yet another former employee, Dipal Chandra Barua is at work, sources say contributing to mobilisation of covert and overt actions at political and street levels.         Grameen Shakti    He was forced to leave the organization as the deputy managing director when he grabbed a prize money of US$ 1.5 million (over Taka 10 crore) two years ago which Grameen Shakti, a subsidiary of GB, received from the UAE government on its pioneering role to popularize the use of solar energy in Bangladesh.    Dipal as the managing director of Grameen Shakti, besides DMD of GB, went to receive the award and then refused to hand over the money to Grameen account. When Dr Yunus made it a point, he broke discipline and administrative action followed.    Meanwhile, allegedly Dipal's instances of corruption were revealed one after another. Inside sources said, he allegedly made at least Taka 30 to 35 crore over the past years slicing commission from marketing of solar panels. Insiders say, he also allegedly made huge fortune from the construction of the GB complex with several high- rise buildings at Mirpur since he was supervising construction in the ground.    The disclosure eventually led to his resignation. Dipal Barua was also hired by Dr Yunus when he was a student at Chittagong University. He worked through different levels and joined the GB when it was set up as a field officer. Dipal has set up a new company now named as 'Bright Green Energy Foundation' having an office space at Gulshan, a posh area in Dhaka.

Indian Over Dimensional Cargo Through Bangladesh's Free Corridor

Failure of the government to announce guidelines regulating movement of Indian over dimensional cargo (ODC) through the Ashuganj-Akhaura transport corridor speaks in volumes the helplessness of the ruling elites in protecting life and property of its own citizens. Amidst secrecy and haste the free transport corridor along Ashuganj-Akhaura route became operational on March 29 last. Even after a month of its execution the government is shying away from making any official announcement to that effect. Nothing is also known about the guidelines under which the movement of ODC is being regulated. Officials of Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) at different levels starting from Assistant director to upwards complained that the government had totally sidetracked the only regulatory body in the road transport sector in connection with Indian ODC movement through Bangladesh corridor. The BRTA played a very crucial role when the direct bus service between Dhaka- Kolkata began in 1999 , officials noted. The roads and highways department that does not have jurisdiction or expertise on enforcement of traffic discipline, registration of vehicle, issuance of fitness certificate, driving license, route permit, or sanctioning capacity of load on road, however, is now representing the government on the issue. The government had earlier bypassed the ministry of foreign affairs when the MOU on multimodal transport deal with India was signed by the ministry of shipping on November 30 last year. Ministry of foreign affairs' vetting is mandatory in all deals signed with foreign countries. National dailies published reports saying the ministry of foreign affairs was neither consulted nor allowed participation when the first ever multimodal transport deal was signed. With a very high density of population and highest rate of road accidents in the region, situation of Bangladesh in case of a mishap during ODC movement in all likelihood will be more devastating. Absence of a guideline for ODC movement will make the people in the country more vulnerable in case of such eventualities. Mainstream media networks overwhelmingly run by private enterprises for reasons best known to them seem to be ignoring the issue. Transport experts, independent think tanks, members of civil society and even political leaders opposed to the transit or corridor arrangement so far failed to question whether the government of their own country instead of protecting life and property of its citizen has rather made them vulnerable allowing the Indian ODC movement without a guideline. The free transport corridor between Bangladesh and India supposedly for the only purpose of ODC movement became effective as four trailers of equipment crossed over the borders between the two countries and reached Agartala in the north eastern region of India on March 29 , traveling a distance of 49 km route from Ashuganj river port in Bangladesh. At a speed of five km per hour, each trailer carried a load of around 80 tons. The traveling time to cross the 49 km stretch of road in Bangladesh corridor will require about 10 hours. The inaugural consignment, took more time for its passage through the corridor due to a mechanical failure at a pontoon bridge soon after the first trailer embarked. As the trailers remained stuck on the pontoon bridge over Anderson Canal and along the diversion road near Brahmanbaria, the city witnessed traffic congestion while movement of vehicles along Sylhet-Comilla highway remained restricted for sometime during the period Guidelines followed in the developed countries provide for having escort vehicles in front and rear of ODC truck, which in case of Bangladesh seem to have been ignored. Had there been a provision of escort vehicles in front and rear of the ODC truck, the first day's mechanical failure of the pontoon bridge probably could have been averted. Considering emergency circumstances as well as the safety and security of the people in the locality and the load on the truck, the provision of having escort vehicles has been made mandatory for ODC trucks in the western countries including Australia and America. A guideline regulating the movements and schedules of ODC is also essential to allow smooth flow of regular traffic on the roads and highways that falls along the corridor passage. Absence of a guideline and lack of administrative measures to ensure uninterrupted flow of routine traffic were manifested on the inaugural journey of the ODC through the transport corridor in Bangladesh.  It must be remembered that the movement of ODC is a commercial venture and needs to be regulated under the law of the land taking into consideration the benefit of the people. In an unprecedented move Bangladesh has so far allowed its operation through the corridor without any charges, not to talk about the special charge and safety measure required for ODC movement. Disruption of the routine traffic movement allowing passage to ODC trucks will not only tarnish government's public image rather it will also expose weakness of the state in regulating even a private company.   Before getting into the detail of the guidelines specially meant for movement of ODC elsewhere around the world, let us first understand what an ODC is? ODC is cargo which is indivisible in configuration with respect to length, width, height or weight also necessarily to be transported from point A to point B in one piece generally within legally specified limits. The legally specified limits however, vary a little from country to country. Movement of ODC in heavy truck and by road though very new in our part of the world, however, began in the western countries much earlier. Before proceeding any further let us see what the Indians feel with regards to their capacity to handle the ODCs and fitness of their roads to allow their movements. 'ODC transportation in India is still not regulated in terms of vehicles configuration/aggregates, approval process and guidelines for road transportation', reports the India edition of monthly magazine Commercial Vehicle in its December 2009 issue. Dushyant Mehra, head of research and business development and Rajesh Khanna, head of marketing and international business prepared the report on behalf of Indian engineering, marketing and consulting firm RACE.    Whether Indian roads and railways through its own network and without support from Bangladesh's river route and transport corridor of Ashuganj carry the ODCs to Tripura can be understood from an official document of the Indian government published in 2009. 'In several cases our roads and roads bridges are not designed to cater to movement of such heavy load and dimensions', the document reveals. Pointing out the capacity of their railway system to carry the ODCs, the same document adds, 'Often it is difficult to move them through railways especially if the track passes through tunnel sections and old bridges. The importance of Ashuganj port of call and the transport corridor through Bangladesh can be well understood from the same document as it says, 'More often than not there is no option other than planning movement of heavy over dimensional cargo through inland water transport'. The position reflected in the government document regarding Indian road condition is further substantiated by the magazine Commercial Vehicle. Most of the ODC movements made on national/state highways, crossing bridges, culverts, junctions from major ports in India, the report points out, 'need to be checked for sustainability'. 'Transportation for ODC is not feasible with standard range of vehicles as the dimensions and weight of cargo are much higher than the normal load specifications', the report pointed out. Putting onus of route survey on the companies involved in ODC movement in India the report says, 'Apart from payload specification there is need for technical route survey as well, which is currently not carried out by most companies. Route and road survey need to be conducted more technically to assess probable barriers and difficulties and ways to resolve them before transportation'. Views reflected above clearly points out making the companies responsible with capital investment required for infrastructure development where the government takes the role of regulating authority. In case of Bangladesh why the shipping minister Shahjahan Khan wants to deprive the country of its legitimate fee from the Ashuganj- Akaura road corridor cannot be understood. 'Why should the Indians pay twice?', the minister had asked on record answering to a question regarding transit fee following the signing of MOU on November 30 last year. 'India would construct' Ashuganj-Akhaura road corridor, 'at their own coast' the minister said without clarifying whether the Indians were constructing the 49 km corridor passage in Bangladesh free of cost or the amount is linked with the tied loan of 1 billion dollar. Indian expertise and experience are also pointed out in RACE research report that depicts the current scenario saying, 'due to non availability of suitable technology to carry ODC we are forced to use existing flats and low loaders or custom built vehicles. This in turn will lead to accidents, bridges collapse, time delay and therefore, greater freight cost'. 'There are no specific regulations in place for handling ODC movement in India,' the report mentions adding, 'in developed nations like Europe, Australia, US the ODC movement is highly regulated and organised'. Indians have every right to carry out experiments in their own country. We are neither solicited nor desirous to suggest them anything except that the process of experimentation should not cross over boundaries. Before we conclude let us take a snapshot of guidelines followed in western developed countries. The Transit Study Group obtained guidelines for ODC movement followed in US, Canada and Australia. Certain provisions found in common in the guidelines of all these countries are mentioned below. State governments are responsible for issuance of special permit required for ODC movement on specific routes and during fixed hours. Permits are required to be obtained few days ahead of the scheduled ODC movement. Permits are generally issued for a single haul with a particular fee against the capacity load the vehicle carries. With the increase in load the amount of fee goes up and in special cases permits are issued for longer duration with a higher fee. The Mary Land transport department in USA issues a single haul permit for 30 USD for a load 45 tons but the amount for the same permit is 180 USD when the load is 75 tons. Provision of escort or pilot vehicles is mandatory on certain highway carrying a certain load and in a certain length of vehicle.  Separate amount is charged for that purpose. Provisions of financial penalty as well as that of cancellation of permits are authorized when operator abuse them. Another important aspect in handling the ODC and maintaining the safety of the people is the truck driver's qualification and his communication skills. The UK comptroller and auditor general in his recent report on enforcement of regulations on commercial vehicles attributed driver's 'experience, performance and behaviour' as the 'main risk factors contributing to commercial vehicle accidents'. 'The most severe accidents involving British registered vehicles were associated with driver performance, principally tiredness, and for foreign vehicles mechanical condition and some driver related factors', noted the report submitted in January 2010. In case of ODC movement through Ashuganj transport corridor BRTA has been denied of its legitimate function as the only regulating authority of the vehicles. The obvious question is if not BRTA than which authority is now regulating the ODC trucks. Questions will be also asked as to who has been made responsible for registration of the ODC trucks, issuance of their fitness certificate and route permits? Who determined the authorized load capacity on the road for the ODC? How the safety of the people and smooth running of the ODC are ensured? Under what criteria and which authorities selected drivers for the ODC trucks? Did they undergo any standard aptitude test relating to local sensitivities, customs and language?  Not only the skills of driving but knowledge about vehicle features, its mechanism are essential for ODC drivers, but at the same time his qualities of developed moral values, sensitivity to local society are some other important components for successful ODC movement. The biggest concern with regards to ODC movement probably is the content the vehicle is carrying. In the absence of a transparent mechanism to ensure that only specified goods are being carried in the ODC, there are chances that anybody, not necessarily political opponents, may exploit the situation only to take advantage out of it. The customs authorities in Bangladesh note down the number of cargoes at the entry and termination points of the water route.  When the cargo again originates from Ashuganj river port the number is noted down and tallied at the exit point on the borders. Since it is still not known whether special permits are issued for ODC movement how can it be guaranteed that unspecified substance or hardware injurious to human health or ecology is not being carried. This is especially relevant against the background of frequent Indian allegation of ' extremists' presence along its Bangladesh borders and decades long insurgencies in the north eastern regions. In the absence of a procedure how can the responsibility be fixed and aggrieved be compensated in case damage and destruction is caused to the ODC or is done by it. As long as public is denied of their legitimate right to information with regards to the new dynamics of the Bangladesh-India relationship, question over the transported hardware in ODC and legitimacy of corridor deal will continue to haunt the government. People of Bangladesh probably were forced into a situation where they were left with no choice but to watch a free transport corridor over their nose. Gaining the access, India will now offer some concession and the justify the ' deal', since it is aware of the fact that it is only Bangladesh that offer it most economic route for transportation of ODC to the north eastern region. Realizing legitimate corridor fee from the Indians including special charges pertaining to ODC movement probably will not be difficult for Bangladesh at this stage, not due to any smart position pursued by our ruling elites, but mainly because of the changing global scenario, where information technology seems to have emerged as a very big factor. What will be India's global image when another incident of depriving legitimate rights of the people in its next door gets into circulation? India had earlier tarnished its global image imposing trade embargo on its landlocked tiny neighbour Nepal, the only instance of the kind after WW II. It is time for the ruling elites in the country to realize and draw up an India policy on the basis of consensus reflecting aspirations of the people and allowing participation of all shades of opinion. An in camera session of the parliament may also be summoned for that purpose. Serious thoughts probably should be given before time runs out.

Was The Left Fated To Fail In West Bengal?

The Communist Party of India ( Marxist) [C PI (M)]-led Left Front's debacle in the State Assembly polls in West Bengal has left many wondering not only about the future of the CPI(M), but also of Left politics in general in West Bengal as well as in other states like Kerala in India. The routing of the party's 34- year sway in West Bengal at the hands of the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamul Congress ( TMC) seems to have shaken it at the base. The major partner of the Left Front, CPI (M) won only in 40 seats, down from 176 last time. It even lost this time by two seats to Congress, which won 42 seats and played a crucial role in TMC's victory. How could that unthinkable happen? Is it the charisma of TMC leader Mamata or failure of the Left Front to deliver that has gone into the party's ouster from West Bengal? The rallying cry of TMC before the election was one of change, while that of the Left Front was to continue the status quo with the Front in place. Mamata's call for change had certainly a better appeal than that of the Left Front, which claimed people's continued support for the incumbent. Evidently, such claim failed to create any appeal to the public. They might have become tired of seeing the Left Front so long in power. Moreover, the Left had also shifted markedly from its earlier hard-nosed ideological stance in politics and its commitments to its constituency. The winds of global trend for free market economy and private capital also influenced Left Front's policies. The Singur episode was a glaring instance of its unabashed pandering to the big capital of Tata in Favour industrialisation in West Bengal. Though it was part of its pragmatic tilt in politics, its traditional constituency started to look at it with suspicion. To them, it was a clear indication of capitulation and political opportunism. Though China, with the Communist Party having strong grip on society and politics, has succeeded in wooing international capital and achieving phenomenal development in the economy, one has to keep in mind that its government does not change through elections as practiced in the parliamentary democracies in India and in other countries that follow British or other Western models. So, the voters there are free to change their mind and exercise their will through voting the government they are not happy with out of power. That may be one of the reasons that the Left Front's experiment with capitalism has foundered on the electoral rock. Some activists of the All India Students Association (AISA), the student front of CPI (M), for example, have also expressed similar views about the fall of CPI ( M)-led Left government in West Bengal. Speaking to pro-Left paper, they maintained that the Left Front's increasing shift to right-wing politics did lead to their debacle. The CPI (M) had been serving the purpose of the ruling class and the privileged, the observed. The Left not only distanced themselves from their original politico-ideological agenda, but were also not willing to admit that, they added. In that case, it was not surprising that their traditional voters were totally disillusioned with such role reversal of CPI (M). Added to this is the arrogance of power and sway that the party has been enjoying over the decades. Success had possibly gone to its head and that has been reflected even in its electoral rallying cry. Another issue that might have told upon the constituents' patience is the dual role of their favourite party -- pandering to the Congress at the centre, while playing the rival's role at the state level. Meanwhile, there has been a visible crack in the assured vote bank provided by the Muslim minority in the state of West Bengal. And the Trinamul Congress (TMC) of Mamata Banerjee, on the other hand, has tried to fill in the gaps in the voters' base created by the Leftist party. Mamata aggressively made inroads into Muslim voters' base and evidently that has paid dividends in the long run. The media did certainly play a big role. In fact, majority of the print as well as the electronic media also carried out an orchestrated propaganda against the Left Front government and in favour of TMC. There is another dimension to the Left Front government's humiliating defeat. That has very much to do with governance. It is not only the opponents, even party insiders are pointing at the issue as well as allegations of corruption against it. All these issues have militated against the Left Front's prospect in the state assembly polls. Now that Mamata Banerjee has swept the electoral board, it will now be her turn to deliver according to the promises she made before the elections. Whether she is a nine-day wonder in West Bengal's theatre of politics, time will tell. It will now be the turn of the partners of Left front, the CPI (M), in particular, to go through a soul searching and identify the reasons for its defeat. The fall of communist-led government in its traditional strongholds like West Bengal and Kerala in India is certainly a message for all Leftists in Bangladesh and other countries of South Asia where the communists still maintain a strong presence.