Power outages are a common occurrence in Dhaka. While two power cuts (known as load shedding in local parlance) of one hour each during the day are the norm, there can be as many as five (all of one hour duration). They throw a spanner in the work but also allow the time to hold random conversations over a cup of tea.
I had the opportunity to talk about a few interesting things – right from the Liberation movement of 1971 to disability rights activism in present-day Bangladesh, with the Chairperson of BERDO during one such power outage. He was extremely gung-ho about ways in which parts of Asia (and especially China) have been/and continue to be successful in pulling large sections of their populations out of poverty. Growth, he believed, was about good economics. Technology was to be the main driver of this movement towards a higher standard of living. Politics, as he saw it, threatened to consume everything in its fold and needed to be cast aside if Bangladesh were to harbour serious ambitions about making giant strides towards upward mobility. In light of Bangladesh’s chequered political past, it was not very difficult to see where he was coming from. The constant upheavals and churning at the political turnstiles, the sort that Bangladesh has witnessed in its thirty-odd years of existence, would disillusion the most-seasoned optimists.
Does this mean that politics should be abandoned in its entirety? Opinions on this matter are strongly divided among the people that I have come into contact with during the 14-days that I have spent in Dhaka. At the risk of generalising, it would not be unwise to say that it is probably one of the reasons why development in Bangladesh has become suspended between the technicalisation of politics and the politicisation of technology. While NGOs, a significant presence in Bangladeshi civil society, more often than not resort to the former; government strategies are firmly grounded in the latter. Throw in a bunch of eager donors who are not very sure about which intermediary to take to channel their aid to the “hungry and poor masses of Bangladesh” and we have a very complicated mix indeed.
Four incidents have left me even more confused on this issue than when I started my fellowship.
A man in his late-forties sells tea, rusk biscuits and cigarettes at a tea cart outside the BERDO office. His grandson is five years old and has a dislocated knee from a freak accident in which a sibling (and a particularly strong one at that) stepped on him. The doctors at the local infirmary failed to fix his knee and the boy now walks and runs with a pronounced limp. The grandfather who mans the tea stall had incidentally seen me shoot a video for BERDO outside the office gates. He asked me if I was a journalist. I said no. He would not take “no” for an answer and wanted me to take a picture of his grandson and print it in a newspaper. That, he believed, was the only way to get noticed in a country where a vast majority of the people are so confined in their remote lives that they are invisible to the government. I maintained that I was no journalist, but ultimately had to yield to his persistence. If a false promise could buy him peace of mind, so be it, I thought. But other questions puzzled me – What has the media done to deserve such a reputation? Why are they then considered to be beacons of light in an otherwise flawed society? We are, after all, aware of the dangerous humanitarian situations that the media has precipitated, drummed up support for and chosen to ignore. And then I realised that the support for the media was probably negative. Negative in the sense that it was not support exclusively for the media but for an entity that was not the state.
The BERDO office stands next to the Manipuri School. Yesterday, a girl of Class III had gone missing from the school. The school and the parents of the girl got together and hired a rickshaw and a loudspeaker. In the afternoon, the whole area was abuzz with the sound of the loudspeaker. Announcements were made about where and when the girl was last seen. A prize of 1000 Taka, it was announced, would be awarded to anyone who manages to find and return the girl to her parents. The people at BERDO were naturally worried about the girl. As they shuttled in and out of the office gates to know more about what exactly had happened, I asked them about why the police was not getting involved. “They hardly do in such matters”, an employee said. This morning when I entered the office, not much had changed. The area was still abuzz with announcements. The prize money had doubled and was now 2000 Taka. And the police was still no where to be seen. Here was another example of how the people, used to a Hobbesian state, had taken matters into their own hands. There was more to this issue however – Had this taking-of-things-into-their-own-hands syndrome resulted in the gradual unravelling of the state and its organs? Or had the inability of the state to address such matters with any degree of efficiency resulted in this trend? These questions are entangled in severe endogeneity issues and like all issues endogenous, the end is nearly impossible to find.
In a discussion over lunch, an employee talked about how three “so-called” NGOs had been found out by their donors. They had claimed to have given computer training to the same 10 people (falsely of course) and were now in danger of losing a donor. He further said that had the money that had been poured into Bangladesh since 1971, been distributed among the people, they would all have been well off and the gross inequalities in society would never have been there. The claim that distribution of aid as cash would have pulled an entire nation out of poverty was difficult to stomach. The claim that the dispensation of aid through a few NGOs (the key is to be judicious as not all NGOs are “unscrupulous” and “uncharitable” at the same time) had resulted in a more skewed Gini coefficient, less so.
I stay in a complex which keeps getting visitors from around the world – most of them in connection with different NGOs operating in various parts of Bangladesh. Last night as I was going out to get dinner, the security guard at the gate called out to me. “A couple of people from Japan have come today”, he said. I nodded. “They are very street-smart, have become so rather”, he said. I nodded again. Street-smart is usually a term that you would associate with people from the Indian sub-continent – something that they have to be in order to get their way through huge populations and intense competition for resources. “Our NGOs have sucked them dry of their money. They have to be”, he said. I nodded, again.
The jigsaw that I was trying to get my head around had been complicated. Questions of all sizes, shapes, colours and political persuasions had left me woolly-headed. In such circumstances, trying to achieve the perfect balance between technology, economics and politics and trying to integrate everything into a consummate whole would be like hitching one’s wagon to the stars. In the middle of all this confusion, the four incidents and the conversation with the Chairperson at BERDO had taught me something. What, I am still trying to decipher.
Posted By Abhilash Medhi
Posted Jul 13th, 2009