imperfect | world | 2010

Archive for April, 2006

Monday
Apr 17,2006

glencoe

I am in Glencoe, Scotland with my family (pic above of my kid in front of Buchaille Etive Mor). An easter treat after weeks of incarceration at home…What allowed me to do this was the knowledge that the scottish mountains are pretty much well covered by the mobile phone network. I could take calls if there was an emergency at home (my parents are both very unwell) even if I was at the top of a mountain… And so I couldn’t help thinking about how the local and foreign media cover Grameen’s mobile telephone initiatives in the rural areas of Bangladesh. They cover it uniformly as a great success story helping to alleviate property and ushering in a new prosperous dawn for rural women . Undoubtedly Grameen is bringing about significant change with the opportunities it creates and its many programmes. However it is the unjustified, unrealistic and uncritical assessments which claim that poverty is just about to be swept away with microcredit or indeed grameen’s lending for mobile phone programmes that irritate me. The structural factors contributing to poverty are hidden in such simplistic discourses.

I wonder what Grameen are doing to bring their mobile phone network to the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). How come their considerable lobbying power is not able to overcome the government’s refusal to allow mobile coverage in the area? If mobile phones are now considered a basic necessity to promote development, what about introducing them in that area? Surely this area more than any other in Bangladesh needs it?? Or maybe it is a different issue we are dealing with here. Maybe it is one about security. Or maybe it is about concealing events news management - like for example what happened a few days ago when violence broke out between settlers and indigenous people leaving people seriously injured and missing?

Things to do in Dhaka: Tip 3

Saturday
Apr 15,2006

3. Wealth spotting in Sadarghat. Surely some mistake you are thinking. No Pajeros or Mercs or Beemers in Sadarghat you will say only richshaws and horse drawn carriages as I wrote in Tip 2 in my previous post. Well, that is where you are mistaken. I am talking about tangible and visible manifestations of Transparency International’s reserved spot for Bangladesh as the most corrupt society on this planet if not the universe. And here is a picture of it I took last December:

Ship in Sadarghat - Coco

Notice the name Coco. And the number also. Sheikh Hasina was sufficiently piqued upon the release of the TI report last year to say this about Khaleda Zia and family ( as quoted in The Independent, internet edition) : “Inheriting a tattered undershirt and a broken suitcase, how the Prime Minister’s family has earned this huge wealth including precious jewels and how her family could become owners of luxurious river vessels, Coco-1 and Coco-2 and so on, from the ownership of a mere oil tanker should have to be disclosed to the nation.” Indeed.

Check my earlier post on Sadarghat and poverty HERE.

Saturday
Apr 15,2006

1. Feel like some music ? Your ipod packed in? Don’t feel like going out and getting a CD for 50 takas - why not do the nawabi thing and get your own minstrel? Or flautist even. This geezer here will come to your house and play the bashi (flute) for as long as you want. He is extremely good and equally affordable. He is a regular at weddings and he has a spot at a chinese restaurant in Basundhara on most days. No one knows his name and no one bothers to find out it seems. Bashi wallah or bashi baeta is how people know him. And so when he came to my apartment I deliberately did not ask him his name. Kind of gave me a feudal nawabi buzz that act of referring to him simply by his profession… He lives near Gulshan 2 and if you want to contact him lemme know and I will put you in touch with him. ( No I am not his manager…but I did think about it…)

Bashi baeta

Tip 2. Horse carriage. At a loose end on friday morning? Then seize the chance and head for Sadarghat. You will never get there on a weekday. It is far too busy at all times except on fridays. Why on earth would you want to go there you ask? Well there are quite a few interesting things to do and see there. Today I will restrict my tip to this quaint form of transport: horse drawn carriage. Introduced in the 19th century it still survives to this day around Gulistan and Sadarghat. When my mum was studying at Mitford in the 1950s she would take this carriage almost every day. Incredible. Judging by the state of the horses, this service is not going to last… So get there quick!

horse drawn carriage near Gulistan

Friday
Apr 14,2006

It was too much to hope for wasn’t it? Too much to think that we would only be talking about cricket this weekend. No, instead we are back to terrorism. And in this instance state terrorism in Kansat or as the papers call it “police excess” or as Lutfozzaman Babar calls it “lack of dialogue.”

And yet more on terrorism as the respected Jane’s security analysts tell us about Harakat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami and how they have re-emerged after their banning last year as Dawaat el Kafela and are ready to do the Bangla bhai thing. Worryingly, Jane’s say in reference to the capture of Sheikh Abdur Rahman and Bangla bhai that “Bangladeshi intelligence officials believe that the arrests are unlikely to undermine the militant groups.” If anyone has a subscription to Jane’s security briefings - it costs a mere $1170 per annum - how about giving me a quick gander at the text?

And whilst all this is going on, Morshed Khan is trying to make sure donors don’t dwell on these things too much. Canada is apparently expected to increase its development assistance for 2007-2008. And so Khan’s right hand man Reaz Rahman was dispatched to Ottawa. This was his opening line: “Bangladesh is often thought of as the picture of poverty [and] as a hotbed for breeding terrorism. I’m here to sell the real image of Bangladesh — moderation and tolerance.” Yeah. Tell that to the people in Kansat.

And finally one piece of good news: another gong for another Bangladeshi. The work of Dr Halida Hanum Akhter has been recognised by the UN population fund. She took part in “key research in contraceptive effectiveness, reproductive health needs and services, and in assessments of maternal deaths in Bangladesh.”

Tuesday
Apr 11,2006

Injured Spectrum Worker

Twenty Page Report (pdf) by the Clean Clothes Campaign.

“….investigations into the Spectrum collapse are yet to be published, there have been no investigation into failures of the government and of companies sourcing at Spectrum, and legal punishment for those responsible still seems to be far off.”

“…so far (families of) Spectrum workers have received some initial relief money and injured workers have received proper medical treatment; outstanding wages and overtime have been paid, but severance payment is still due; some 100 workers are still left without employment; a voluntary relief scheme is being set up, but most companies still have to commit to contribute to it.”

Tuesday
Apr 11,2006

Salam Dhaka has alerted the bangladeshi blogosphere to the appointment of a zionist, amongst others, as a PR man for Bangladesh. Richard Benkin has a certain way with words. And his talents have no doubt impressed the government sufficiently for him to have acquired this 5k usd per month contract. Richard penned a letter in Jewsweek sometime back entitled “Dear Bangladesh.” Full of sophistry, the article tried to woo Bangladesh into recognising the state of Israel. In the article, Benkin cleverly but superficially abstracted historical features of the two countries and issues affecting them, stripped them of all political , contextual and historical analysis - and then presented the two countries as if they were long lost brothers. Most insulting to anyone who subscribes to any notion of historical truth is how Benkin manages to distort a fundamental fact: that Bangladesh represented a resurgence against domination whilst Israel represents a wretched attempt at retaining western domination in a third world area.

And perhaps this is precisely why the Bangladeshi government want to employ such a clever scribe. Who better to put the right spin on things than Richard Benkin - someone whose mind is able to conjure up common cause between Israel and Bangladesh? Self-justification is at the heart of Israeli propaganda. No matter at what cost. Perhaps the bangladeshi powers that be feel its time to employ some of the same given that the elections are around the corner?

I can’t helping thinking whether there is more to it. Is Bangladesh preparing to recognise Israel as Morshed Khan seemed to hint last year? Are there trade-offs to be gained in terms of further American trade? In other words, can foreign policy principles be bought? We will have to wait and see. Israel, incidentally, was one of the first countries in the world to recognise Bangladesh. At the time Sheikh Mujib took a principled stance and refused any kind of relationship. ( It is worth bearing in mind that the Arab states dragged their feet on recognising Bangladesh - paying heed to the sensitivities of Bhutto. Indeed they only recognised Bangladesh after Bhutto won a major, and some would say unforgiveable, concession from Mujib re the trial of Pakistani soldiers for war crimes).

Saturday
Apr 8,2006

Spectrum factory collapse

Organisations inside and outside Bangladesh will mark April 11th this year (the first anniversary of the Spectrum-Shahriyar factory collapse) as International Action Day for Workers’ Health and Safety. If you live outside Bangladesh the Clean Clothes Campaign requests you to:

  • Organize an action at your Bangladesh embassy to pressure the Bangladesh government into taking action.
  • Organize an action at the headquarters, local representative or one of the shops of the retailers or brands sourcing in Bangladesh to pressure for safety measures, in their own supply chain as well as via a comprehensive programme.
  • Organize an action at the headquarters, local representative or one of the shops of the companies that sourced at Spectrum-Shahriyar to pressure for immediate commitment to the trust fund process.

If you live in Bangladesh, look out for and support the actions of:

Trade unions in Bangladesh, including the Bangladesh National Council of Textile, Clothing and Leather Workers’ Unions ( BNC) and the National Garment Workers Federation ( NGWF ), Sammilita Garments Workers Federation ( SGWF ) and NGOs, including the Awaj Foundation and member organizations of the Sramik Nirapatta Forum (Workers’ Safety Forum), have planned a variety of public actions, including marches, press conferences, creating human chains, and candle lightning ceremonies.

Tuesday
Apr 4,2006

(Crossposted at desicritics.org)

I came across this banner below in the lobby of Labaid in Dhanmondi. The text reads :

We seek your support to frustrate unholy attempt of vested quarters to turn Bangladesh into a market of foreign hospitals.

Mark the word “unholy.” We know that Labaid wants to be the principal private hospital in Bangladesh. Moreover their mission statement explicitly states that they want to “reduce patients (sic) outflow to foreign countries for treatment and thereby save valuable foreign currency.” That is all fine. No one would argue about developing local capacity. It is greatly needed. And one can also understand that they are a bit worried about the foreign competition. Not only do patients go outside for treatment but last year Apollo hospitals (of India) opened up joint venture operations in Bangladesh with the launch of their flag-ship hospital in Basundhara. And there is also a Japanese healthcare group (Tokushukai) who have teamed up with Grameen Bank and will probably start operating shortly. But why this word “unholy?”

Not even the most rabid proponents of autarchic development, as far as I remember my development theory, use the word unholy to describe foreign investment. Oh yes they use a lot of other derogatory words but not unholy. What could this banner be about? Is it Apollo = Indian = Hindu = Unholy? So is this a plea for protectionism couched in communalist nationalist terms? I pointed out this poster to a doctor working at Labaid. She had not noticed the banner but upon seeing it was surprised and wondered along exactly the same lines outlined above, without any prompting on my part. She regretted the poster and said she would ask their customer relations department….

In case anyone thinks I have got a soft spot for Apollo. I don’t. They almost killed my mum.

Labaid banner (Taken with my rubbish Motorola RAZR)

Sunday
Apr 2,2006

G

G is from Faridpur. She came to Dhaka to work as a domestic maid. Her employers left to go abroad for a while and gave her permission to take up another day time job and maintain the house as well. She found a job as a “helperi” in a seventh floor garment factory in London Plaza, Uttara. She worked there for two months. The experience left a deep impression on her.

She has three recollections of the place. The constant swearing, her docked wages and the cruel treatment of a girl suspected of theft of a small amount of material. When she recalled the episode of the alleged theft her eyes filled up with tears. One day during her time at the factory at about 8 or 9 in the evening, a certain girl who worked near her was caught by the “checkup” person at the gate with a piece of cloth of the size of a woman’s petticoat in her bag. She was immediately accused of stealing the piece of cloth. The girl denied it vehemently and insisted it was a plant. “Justice” was summarily dispensed. She was beaten by the “line-chief” using his hands and a thin cane. She was made to stand on a table whilst all the operators and helpers stood around to watch. He proceeded to cut her long hair. She begged to be beaten and for her hair to be spared as she was married but the line chief was not in a mood to listen. He cut her long hair. He then threatened to tar her as well - using what G calls “alcatra” or pitch bitumen as used in road works. He was “persuaded” not to.

When I asked G what the other workers made of it, her answer was surprising. There was no sympathy for her. She deserved what she got was the general mood. And it got around quick that she had quarelled with her husband and that despite coming from a good family background she had come to work in the factory. Both these things counted against her. There was no solidarity amongst the workers - rumour and innuendo worked against that and of course there was no organisation to represent her interests. G also wonders about the social outcome of that day and how difficult it would have been for the girl to go back to her husband and explain her punishment.

G harbours her own grudge against the factory. She said that leaving the premises was not an easy matter. Gates were locked including the emergency ones and that you needed the management’s permission in the form of a “gate pass.” The gate pass is additional to a red card which entitles the carrier to enter and leave the premises as an employee. Once however she managed to leave the premises on an emergency with only her red card. In her rush she did not take a gate pass but did explain the situation to the guard at the door when leaving. When she returned the next day, her punishment was swift - the management docked a month’s wages. She thanks her luck that she had a place to go and sleep and food to eat.

Read the other “Stories from Dhaka”

Migrant Work in Jordan
Mirpur Garment Worker

Sunday
Apr 2,2006

Niko is a Canadian company engaged in gas exploration in Bangladesh. Last year it developed an image problem after two gas fields had blowouts within a short space of time. This article HERE by Geoffrey York upon first reading appears like Niko’s PR campaign kicking into action. Undoubtedly sympathetic to Niko it describes the problems of investment in Bangladesh - the “headaches of dealing with balky politicians, hostile journalists, angry activists and protesting villagers.” Nevertheless it is worth a read as it exposes Niko’s perspective very nicely. The number of condescending remarks coming out of their corporate mouths is illuminating and reveal their thinking. One thing is for sure, their production superintendent - Allen Rose - I suspect needs to go on a “dealing with the media” course or some such. He declares “From an economic standpoint, these people are farther ahead because of the blowouts. It’s been devastating for Niko, but it’s been positive for the community.” Hmmm. And their environmental consultant, Randal Glaholt, also needs a refresher course. He reckons the blowouts were a trauma for “these people” becase they were “poor and uneducated.” Right!? Of course! A gas explosion is a trifling matter if you are educated and well-to-do. It was really nothing to worry about just a “fear of the unknown” for these Bangladeshi retards…

Niko complains they have had a hard time from the press and other interest groups. My own recollections of the coverage in the english and bangla press was that the response was rather muted ( I was in Dhaka for the entire period at the time). I distinctly remember remarking to a World Bank chap in Dhaka that if this had happened in the west - all hell would have been let loose upon the polluter. Niko’s points about the general investment environment given the “ferociously partisan” political climate are worth noting. They claim they have been at the losing end of this. Most would argue they got the contract because of such a set up….

And across the way in Myanmar

Saturday
Apr 1,2006

Year after year it is the same story. The International Labour Organisation flags up and condemns the forced labour policies of the Myanmar junta. The junta make some noises and appear willing to make  changes. They then fail to deliver spectacularly. And the ILO issues yet another statement regretting the lack of progress. And so it was that yesterday the 295th session of the ILO

expressed its profound concern at the continued lack of any meaningful progress towards abolishing forced labour. It was also concerned that persons who had complained about the use of forced labour were being prosecuted and asked for their immediate release. The Governing Body decided that the International Labour Conference this year would review further action to be taken to effectively secure the compliance by Myanmar with this convention as well as ways to ensure that no action would be taken against persons or their representatives who complained about forced labour.

How long is this to continue? The army is the main culprit. It displaces and disposesses rural people and uses them to perform various construction and other work without pay or very little pay. The army also uses children to work as combatants and as support staff. The situation in the border areas on the Thai border and the Bangladeshi border in northern Rakhine (Arakan state) is particularly serious.

Khaleda Zia gets on fine with these military chaps. She has been over there in 2003 and she has met various SPDC generals in Dhaka. Apart from gas pipelines, corridors and trade in pulses and onions, does she ever raise the issue of forced labour? Indeed do her discussions about Rohingya’s lead her to discuss forced labour?