Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Bangladesh: Great expectations unfulfilled dreams

ZAYADUL AHSAN and SHAKHAWAT LITON

PEOPLE'S hopes for the best and confidence in the caretaker government seem to be reducing while the country's economy is experiencing recession.

The state of emergency, which was indispensable at the beginning of the year to avoid the political turmoil over the January 22 parliamentary polls, gave birth to the current caretaker government, raising people's hopes for changes.

With the wholehearted support of people as well as the armed forces, the interim regime started its journey on very high expectations on January 12, a day after the declaration of the state of emergency, vowing to bring changes to ensure a free and fair parliamentary election to install a pro-people elected government.

But, at the last quarter of the just concluded year, the escalation of public frustration over the performance of the interim administration overshadowed some of its significant achievements like separation of the judiciary, launching crackdown on "corrupt political bigwigs", reconstitution of some crucial institutions.

However, its role in handling the corruption drive, much hyped reforms in political parties, university teachers' detention has triggered questions in public minds whether the interim regime can finish all its tasks before holding the stalled parliamentary polls within the stipulated time.

Moreover, its failure, despite some sincere efforts, to arrest skyrocketing prices of essentials made commoners annoyed though the year was without traditional negative political culture that in the past hampered country's economy a lot by enforcing violent political programmes like hartals, blockade etc.

The crackdown on corrupt political bigwigs and businessmen got people's overwhelming support, but some steps like anti-hoarding and harassment of top businessmen caused severe setbacks as the steps sent a chill of panic among the business community.

At the beginning of the caretaker regime, the wholesale eviction drive across the country to recover public land made several lakh vendors and hawkers jobless what many economists think did greatly damage the informal small business sector.

Besides, natural calamities like the devastating floods and horrifying cyclone Sidr made the ways difficult for the interim administration.

Following the natural disasters and lack of farsighted steps on the economic front, at the end of the year the country's economy has been largely stagnant. Economists' observation about the country's economic situation is more panicking than encouraging.

In its last over 11 months tenure, the caretaker government faced one vigorous agitation against it in last August at educational institutions and their adjacent areas centring the incident at Dhaka University (DU) campus.

To control the situation, the government withdrew the army camp from DU campus, shutdown all public universities and enforced curfew in the divisional headquarters.

Besides, the veteran freedom fighters launched movement for trial of war criminals and the demand for imposing ban on war criminals has been raised strongly.

The recent resignation of an adviser, Ayub Quadri, over the artefacts fiasco put the caretaker government in an embarrassing situation. Many political analysts, however, observed that Quadri could have taken some early action and save a lot of embarrassment for the government.

Many people, however, still dream of changes for better days and believe the caretaker government will be able to overcome the current situation when the country's economy will be thriving again in an atmosphere where corruption is under control.

Political analysts, however, believe 1/11 (January 11) changeover really provides the interim regime with the historic opportunity to contribute to establishing a desirable democratic rule in the country by bringing qualitative changes in the country's political culture.

But, the developments in past few months made many political analysts sceptical about the implementation of the much-talked-about reforms roadmap that stipulated that the stalled ninth parliamentary election must be held by December 2008.

JOURNEY OF A HISTORIC REGIME
When the country was experiencing grave political turmoil, President Iajuddin Ahmed was forced to resign from the office of the chief adviser dissolving the council of advisers and declare the state of emergency on January 11.

The next day, with the formation of the caretaker government afresh, rule of an un-elected regime began in Bangladesh with unlimited tenure, as the constitutional obligation for holding the parliamentary polls within 90 days after dissolving the erstwhile parliament was not followed as a result of emergency.

The current interim administration is a unique one in the history of caretaker governments that held parliamentary polls within the stipulated timeframe in 1996 and 2001.

The current caretaker government was welcomed by the people even though their fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution were suspended by the state of emergency.

Thus, the interim regime began its journey with the pledges to present the countrymen a free, fair and credible election for ensuring good governance.

With the huge task of running the government for additional time, the caretaker government tried to expand the council of advisers but failed, as the constitution does not allow appointing more than 11 advisers, including the chief adviser.

CRACKDOWN ON CORRUPTIONISTS
From February, it launched crackdowns on the corrupt people and detained political bigwigs including the two former prime ministers who were once considered above the country's laws. People appreciated the clampdown on the corrupt people who were put behind bars regardless of their political identity for the first time after the country's independence.

To intensify the anti-grafts drive effectively, the government reconstituted the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC), formed national task force on curbing serious crimes, and formulated rules under the emergency powers to prevent corrupt people taking part in the elections.

Many of the political bigwigs including Awami League chief Sheikh Hasina and BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia might not be able to contest the next parliamentary election if they are convicted on corruption charges by the trial court, according to the emergency power rules.

Since the reconstitution of the ACC on February 25, it served notices on 256 former lawmakers and ministers including the two former premiers asking them to submit their wealth statements. Of them, 239 submitted the wealth statements to the ACC.

It has so far filed 141 cases against former ministers and lawmakers and of them 53 cases are now under trial and verdict in 18 cases were delivered sentencing former ministers, lawmakers and businessmen to various terms of imprisonment.

The government has forced some corrupt people to deposit with the exchequer around Tk 800 crore which they had accumulated through corruption.

ECONOMY IS IN RECESSION
Economists said political turmoil from October last year followed by the sweeping anti-corruption drive slowed down investment. Business organisations are uncertain whether to go for new investments or not. And government's dillydallying over some big investment proposals contributed to the slow foreign direct investment (FDI) growth.

The government has initiated formation of Truth Commission and Regulatory Reforms Commission to restore the business community's confidence. Despite the measures, the businessmen are still in uncertainty about the political situation and economic scenario, prompting them to keep away from new investments.

Import of capital machinery fell by 30 percent in the first quarter of the current fiscal year due to slow growth of both local and foreign investments. According to Bangladesh Bank statistics, capital machinery worth $366 million was imported during July-September period of 2007 while it was $402 million during the corresponding period in last fiscal year.

Import of raw materials, however, went up by 18 percent with edible oil and oil seeds being half of the total.

Industrial credit disbursement was not satisfactory in the first quarter of this fiscal year despite having huge liquidity in the banking system. The disbursement saw nine percent growth during this period as against 28 percent during the corresponding period of the previous fiscal year. The amount of excess liquidity in the banking system remained Tk 13,129 crore till the end of August 2007.

Bangladesh received $132 million FDI in July-August 2007, 3.64 percent less than $137million received during the corresponding period of the previous year.

Production of medium and large manufacturing industries saw slower growth in the last fiscal year.

According to central bank statistics, industrial production growth percentage came down by 2.48 percent to 10.01 percent last fiscal year, which was 12.48 percent in 2005-06 fiscal year.

Moreover, inflation keeps rising and it stands at a 10-year high around double digits causing unbridled increase of prices of essentials and making public lives miserable.

In such a situation, economists observe Bangladesh economy is currently going through the most critical and challenging period since independence because of the extensive damage caused by natural calamities and the increase of oil price in the international market.

To improve the economic situation by restoring confidence of businessmen, the government has recently formed Better Business Forum headed by the chief adviser.

CONTROVERSY OVER REFORMS IN PARTIES
The government's role, however, in bringing reforms in the political parties triggered enormous controversy as many political leaders and analysts accused it of working behind the scenes for splitting the parties in the name of reforms.

From the very beginning, the policymakers of the interim regime launched blistering attacks on politicians, particularly of Awami League and BNP, the parties that ruled the country in the last 15 years after ousting the military ruler HM Ershad through a mass upsurge in 1990.

Despite its repeated calls for reforms in the political parties, the interim government itself did not come up with any specific proposals for reforms rather it ignored the demand for opening a national dialogue with the political parties on reforms.

In such a situation, no serious progress would be made in bringing reforms in the political parties. Meanwhile, the BNP has become split over reform issue with, some claim, the blessing of the army-backed interim administration. But, the pro-reform leaders failed to gather support from the grassroots level leaders in absence of Khaleda Zia, who was detained on September 3.

The Awami League, the other major party, though not officially divided, is facing internal conflicts over deciding on the party's policy on reforms in absence of Hasina, who was detained on July 16.

During the caretaker regime, attempts were made to float new political parties. This reminded the people of past military regimes when new political parties were set up under state patronisations.

However, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus retreated from his move to forge a new political party as he did not receive the desired response.

GOOD NEWS
Following the declaration of the state of emergency, people, however, experienced a year without political violence, hartal, strike and major social crimes as law and order situation was largely controlled.

Moreover, separation of the judiciary met the long cherished demand, which was ignored during the regime of the previous political governments. The interim regime also reconstituted the Election Commission, and the Public Service Commission, as both the constitutional bodies were mired in controversies.

Under the initiatives of the caretaker government, the unbridled corruption in Chittagong port was curbed largely and efficiency of the port has been increased dramatically.

The dreaded militant kingpins--Shaikh Abdur Rahman, Bangla Bhai and four others--were executed sending a message of the government's tough stance against militants who have been working to destabilise the country.

Despite hurdles to manage daily lives, people of all walks, however, celebrated Bangladesh cricket team's triumph over India and South Africa in the World Cup Cricket and West Indies in Twenty20 World Cup.

The ongoing preparation of the voter list with ID cards is a widely appreciated project of the caretaker government. This massive project is expected to complete in 2008. When completed, this would work as a national database of voters. It is also expected to quell allegations and accusations regarding the voter list. #

First published in The Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh on January 2, 2007