Monthly Coupon

Sunday, January 25, 2009

India has a chance to rebuild its relationship with Bangladesh


THE COUNTRY has a new minister for home affairs, one shoved off the ministry of finance. The earlier home minister had a reputation for passivity. The fresh incumbent has evidently taken upon himself the task of removing traces of the infamy his predecessor was the cause of. The ardour of activism can, however, sometimes have disastrous consequences.

The ministry of home affairs is charged with the responsibility of ensuring the country’s internal security. Such security, the new minister has concluded, is impeded by the inflow, from across Bangladesh, of agents of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and of other saboteurs. The minister has seemingly no doubts regarding how to take care of the problem. Too many visas, he has growled, are being issued to Bangladeshi citizens. He wants to do something about it. Slash the quota of visas for Bangladeshis, and, hey presto, a dramatic improvement is sure to take place in our internal security.

Do our cabinet ministers operate on their own, or do they occasionally talk to one another on matters, which involve concurrent jurisdiction? For instance, did the home minister bother to discuss with the minister of external affairs before he unburdened himself of the issue of visas for Bangladeshis? Consider the awkwardness of the situation. After a long, long while, Bangladesh has a government whose architects have been, of all political formations in that country, the most favourably disposed towards India. Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the presiding deity of the Awami League, is Sheikh Mujibur Rehman’s daughter. The league as well as she personally have had friendly relations, at both official and non-official levels, with Indian personalities. In fact, during the campaign for the just concluded elections in Bangladesh, one main charge hurled against Wajed by her opponents was that she was India’s stooge. Her installation in the prime ministerial office in the neighbouring country is certainly a great slice of luck coming India’s way.

This development should be — and still could be — the forerunner of happier possibilities. What is called for from the Indian end at this juncture is cool watchfulness and sobriety. India’s intelligence agencies may have their worries about the nature of infiltration — either actual or prospective — from across Bangladesh. Instead of airing them openly and on a high pitch, wisdom demands that these concerns be tucked in for the present and confidential talks arranged between representatives of the two countries. Other options would always be available in case these meetings prove infructuous from New Delhi’s point of view.

Patience is not the strong point of our minister for home affairs though. He has, on the contrary, chosen the path of bluster and name-calling. In case he is not exactly speaking out of turn and has the prime minister’s backing, raising a few further questions becomes unavoidable. Now that the nuclear deal with the United States of America is a reality, is it New Delhi’s view that India is the cock of the road in south Asia and has therefore the prerogative to treat all its neighbours as dirt?

Or is it henceforth New Delhi’s established policy not to give any quarter to any country, which has a population with a Muslim majority? Nothing could be more disastrous in the long run than this genre of sectarianism. Given the state of our uneasy relationship with Pakistan, the uncertainties in Nepal and pervasive speculation over the implications of China’s resolve to be the most powerful nation in the world next to the US, would it not on the other hand be prudent to exercise some restraint while dealing with other strategically placed nations such as Bangladesh? The opportunity to rebuild the relationship with Bangladesh would never be greater than what it is today. And that opportunity might not be long-lasting. For despite the Awami League’s entering office after winning a convincing majority in democratic elections, the shadow of the military would not be quite dispelled from the Bangladesh sky. Those in charge of the armed forces there have for the present bestowed their favours on the Awami League. But the circumstances could change fast. If the provocative remarks of our home minister lead to an outburst of anti-India hysteria in Bangladesh and embarrass Wajed and her regime no end, the ISI would have the last laugh.

The home minister’s nervousness over the large number of visas issued to Bangladeshi citizens, in fact, betrays his ignorance of some of the ground realities. Yes, quite a few Bangladeshis have tended to visit India in recent years. More than 90 per cent of them come on short visits, mostly to West Bengal. These visitors could well include an infinitesimally small number of espionage masters. The bulk of them are, however, householders visiting relatives in India, students, university and college teachers, singers, film personalities, poets, writers and suchlike. Why deny it, the bond of language and culture persists between the middle classes in West Bengal and the neighbouring country in the east. This may not be to everybody’s liking, but to try to thwart the tide of natural urges would be altogether foolhardy. What is much more relevant, close cultural relations between the peoples of Bangladesh and West Bengal make a positive contribution to the cause of Indo-Bangladesh amity, and is therefore an effective instrument for combating the machinations of species such as the ISI.

Another matter is worth a mention too. Not as famous or as strategic as the Silk Route from China to Europe, there was, at least, for 3,000 years, a long winding Cattle Route in existence, starting in Baluchistan, travelling all the way across the northern terrains of India, and finally terminating in Bengal. Cattle of the finest stock bought in Quetta would be disposed of in Sindh; cattle, a shade of a lesser quality, but still of excellent breed, bought in Sindh would be sold off in Punjab, the local stock in Punjab would be brought for sale to Rajasthan, from Rajasthan the route would proceed to locations like Indore and Gwalior, and then turn north into Bulandshahr and Oudh. Selling and buying cattle would proceed uninterrupted at each centre, the quality of the cattle steadily deteriorating until the route reached the Bihar-Bengal border. By then the cattle offered for disposal had gone down precipitously in quality, but the rickety lot would still have some demand in Bengal, either for purposes of agriculture or for meat, and would fetch a respectable price. Bengal, however, would pay for the cattle not by offering a ricketier breed — none was available — but by barter, exchanging foodgrains, textiles and locally produced pots and pans against the cattle that were bought.

The Cattle Route was rudely disturbed by the partition of the country in 1947. And yet, the upheaval in political geography did not quite finish it off. Rickety cattle continue to be smuggled across from West Bengal into Bangladesh in exchange for grains, utensils and textiles. This often takes the shape of small-scale, informal activity, otherwise known as smuggling. However determined the Border Security Force might be, to crush this relic of a great historical route is not that feasible a proposition. Visa or no visa, people will travel between Bangladesh and West Bengal, as much for reasons of culture as for the sake of livelihood.

The home minister of the country has recently acquired the habit of shooting from the mouth. That can cause the country a great deal of trouble. The nuclear agreement notwithstanding, the US administration, it is now more than obvious, would not play favourites between India and Pakistan. We therefore badly need friends in the region to buttress our security. A minister who creates obstacles in the search for such friends is a bit of a menace. #

First published in the Telegraph, January 19, 2009

Ashok Mitra is a former Finance Minister of West Bengal state in India and a former Member of Rajya Sabha . He was minister in communist government led by Jyoti Basu but resigned from the ministership during the late 1980s following a difference of opinion with the Jyoti Basu and the party leadership

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

GPS, beyond network barriers


IT WAS thick. We couldn't even see 15 feet in front of us. It was also dark. The fog was so thick on the river and we didn't know what direction we would go. Me and my friend were curious and awaited to see how the Staten Island ferry would run 5.2 mile between the Whitehall Terminal in lower Manhattan and St. George Terminal in Staten Island despite dense fog.

A thick, wet, and chilling fog rolled in from the New York harbor and totally surrounded us. We even couldnʼt see the safety lights that were closed to us and could hardly see two boat lengths in front us and where the shore was. But we were thrilled casting our worries aside when we found we were moving ahead. Yes, the ferry made it all the way and we reached at the St. George Terminal within the allocated time, 25minutes, leaving behind the Statue of Liberty and Governors Island.

So how did the Staten Island ferry ease its way despite thick fog? For the most basic navigation in fog, a vessel needs a detailed chart, a compass, a sound producing device, a VHF radio (Very high frequency is the radio frequency range from 30 MHz to 300 MHz), and a good set of ears. Itʼs obviously a good idea to hoist a radar reflector for collision avoidance as it provides eyes-on-the-water when captain can no longer see due to fog. Besides these arrangements, the Staten Island ferry is included some additional electronics onboard to assist it in further substantiating its position and the location of other vessels around it. With GPS (Global Positioning System) and the magic of satellites, a vessel can locate its exact position at all times. By interfacing GPS and radar, radar can indicate graphically to the vessel where its next waypoint should appear. Other boats, buoys and the shoreline all show up clearly and give a fair warning of what to expect.

Although GPS allows navigating safely, even when caught in a heavy fog and can easily avoiding known hazards while staying steady on course, but if possible, itʼs good to avoid fog by staying in harbor as fog is one of the scariest situations at sea or river. But as long as the technology makes navigating the open seas and rivers accessible to even the novice boater, are the vessels and river transportation systems in Bangladesh fully equipped with modern technology because while fog affects motorists, its economic impact on highway systems is relatively minimal when compared with its impact on river or sea shipping or sailing?

Almost in everyday during this heavy foggy season, a good number of water transports are being stuck on water on shoals for hours in different water routes in Bangladesh as dense fog cut visibility. As for example like other days, several hundred vehicles, including passenger buses and goods trucks, got stranded on the both sides of Paturia-Doulatdia and Mawa-Kawrakandi routes on Wednesday, January 14, 2009 as ferry services were interrupted for hours due to dense fog. Water transports carrying thousands of passengers and goods on 28 different regional and inter-district routes of the southern region stranded in different points on their way and stuck on under water shoals for hours as navigability and visibility in different river routes rapidly lost after dense fog started falling.

Some 3,000 ferries ply the delta Bangladesh's hundreds of rivers and are a key means of transport. Although accidents are frequent, with most blamed on overloading, ageing boats, fail to meet basic safety standards, or unskilled skippers, but there is also a lack of modern technology available on the boats or ferries. Ferry accidents occur frequently in riverine Bangladesh and hundreds of people die every year. Last year on May 12, 2008, 44 people were found dead after a ferry carrying nearly 150 passengers capsized in the Ghorautura River, nearly 180 Km (113 miles) from Dhaka. In May 2002, at least 450 people were killed when a ferry with around 500 passengers on board capsized during a storm in the Meghna River. According to a rough statistics nearly 5,000 people died in ferry disasters in last 32 years since 1977.

Bangladesh is covered by a network of about 24,000 km of rivers, canals, creeks and lakes and there are 8,833 kilometres river ways in Bangladesh. At present, 72 million passengers travel by inland waterways every year. To make it more accessible to the commuters, there are a lot of things to take care of, but one of the main task is to march the vessels with modern technology.

Today is the age of fast and automated system and in every part of life people want the automated system. In communication system, this automated system is vastly needed. Good nautical charts and GPS mapping make planning easy. One can gather information about sights to see, places to visit, navigation waypoints, anchorage information, lists of marinas in the area, and a whole host of other information. By studying the charts of the region prior to departure, skipper can make a tentative route and can trace all of the alternate anchorages and approaches just in case he/she has to change his/her plans mid-trip.

GPS is a satellite-based navigation system made up of a network of satellites placed into orbit by the US Department of Defense between 1978 and 1994. The US government made the system available for civilian use in 1985. It works in any weather conditions, anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day. It receivers, normally hand-held battery-powered devices about the size of a small TV remote, take the information transmitted by the satellites and, using triangulation, calculate the user's exact location. The receiver compares the time a signal is transmitted by a satellite with the time it is received. It allows a person to know where he/she is without ambiguity. GPS has become a widely used aid to navigation worldwide, and a useful tool for map-making, land surveying, commerce, scientific uses, and hobbies such as geo coaching.

However, GPS satellites have some limitations: the radio signal is weak and does not penetrate some places like caves or inside buildings. Everything should be uniquely identified to be located through GPS. GPS receiver, however, isnʼt costly, but GPS technology isnʼt free for Bangladesh. Bangladesh has to buy or rent some space or time in the GPS satellite. But there is little argument among experts in the field that GPS technology has revolutionized navigation.

GPS is a nascent technology in Bangladesh, with only a handful of GPS receivers in the country; Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Army, and Bangladesh Police are in line to acquire GPS equipments. The huge traffic control of Dhaka city can be included in this serial.

Improving river transportation system with modern technology such as GPS and other networking peripherals will be an ideal example of 'Sheikh Hasina's call to build a digital Bangladesh. #

First published on January 17, 2009, New York

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. He could be reached:

Monday, January 05, 2009

Charter for Change now belongs to the nation


INCIDENTALLY, it was also in a December day some 38 years ago, following the historic verdict in favour of the famous Six-Point program in the general election of 1970, the then AL chief, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared: "The AL's Six-Point program is not a program of AL anymore; it belongs to the nation. AL has no right to deviate from it."

Bangabandhu kept his word and we got the independent and sovereign Bangladesh, albeit at a very high price. The grateful nation crowned him with the supreme laurel -- father of the nation.

Many political pundits have drawn a parallel between the victory of AL in the just concluded general election and that of 1970. This time around, it is a resounding mandate in favour of the "Charter for change," the election manifesto of AL. Bangabandhu's Six-Point program was formulated in the backdrop of deprivation of the Bengalee people within the state of Pakistan, predominantly in the arena of political rights, and less on any specific agenda on economic emancipation, albeit the former is an indispensible pre-requisite to achieve the later.

This time around, however, the AL"s charter for change is primarily an economic platform to free the nation from the yoke of poverty, corruption, terrorism and the abuse of state authority. The manifesto is very much a forward looking document, outlining specific sector by sector targets (a bit ambitious at times), and it attracted the voters' attention and the subsequent creation of enthusiasm, especially among the younger ones, which apparently translated into the AL-led alliances' massive victory in the election.

This is probably for the first time in the history of Bangladesh that an election manifesto had generated so much interest in the electoral domain of the country. The unbridled corruption, terrorism, and wanton disregard for the rule of law by the strong and the powerful in the past BNP-led government collectively contributed to the desire for change among the masses.

In addition, the AL chief has run more or less a flawless campaign throughout, mostly outlining her vision for the nation until 2021, the golden jubilee of the birth of our nation. In the process, it seems that the AL chief has also transformed herself to lead not only the AL but also the nation to its destiny.

Last July, I had the distinct honour of acting as the lone speaker (beside her local party activists) in a largely attended congregation arranged in her (she claimed to have read all my articles in DS while in jail) honour in Toronto, where she outlined the draft of her "vision 2021," which was subsequently included in the charter for change.

In her speech, by addressing the dream of the future generation, not the next election, she rightfully portrayed herself as a statesman, rather than a politician. It would not be any exaggeration to note that her articulation in the recently delivered speech (I watched it live on TV) in a business forum would remind anyone of the same exhibited by Barack Obama in the recently held US election.

Aside from her programs, which affect the day to day lives of the citizens, economic uplifting of the toiling masses and a promising future of our next generation, one the most striking aspects of the manifesto was the bold inclusion of the pledge to try the war criminals. While formally announcing the salient features of the manifesto in a local hotel, it would be only incumbent on the wisdom of the soon-to-be prime minister to recollect that she received the most thunderous applause from the audience when she declared that the "war criminals will be tried."

Due to the relentless campaign of the Sector Commanders' Forum, in conjunction with the conscious citizens, there has been a huge resurrection of the hatred against those who directly collaborated with the perpetrators of one of the worst genocides of human history, especially among the members of the new generation, thereby virtually annihilating all the alleged war criminals and their patrons from the electoral map.

Since it is an extremely dominant issue that has made its rightful place in the election platform, the massive approval of the people to try the war criminals is very loud and clear. It is now the responsibility of the would-be government to initiate the process, including the solicitation of help from the UN and the international war crime tribunals. Any faltering or dilly-dallying would be tantamount to going back from the Charter for Change, which now belongs to the nation, not to the AL any more.

While analysing a few points of the BNP's 36-point election manifesto in a piece entitled, "A manifesto of mockery" for DS (December 18), I wrote: "The election manifesto is a big challenge to the memory of the people, who are the ultimate arbiters in deciding the fate of a political party." In fact, the "shock-and-awe rout for the BNP" on December 29 clearly proved that the people were in absolute control of their memories while delivering their verdict.

If the AL leadership fails to take proper cognisance of the brazenly broken promises behind BNP's disastrous fate this time, it will only pave the way for the history to repeat itself. #

First published in the Daily Star, January 1, 2009

Dr. Mozammel H. Khan is the Convenor of the Canadian Committee for Human Rights and Democracy in Bangladesh