Letter From America: Reflections on Bangladesh
I was in Bangladesh around the Christmas time. During this time of the year, many couples get married, which allowed me to attend a few of such events, almost every night I was in either Chittagong or Dhaka. Such events allowed me to connect and chat with some old friends and relatives. As usual, we discussed latest developments in the country; they also wanted to know about president-elect Donald Trump and the upcoming days in the USA under his new administration.
In olden days, it was customary to have the wedding parties in bride’s home and rarely in hotels or convention centers or halls. Now it is just the reverse case with most events held in convention centers/halls, which can cost anywhere from one hundred thousand Taka (78 Taka is equivalent to 1 US dollar) to a million to rent the place for half a day. These convention halls/centers can host anywhere from few hundred guests to thousands. I am told that the demand for such centers are so high that one must book at least six months in advance to avoid any unpleasantness with planning such events. Obviously, most medium-income to high-income earning city-dwellers don’t mind spending a hefty bundle for their loved ones in such events, once again proving higher buying/spending power of many Bangladeshis these days. Fortunately for the guests, no gifts need to be brought into a vast majority of these events where the hosts seek only blessings for the newlyweds.
On the day I landed in Chittagong from Dhaka, I was pleasantly surprised that my childhood friend Babul’s (Anwar Chowdhury) daughter was getting married that day. I came to the event with a small gift that I had bought in the USA (in case I attend such events), and faced some resistances from my friend to accepting my gift for his daughter. Ultimately, I succeeded to put the gift in his pocket.
I had the opportunity to also attend a mejban (an event in which thousands of people – mostly the poor, neighbors and friends – are invited to eat food) in a relative’s paternal house in Sitakund, located some 22 miles from the port city of Chittagong. Some of my relatives came from Hong Kong and the Far East to attend the event. (By the way: I missed our own mejban hosted by my father in our Khulshi properties by just three days in which some five thousand people were fed. Fortunately, my younger brother Shameem was able to attend the event.)
I was also able to attend my old friends from the BUET Group-77 on the 30th of December. They have been hosting such reunions every year for nearly 40 years. However, this was my first one in all these decades. With everyone growing old and some having changed drastically physically, it was difficult for me to recognize many of my old classmates. Nonetheless, it was a pleasant event to recollect our old days.
Some of my BUET friends are in the real estate business, which has been suffering terribly. They blame government policy of imposing unusually excessive sales tax for the trouble. Many construction projects, thus, remain unfinished; those that are complete don’t have buyers. Unless this flawed policy of excessive sales tax is corrected, they see little hope of any recovery. This is disastrous because of the value housing sector creates in boosting the overall economy for a developing country. If the government of Sheikh Hasina is serious about growth and prosperity for all, it must seriously look into this matter and correct the problem immediately.
Any visitor to Bangladesh cannot miss the obvious signs of massive infrastructure development projects, esp. in the Roads (including railway) and Highways sector, that are underway. Inter-city/town highway/freeway and rail communication service is going through a massive overhaul under Hasina administration and has significantly eased the pain of long-distance commuters significantly. Railways runs on time without any delay. However, commuting inside any city is a different story. It is a nightmare for most commuters! Although some overpasses (locally called ‘flyovers’) are being built, the city planners have not been able to keep up with the phenomenal growth of city population. With manually paddled tri-cycle rickshaws equally competing with other motorized vehicles in many inner city roads, as expected, their slow speed is dictating the pace in most roads. Waiting in a road junction can take several minutes, adding to frustration of everyone.
As a result, the number of trips that a rickshaw puller or a taxi driver could do is decreasing significantly, which makes it very difficult for them to survive on a dwindling income.
The capital city of Dhaka is a megacity with a population in excess of 18 million people with another 6 million people coming daily from adjoining towns for their work. It is now ranked 11th amongst the major megacities in our world, just behind New York City. [In 2030, Dhaka is expected to have a population of more than 27 million.] Chittagong has a population of 8 million with another 2 million floating commuters. No new roads have been built within the city limits except some overpasses. So during rush hours, which can last from no later than 8 a.m. to until no earlier than 10 p.m., commute inside any of these major cities could be very time consuming. Just a car commute from the Dhaka’s international airport to Shahbagh area can take anywhere from an hour to five hours, depending on the traffic jam.
Many of my entrepreneurial friends who are still active tell me that they spend four to six hours a day on the road sitting in their cars while trying to attend to their businesses or meetings or returning home. I had some taste of such painful commuting experiences anytime I tried to meet someone or attend an event.
Added to their daily commuting pains are the loud sirens stemming from passing ambulances that they must bear. Many of the hospitals happen to be in the heart of the cities, which bring in patients that need emergency care. Ambulance sirens have, thus, become a regular nuisance for city-dwellers. I, however, failed to understand the rationale behind such sirens given the fact that there is no space available for other vehicles to make room for these ambulances. Already 4-lane roads are being used bumper-to-bumper as if these are meant for 6-lane traffic. So, no one gives or can afford to make space for any ambulance to move faster. Most city roads during rush hours look like parking lots with very little movements.
I wish hospital authorities and municipal authorities had looked into this chronic problem and banned sirens when such are not delivering their intended results.
Sirens from the ambulances are not the only avoidable pains for city dwellers. They must also endure similar loud sounds or horns from vehicles carrying dignitaries – ministers, judges, etc. And they are too many of such dignitaries in Dhaka! For a gridlock city like Dhaka it goes without saying that unless all major government offices (plus the secretariat), including the prime minister’s office, are moved away from the heart of the city commuting pains are not going to ease away any time soon. In the meantime, the government may like to seriously consider using helicopters for commuting its ministers. Such measures can do wonders in terms of reducing lost hours of most commuters.
What surprised me most is that price of most food items are much higher in Bangladesh than here in the USA. The only exceptions seem to be rice and vegetables. Even though salaries of all employees have gone up several fold, most low-wage earners can ill-afford to eat meat in weeks.
Salaries have gone up for all employees, esp. those employed in the government sector, which remains the most corrupt organ within the society. Since coming to power, the Hasina administration has also been providing multiple bonuses for government employees, e.g., for the two Eid festivals and Bengali new year. Such incentives and overtures, seen mostly as appeasements to strengthen or solidify support for the ruling party, create undue pressure upon the struggling already marginalized private sector, which employs more than 95% of the job force. Already the latter is burdened with overtaxing, VAT and other forms of government abuses like the bribes, so such ill-advised government policies to appease the corrupt employees within the government sector are doing no good. Not only are such flawed policies leading to monetary inflation these are also discouraging employers from hiring new employees.
It should be mentioned here that the rationale behind increasing salary and bonus payment for the government employees was to deter them from indulging in bribery. Forgotten there is a very basic understanding of human nature: reform of character needs sticks and carrots. Simply feeding carrots do more harm than good. Thus, in the absence of a viable check and balance system, bribery continues to be institutionalized and shows no sign of ebbing an iota. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that no government institution or ministry is free of this curse.
In today’s Bangladesh, if anyone wants to get something done from the government sector, he/she must be willing to pay bribes. It is a sad commentary but a nasty fact tolerated by most Bangladeshis!
In this case, let me share a personal story. I had the opportunity of visiting a government election/voting registration office in Chittagong that issues national ID cards. This is part of the much-touted Digital-Bangladesh program, led by prime minister’s son – Sajeeb Wazed Joy, which is meant for making life of all Bangladeshis better. However, like most initiatives and programs in the government sector in Bangladesh, it is infested with corruption.
Nearly a year ago, a relative of mine had applied for her National ID card. She was given a small sheet of the application form showing her application number. Nearly six months ago, when the office was contacted to find the status, she was told that it was not ready yet. Last month, when the same office was contacted, the young government officer sitting behind the desk-top computer informed us that her entire file was missing and that no information on her application was available in the computer. He openly sought bribe to look into the matter. As of now, we still don’t know whether he can find the ‘missing’ file, this in spite of ultimately meeting his demand for extortion/bribe money (commonly called ‘speed’ and ‘sweetening’ money). By the way, I am told by my friends and relatives that such briberies have become the new norms in Bangladesh where every government employee, with rare exceptions, preys upon ordinary citizens without any fear of accountability. Something has definitely gone rotten in Bangladesh!
On my way to Sitakund from Khulshi area of Chittagong by car, I noticed some heavy trucks that had rammed into concrete dividers. Upon inquiry, I was told that many of the inter-city trucks like to transport goods at night, and some of them can actually be sleep-driving (some may even be under drugs), thus, getting into such accidents. Their choice for driving at night is sometimes an imposed one because of the ban to enter a city during day time; and sometimes it is solely to avoid (or reduce the likelihood of) paying ‘passage’ money to all those extortionists – from on-duty police (or their civilian agents) to local touts (mostly affiliated with the local MPs) who demand a hefty money to let the truck go through. I am told that some of the truck drivers end up paying nearly five to ten thousand taka for a single trip of few hundred miles. This is the price that they must pay to transport essential goods or provide services in Bangladesh! Where is Bangladesh heading!
While the number of tax payers has somewhat increased, they only represent a small fraction of eligible taxpayers. As a result, government taxation has gone up several folds in recent years to pay for all the government projects. Most taxpayers see the system highly oppressive and corrosive. Thus, the tendency to cheat is ever increasing. Without any effective opposition within the Parliament, budget discussion has become a joke! Whatever budget is formulated and presented by the finance minister eventually gets approved, and the tax-paying citizens must live with and pay for such government excesses.
I am reminded by some of my friends who teach in universities that Bangladesh is now one of the most taxed third-world countries. Unfortunately, tax-paying citizens are not getting the needed benefits for their paid taxes. Most cities and towns remain filthy; dumped garbage litter everywhere (esp. on the footpaths) and is rarely collected on time; open sewerage is everywhere with clogged lines that are infested with mosquitoes; pedestrian footpaths are rarely accessible for walking (because of vendors, dumped garbage, etc.); many roads remain unrepaired in many towns and cities; quality of drinking water is bad; and the list goes on adding people’s miseries and sufferings.
City municipal taxes in Chittagong city is about 17% on the income. However, to harass apartment or building owners often the tax collectors would put an estimate that is as high as the total income drawn from such assets. Again a personal story may suffice to convey the message here.
My father owns a 3-story house ‘Prantik’ (of approx. 2,500 square feet per floor on Zakir Hossain Road in East Nasirabad, Khulshi thana, Chittagong) where my siblings and I grew up some half a century ago. Nearly ten years ago, my parents converted the house to a women’s dormitory so that college/university going female students and young professionals can reside there for an affordable rent. The management of this facility (called ‘Shanti Niketan’ hostel) is handled by a distant cousin of mine. We collect fifty thousand taka as rental money per month from her. However, last year, the city corporation tax was estimated at Taka 7,00,000, which is more than total collected rental in a year (i.e., Tk. 6,00,000). Forget that there are other incidental expenses to upkeep the facility, and that according to City Mayor’s office while only a max. of 17% of the income (which is only Tk. 102,000) should be paid as tax, the corrupt tax collector wants us to pay seven times that amount. That is what is happening in today’s Bangladesh where ordinary law-abiding, tax-paying, and honest citizens are victimized by government agencies at every level. These rogues behave worse than the marauding borgyis and marathas, and firingyi and magh pirates of the pre-British era.
The Anti-Corruption Commission has long been made a tooth-less tiger to fight corruption or ease the pains of ordinary citizens. Worse yet, there are accusations that some of the agents may even be dishonest who are willing to overlook crimes and corruption for a negotiated price. No wonder that of the 176 countries and territories surveyed in 2016 by Transparency International, Bangladesh had a score of only 26, far below the midpoint of the scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean); worse than all the south Asian countries (even neighboring Myanmar). The global average score is a paltry 43, indicating endemic corruption in Bangladesh's public sector.
All the malaise simply saddens me. After all, the liberated Bangladesh (Bangabandhu’s dream - Sonar Bangla) was supposed to make things better for all its nationals – away from exploitation of any kind, and surely not by government or its agents. Instead, every new day is turning out to be a worse day than the day before! That is not a healthy sign for a country that wants to become a thriving democracy and economy in the 21st century.
But who will fix the problem when corruption has engulfed the entire society and people are forced to pay haram money just to survive? It is said that when the head of the fish is rotten there is nothing good in that fish! May God help us all!
- Asian Tribune -