It was 1996. I was on a visit of a small village near Gaibandha to gather research data for the Public Administration Training Centre. The local UP chairman clearly appeared suspicious; disappearing during the day and only joining me around midnight. It was towards the end of my stay that he finally satisfied my curiosity. He told me that he didn’t have sufficient budget to run his public office, so instead he chose not to be around during the day. He didn’t have Aladdin’s magic lamp to support the monga-devastated locality, so he wasn’t willing to run for the next election. But, again, he had no choice: there was no one to replace him.
The village symbolizes the future of Bangladesh – that’s what I filed in my report. Sadly, that symbolism seems to be coming alive. The government has finally confessed that the power and water crisis afflicting the country can be solved if only it had Aladdin’s magic lamp. True enough, tackling these huge shortages is next to impossible for anyone, be it Hasina or Khaleda. But is it really necessary for successive governments to blame the former regime for all the past and present mishandlings? It’s so unbecoming of them, losing composure and acting as confused as the domestic help they employ.
But government moaning aside, it surely takes two to tango. I believe Bangladesh politicians are not solely responsible for today’s water and electricity crisis. The mob must share in the blame, being equal sinners in this tragedy.
Spare a moment for Dhaka, a city gone vertical with line after line of apartment buildings. Space meant for a 4-to-6-member family now houses around 40 people. The small family thought it a wise investment to invite a promoter to convert their comfortable single-unit house into a multi-storey apartment block so that they could become landlord of 8 to 10 families. Did no one bother to think of the consequences of this rural-urban migration? Where will additional water, power and gas supplies for 40 more people come from? Who will tackle the over-burdened sanitation system? What about the roads, parking and traffic? And, quite importantly, why were these people allowed to go mega on their residences in the first place?
These questions are mere rhetoric. We all know the answers. We know that these greedy, selfish neo-landlords never owned up their city. The only thing they really owned up was bribery: turning the shameful act into an art by provoking the greed of government servants who in return allowed them to get away with the assassination of Dhaka.
Ironically, these very neo-landlords with their ill-gotten rents have now become the trendsetters. They dictate fashion, accents and coffee-shop mannerism. They are the ones who blame successive governments for crisis which they themselves are responsible for creating in the first place. The four-member family rolls out four cars on the streets of Dhaka and then holds the government accountable for incessant traffic jams. They demand that shopping malls be allowed to remain open till midnight, just so they can buy peacock wings for crows.
And then, when the crisis gets too much to handle they migrate to some western country. Interestingly, once abroad these pseudo-urbanites are happy to make those same sacrifices which they were unwilling to make for their own city and country. They use public transport, make no fuss when malls close at 7 pm, stand in queues; follow every civic rule and then some. But the moment their plane taxis into Dhaka, their arrogance returns. As if this city of romance is nothing but garbage dump: break traffic rules, litter the streets, refuse to stand in queues, spoil the environment, bribe your way out of every offence and expect VIP treatment for this misbehavior. Nothing is impossible for them in Dhaka, just like the old saying: With money not even Royal Bengal Tiger’s milk is beyond reach.
The above mentioned behavioral pattern is just the tip of the iceberg. Much more degeneration lies underneath it, like the social, mental and emotional anesthesia of the children bred with such illegitimate apartment rents.
Holding politicians and the ‘system’ responsible for social and personal failure is a clichéd mantra, mimicked with equal cliché on midnight talk shows. With a handful of exceptions most of the beneficiaries of Dhaka are also the beneficiaries of our corrupt system. Lest you think otherwise, there’s a new cliché too: collecting material benefits through ideological means. The holier-than-thou approach is seen to pay higher dividends. After all, declassed mobs can be easily exploited by raising the ‘with-us-against-us’ slogans. In our case the slogan is modified into pro-Pakistan, pro-India chants.
I have three simple questions. Why can’t we for once be pro-Bangladesh? Why can we not find it in out hearts to give our city, our country a fresh start? Why can’t we try to fix our crisis, instead of waiting for Aladdin’s magic lamp?
Could this perhaps be too much to ask of a nation that doesn’t even shy from cashing in on its patriotism.