Monday, February 05, 2007

Bangladesh comes together, the flat falls apart

It seems that the state of emergency is going to be in place for some time, possible up to a year, and maybe even beyond that. As someone said to me a couple of days ago: ‘the people are not used to obeying the law, but now they must and it takes getting used to’. Whether that is suitable justification for maintaining the army-backed administration or not is a highly debatable subject amongst Dhakians at the moment.

The impact is clearly noticeable, however. I have had yet another experience with the Army, once more not of my own doing. It is almost as though they are following me about. I was at the Stadium Market yesterday with some of my colleagues, trying to find disposable cameras for a project. Underneath Bangabhaban National Stadium are crowded hundreds of small shops and stalls selling anything from batteries to mobile phones, MP3 players to impressively large fridges. Why the national stadium is also the biggest electronics market in the country is not explained, but on a Bangladeshi scale this is not even that odd, and certainly not surprising.

The search for cameras proved fruitless, so we settled for a 500 Taka point and shoot. As we were buying it a huge cry went up from somewhere, and suddenly half the store owners and workers were throwing goods into boxes and slamming down shutters. The guy we were buying from snatched the 500 Taka as his 7 year old staff were pulling shutters, and what had been a typically sedate day suddenly burst into panic. Within seconds the shop was shut and padlocked and the owners had melted into the crowd. The only sound was the crashing of steel doors and the shouting of owners at their boys. The sirens competing with the prayer call for soundspace hinted at what the fuss was about: these usurers (at least of bedeshis) had not been struck by a sudden devout moment, but rather did not want the Army to investigate whether they had any smuggled goods. I think the Army, however, would have an easier job looking for genuine products. It would certainly be quicker.

Not every business is on the list, and so we went into one that was still open to buy film and batteries. It was here that, having handed over a 500 Taka note that the Army turned up. Shopkeepers never have change for a 500 Taka and so send off one of their boys to find change from a neighbour. So I watched my 500 Taka (or rather, VSO’s 500 Taka) disappear and two Army soldiers arrive in its place. Dressed in full kit – helmets, camouflage, rifles – and began poking around the shop, clearing everyone out. The shouting and crashing coming from other parts of bowels of the stadium suggested that those shops not lucky enough to be frequented by a bedeshi at the moment of the Army’s arrival were getting a kicking, mostly of their stock but often to themselves. I was left in the shop, trapped between two (small, but armed) soldiers and all the stock that they wanted to pull off the shelves and ‘investigate’. But I could not leave as I was waiting for my 380 Taka change to arrive. It was rather awkward, having explained why I was not leaving, especially as the boy took ages. Yet because this was for work I needed a receipt, and maintained the farce by asking for one, and the soldiers and I watched the owner writing out the voucher as though this was a totally normal event on a normal day. Like those scenes in Westerns when the fighting in a saloon stops for a moment, I am sure that as I turned the corner, normal practice resumed and the rest of the voucher book ended smashed on the floor along with the other stock.

The law is being enforced on building regulations as well, and thousands of small shacks and shanty houses across the country are being bulldozed. As usual, it is the poor that get affected by this, not the rich. A hut selling cha (tea) is a nuisance for middle class professionals, but it is a lifeblood for the operator. More formal establishments are hit, however. The restaurant that sells what must be the best shinghara and samosa in Dhaka has been closed, the roof ripped off and all the tables, pots and staff removed. The site only had permission for residential, not a café, but until now this was not enforced.

On one hand this sort of action is very good, because the lack of governance and accountability in Bangladesh is startling (the title of most corrupt country in the world since records began does not do it justice, nor does losing the title to Chad this year reflect an improvement: its just that Chad has got much, much worse). The government does need to start to take action to enforce regulations and accountability. However, the vast majority of infringements are made by the urban poor. It is they that squat on government land, and who set up stalls in the street. At the zoo, workers have established their own squat in the grounds. Their injustice is pretty stark: the animals’ conditions are much better than their keepers’. The answer has to be to legitimise illegal squats, accept the reality of the urban poor, and serve them .Of course, with this comes responsibilities, like meeting electricity and water connections to which legal buildings are entitled. And where will the money come from to pay for 6 million water connections in Dhaka? Certainly not from the pockets of the richest who are the real infringers of the law.

Hope has been raised though as 15 former ministers were arrested a few days ago, into investigations of their extreme wealth, and the best friend of the immediate past Prime Minister’s son is on the run. He is worth $85 million, allegedly embezzled. From nothing to this wealth in 5 weeks and his flight to India suggests that the allegations are pretty strong.

Whilst the army-backed government is starting to sort out Bangladesh, for good or for bad, our flat is falling apart. Yesterday the entire light fitting in the kitchen crashed to the floor, leaving live wires floating above our heads and a completely dark kitchen. Also, the cockroaches are back, with at least 15 dead in the last day or two. One was about four inches long, absolutely huge. Our fridge is still has its fever, going from glacial ice sheet to tropical sea but failing to just be a cold fridge and freezer. I still have not decided if I prefer frozen tomatoes or soggy bread.

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