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The curse of being different:: New Age Xtra

This article was originally published in New Age Xtra on July 30, 2010

The curse of being different
by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury
The First amendment of the US constitution evidently promotes the freedom of speech. It is the freedom of any American to say what he/she feels without limitations or censorship. While most Americans are quite proud of it, the amendment provided the American media with the leeway to criticise and protest about any and all violations of the amendment, even in other nations. However, of late, the amendment is being violated rampantly in the US while the US government, the natural guardians of the constitution, totally ignores the incidents.
During May of this year, Rima Fakih became the first Muslim Arab to win the Miss USA 2010 pageant. While her taking the stage clad in a bikini annoyed most Muslims, she also suffered some controversy due to a ‘pole dancing’ stunt she had performed years ago during her teens and some images of her in lingerie. As soon as the clips and images hit the net, it brought about a barrage of exclusive reports on most of the major media outlets like Fox, CNN and others. On the internet forums, there were comments from various ‘patriotic Americans’ ridiculing her religion, with some even calling her a ‘Hezbollah sympathiser’ due to her Lebanese background. Some media and freelance journalists even sought links between her family and the Hezbollah, leading to some experts considering whether it would be best to strip her off her Miss USA title. However, Donald Trump stuck to his decision and she was allowed to hold onto the title and will now be appearing in the upcoming Miss Universe 2010 pageant.
 In June came the Helen Thomas controversy.
The most recent of all these incidents occurred with Octavia Nasr, CNN’s senior Middle East editor, who had served the company for around 20 years.   
Following the death of the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah on July 4, the man who established the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Octavia had posted the following on her CNN twitter account: ‘Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah. One of Hezbollah's giants I respect a lot.’
The tweet was immediately picked up by anti-Hezbollah and ‘extremely influential Jewish associations’ like the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for one, who released immediate statements, demanding Nasr to ‘apologise to all victims of Hezbollah terrorism whose loved ones don't share her sadness over the passing of one of Hezbollah's giants.’
On July 6, Nasr responded through a blog on the CNN website that her initial message was ‘simplistic’ and ‘an error of judgment’. She went on to explain that having interviewed the Ayatollah for the Lebanese television in 1990, he had earned her respect through his stance for women's rights and mostly against ‘honour killings’.
However, the damage was already done. On July 7, Nasr was called in by her bosses at the CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Later, the New York time quoted an internal CNN memo from the senior vice-president, Parisa Khosravi, which said: ‘We have decided that (Nasr) will be leaving the company. At this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.’ The memo also mentioned that the tweet ‘did not meet CNN's editorial standards.’
Later Nasr, wrote on her blog: ‘Reaction to my tweet was immediate, overwhelming and provides a good lesson on why 140 characters (Tweeter limit) should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East.’

While most international media protested the outcome of the incident, the leading US ones seem to be just fine with the decision. After all, who has the nerves to take on the ‘giants’ that control the most powerful economy in the world!

Killing the messenger:: New Age Xtra

This article was originally published in New Age Xtra on December 31, 2010

Killing the messenger

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury finds out why the government reaction to a Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) survey report is undemocratic, paranoid and contradictory to its election pledges

The government’s reactions, following the publication of Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) report titled ‘Corruption in Service Sector: National Household Survey 2010’ on December 23, is being perceived as ‘paranoid’ and ‘harmful to democracy’ by many observers. The government is being over-reactive about the findings of a report, which basically mentions that, although corruption is the highest in judiciary, it is also prevalent in other service sectors, they say.

Many acclaimed think-tanks feel that the denial of corruption in judiciary by certain ministers and government officials contradicts the election manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League during the ninth national parliamentary elections, where the current ruling party had pledged to curb corruption, making it the second of five priority pledges.

TIB trustee Professor Muzaffer Ahmad on December 26 felt that the government was being ‘paranoid’ and are ‘harassing’ TIB officials following the unveiling of the report. Sultana Kamal, a former adviser to the caretaker government, Executive director of Ain O Shalish Kendra and the TIB trustee treasurer, said that the government was ‘not being open-minded and thus creating embarrassing situations’.

The two were basically talking about the onslaught against TIB that was initiated ever since the report was unveiled on December 23.

Immediately after the report findings were published in the dailies, the law, justice and parliamentary affairs minister Shafique Ahmed, according to a report published in New Age on December 26, termed the household survey report as ‘damaging for a democratic system.’ He also questioned the methodology of the survey.

On the other hand, Quamrul Islam, state minister for law, was quoted as opining, according to an English daily, ‘the TIB report's aim was to hinder the trial of the 1971 war criminals.’ Similar outbursts also came from the industries minister Dilip Barua, Police Commissioner Benazir Ahmed, other police officials and some ruling party leaders who termed the TIB report ‘baseless’.

However, the worst was yet to come.

A Comilla court on the morning of December 26 issued warrants for the arrest of TIB trust chairman M Hafizuddin Khan, executive director Iftekharuzzaman and senior research fellow Wahid Alam for maligning judiciary and legal practitioners by its household survey report released on December 23. However, the cases were rejected in the evening as the plaintiff failed to submit their addresses properly.

Also, two Chittagong courts summoned the three top officials of the TIB in connection with defamation cases filed on the same day. Chittagong Metropolitan Magistrate Mahbubur Rahman summoned the three TIB officials to appear in court on January 13 in the defamation case filed by Mohammad Mahiuddin while senior judicial magistrate Keshob Chandra Roy passed orders for the same officials to appear in court on January 30 in the case filed by Mujibul Haque.

Furthermore, a group of Bangladesh Chhatra League and Juba League activists reportedly thronged the TIB office in Jhenaidah, demanding survey documents which portrayed the judiciary as the most corrupt service sector in the country.

Sultana Kamal terms the whole situation as ‘an embarrassing moment for democracy’. ‘Issuance of warrants and fines cannot suppress the truth,’ she says to New Age, before pointing out that such activities portray that the judiciary is controlled by the government, and therefore it is taking the government’s side.

‘Those who filed the cases against TIB officials are in no way benefiting the nation. Moreover, it would have been best for the nation if the government accepted the criticisms with an open mind and did what is necessary to curb the corruption,’ she says.

Muzaffer feels that everyone has a right to information. ‘The TIB uses the same methodology that the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics uses and the report, therefore, should not be questioned,’ he adds.

Following the summons, TIB executive director Iftekharuzzaman said to New Age that as law-abiding citizens, they would face all the matters legally. ‘The TIB is fully confident of the credibility of the report as established methodology was used for the survey,’ he said to New Age.

The Berlin-based international corruption watchdog’s Bangladesh chapter conducted five national household surveys from 1997 till date. The national household survey 2010 observes that 84.2 per cent of the households of Bangladesh who had interacted with one or more of different public and private service sectors or institutions have been victims of corruption in one way or the other.

The report found that, of the surveyed, 88 per cent of the people who had interacted with the judiciary were victims of corruption. This is the highest followed by law enforcement agencies at 79.7 per cent, land administration at 71.2 per cent and taxation and customs at 51.3 per cent.

Also included in the report are the situation in the education, health, local government, agriculture, land administration, electricity, income tax, VAT and excise, banking, insurance and NGO.

‘In terms of collection of bribery alone, the law enforcement agencies were at the top as 68.1 per cent of those who had interacted with such agencies were victims, followed by land administration (67 per cent), judiciary (59.9 per cent) and tax and customs (43.9 per cent),’ reads the preface of the report.

The report also estimated that a sum of 95,916 million takas is lost annually to bribery or unauthorised payments.

The report further mentions the various forms of corruption in the various sectors. For example, in the judiciary, the corruption and irregularities include bribery, harassment by lawyer, unnecessary delay, harassment by court staff, harassment by lawyer’s assistants, harassment to draw documents, harassment by brokers and others.

In the law enforcing agencies, corruption and irregularities include forced bribery, involvement in false cases, negligence or delay in filing General Diary or First Information Reports, misbehaviour/extortion, not arresting the accused, torture under remand, not submitting charge sheet on time or in proper manner and others.

Professor Muzaffer refers to the three cases against the top TIB officials as the ‘government’s weapon’. ‘The report is based on the daily experiences of the people. If our findings are unacceptable, then the general public will definitely reject it,’ he says, before urging the ministers and government officials, who have called the survey findings ‘misleading’, to conduct their own survey to find the truth.

Although Barrister Rafiq-ul Haque feels that TIB’s findings were a bit ‘generalised’ about the judiciary, he also does not find much base in the government official’s claims regarding judiciary and law enforcement agencies’ integrity.

 ‘Such views about the judiciary is serious and can lead to the situation where people may lose confidence in the system,’ says Haque. ‘One cannot make such comments based on the opinions of two to three thousand people,’ he says, while mentioning that the portion of respondents could have been more significant like one to two crores out of the total population of 16 crores. ‘Also, the survey did not mention the sectors these respondents are hailing from,’ he adds.

‘Then again, the government’s perspective is being extremely reactive as, that there are some elements within the judiciary, which are involved in corruption, is nothing new,’ says Haque.

Dr Badiul Alam Majumder, Secretary of Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Citizens for good governance) or Sujon clarifies that there is no methodological flaw in the survey. ‘Through the report, factual information is being provided. These are information that is already known to most of us. Even the Chief Justice himself had talked about corruption in the lower courts recently,’ he says.

Like Majumder, Kamal also referred to the same instance when the Chief Justice ABM Khairul Haque questioned the integrity of subordinate judges accusing some district judges of taking bribes through court personnel, during a conference of over 150 district judges at the judges’ lounge at the Supreme Court on November 12.

New Age published a report on the event, where Chief Justice Khairul Haque was quoted as saying, ‘the people are not satisfied with the activities and integrity of judges who are now in the dock of people’s court. There is a tremendous backlog of cases and justice is delayed….’

Furthermore, accusing the judges of taking money through court personnel, he said, ‘I have information that some district judges take money through ‘nazirs’ and there are specific allegations against many of you (district judges) present here.’

‘There are allegations that many district judges, when they are transferred, ask the court personnel to give them freezers instead of the Quran and walking sticks as farewell gifts..’ Asking the district judges to change such attitudes, he said, ‘do not take toll from nazirs.’

‘The government did not react in the same manner when the CJ said this. Why then is there such protests against survey findings?’ asks Alam. ‘The government should have initiated a process right then to curb corruption in the judiciary,’ says Kamal.

Others feel that the government is actually drifting from the course it had taken when it was in the opposition.

Professor Muzaffer recalled that the same ruling party which had once hailed TIB reports during the BNP government’s five-year rule, are now against such reports.

‘Most government officials denied that there is corruption in the judiciary following the publication of the report,’ says Dr Akbar Ali Khan, former chairman of Regulatory Reforms Commission and a former advisor to the caretaker government, to Xtra. ‘However, corruption and its reduction were mentioned in the election manifesto of the AL,’ he says.

‘Curbing corruption was the second of the top five priorities mentioned in the Awami League election manifesto,’ says Alam.

‘Multi-pronged measures to fight corruption will be taken. Powerful people will need to submit wealth statements every year. Strict measures will be taken to eliminate bribery, extortion, rent-seeking and corruption,’ reads the AL election manifesto that was released by AL on December 12, 2008 prior to the election.

‘However, we have already seen that there has been little effort to strengthen the Anti-Corruption Commission. And now the government is dedicating its efforts to stop fact-finding reports that can actually help them determine the flaws in the system and correct these,’ says Alam.

Earlier, TI in its report on ‘Global Corruption Barometer 2010,’ launched on December 9, ranked the police administration as the most corrupt public service institution in Bangladesh.

From the total number of people surveyed in the report, 79 per cent of Bangladeshis believe that the police were the most corrupt institution followed by the public service (68 per cent), political party (58 per cent), the judiciary (43 per cent) and the parliament (32 per cent).

Following that report, the ACC Chairman Golam Rahman had told New Age, published in a report on December 11, that the commission now cannot work to curb institutional corruption because of lack of manpower and expertise. He further mentioned that the commission is waiting for the proposed amendment to the Anti-Corruption Commission Act.

At the time, the law minister Shafique Ahmed differed with Rahman when he said, ‘as corruption is not institutional corruption because individuals in the institutions are engaged in such corruption, the commission should not have any legal barrier to dealing with them.’

However, the Inspector General of Police Hasan Mahmud Chowdhury expressed his reservations on the same day about the report while speaking at the annual general meeting of retired police officers’ welfare association at the Rajarbagh Police Line.

He questioned the methodology of the survey as the report findings were based on only 1,049 people. He did not feel that the number of respondents were enough to evaluate a large institution like the police.

Further mentioning that the TIB report did not mention any achievement of police, Chowdhury said that though the police personnel were not above corruption, the police as an institution would not take the responsibility of irregularities of some of its members.

‘Such a mindset is unfortunate,’ says Alam. ‘Back in the old days, when a messenger returned from the battlefield to inform the ruler about some loss or defeat, the ruler usually had the messenger killed. The situation in Bangladesh now is akin to this,’ he reasons.

Alam feels ‘rather than trying to kill the messenger, the government should focus on the message,’ in this case the information, and act upon it.

‘Overreaction to such report findings will be harmful for the nation locally and internationally,’ says Khan. ‘While we can already understand the local scenario, the impression of our nation may be tarnished internationally as we may be labelled as a nation that cannot take criticism properly,’ he adds.

Khan further mentions that the survey was not meant to insult anyone in particular. ‘The government could have used it to discuss the situation with the civil society and take decisions about the feasible ways through which the situation can be tackled,’ he says, adding that such a measure would have been in line with the election pledges.

‘The government should take concrete steps against corruption as soon as possible,’ concludes Alam.

Finding feet:: New Age Xtra

This article was originally published in New Age Xtra on December 10, 2010

Finding feet

Following the dawn to dusk general strike on November 30, speculation is rife that the main opposition party in the country, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP), is gearing to initiate anti-government movements across the country. Syed Tashfin Chowdhury finds out whether BNP, struggling with internal issues and under pressure from the government in power, has the ability to overcome the hurdles   

Following the dawn to dusk general strike on November 30, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s (BNP) will, as an opposition party that can still press forth their demands, seems to have strengthened, as senior party leaders went on to call the strike a ‘success’ despite alleged ‘fascist, undemocratic’ attempts by the ruling party who used law enforcement agency personnel to arrest around 3,000 BNP activists, including leaders, from the night of November 26 till November 30.

The party general secretary Khandaker Delwar Hossain, while speaking to the press at the party headquarters a few hours before the strike ended, also claimed that over 2,000 activists and leaders of BNP and its allies were injured through clashes with police and ruling party activists, as they tried to bring out rallies and processions to uphold the hartal (strike), during these five days. Delwar went on to assure the next agitation programme after discussion with party and ally leaders.

The recent incidents signify a change in attitude of the leading opposition party in the country, following the eviction of its party chairperson, Khaleda Zia, from her cantonment house on November 12, who had until recently, had either been inactive or unable to make an impact in the political arena. BNP earlier called for a general strike on November 14, the second strike ever since the present government came to power.

The two hartals have now raised speculation that BNP is trying to gear up an anti-government movement that may pave their way to the seat of government through the next parliamentary elections. However, the party that was handed their largest electoral defeat in December 2008 face a number of major hurdles, including intimidation from the government in power, a weak organisation left in rubbles through intervention of the military-backed interim government as well as retirement, passing away and expulsion of senior party leaders, as well as ghosts from the past – allegations of widespread corruption and the rise in militancy.

Furthermore, some experts feel that BNP’s electoral alliance with Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, a fruitful association during the 2001 general elections, has pushed the politics of the party to the far right, and has dissuaded much of the centre right intelligentsia to associate with it. BNP’s visible from the parliament, starting off with the seat row, has also come under heavy criticism.
The party has, however, also gained some strength in the past two years including the victory in the Chittagong Mayoral elections of a BNP-backed candidate and the success in holding the party council after 16 years, despite odds between party leaders. Meanwhile, two years into the tenure of the AL-led Grand Alliance, the fact that the government has failed to address the power-gas-water crises, curb the hike in prices of essentials, increase economic advancement etc, is also working in their favour.
Whether BNP will be able to overcome the odds and establish itself as a credible opposition over the next few years, with the organisation to participate in the tenth national parliamentary elections, now remains to be seen.

Haunting memories of past term

According to most analysts, the most significant point that worked against BNP in favour of Banglaedesh Awami League (AL) was the public concern regarding arbitrary corruption, rise in militancy, hike in the price of general items and other issues during the ninth national parliamentary elections 2008.

During the five year-long term of the BNP-led four party alliance from 2001-2006, the party office at Banani, named Hawa Bhaban, had allegedly turned into the informal centre of power, lead by the present senior vice-chairman of the party Tarique Rahman, son of the former prime minister and party leader, and then joint secretary general of the party. Tarique and his close friends such as Giasuddin Al Mamun, allegedly used BNP’s position to amass illegal wealth by awarding government tenders in exchange of huge sums of money, charging commission from investments coming into Bangladesh, receiving money during recruitment of civil servants among other means, according to media reports at the time.
The rise in militancy including the prowess of Jamaatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) and others also took place during the term of the BNP-led government. The August 21 attack on the AL rally during the BNP term was allegedly orchestrated by the Harkatul Jihad Bangladesh, one of the many militant organisations to raise their heads during the term.
The pit for the masses was the sky-rocketing rise in the prices of essentials around the end of the term. Many political experts have also blamed BNP for not being able to handle the political situation in 2006, prior to ninth general elections, leading to the emergence of the military-backed interim government soon after.
These, combined with other flaws made by the BNP led four-party alliance government, have left behind bitter memories in the minds of many voters; a serious factor that can still revoke considerable public support away from the party.
Moreover, some people feel that there has never been an apology on the part of the BNP-led four party alliance for taking responsibility, at least in part, for the political crisis the nation was thrust into, leading to the 1/11, though during her speech at the Paltan Maidan on December 27, 2008, Khaleda Zia was quoted as saying ‘let’s forget whatever happened in the past.’
While talking about its past mistakes, senior joint secretary general Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir plays it down by saying, ‘many mistakes occur when you are in power. The communication with the party’s grassroots had reduced as it did with the people, when BNP was in power. The publicity of the BNP’s politics was not properly carried out.’

Victory in Chittagong Mayoral elections

Like the ruling party, even the BNP possibly did not anticipate that Monjur Alam, their candidate for the Chittagong mayoral elections, would win against the three-time mayor and AL candidate, ABM Mohiuddin Chowdhury. The elections that took place on June 17 this year saw Chowdhury defeated by a margin of 95,528 votes.

Many analysts have seen the victory of Alam as a sign of waning confidence in the government in power, of the people due to its failures in delivering on the promises mentioned in the AL election manifesto.

Furthermore, what has gone unnoticed is the fact that, like the Chittagong mayoral elections, pro-government candidates of professional bodies like the Supreme Court Bar Association, the Dhaka Bar Association, the Dhaka University Teachers’ Association, etc were also defeated.

The trend has left the AL-led grand alliance, who took power two years back following a massive mandate that gave them three-fourths majority in the parliament, in considerable worry, aptly reflected in their dillydallying over announcing the date for the Dhaka City Corporation polls.

Hierarchal disarray

Internal conflicts began to plague BNP ever since AQM Badruddoza Chowdhury, the then-secretary general of BNP and the fifteenth president of Bangladesh, resigned from his position abruptly in 2001. After quitting the party, Badruddoza initiated his own political party called Bikalpa Dhara the same year. Following the temporary abolition of Bikalpa Dhara in October 2006, Badruddoza along with Col Oli Ahmed and 24 other BNP leaders, who quit BNP back then, formed the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).

BNP’s conflicts took a serious turn following 1/11 when the BNP chairperson and most of the senior leaders including senior vice-chairman Tarique Rahman and others were arrested by the military-backed caretaker government on various charges. The party broke into two factions: one led by party chief-backed secretary general Khandaker Delwar Hossain and the other, which sought reforms, led by former finance minister the late Saifur Rahman.

Even after the ninth national parliamentary elections, the structure of the party is still in a mess as some of the experienced leaders have passed away while others have been sidelined because of their questionable roles during the tenure of the interim government. According to media reports, there is also serious conflict between leaders, divided along the lines of their roles during the interim government as well as squabbles over positions in the party.

Meanwhile, Tarique Rahman, who was made senior vice-chairman during the fifth national council, has been in London since his release on bail on September 3, 2008, effectively out of active politics.

Standing committee member of BNP Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury feels that through the recent incidents the tenacity of the BNP leaders has been tested. ‘The past two years has helped us understand the stance BNP leaders can take in moments of crises,’ he tells Xtra.

‘There will also be a major shake-up as BNP is preparing to create events now,’ says Salahuddin Quader. He informs that the Dhaka Mahanagar Committee will be formed by next week, while the Chhatra Dal committee will be formed by January 1. ‘The Jubo Dal committee will also be formed very soon,’ he says.

Fifth National Council
Despite serious internal conflicts and general criticism of the absence of democracy inside political parties in Bangladesh, BNP held its Fifth National Council at the Bangabandhu International Convention Centre on December 8, 2009 following deadlines set by the Election Commission. The fourth national council of the party was held 16 years earlier.
Amidst, local and foreign observers, politicians and the media, many considered the initiative being largely successful. The council ensured attendance from party leaders from all regional levels in the country. The councillors approved a number of amendment proposals to the party’s constitution including creation of a number of posts in the national executive committee of the party like senior vice-chairman and expansion of the party’s national standing committee.
Decisions were taken at the council that each of the organisational units will have a certain number of advisers. Also, a new provision was incorporated in the constitution under which the standing committee members will have the authority to join the executive committee meetings. New posts were also created for the party’s 251-man executive committee.
Following the council, Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir was appointed senior joint secretary general while new faces were picked for the posts of joint secretary generals.
While the council undoubtedly did bring together a sense of unity amongst the leaders and activists of the party, it received some criticism for electing Tarique Rahman as Senior Vice-Chairman of the party and empowering re-elected party chairperson Khaleda Zia to pick the office bearers for the National Executive Committee and Standing Committee.
Alliance with Jamaat
A major deterrent in BNP’s popularity was initiated through BNP’s strategic alliance with Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh in 1999. The alliance helped BNP with a majority at the parliament following the eighth national parliamentary elections with BNP winning 193 seats while Awami League got only 62 seats. Jamaat won 18 seats during the elections.
However, due to the rise in militancy from 2001 till 2006 and the then-government’s inability to tackle this, at least initially, most critics linked their alliance with Jamaat as being responsible.
Following the growing demand for the trial of war criminals, the ruling party has time and again blamed BNP for announcing programmes to foil the war crime trial proceedings and shield the war criminals as top Jamaat leaders are alleged to be. The alliance with Jamaat has also created rifts between senior party leaders as many daily newspapers opined in the past.
However, BNP has no plans to break the alliance anytime soon. ‘The coalition between BNP and Jamaat is predicated upon an electoral alliance. This alliance serves different interests at different times. We still have the alliance and we may continue to have it in the future,’ says Fakhrul.

New recruitment and membership renewal
After renewing her membership in August 2009, Khaleda Zia launched a drive to recruit new members for the party. The party aimed at recruiting around 50 lakh members prior to the fifth national council in December, 2009.
However, till September of this year, the party was able to recruit only 40,000 fresh members against their target of fifty lakh.
Party in-fighting, mismanagement and lack of coordination among the local units are reasons for this failure, according to leaders of different units. ‘It is a continued process. The local leaders have fallen victim to the government’s oppression and in many units they have concentrated on anti-government programmes,’ said Abdullah Al Noman, party vice-chairman to New Age, while admitting the failure in achieving the recruitment target.
Pressure from government
As a number of cases alleging corruption and others are still awaiting verdict in the courts against senior BNP leaders, the chairperson and her two sons, BNP seems to be in a constant pressure from the government.
It has been seen over the past two years that exactly when the BNP protests a government move or plans an agitation programme, progress on the hearings of these cases begins to roll. The situation usually leads to BNP toning down their protests and moves.
Besides existing cases, there are always chances that new cases can be filed against BNP leaders, leading to their arrests once again, according to senior party leaders.
However, ever since Khaleda Zia was evicted from her cantonment house on November 12, the BNP seems to have taken their movement a notch upwards. ‘All this while, the government has been creating events and the BNP has been responding to these events. Now, BNP will create the events. The latest general strike was the start to this,’ says Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury to Xtra.
The eviction of Khaleda Zia and cases against party leaders and activists were two of the 12 demands behind the general strike of November 30.
Oppression of BNP activists
According to information gathered by Odhikar, the human rights promoting non-government organisation, a total of 24 persons have been killed and 770 injured in political violence in October 2010. The November 2010 report of the same organisations cites the death of 19 people and the injury of around 1,380 in incidents of political violence. The most talked about of these incidents was the killing of upazila chairman and BNP leader Sanaullah Noor Babu in Natore.
BNP standing committee member Goyeshwar Chandra Roy tells Xtra, ‘the ruling party is also engaging law enforcing agencies to file false charges against BNP activists and leaders. While in the cases, charges are filed against few named individuals, a long list of 200 to 250 unknown activists are also mentioned. This gives the police a leeway to raid the homes of activists and leaders even in rural areas and arrest them on false charges.’
He points out that these activities prove that the conspiracy hatched during January 11, 2007 to ‘wipe BNP off the face of Bangladesh’ is still on and is being carried out by the government. ‘However, such oppression will actually help BNP to unite better,’ he says.
‘All this is actually helping BNP gain popularity,’ says Barrister Moudud Ahmed, standing committee member of BNP, to Xtra. ‘If a free and frank election is held now, I am certain that the BNP led four-party alliance will win by a considerable margin,’ he adds.
Boycotting the parliament sessions
There has been severe criticism of the opposition’s move to boycott the parliament since June 2, 2009, accusing the government of not allowing it to raise or discuss national issues.
Six sessions of the ninth parliament, formed through the December 29, 2008 general elections, have taken place till date and the opposition members attended the house only for 46 out of 1,698 working days.
While the initial argument over the front row never found favour among observers, the charter of demands around January, 2010 that the BNP wanted the government to meet included demands for parliamentary discussions on issues like price hike of essentials, deteriorating law and order situation, campus violence and the Asian highway.
The BNP parliamentary party also wanted the government to withdraw ‘false and fabricated’ cases against Khaleda, her two sons and other BNP leaders while also urging the speaker to expunge the treasury bench's ‘indecent remarks’ about late president Ziaur Rahman.
The ruling party itself seemed indifferent to the whole situation initially thus failing to ensure a functional parliament, one of the five priorities in its election manifesto. However, BNP has also faced the brunt of the criticism.
‘What is the need for the opposition to join the parliament when the court is passing the laws?’ asks Goyeshwar when asked about the opposition’s boycott of the parliament. He further adds, ‘AL and Jatiya Party has the majority of the seats in the parliament to which the number of our seats are rather negligible. They can very easily pass the laws without our nods.’
While citing the PM Sheikh Hasina’s comments on December 5 at the press conference after completing her 12 day-long three-nation tour where she told BNP ‘please do not cause sufferings to people through your destructive activities. Do not destroy people’s property,’ Goyeshwar says, ‘her comments and the comments of their party leaders regarding BNP and our leaders show that they are not tolerant to our participation in the parliament.’
Ruling party failures
The strongest point aiding the BNP in the race against AL at the moment is the failure of the ruling party at meeting the promises it made in its election manifesto especially the ‘five priority issues’.
Besides the parliamentary issues, there has been no advancement in the power-gas-water crises, curbing the hike in prices of essentials, increasing economic advancement leading to more investments and others.
‘The law and order situation has actually deteriorated while the human resource exports to foreign countries are also waning,’ says Goyeshwar to Xtra. ‘Investments are decreasing leading to a worse economy while no new gas blocks have been explored, which is essential for production in industries,’ he adds.
Some of the demands placed by BNP during the recent hartal included anti-national agreements, tender manipulation, gas-electricity-water crisis, land grabbing, extortion and terrorism by ruling party activists. The other issues mentioned were the politicisation of administration, police and judiciary, repression on political opponents and the persistent increase in the price of essentials, all of which have found resonance in the sentiments of ordinary citizens.

Going forward
During the ninth parliamentary elections, BNP won only 29 seats, while its coalition partners Jamaat won two seats and the Bangladesh Jatiya Party got only one seat. While BNP has often alleged that elections had been rigged, the former prime minister has nonetheless admitted that ‘BNP might have lost the elections.’
‘Instead of issues like Khaleda Zia’s house, the opposition should try to focus at making the government solve national problems which are faced by rural and urban people alike,’ says Shams Ahmed, a private service-holder to Xtra, stressing that the BNP can actually regain its lost popularity if it presses forth through programmes with such demands.

Dr Akbar Ali Khan, former chairman of Regulatory Reforms Commission and a former advisor to the caretaker government, when asked about BNP’s political programmes of late and the government’s strong-arm tactics to contain it, says that national politics is gradually moving toward ‘confrontation’.

‘For a democratic system to prevail, a liberal and pluralist system of politics is required,’ he adds.

Retired, extremely dangerous :: New Age Xtra

This article was originally published in New Age Xtra on November 26, 2010

Retired, extremely dangerous

by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

The title is the full form for the recent Bruce Willis- starrer spy-comedy thriller, ‘Red’. Willis finally hits a home run through his performance in this movie after lack-lustre performances in earlier releases this year like ‘Cop Out’ and last year’s ‘Surrogates’. Maybe his success in the movie could be due to the fact that the role fits his age in real life.

The movie begins with Willis character, Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent, living a lonely and monotonous life. The only excitement is when he calls up federal pension employee Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), almost on a regular basis, for his cheque. In the process, they usually get into a conversation about each other’s lives, the books they have recently read and so on.

That is just the first ten minutes of the movie.

The action kicks in as a team of government agents are sent to assassinate Moses at his house. After taking them out, he realise that they also know about Sarah via phone tapping. He reaches Sarah, kidnaps her after failing to explain to her why her life is in danger and then seeks the help of former spies, also retired like him, at helping him find out why the government is intent at stubbing him.

The former spies also include the rest of the cast for the film including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox, Helen Mirren and others. Malkovich will possibly affirm the beliefs of most paranoids through his performance of the spy, Marvin Boggs while Mirren’s action sequences is probably a nuance to the British spy movies of the eighties.

Moses also tries to outthink CIA operative William Cooper (Karl Urban), who is high on his tail. Despite being cool and calculative, Urban’s character constantly tries to seek the truth and motives behind the orders he is being given by his superiors.

Freeman’s performance would definitely make you want to browse online for his upcoming movies while Brian Cox reveals a new dimension to the character type, ‘Russian agent’. Louise-Parker just seems left out in the midst of these veterans.

While the script is nothing unique to the already released spy thrillers, the humour, even during the most pensive moments, and the action sequences, will definitely entertain. Although some sequences may just seem illogical, you would need to accept these as the movie is after all adapted from a graphic novel.

The director, Robert Schwentke, needs to pat himself on the back for making a wholesomely entertaining movie whose script, despite being similar to most spy thrillers over the years, had ample to offer.

On red alert:: New Age Xtra

This article was originally published in New Age Xtra on December 24, 2010

On red alert

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury investigates the pros and cons of the recent education ministry decision to set a deadline on private universities who have failed to shift to their own campuses

A recent government decision, threatening a stop the enrolment of new students to the annual academic sessions of some errant private universities after September 2011, have raised arguments amongst private universities’ authorities and officials of the government departments, assigned to monitor the activities of these institutions. Most of these universities have failed to move to their own locations within the government stipulated time of five years.

Arguments were raised by members of the Association of Private Universities of Bangladesh (APUB) that, in a bid to take action against few wayward universities, the government may take drastic measures against institutions which are trying to abide by the government rules. They feel that the government step may actually hinder the ongoing sincere efforts of some universities at moving to their own campuses, as most universities are planning to rely on the revenue from student fees for the development of new campuses.

While talking about the government decision at a press briefing at the education ministry, the education minister Nurul Islam Nahid said on December 12, ‘Out of the 51 private universities, 41 have failed to meet the conditions on which they were given temporary permission.’

According to University Grants Commission (UGC) data, as of December 20, nine universities have met the conditions. ‘Along with the eight that the minister mentioned last week, the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB) has informed us that they have moved into their own campus in Bashundhara recently,’ says Professor Nazrul Islam, chairman of UGC. He explains that ASA University Bangladesh and East Delta University are the only two who are running for less than five years.

Nazrul points out that the universities have been categorised in five groups in terms of compliance. ‘The first group of nine includes those institutions which already have their own campuses; the second group consists of those who are just waiting to move as the land purchase and infrastructure construction has already been completed or are nearing completion; the third group consists of those who have found land but are yet to begin constructions and so on,’ he says. The fifth group includes those institutions who have not taken any steps to move to their own campuses.

 Besides IUB, the other institutions in Category 1 include North South University (NSU), University of Science and Technology Chittagong (USTC), International Islamic University, Chittagong (IIUC), Ahsanullah University of Science and Technology (AUST), International University of Business Agriculture and Technology (IUBAT), BGC Trust University Bangladesh, BRAC University and Bangladesh University of Business and Technology (BUBT).

The seven universities in category 5 are Darul Ihsan University, Stamford University, Leading University, Sylhet International University, Bangladesh University, University of Development Alternative and IBAIS University.

At the press briefing on December 12, Nahid had also called the indifference of most of these universities in not engaging in activities that can speed up the development of own campuses ‘a matter of great concern’. He added, ‘22 have not taken any such move although they are expanding their activities.’

Expressing his concern that most private universities are located in residential areas, busy roads, restaurant buildings and CNG stations in the city, he added ‘most of the universities are being run as business organisations while some owners are treating the universities as their family institutions.’

Under such circumstances, the minister said that the universities will be allowed to enrol students and to introduce more academic programmes if they could run their activities on their own campuses and provide necessary facilities for students in five years. On the other hand, the errant universities would need to stop enrolling new students, would not be allowed to advertise admission and cannot introduce any more courses or programmes after the September 2011 deadline, the minister said.

‘But the university authorities must take all measures so that the students admitted before September 2011 can complete their academic sessions smoothly as the activities of the defaulters will be limited to the current activities for a tenure of five more years,’ said Nahid.

‘Such steps would actually help in making some private university managements pull up their socks and do the necessary within the September 2011 deadline,’ says Kazi Anis Ahmed, Vice-president of University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh and a member of the APUB. ‘Although we did welcome the initiative wholeheartedly from the association, we feel that the recommendations could have come in a more calibrated manner,’ he adds.

Anis shares that while some institutions are deliberately failing the government others are trying to abide by the rules but cannot do so within deadline due to various problems. ‘Then how can an equal punishment be justifiable for both the categories?’ he asks.

He shares that according to the Private University Act of 2010, an institution can apply for an extension of temporary permission by five more years, even after the initial seven year period of the permission has been exceeded. ‘This tacitly acknowledges that a 12-year period would be lawful for any private university before it achieves some stability,’ he says.

He informs that a private university reaches stability only after enrolling around 5,000 to 6,000 students. ‘According to the government act, each student should have a minimum space of 25 square feet. Under such circumstances, an ideal university would need to be on a campus of over three acres,’ he says.

Anis points out that when the price of land per acre in Dhaka is around 60 crore takas, such a piece of land would cost around 180 crore takas, if it is found within the densely populated city limits. ‘However, for the purchase of such land, financing would be required by the universities. But the provision of loans has also been barred through clause 9.3 in the act. The only sources available is either through the revenue collected through tuition fees or through personal loans from the bank, which is usually not too high,’ he says while explaining the dilemma that most private university management is facing.

Anis also feels that the five year deadline to stop non-compliant universities could very well be wrong. ‘Shutting down vital operations would be harmful for the students who eventually get a degree from the private institution. Also, not all students can graduate within five years,’ he says.

Private university officials also point out that not all private universities have exceeded the initial temporary permission period of seven years. Anis informs that although ULAB received the permission in November 2002, it began operations around October 2004. ‘Under such circumstances, ULAB’s actual operational age is around six years,’ he says.

While agreeing that some private universities have turned into money-making ventures, Dr Anwar Islam, Vice-Chancellor (Designate) of Darul Ihsan University, one of the seven private universities in Category 5, opines that one-acre undivided land in Dhaka and Chittagong and two-acre land in other parts of Bangladesh for own campus of private universities should not be the prime benchmark. ‘The quality of education, the services like internet, multimedia, research and other factors being provided to students should also come into play,’ he says.

Islam feels that the minister should have sat down with the APUB members before giving such a deadline. ‘The universities, who mean to do well, should be provided more time for the betterment of the students,’ he says.

He explains that the shutting-down of some universities can create problems for around 100,000 students annually. From around 400,000 HSC examinees, around 250,000 get admission to the public institutions. The remainder goes to the private universities. Shutting down the enrolment of some universities will actually play to the advantage of the bigger private institutions which can raise the tuition fees due to the demand,’ says Islam.

Anis feels that the decision should have been more categorised. ‘The ministry can look into the necessary documents of the private institutions. The one-year deadline can be provided to those institutions who failed to acquire land even after operating for over 12 years,’ he recommends. He also mentions that some of the nine universities in Category 1 moved after 15 to 16 years. ‘There is no reason for the law to be crucial for the new institutions,’ he says.

Islam thinks that the ministry and the UGC should monitor the operations of institutions like Darul Ihsan University. ‘The Darul Ihsan Trust has split into three factions. These factions were responsible for the numerous branches of the university in some district towns of Bangladesh and in some parts of Dhaka. Other irregularities like sale of certificates and so on had also occurred over the past few years about which, he believes, the ministry is aware. Why are actions not being taken against these university managements?’ he asks.

Education ministry sources reveal that all the private universities other than ASA University Bangladesh and the East Delta University, who were given temporary permission under the private university act of 1992, have already crossed the five-year deadline to shift to their respective campuses.

Ministry sources also share that most of these 40 private universities are also violating the Private University Act 2010 under which the permanent campuses should be established on a one-acre area in Dhaka and Chittagong metropolitan cities and on two acres, in other areas, within five years following the issuance of temporary permission. The land size was stipulated as no less than five acres in the 1992 act.

Furthermore, ministry officials sat with owners of private universities on August 18 this year, after the bill was passed in the national parliament. The ministry had asked the owners to inform the ministry about the time required to move to own campuses within the next 21 days.

After failing to respond twice to the ministry directives, on November 22, the private university higher-ups asked for an extension in the temporary permissions by 15 years.

‘This situation has lead to the current decision,’ says Nazrul. He informs that the minister’s comments have helped to speed up the movement of some institutions to own campuses. ‘While IUB informed the UGC about their movement, East West University (EWU) and some other universities may just shift before the September 2011 deadline,’ he says.

‘We would be moving to our own campus in Aftabnagar by June or July of 2011,’ assures Habib Mohammad Ali, Public relations officer of EWU. Despite repeated attempts, senior officials of AIUB could not be reached to comment on the status of their shift.

UGC sources claim that although AIUB had acquired a piece of land around seven years back, the government prior to the BNP-led four party alliance regime took the land away from them. ‘At the moment, AIUB management is looking for a suitable site,’ says a UGC official.

Nazrul divulges that Stamford University had also contacted the UGC. ‘However, they failed to show us one acre of undivided land in Dhaka or Chittagong,’ he says.

Education minister Nahid clarifies that in fact the errant private universities would be getting around two years before enrolment stops as the decision will be valid from the fall session of 2012, which begins from September.

‘Moreover, the new institutions were handed the permissions on the condition that they would move to their own campus within five years. But they are now asking for an extension of 15 years, which is going to be against the interest of students studying in the private universities,’ he says.

Nahid is hopeful that the decision will bring about some positive results for the students, the private universities and the education sector as a whole.

‘We will very soon give temporary permission for the establishment of universities by fresh entrepreneurs, who are ready to conform to all the conditions under the law. Preference will be given to the applicants intending to set up universities outside Dhaka,’ he says to Xtra.

The race against time:: New Age Xtra

This article was originally published in New Age Xtra on October 15, 2010

The race against time

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury evaluates the various initiatives undertaken by the government to increase capacity for power generation and explains why excessive focus on rental power plants may not bode well for the country in the long run

After a week of intense power outages throughout Dhaka and all over the country on the first week of October, people took to the streets staging demonstrations and blocking highways to protest the crisis. The agitations were one of many that took place over the past few months this year for the same reasons.
Unknown to most of these people, the Speedy Supply of Power and Energy (Special Provision) Bill, 2010 was passed by the parliament recently. State Minister for energy Mohammad Enamul Haque had presented the bill at the house, which was passed through voice vote on October 3, 2010.
While the bill may sound like a perfect solution to the power crisis, a deeper look into its contents will help most to realise that the law is providing immunity to stakeholders currently working or will be working in the sector. Under the bill, which has been given priority over other acts including the Public Procurement Act 2006, such stakeholders and their activities cannot be questioned by anyone.
The law, to be effective for two years after which it can be extended or cancelled, is giving the government or any of its departments the advantage to take quick and effective initiatives to supply, distribute, transmit, transport and market and import power and energy. Under the law, a proposal processing committee can send its recommendations to the cabinet committee on purchase for final decision. If the cabinet body finds the recommendations appropriate, then the concerned ministry or department will need to take quick actions at implementing the initiative.
No petitions can be filed against officials who will act in good faith to implement the law, which will also empower the government to formulate rules through issuing gazette.  Besides helping the government to take immediate steps to solve the power crisis to some degrees, the law will let the government implement any energy related initiative including extraction of mineral resources.
Following the passage of the bill at the parliament, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said on October 4 that through the bill, although the speedy progress may be ensured to some extent, the government’s commitment to ensure transparency and accountability will be at stake. He mentioned that, by bypassing the public procurement act, questions would soon be raised about the discriminatory policy toward the power sector. He further added that due to such acts, the public procurement sector would be drilled with financial irregularities while also opening up scope for greater corruption.
After providing sound reasons, Iftekharuzzaman urged the government to follow the appropriate procurement process in the power sector after withdrawing the bill.
Besides curtailing the democratic processes in the country, such a law would also provide a greater advantage to the government authorities and the public and private companies involved with them at alleviating the power and energy related issues, at taking impromptu risks and measures, which if not planned out properly can become rather expensive for the nation. The motive behind the law, to facilitate the smooth implementation of power and energy related initiatives taken by the government, also raises questions about the current status of prior government initiatives taken over the past few years to solve the power crisis.
The ruling party in its election manifesto had mentioned, under clause 3, ‘in the next three years or by 2011, power production will be increased to 5,000 megawatt and by 2013, it will be increased to 7,000 megawatt’. However, the promises have not materialised over the years.
According to the daily report of Power Grid Company Bangladesh (PGCB) on October 9, the actual day peak generation stood at 3,482 MW while the evening peak generation was at 4,109 MW.  The maximum power generated till date was on August 20, 2010 at around 4,699 MW against a demand that varies from 5,500-6,000 MW during summer.
Further aggravating the crisis is the detail that most of the power plants are usually not operational. Although the total number of power plants is currently at 48, nine power units are not operational at the moment including a 110 MW power generating unit in Khulna. The plants were shut down mostly due to low gas pressure and the failure of the over stressed machineries.
The staggering effect of the gas crisis can be realised when we look at the case of the 633 crore takas-worth 150 MW peaking power plant inaugurated by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself at Shikalbaha in Chittagong on September 8 this year.
Within hours of inauguration, the gas pressure dropped and the plant was forced to shut down at around 4:00pm. UNB had reported that BPDB sources had informed that gas was supplied to the plant on special arrangement for the sake of PM’s inauguration on the day.
Despite the problems in the sector, the government bravely revised its objectives and targets for the power sector. The final draft of the Outline Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2010-2021, titled ‘Making Vision 2021 a reality’,  developed by the General Economics Division (GED) of the Planning Commission, set electricity production targets at 8,500 MW by 2013, 11,500 MW by 2015 and 20,000 MW by 2021.
Besides etching out the strategies, constraints and possibilities of the sector, the plan mentioned the contribution of the private sector to power generation along with observations into system loss, the cost of electricity, the potential of energy mix, non-traditional energy and so on.
Although the government was confident about its private sector contributions through new Rental Power Plants (RPP) and Independent Power Producers (IPP) initiatives, major success from these are yet to be achieved.
According to Power division sources of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources (MPEMR), the present generation capacity as of September 2010 is at 5,776 MW from which the public sector is responsible for 3,481 MW generation capacity while 2,295 generation capacity is that of the private sector comprising of IPPs, Small independent power producers (SIPPs), quick, three-year and 15-year RPPs.
According to a report in an English daily on October 9, quoting the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB), power generation in the country has increased by around 900 MW since January 2009.  The report also mentioned Power secretary AK Azad as stating that the increase in power has been due to the successful launching of two diesel-fuelled rental power plants by Aggreko PLC, a British company, with whom quick rental power deals for generation of 200 MW power were signed in May this year.
Also, according to MPEMR, the 50 MW RPP by RZ Power Limited has also been completed and the power being generated from this plant has already been added to the national grid.
In the report, Chairman of BPDB, Alamgir Kabir was quoted as mentioning that the PDB anticipates that with if at least five petroleum-run rental power plants, with contract terms of three to five years, are launched by December this year, 450 MW more power will be added to national grid. The figure can be higher if two additional rental power projects, which missed deadlines a number of times, are able to begin operation around this period.
According to MPEMR, the total addition of power to the national grid has been around 356 MW from Small Independent power producers (SIPP) and RPPs from January till December 2009. The addition of power to national grid has been around 510 MW from January till September 2010, from three three-year RPPs, two quick RPPs and one public peaking power plant at Shikalbaha in Chittagong.
However, the gas-powered peaking plant at Shikalbaha has not been able to generate any power since its inauguration in September due to shortage of gas. The actual addition to the grid has, therefore, not been more than 716 MW from January 2009 till date.
At the moment, nine three-year RPPs are producing around 531 MW power while four 15-year RPPs are producing around 168 MW power. From these, eight are gas-based, three are diesel-based while the remaining two are run with furnace oil. The expenditure on the government’s part on per unit of power is around two to three takas, the expenditure on per unit of power from furnace oil fuelled-RPPs is around Tk 7.8 per unit. Government expenditure on per unit power from diesel-based RPPs varies from Tk 14 to 14.50.
Although, the RPP initiative is proving to be rather expensive, around 15 other quick RPP projects, planned to generate around 1,433 MW, are already in the pipeline. From these, two will be gas-based, two diesel-based, one being a combination of furnace oil and gas and the remaining ten will be run through furnace oil.
 Also, a recent BPDB monthly evaluation report on the progress of RPPs cited that, nine out of 12 quick RPPs are falling behind schedule. From these, a 100 MW plant project at Siddirganj, 100 MW plant project at Meghnaghat and the 100 MW plant at Keraniganj are lagging behind the most.  The 198 MW quick RPP at Shikalbaha and 78 MW plant at Ghorasal have been approved by the purchase committee. The 150 MW quick RPP project at Ashuganj and Brahmanbaria has also been initiated on October 6, this year.
From three ongoing RPP projects, the 105 MW plant at Noapara under Quantum power systems Ltd and the 50 MW plant at Barisal by Barisal power company Limited are behind schedule.
  As the work of most of these companies is not progressing on schedule, it is a cinch that most of these would not be able to generate power by the end of this year.
Although BPDB government officials and the State Minister for energy Mohammad Enamul Haque try to assure the media and concerned departments that the companies, not able to meet deadline, will be fined, most experts have mentioned time and again that given the huge investment behind the rental power projects, the nation would be losing out on a lot while the power crisis will still continue to linger.
As such, even if the power target of 5,000 MW is met by 2011, load shedding will still persist if the current demand is considered, which increases by 10 per cent annually.
Based on wishful thinking, even if all these temporary plants are initiated by the end of this year, we still may not have the promised power generation of 5,000 MW by 2011 due to a number of persistent problems including gas crisis, use of outdated machineries and power plants, corruption, system loss and others.
The success of IPPs in the global power sector has been almost as good as the success of the initiative in Bangladesh. Currently, around seven IPPs are more or less successfully generating around 1,271 MW of power while nine SIPPs are generating around 325 MW power for the national grid. Earlier, the cost of power per unit for the government from the IPPs and SIPPs varied from Tk 1.80 to 2.
The MPEMR has mentioned, during a workshop on development of power sector and role of media, that new generation projects are being planned from which eight new furnace oil-based IPPs are expected to generate around 600 MW of power by September 2012. The presentation at the workshop also mentioned the plan of adding another 900-1,900 MW generating four coal-based IPPs to be commissioned by September 2014 to 2015.
Although past governments and the present one did talk about the potential of IPP many times, most of the highly anticipated IPP projects like the 450 MW combined cycle power plant at Sirajganj and 450 MW plant at Bibiyana are yet to be initiated due to the gas crisis. Even with the present gas crisis, the cost per unit of power produced from the IPPs will not be more than Tk 3.
Despite the low expenditure behind IPPs, the government did not call for new proposals till October 7, 2010 when the BPDB requested proposals for 100 MW IPP and 50 MW at Dhaka, 100 MW and 50 MW plants in Chittagong, 100 MW and 50 MW plants in Rajshahi, 100 MW plant in Khulna and a 50 MW plant in Barisal. Interestingly, the eight requests for proposals were issued exactly four days after the Speedy Supply of Power and Energy (Special Provision) Bill, 2010 was passed in the parliament.
There was extensive media coverage about the power import deal between Bangladesh and India. On February 20 and 21 of this year, the dailies and television channels reported on the two nation’s governments agreement to form a joint-venture company to set up a two-unit coal-driven power plant in Khulna with a power generation capacity of 1,320 MW. The establishment of a cross-border power grid was also reported at the time.
In March 2010, the Power Grid Company Bangladesh (PGCB) invited two international tenders for development of the cross border link while another global tender was invited by the PGCB in April of this year, turnkey supply, delivery, installation, testing and commissioning of the 165-km 230 kV Bibiyana-Comilla transmission line.
After the Asian Development Bank (ADB)’s approval to provide a loan of US $ 100 million for the link, around June 2010, the PGCB announced its plans to install a 40-km section of the line by June 2012.
However, the Bangladesh Planning Commission returned the PGCB proposal for the cross-border line citing ‘faulty project design’ and ‘lack of power supply guarantee by India’ for at least 33 years prior to the Planning Commission’s processing the project further. 
Around July of this year, the BPDB signed a 35-year power transmission agreement with Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL) to import 250 MW of electricity from India. By this agreement, Bangladesh can begin importing the electricity by late 2012. However, the power and transmission tariff, to be paid by BPDB, will be on a monthly basis to be determined by India’s Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC).
The import of power would still prove to be more expensive than the IPPs and SIPP in Bangladesh. Following the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signing between Dhaka and Delhi, HS Brahma, the power secretary of India, had said that power will be sold to Bangladesh at the rate paid by the state governments of India. ‘This may range between 2.5 and 4 rupees, depending on factors such as generation cost and the state where the power is being generated,’ he mentioned.
However, the Bangladesh power secretary had indicated at the time that the final cost of power per unit imported from India may hover around Tk 3.5 for Bangladesh.  There is also the uncertainty about the project’s completion on schedule.
Later on, around April of this year, there were talks of Bangladesh importing power from Bhutan following the revelation from studies that Bhutan has the capacity to generate around 30,000 MW of electricity from its rivers in the hilly region. However, the Bhutanese foreign secretary, Daw Penjo, had said to Bangladeshi media around the same time that any such plan for Bangladesh to import electricity from Bhutan would be conditional on agreement with India, as Bangladesh would need to construct around 34 km of distribution lines on Indian territories to channel in the power from Bhutan.
While these were some of the highly anticipated power initiatives taken by the government to tackle the power crisis, other initiatives like peaking power plant projects, wind-based and solar-powered power plant projects, Rooppur nuclear power plant and so on are being focussed far less.
The government needs to focus more on solutions like approving more SIPPs and IPPs rather than focussing extensively on quick RPP and RPP projects.
Besides being costly, quick RPP, RPP, peaking power projects and power import from neighbouring nations will also tip the scales toward the private sector where currently the private sector contributes to 40 per cent of the power generation capacity. Moreover, dependency on RPPs and quick RPPs may prove to be fatal as these are, after all, temporary and extremely expensive solutions.
Furthermore, power plants set up under public sector ownership will, at least, assure affordability of electricity, an aspect that is very much essential to channel electricity to the remaining 51.5 per cent areas of the country which still has no access to electricity. Under the circumstances, the government can take initiatives through which distribution losses, at around 13.1 per cent at the moment, can be reduced and more offshore and onshore gas sources can be identified to increase the supply of gas to the power plants as opposed to being dependent on more expensive energy like diesel and furnace oil.

Father of Bangladeshi theatre:: New Age Xtra

This article was originally published in New Age Xtra on December 3, 2010

Father of Bangladeshi theatre

On the occasion of the 102nd birth anniversary of Natyaguru Nurul Momen, Syed Tashfin Chowdhury looks back at the life of the maverick personality and his contribution to theatre, literature, music, politics and academia

                                       Ei din ey jonmechhiley
                                      Jantey ki taa
                                      Ek bochhorey anbey jiney

The limerick, which was actually a wish by Natyaguru Nurul Momen to his granddaughter, on her first birthday on March 1, 1972, portrays Momen’s literary genius, pride and love for his grandchild and the joy he felt following the liberation of Bangladesh a few months prior to this.

The 102nd birth anniversary of the playwright and director, also known as the ‘father of theatre in Bangladesh’, was celebrated through a week-long festival at the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy premises, jointly organised by Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy and Aurony Mohona International Foundation (AMIF). However, the contributions made by this pioneer of satire and drama to the theatre arena of Bangladesh cannot be fathomed without taking a look back at his life and works.

Born in the family of Nurul Arefin, a landlord and physician in Alfadanga of Jessore on November 25, 1906, Nurul Momen received his primary education in Calcutta and later gained admission to the Khulna Zila School. His first poem, titled Shondhya (evening) was published in Dhrubotara, a reputed journal at the time, when he was just 13.

Momen completed his matriculation from Dhaka Muslim High School in 1924, passed intermediate from Dhaka Intermediate College and began his Bachelors in Arts at the Dhaka University from 1926.

A year later, Momen’s theatrical prowess began to sprout. He was crowned the champion at the first drama festival, that combined the Dhaka, Jagannath and Muslim halls of Dhaka University (DU), for his superb performance in the role of 'Botu' in Rabindranath Tagore’s Muktodhara.

After passing his BA from DU in 1929, Momen began to study law at the Calcutta University College. After completing his BL examinations in 1936, he began to practice law at the Calcutta High Court.

Despite a busy schedule, Momen did not let go off his passion for theatre. Besides writing and broadcasting radio commentaries on All India Radio ever since its initiation in 1939, Momen was also the first Muslim playwright of the Dhaka Radio.

In 1941, he wrote and directed the first modern play of Bangladesh Rupantor (Transformation) for the radio. The comedy, with a progressive and contemporary plot, had Rijia, a female character as the protagonist, who takes up a job at her husband’s office while being disguised as a man. The play subtly presented the idea of women’s liberation and later, when Momen showed it to Mohitlal Majumder, the poet and literary critic, Majumder forwarded the play to Anandabazaar daily. The play was published in the daily’s Puja special of the year.

Momen wrote his second play titled ‘Nemesis’ in 1944. The two-and-a-half hour long play had only one character and Bangladeshi theatre finally had the third such play of this sort, after Eugene O'Neal's 'Before Breakfast' and Jean Cocteau's 'La Voix Humain' (The Human Voice), which were no more than 30 minutes in duration.

The play was a tragedy, based on the backdrop of the 1943 famine of Bengal that affects the life of the protagonist, Surajit Nandee, who dies eventually due to the wealth he amassed at the cost of the lives of millions of starving people. The play was praised as ‘world-class’ by critics like Malcolm Muggeridge, Peter Archer, Marjorie Jones, Shajanikanto Das, Ashutosh Bhattacharya, Mohitlal Mojumder, Neelima Ibrahim, Kabir Chowdhury and others.

‘He was way ahead of his time,’ says eminent cultural personality Syed Hasan Imam while talking about Momen. ‘Despite having ample experience in Western drama, his plays were not understood properly by the masses at the time although critics always praised his work,’ he adds.

Momen joined DU as a faculty of Law in 1945. He was instrumental in encouraging most of his students towards theatre. It was Monem who had asked Munier Chowdhury to read George Bernard Shaw. Afterwards, Chowdhury translated Shaw’s ‘You never can tell’ in Bengali which was directed by Momen. Some of his other followers include Syed Waliullah, Ashker Ibne Shaikh, Sikander Abu Zafar, Sayeed Ahmed, Selim Al Deen, Professor Mamtazuddin Ahmed, Abdullah Al Mamun and others.

Some of Momen’s other works include Jodi Emon Hoto, Naya Khandan, Alochhaya, Shatkara Ashi, Jemon Ichchha Temon, Ruplekha, Bhai bhai shobai, Eituku ei Jibontate, ‘Underneath the Law’, ‘Is Law An Ass’, ‘At the Alter of the Law’, Ainer antarale and others.

Besides being a director and playwright, Momen also wrote several books, the first of which was Baharupa, containing satirical essays and published in 1948 from Calcutta.  He also wrote Adikkheta, London Probashe, Ha-jo-bo-ro-la, Forbidden Pleasures, Aloker Jhornadhara, Lest we Forget, Drishti Anyatoro and others.

While studying Law at the University of London from 1948 till 1951, Momen was at the helm of conducting weekly Bengali programmes on BBC. 

He returned to Bangladesh and rejoined DU in 1951. While staging dramas, he introduced female actresses like Sabera Mustafa, Razia Khan and Dilara Zaman on the stage for the first time in the theatre history of Bangladesh.  Around this time, Momen was also involved in the direction and programming in Dhaka Radio and Bangladesh Television.

Through his works, Momen has inspired countless students to join the field of theatre and can be credited for its development ever since the seventies. While reminiscing about Nurul Momen, cultural personality Professor Mamtazuddin had said to New Age, ‘as I got the chance to perform in many plays directed by Nurul Momen, an excellent platform in the field of theatre was created for me through his consideration. I pray that his name shines in the history of Bengali literature,’ he added.

The accolades received by Momen over the years signify his status as a shining star in Bengali literature. He received 'Best New Playwright Award' in Calcutta in 1954, Bangla Academy Award in 1961, honoured at India-Pakistan cultural conference in New Delhi in 1963, Chicago University's International Players' honour in 1964, honoured by British theatre personalities in 1966, Sitara-e-Imtiaz in 1967, Medjid Al Makky award in 1968, Ekushey Padak in 1978, Nasiruddin gold medal in 1979, Chader Haat Award in 1988 and TENASINAS award in 1989 for his contribution to literature.

Despite having some of the prolific politicians of our country in his classes at DU like Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Zillur Rahman, the current president of Bangladesh and others, Momen was not very ambitious in politics. However, he protested against the oppression of the Pakistani regime through his literature and plays.

He protested against Pakistan government's directive to ban Tagore songs on Radio and television in 1967. He also protested against the then-government’s move to replace the Bangla alphabet with Arabic or Roman script.

While being the proctor of Dhaka University, Momen along with other speakers at a largely attended symposium in Curzon Hall on February 21, 1961, protested the Pakistani government’s negligence towards Bengali. According to volume 2 of Bangladesher Shadhinotajuddher Dolilpatra (The Documents of the Liberation War of Bangladesh), Momen read out a Six-point resolution, that was unanimously passed by the huge audience.

The symposium, organised by the Dhaka University Central Students' Union, was rounded off by a cultural programme, directed by Nurul Momen, and featuring some Bengali songs eulogising the Bengali Language and the day. The final item of the evening was a jeebontika (drama sketch), written and directed by Nurul Momen, which depicted the oppression of the Pakistani regime over the Bengalis from 1948 to 1961.

After an argument with Ayub Khan, Momen challenged the dictator that while Urdu litterateurs cannot learn and write in Bengali within a short time, Bengali litterateurs have the brilliance to do so. Having said this, Momen learned Urdu in three months.

Extending the challenge further, Momen wrote the Urdu satirical essay, ‘Maine ye Khab kiun Dekha (Why did I dream it)', in the Jung, Pakistan’s largest Urdu language daily of Pakistan.

In 1966, Momen wrote Thik Cholar Poth (The right way to go), a symbolic costume-play for children which ridiculed the autocracy of Ayub Khan. Although the play was not broadcasted from Dhaka radio, it was later transmitted by Rajshahi radio.

‘Unknown to most people, my father had also directed documentaries,’ says Dr F Mahmud Nurul Momen, President and CEO of AMIF and the youngest of four of Nurul Momen’s children. ‘He completed the work on Sudiner Hoyechhe Uday, a documentary on the election of 1970 when Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won by a landslide, in January 1971. The concluding song in the documentary was written by him while the music direction was done by Altaf Mahmud, who was murdered eight months later,’ he informs Xtra.

During the liberation war, Momen moved to the villages with his family. ‘Although he was summoned time and again by the then-government to join DU, he ignored the summons,’ remembers Mahmud.

Mahmud points out that Momen’s patriotism and triumph following the liberation of the country can be felt through the short poem on his grand-daughter’s first birthday cake celebrated on March 1, 1972.

‘Although we always respected our father and knew he had a temper, he was very friendly with us and never struck us. He encouraged all his children to read more, especially the works of Bertrand Russell and Bernard Shaw,’ says Mahmud. He feels that it was due to his father’s literary influence, that all his brothers and only sister had a passion for literature.

Despite passing away at his Gulshan residence on February 16, 1990, Momen still lives amongst his children, students and fans. ‘He was Bangla’s Bernard Shaw. The youth today has much to learn from Momen and his generation,’ says Imam.

‘Although five of his plays were in English, I am planning to translate and publish the rest of his Bengali plays in English for the readers of the world,’ says Mahmud.