Dacca diary


By John R. Hallam

Mishka and I entered Bangladesh from the north at Haldibari. Haldibari is a little-used entry point, one of only two between Bangladesh and India.

We had been invited to Dacca by people from the Bangladesh Interreligious Council for Peace and Justice, whom we'd met at a conference in Cochin, south India.

To cross the border at Haldibari, one must make a nine-kilometre hike along an abandoned railway track blown up by the retreating Pakistani army during the 1971 war of liberation. Periodically, India and Bangladesh agree to restore the rail link, and then nothing happens. Now the IMF is telling Bangladesh it can't afford to improve its rail system.

The train deeper into Bangladesh is unbelievably decrepit and packed with very ordinary looking people. It travels 45 km in four hours.

Our travels to Dacca took us through the heart of Bangladesh. We halted briefly in the old town of Bogra, from there taking train, ferry and bus to arrive in Dacca.

While there's currently no evidence of starvation and malnutrition in the hinterland, and in some respects, even less evidence of gross poverty than in India - fewer deformed beggars for example - this is partly explainable by the relative lack of urbanisation. There are no really big towns, and there is almost no industry outside Dacca. Dacca itself presents an entirely different picture.

The government promises to construct a bridge across the Jamuna just below Dacca so Bangladesh won't be cut in half, but nothing seems to happen unless it is done by overseas aid. The nationalised transport companies that keep travel costs low in much of India don't exist in Bangladesh, perhaps because the IMF frowns on such things. Civil rights and social justice activists we met later in Dacca said that, while most of the government's income comes from rural areas where most people live, it is primarily spent in Dacca.

We could have guessed as much the moment we crossed the bridge that forms the boundary of the Dacca metropolitan area. The potholed road our packed and decrepit bus had shuddered over was magically transformed into a cross between Canberra's Northbourne Avenue, Delhi's Janpath and the airport road in Singapore. We tore down a four-lane highway lit with yellow sodium lights in the company of expensive imported luxury cars, past up-market institutional buildings. Dacca airport was a wonderland of bright lights and modern architecture. There were grandiose monuments to the freedom fighters of 1971, and finally up-market suburbs with up-market schools.

Who, I wondered, drove the expensive cars? Had the IMF anything to say about what they might be doing to Bangladesh's balance of ll okay because to ban their import, as India does, would be a restraint on the holy practice of free trade? What had happened to the decrepit and decaying metropolis I'd expected to see? The beggars? The slums? The lepers?

The answer to these questions emerged during the next few days as our ecumenical hosts, incongruously housed in an up-market school and a rented office, took us on a tour of progressive human rights organisations in the 5 million megapolis that Dacca has become.

The city's appearance is deceptively modern. It has skyscrapers occupied by multinational companies, rows of chic apartments, luxury hotels - and yes, there are beggars, lepers and slums. According to one group of civil rights activists, over 40% of Dacca's population are either slum-dwellers or constitute a "floating population" with no homes at all.

A significant proportion of the population seems to live by transporting those who are slightly better off. The grandiose avenues are crowded not only with imported cars but with rickshaws, of which no more than half are in use at any one time. One person in 10 seems to be a rickshaw puller.

There is at least a surface of prosperity in the capital. Many of the people we visited, including academics and human rights activists as well as religious people, were living in middle- class comfort. But Bangladesh's problems remain enormous. One activist said that a global survey of corruption had revealed that Bangladesh is the second most corrupt country in the world. Yet in contrast to India, corruption didn't seem to figure at all prominently on the political agenda.

What does figure is political violence. Dacca University had been closed down for over a year by gun battles between rival factions of the student body. Depressingly, these factions don't seem to represent genuinely different programs that bear any relationship to the real problems.

Analysis of those problems is not lacking. The activists we spoke to pointed to bureaucratic and political corruption, abuse of the political process by power seekers without real programs, the suppression of human right particularly of women, the poor and the slum dwellers, and stifling of political debate that might serve to correct these abuses.

Government funds are more likely to spent on grandiose monuments and boulevards in the capital than on rural education or land reform programs, more likely to find their way into the hands of the armed forces and Swiss bank accounts than to be spent on projects of real social benefit. Finally, the presence of vast number of indigenous and foreign non-governmental organisations, while it provides a real counterbalance to official abuses, also enables the government to evade its responsibilities by leaving beneficial work to the NGOs.

As a footnote to this depressing picture, we visited a peace centre in the town of Faridpur, on the way to India. The residents consisted of Muslims, Christians and Hindus and losophy. They encouraged local farmers to use compost instead of costly imported fertiliser, and ran schools, a hospital, an alternative legal system in which disputes were arbitrated, a vocational training centre and a village-based paramedical system.

We observed that the surrounding villages seemed well kept, prosperous and socially egalitarian. People looked happy and friendly and were eager to show us around. There wasn't an imported car for tens of kilometres around. Here was a future that might just work.