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OP-ED: The simple, bare necessities of life

  • Published at 02:22 pm July 29th, 2020
Children commuting haphazardly due to lack of other modes of transportation in flood-hit Kurigram district Dhaka Tribune

The basics required for survival

In a democratic process, constituents plagued by pandemics, disasters, or normal peacetime distress don’t give a hoot where assistance comes from. The helpless eyes that peep out from the derelict ruins of a once-bustling Syria, through the daily wage-earner in Dhaka left stranded with an abrupt end to his income, to the woman standing in chest-high flood waters in Bangladesh, no one complains about the cause of their current fate. 

Theirs is one demand: The basics required for survival. Those who eschew democracy, equality, and justice from the safe haven of ivory towers that unknown to them is at a yawning distance from the populace they are to represent, have little compunction about violating territorial integrity of others and their elected representatives and bombing the daylights out of civilians all in the name of supporting democratic aspirations. 

The sickening numbers of fatalities -- children, women, and men become mere statistics once their ripped-apart bodies are interred. Those that die from malnourishment, disease, and hunger merit less mention. All of this assigned as collateral damage while meaningless discourse in posh locations seeks a way to end the mayhem. 

The hoo-hah following such despicable man-created situations and the feeble demands for funds is as sickening. Defense budgets rarely come up for scrutiny. Nor does anyone question why such budgets shouldn’t be diverted to support the starving, ill, and malnourished. Should these budgets not be renamed offense budgets? It’s just as easy to wave aside floods as “nothing new.” 

What isn’t is trying to explain why and how after countless years of having poured money in, embankments still collapse and aren’t permanent in nature. In the best of times, lives trundle on with demand creating supply allowing the economy to run. In the worst of times, these needs require a push, they call it stimulus.

The noble aim is to put money in pockets most deserving. In between, there is the inexplicable greed both in sections among the have nots as well as those identified to control the money and aid flow. Add to that total disregard to what is really needed and apathy to listen to the distressed.

The result is more of Marie Antoinette’s infamous remark “If they don’t have bread, let them it cake.” In true democracies, people’s representatives aren’t entrusted with disbursement or distribution of assistance. That role falls on local councils and the administration. Where politicians, local government level or otherwise rule the roost by means of muscle, such a process doesn’t work. 

Economists have subtly hinted at some form of balance between the bureaucracy and representatives in ensuring due diligence. Politicians have been mumbling discontent at the decision to have top bureaucracy control the process. It was one taken following repeated instances of mismanagement and sheer corruption that deprived people of the aid desperately needed. 

The economists place their faith in the fact that people’s representatives best know the needs of the constituents, the ground realities, and this knowledge can inform decisions. That is today a proven fallacy. However short parliament sessions have been, little has been discussed how this mess can be cleared up. 

Instead, members were more eager and happily obtained government approval of Tk20 crore per member as funds for use in constituencies. That is above and beyond whatever the government channels in through its machinery, be it for development, gratuitous relief, or food for work projects. 

Each year, similar provisions are made in the fiscal budget. Unfortunately, no accountability of the spending is demanded at any level, including the Standing Committees for the Tk7,000 crore disbursed. The government’s stimulus packages have therefore fallen short of infusing life in the rural economies, where a combination of small business and cottage industry have grown through the years. 

With an absence of statistics, small family-run trades have not been listed, thereby not targeted in these communities, and have been denied support. Listing of those most vulnerable has been mangled badly proving that documentation of identity in floating populations isn’t the necessary answer. 

A door to door census by approved third parties from economic think-tanks and NGOs could have yielded better results. It also required all 350 members of Parliament going to and remaining in their constituencies scouring their horizon for ground reality information. It also required the bureaucracy to leave their comfort zone and fan out across the country for double checks. 

The flood water stinks. Quite true. To know how badly it does, one has to wade through them. This is valid even now. The combined tripartite findings can inform realistic, robust, and relevant decision-making instead of the business as usual process. 

Now that reverse migration is a reality, it can only be a matter of time before rural areas start bursting at the seams. There’s a limit to how much migration the rural economies can support. Development funds must be channelled there to prevent further city migration. 

Otherwise, poverty and want will give rise to more crime, terrorism, and misdemeanours. The continued crackdown on corruption is revealing astonishing levels of corruption in all sectors. All of this happened in better days. One shudders to think of what the future holds unless bold and frankly, unpopular decisions are made. 

The state has invested in education. It is time for payback of the broad section from social scientists to economists and many others in-between. It’s also time that people’s representatives started true representation. There’s opportunity in adversity, provided one looks for and seizes it. 

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.

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