The schemes are there, but none of the problems that plague us during this crisis are actually getting solved
Over the last 18 months, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, I have written a number of times expressing my frustration at the number of reports, that despite the number of emergency welfare schemes announced by the government, many thousands, if not millions, of families have been denied assistance and funds have been unspent.
This has come about due to a combination of ignorance of the people who need help, and widespread laziness and corruption of civil servants and elected officials. Many research studies have clearly shown, for instance, that the percentage of families that have slipped into the category of “extreme poverty” has increased, and that students of all ages have been largely forgotten. If not forgotten, then seriously neglected. It appears to me and many others who have witnessed and followed the progress of Bangladesh over the years is that, despite repeated reminders issued by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has recalled that her father had told civil servants in January 1972 that they are “servants of the people, not masters,” very few civil servants and elected officials at all levels go out of their way to assist “those who have less.” They have the feeling that their positions or jobs are “safe” and they do not need to go that “extra mile” to assist others.
A very sad and unforgiveable example of this lack of action of the civil servants and elected officials is the reported number of girls dropping out of school and getting married off by their parents “for economic reasons.” There are government officials and elected officials who are empowered to prevent these illegal early marriages through a combination of education and providing the under-used government financial assistance that was or is available. I regard this negligence of these officials as “crimes against humanity” and would appeal to the government officials at all levels to wake up before it is too late. The UN General Assembly is currently taking place in New York, where a lot of time is being spent on the subjects of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change.
I believe that this year, the floods in Bangladesh, while being less severe than those of 1988 and 1998, have not received so much attention by all strata of government even though the increasing frequency of severe floods is seen to be caused by climate change. This has been due to the focus being on the coronavirus pandemic.
There is a saying that every cloud has a silver lining, and there is also a much used saying of Buddha: “Every problem comes to you with a gift in its hand. We seek those problems because we need their gifts.”
Because of the pandemic, many families have lost jobs in towns and cities and returned to their villages. Perhaps, with some educated and enlightened families returning to their villages, we might be able to see some changes in agricultural practices. Certainly, one of the burning issues is to ensure that the acreage planted with tobacco be drastically decreased and NOT increased.
Thinking about this made me remember something I had written as the country recovered from the 1998 floods. I had, at that time, written a lot about food relief schemes. In an article titled “The silent countryside: An environmental catastrophe is likely to engulf rural Bangladesh,” the following appeared written to me: “Why are you only writing about the level of nutrition and the possibility of hunger related to the floods?” demanded a Bangladeshi friend the other day. “You know very well the problems we are facing,” she went on to say, “the so-called modern agriculture is slowly killing us. Why don’t you write about that, or are you too busy pushing paper around the world that you have forgotten about the villages in which you used to live and work?”
“You should write about the real underlying issues,” she continued, “the ‘miracle’ hybrid seeds which you, as an agriculturalist, tried to promote in Bihar in the 1960s and 1970s, have drained the soil of its natural fertility, and in many places the health of the people is deteriorating.”
“And all because of the scientific advances that you and others trumpeted all over the place.” And then, with anger in her voice: “Can you repair the damage? Can you now try to tell us the truth?” my friend screamed at me as she left, slamming the door behind her in anger and frustration.
Soon after this 1998 meeting with my angry friend, which affected me deeply, I was talking to a group of farmers in Tangail about how their agricultural practices had changed over the years. They told me that, in the past, their parents and grandparents had grown vegetables and fruits around the year for family consumption.
Now, they said, vegetable production had decreased because the focus was on producing a single crop, rice, for sale. This, they said, had led to nutritional problems and had led some NGOs to launch campaigns urging people to eat more vegetables and fruits to prevent night blindness and other health problems.
The leader of the farmers’ group went on to say: “Don’t you think it is indeed a big joke that those persons who destroyed our way of producing a variety of items needed for the family and forced only one or two crops on us are now telling us that we must buy other items to remain healthy?”
Remembering these experiences and the lessons of 1998, let us hope that for the crop and academic year ahead, everything changes for the better, everyone finds a silver lining and everyone, both inside and outside the government, finds a new leaf to turn over.
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship. Julian has also been honoured with the British award of the OBE for ‘services to development in Bangladesh.’