where are you going?

one of the primary problems with trying to be an political economy analyst in this country is that it is fundamentally almost impossible.

let me attempt to explain. my job (and the analytical lobe of my brain, whichever side it’s on) both require me to have some semblance of an idea of what might happen in the future. proactively identifying and mitigating political risk is a big part of my job responsibility, and so i am expected to have some sort of an idea of what is going to happen. like Nate Silver, just without any data or models, operating on a hunch based on interviews, understanding the political climate and listening to the faint and subtle signals that pulse through the nation.

these days, though, it’s gotten nigh impossible to figure out just what the hell is happening now, let alone extrapolating to a point several months in the future when, in theory, a new government will be in power. in the past, these scenarios were relatively easy to predict. a new government rides to power with the promise of a better future, which they promptly forget after a convenient interlude, and the government and the party then disintegrate into focusing on making as much money as possible in as short a time as possible. in the meantime, the people grow weary and fed up with broken promises, and then express their frustrations by promptly voting the opposition into power. fundamentally speaking, that has been the essence of the anti-incumbency thus far.

this time, it’s different. this time, there a bunch more variables in the mix – nationalism, fundamentalism, fanaticism – a whole cocktail of complicated isms that have recently reared their heads to show how divided we truly are. the events of the past six months – and the passions they have stirred up and inflamed in all of us – make me wonder how all of us became united for the cause of independence in the first place. the rifts have appeared in our society, and it is futile to pretend that they do not exist.

this complicated mix of isms have, to a certain extent, neutralized the more easily predictable anti-incumbency effect. and, in an effort to sort through this complex set of emotions, people have begun to focus their attentions on what they perceive as the lesser of two evils.

but that is no longer as simple a calculation as before either. as the elections draw nearer, the rifts and cracks have begun to appear within the parties themselves. new leaders emerge, while older ones struggle to maintain a facade of power and influence. behind the scenes, the posturing, flattery and lobbying have begun, as various sub-groups try to align themselves with whomever they think is a good bet for a leader in the future. this game of dynamic and shifting loyalties has just begun, but, as the election draws nearer, will only intensify.

so where does that leave the common man, the ones who drive the eventual electoral victory in the first place? in the past, the pre-elections considerations used to be much simpler: has the incumbent been able to protect my basic rights to food, shelter, services and safety. if yes, they vote for the incumbent; the more likely case, though, is that the incumbent fails miserably to do any of that, which is why he loses soundly. in some cases, this is a gross generalization, as in these cases, there are political or religious imperatives to vote for one party over the other. this time, though, people are being forced to look into their own deeper selves, and examine their own belief systems and values. what that means, though, is that when they compare these value systems to that of their neighbors and tight-knit rural communities, with whom they have coexisted peacefully for decades, they find glaring differences emerging. it is these differences that gave rise to the tremendous violence we have witnessed in 2013, and these differences that can drive the eventual election results.

and these differences are giving rise to complex mathematics to determine the winner of the next election – it isn’t the candidate’s virtues or promises or performance that drives my voting decision, but rather it is the party’s stance on a number of issues that determines who i support. and, given the confrontational nature that has evolved in politics, more often than not, both of the major parties took opposing stances on several recent moral issues. digesting all these issues, what they mean to one’s own value system, and the stance each party took in the case of each issue means that the voting decision is now much more complex, more multivariate if you will, to fit into the simple model of anti-incumbency that prevailed in the past.


the monsoon strums brittle chords on the corrugated iron sheet that covers my balcony.

it’s sunday, i tell myself. you’re home. before 9 pm, despite an iftar.

no way, whispers back a part of my brain, the part that adores schedules and routines, that prefers order among chaos, that likes to take jumbled up numbers and pictures and seek out neat patterns. the obsessive-compulsive cortex, as i like to call it.

and when this part of my brain senses a disruption to a regular routine, or something impeding a perfect sense of order, it starts sending out ominous signals to the rest of my body. did i remember to bring home the laptop from the office? did i lock the front door after coming in to the house? did i turn off the faucet? a world of uncertainties and unsteadies emerge from the mere act of being home before 9 pm.

on a sunday?

and why is my brain insistent that something is out of balance? it’s because, this afternoon, i submitted the final draft of a report that marks the formal end of my efforts to get a masters degree. of course, there are still a few more headaches – thesis defense and all that fun stuff – but the worst is over. i. am. done.

two years and 72 exams ago, this moment in time seemed like it was a lifetime away. and now it’s here, and i am finally free.

the question is, what do i do with this freedom?

What matters…

…is that I didn’t give up writing, but that I still think about writing here, extensively.

A thousand unfinished drafts fester on some device or the other, forgotten and incomplete. Each the essence of an idea, initiated but forgotten. In the midst of them all lie stories without a second chapter, political analyses without a clear answer, jokes without a punchline. And so they are fated to remain, unclaimed and incomplete.

Who’s to blame this time? Work, studies, family? Or the constant procrastination that is a hallmark of my life? Maybe a combination?

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity – what nourishes it, and what saps it. It’s been years since I wrote a single song – the act of picking up a guitar for that purpose somehow transforms into a few lonely strums, and even if I find a pattern I like it is confined to the nether realms of my brain, quickly forgotten. Even recording doesn’t help.

Perhaps creativity is contingent on a particular state of mind. One that is limited in quantity and is easily exhausted by the day long work grind – “Make it more concise,” they tell me. “Sharper, stronger, more succinct, more powerful…” Or maybe it withers after carving through yet another set of PowerPoint slides, trying to figure out how to convert a wall of text into a simple yet powerful graphic. Or maybe it diminishes without practice, or due to stress, or because of the effort it takes to navigate through the increasingly dense urban jungle. Or maybe it perishes on the altar of responsibility – that bewitching ambrosia that is more addictive than any narcotic known to man.

As you may have heard, Violet Smoke is no more. Careers and family have transported each of us to distant corners of the world, and Skype is no substitute for the pleasure of sitting together, face to face, playing a few chords and seeing where we go from there. I’ve been trying out a few new bands – but that drive to create, to entertain, to lose myself in the music I create, and to make music that is fundamentally about me – all that is gone.

And so I look back fondly upon a time, just five years ago, when we were at our most creative and most prolific. We would churn out songs by the dozen, and somehow we knew just what words would fit the song. We weren’t afraid to try new things – adjusting songs recorded with instruments to an intimate stage ensemble is no easy task. Yet we were always in sync, knowing just when to transition into the next verse or chorus.

My writing followed a similar trajectory, it seems. Prolific at first, propelling me to some uncertain renown, and then disappearing just as quickly. It wasn’t writer’s block – it was a tap shutting off, with not even a drip remaining behind.

I might not have control over other band members, but I do have control over my writing. After all, it isn’t only a few words to me – it is catharsis. And so today, the dawn of the Bengali year 1419, I think it is time to brush off those frayed neurons, uncover that dormant creativity, and let loose once again.

No more drafts hidden away in the dingy dark corners of the internet.

a brief letter

hello there, old friend.

it’s been a while since i last saw you.

actually, that might not be the whole truth. i thought i caught a glimpse of you today, just briefly, almost hidden between an under-construction skyscraper and a large garments factory. i could have been mistaken – the traffic had just let up, and my cng was trying its best to squeeze through impossibly tiny gaps between a wall of cars. i thought i saw you from the corner of my eye, but by the time i realized what i was seeing, we’d zoomed through already, and you were gone again.

how have you been? i wonder whether you look the same. do you still turn dark gray just before you weep? do you still let flashes of rage rumble across your countenance when you are angry? do you still glow in the light of the sun when it’s pleasant outside?

most of what i remember of you are stolen glances, incidental memories of you etched in my mind. in these pictures you’re hidden in the background of some significant life event – a picnic, perhaps, or a day at the beach. i still have a few actual pictures of you stored in my laptop as well – though when i look at them, you’re seldom the first thing i notice. you have this amazing ability to be in the background, just hanging there, as inconspicuous as ever, while i tried to capture other more significant moments in time or more significant people. but when i turn off the laptop, i realize just how important you really are.

i’m sure you know i miss you. how? just look at the number of pictures i took on vacations in which you appear. maybe that’s why, whenever i do go on these vacations, all i can take pictures of is you.

i really wish i could see you more often, you know? until recently, i could sit on my verandah in the evenings, gazing out towards you, catching a brief glimpse when you lit up in joy or anger. now a thirteen-storied monolith rises from the ground in front of the verandah, and cuts off my view. i’ve tried to find some other angle from which to drink you in, but alas, you’re nowhere to be found.

you used to seem so close, so near, once upon a time. are you still the same? our meetings are so few and far in between, generally only when i leave the country, that every single time i do see you in all your glory, you seem farther and farther away. is it true? are you really pulling away from me? is it because i don’t get to see you as often as i used to?

i can’t control the walls that are rising up between us. i wish i could tear them down, start all over again with a fresh, clean slate, and admire you the way i once did – but maybe that’s the problem! maybe you’re angry that i – heck, nobody – valued you while you were still around. is that why you’ve been weeping almost continuously these past few days?

you know that i’ve never forgotten one thing: our own little secret place – the roof? remember those foggy winter afternoons, when you kept watch over me while i played? or how about those quiet evenings when i sat there, basking in your glow? back in those days, we’d spend hours with each other, with me admiring every single facet of your face. i know i haven’t been up there in years – maybe it’s time i went up there again. after all, that’s where these walls we’ve put up between us cease to tower, and there are no monoliths that can prevent me from drinking you in.

i’m off to europe next month for a week. i’m looking forward to seeing you then, spending days and nights with you, basking in your cold embrace, admiring every single facet of you, until i’m once again wrenched back to this state of forced separation and this compulsory distance we must maintain.

i’m sick of hiding behind these walls, sick of being prevented from watching you. i’m sick of your absence – it doesn’t make our hearts grow stronger, rather it weakens our resolve and determination. i’m angrier, unhappier and sadder because i don’t get to see you as much as i would like. and so are the people around me. please shine your light back in to my life, and forgive me for my veiled and hidden existence.

i can’t wait till i get to see you again.


your friend


what is this, this torrent of emotions, this flood of things left unsaid, that are fighting to make it to the surface, to pour out all at once in a stream of consciousness, no specific joint thought but rather a series of sentences – spoken, heard, felt – all flowing over one another, racing to get out there as fast as they can?

what is this, this series of words left unsaid, feelings left unfelt, emotions left untended, feelings ignored at random and at will as time passes by, just because right now isn’t convenient and later seems indeterminately comforting?

where am i, then, if not lost? drowning? adrift? in the midst of all of these realizations, echoes, memories, feelings, words, emotions, desires, angers, sadnesses and resentments?


december begins every year with an impending sense of doom, primarily because the first day of the month is my birthday. there are the usual concerns about aging, the usual wistful longings for a youth rapidly passing by, and a sense of sadness at all that i could have accomplished within the past year that was left undone. this is accompanied by this unspeakable yet haunting worry of what if: what if this is the last year, this is the last minute, the last second, the last breath? what if there is no more beyond this year, no more existence, no more happiness, no more sadness, no more emotion, no more moments, no more memories and no more feelings?

in recent years, this has been followed by a tumult of worry, because i can feel my body getting older. this human shell, this body – it’s nothing but an endless series of cycles – sleep, digestion, bloodflow, excretion, reproduction. yet if just one of this multitude of cycles gets disrupted, i can increasingly feel it echoing through my body, disrupting every other cycle in turn. when i was younger, these disruptions meant nothing – i could just as easily recover easily from a night without sleep, a day rolled in to night in to another day, with just one good night’s sleep.

sleep is no longer the savings account with no minimum balance that it once was – it is now a credit account, with a minimum balance of eight hours, the lack of which means an intense yet difficult struggle to catch up with lost hours at every opportunity. at the end of the week, the body simply refuses to get out of bed at a reasonable hour, as if the extra ten minutes between snooze alarms would equal several hours of lost sleep.

and it isn’t just sleep anymore. i constantly feel less healthy, get sick much more often, and coughs, colds and fevers don’t seem to want to go away. i eat less, feel exhausted most times, and climbing even a flight of stairs results now in the resurgence of pain in the knees.

am i growing older or aging, i ask myself. am i all right, or is there something wrong? am i supposed to feel sick and tired of always being sick and tired?


then, last year, on my birthday, i got the news that i had been dreading for almost eight months. i heard it come from my sister’s lips, heard it repeated by a doctor, and then heard both voices echo in my head for hours on end. in just two weeks, it was all over. and, fittingly, i was the only one there when it ended. and there are memories of those last few moments that keep flooding in to my head without pause. sometimes when i close my eyes, or when i’m alone with my thoughts, i see the body lying on the bed, trying to take a last breath. i hear the voice of the on-duty doctor softly yet urgently calling out, “sir.” i see the eyes flutter open once, take a look at the world, and then go blank.

within the next ten minutes, the body, surrounded by most of the family, was hooked up to a ventilator in the middle of an intensive care unit full of surprised yet anxious patients. i remember tears crawling down my sister’s cheeks as she tried to remember the most appropriate prayer to say. i remember the disappointed and hurt look on my brother’s face, and the sadness gripping my uncle like a demon come to tear away his soul. the sound of the orderly pounding on the body’s chest with half-hearted attempts at last minute cpr, trying to tease even an ounce of life into a body that was already turning blue and cold.

yet, beneath these images and memories are others which i do not let surface. memories of the final conversation i had with him, when he angrily told me to leave the room because he couldn’t sleep in my presence. memories of what i felt exactly at the moment he last opened his eyes, this futile yet bitter anger at him for not letting me stay, not letting me save his life. memories of what it felt like at the graveyard that night, when i watched his body be covered with soil – the utter helplessness, the utter sense of abandonment, the uncertainty of a future without his guidance and guardianship. memories of the last time i touched his skin, and how cold it felt beneath my fingers. memories of the bitter taste of the tears i had cried throughout that whole day. memories of being back in a house without the only other person i had shared it with for a long five years.


two weeks ago, it was the first anniversary of that fateful day. and in the midst of the memories, i didn’t let myself be overtaken by these memories. on one hand, i had just returned from a trip that represented the collapse of everything i had worked towards for just over six years, with the impending closure of a program that i had built from scratch, that i had refined over time, and that i had built in to one of the most innovative and yet potentially effective development projects in the history of the country. i had made it this far because i had been given the opportunity to innovate, and because those in charge believed just as much as i did in the power and potential of what i had been working on.

and then, in one fell swoop, they were gone, and so was the program, deemed to be replaceable and wasteful by someone who did not understand what i wanted to do, and had never considered how an approach different from her own could be effective. and so, the program, the team, the clients, the trust, the relationships i had built over six long years, all of it had been sentenced to death, with an imminent execution date. for most of those six years, this had been my life – my main passion, my main motivation, my love and my dedication. i had invested so much time, some of it unpaid even, in getting it to the point where it was, and now the ax had fallen. i had invested my entire creative process into the program, neglecting my blog, my music, my reading and my social life just to get the program to where it had been. but all that was over. it was time, yet again, to say goodbye to something else i’ve loved but had to lose.

and this time, the goodbye is even longer, the final gasping breaths much longer in duration, than what happened a year ago. perhaps a sudden death – a last long look at the world and then farewell – is much easier to tolerate.

in addition to the pain of losing my project, i didn’t have time to reminisce on memories either. the next week was finals week, for which i was grotesquely unprepared, and studying for seven courses is no laughing matter, especially since i hadn’t bothered to glance through the textbooks even once during the past two months. added to that was the awful sense of humor of one particular professor who issued the decree that i would have to submit, before the examinations, a 70 page hand-written assignment, on top of producing two original research papers for consideration for other courses. my immediate future, it seemed, consisted of over a week of constant all-nighters – a prospect i was not looking forward to, and one i could not even begin to relish.

and so i just didn’t have time to reminisce about these memories, to think about those long-buried emotions, to grieve for the loss i had suffered a year ago. i just had to put it all aside for a while, hoping to resume thinking about them when i was under less work and academic pressure.

but that’s the funny thing about memories, you see – you can’t just choose to think about them later. ever since my birthday at the beginning of the month, i’d been experiencing flashes of memories from a year before – not just the sights, sounds and smells of his final moments, but also memories of how i felt back then – the damned emotions i hadn’t allowed to come to the surface in months.

but i couldn’t predict when they’d come – they’d appear at times when i was alone, standing on the verandah soaking in the cool of the evening over a cigarette. they’d pop out of nowhere in the middle of studying particularly complicated chapters, or when i was sitting in my car staring out at interminable traffic jams. they’d emerge from the depths in the moments just before i fell asleep, in that hazy last stage of consciousness where it all seemed so real, like i was living those moments all over again.

and i just did not know what to do with these rapidly resurfacing memories. i didn’t have the time or the mental capacity to process them logically, and so i kept pushing them off until i could actually make the time.


the first death anniversary is generally the one most people remember, and so there are generally a host of events held on the occasion. for abbu, it hasn’t been any different, just grander in scale. there are several occasions planned in his memory, and so far i’ve only been able to make it to one of them. tomorrow morning is the launch of his autobiography – i remember seeing him staying up late at night for weeks on end looking through freshly typed page after page of what became the manuscript, trying to find the smallest typo or error to correct. but more than that i remember his final days in the hospital, when he instructed me to make sure that the book gets published one way or the other. and i feel sorry for not personally being able to make it happen, but instead somebody else had to take the initiative to make it happen.

the entire family is here, with all the attendant problems that that entails. since they arrived, the house has been whipped into a frenzy of all this remembering, and attempts to honor his memory. everyone is trying to honor him and his contributions in the best way they know how. everyone is trying to capture and preserve their memories of him – a documentary has even been produced to represent his life. but i really don’t know how to do any of this for myself.

abbu was many things to many people, but to me he was a father. we did not have the happiest or closest of relationships, and much of that is my own fault, but i knew he loved me and cared for me no matter what. i have many memories of him – some of which i remember, many of which i don’t and whose only proof are long-forgotten pictures in some album or the other. i might have had the shortest amount of time with him, but i do have some memories. is there a way for me to preserve some of these along with everybody else?

but i hesitate. i haven’t been asked to participate in the documentary or write anything in the booklet being produced for tomorrow, and i haven’t volunteered. i haven’t volunteered mainly because i keep thinking of those days in 1999, after we returned to dhaka after ammu passed away. i remember how my brother brought everyone together – abbu, the sisters, his wife, the aunts, and even my six year old niece – and recorded their memories of ammu on audiotape. i remember how everyone was included in this exercise the last time but me. and that’s when i learned that maybe my memories aren’t important enough for my family to want to preserve.

and so, here i am, one year later, trying to dredge up memories of abbu and preserve them in my own way. it’s funny what the mind chooses to remember and what it chooses to forget. much of the memories i have of him aren’t happy ones, but instead of moments when he hurt me most with things he said or things he did. but then there are some memories that i keep, deep down inside, which remind me of the kind of person he truly was. the time in grade 3 when he came to my classroom to talk to my teachers about other students who bullied me because of my skin color. the time he substituted for my mother at a mother’s day event at my elementary school, even though he was extremely busy. the times when he took me alone to our village home, where i saw him touch the lives of countless people in his own small way. the time when he sat at the back of my sister’s holud, crying loudly and visibly because my mother wasn’t there to witness that special moment for herself. the time when he would call me on my cell if i was late coming back home from work, to see if i was okay. the way he would knock on my door every day after i got home from work to ask if i was hungry and if i was okay. the times when i was sick, and he would rush a doctor over to the house to get a blood sample for tests. the times he took me to buy a pet dog, or brought one home as a surprise. and his last birthday, just four months before he was gone, when i took him against his wishes for dinner with the rest of the family at westin – he didn’t want to go that far because he was worried of feeling worse – but i remember how much he enjoyed the experience, once he got there, and how happy he was. his last eid ul azha, just a few days after the doctor had given us the bad news, when he was overjoyed to see that faraz had come to visit him, but was disheartened that he could not sit up and play with him.

and, seething below it all, those memories of his final moments, and how it felt when i knew he was gone and that, despite our arguments and disagreements, i would miss him tremendously.


this time, when my brother and his family first came to town, i told myself that i should be much more open and communicative with him. let bygones be bygones, i told myself – maybe he needs a brother too, and is willing to make the effort as well. but i was quickly proved wrong. his greetings and felicitations still feel like they are coming from a distant acquaintance, not immediate family. i’ve tried my best, but i haven’t yet been able to have a full conversation with him on anything. at the dinner table, if my sister-in-law is present, the conversation quickly degenerates into a conversation between her and me, while my brother converses with my wife. and those are real conservations, the kind i yearn to have with him: the ones he has with t, where he listens to what she has to say, and responds to whatever she says, and then listens to her response. every time i’ve tried to do that, tried to make my own point in the discussion and hoped for a response, i haven’t gotten one – the best i can hope for is a smile as he moves on to another topic, as if i hadn’t really said anything at all. when he’s around, i have this overwhelming sense that i am but a miniscule and irrelevant creature in his universe, or, more commonly, that i am but an outsider in this family, and my wife is the younger sibling he has always wanted and finally found. and now that he’s found her, i am inconsequential in the grand scheme of things in his universe.

and so i’ve withdrawn back in to myself once again. some things just aren’t worth the effort, and i’m a fool to try to bring about a change where none is possible.


some days this month began well – i woke up refreshed from a good night’s sleep. most days, i don’t get much sleep at night, because those quiet moments just when my eyes are about to shut are when all these things come flooding in to my brain – the uncertainty of my position at work, the pressure i am under academically, how i’ve lost a brother that i really needed, how i wish i had a family that loved and respected me, and, above all, those memories of fifteen brief days a year before, especially the final moments of that fateful fifteenth day. and so i lay awake every night, tossing and turning, trying to fight back against these worries, these insecurities, these sadnesses, and praying that their combined weight pressing down on my prone form in bed does not crush me to death, and that i awake to see another dawn.

the mornings start off well – and then i am either at work, reminded of the loss of the fruits of my hard work throughout my entire career and the instability and insecurity of the position i am currently in, or i am at home, and reminded almost instantly how insignificant my existence really is to the members of the family that i have been taught to love, respect, obey and hold on to tightly.

the best part of the day remains the night, just before i am ready to go to sleep. sitting on the bed, i listen to my wife breathing softly as she sleeps, while i focus work, academics or just plain relax. and those brief moments of silence, calm and peace are so important and valuable that they somehow get me through the next day in one peace, until i can be back in the same position again.

i don’t really have the option of talking to anyone any of this – mainly because the complex raft of emotions, feelings, stress and pain means that i don’t know where to begin, and how to make any of this make sense to someone else. also partly because the years of silence i’ve endured silently have made me feel like i’ve lost my voice – i don’t know if i could put any of this into spoken words so that i could explain to anyone just how helpless, sad, lonely and lost i feel throughout the day.


this december has been perhaps the worst of all those that i’ve experienced thus far. but there are still three days left. the academic pressure is gone now, the situation at work is slowly degrading to a stressful but still an uncomfortable yet bearable status quo, and my disappointment in my family seems almost tolerable, especially since they are only here for a few more days.with the academic pressure gone,  i should now be able to get sufficient rest, and if not, there’s always trusty old dormicum. i still don’t know what to do with those snippets of memories from one year ago that randomly pop up in my perception, but i might just now have the time and the mental capacity to process them and grieve properly for the first time this month.

so here’s to a more stable three days, and a much happier 2011.

thrusting into oblivion

the government likes to call it “prioritizing thrust sectors”. donors prefer “diversifying the export basket”. by whichever name you call it, the fundamental issue is the same: everyone agrees that bangladesh needs to start exporting some product or the other that isn’t garments (or manpower, for that matter). bangladesh also needs to start creating millions of jobs – with the population edging towards 165 million, most of whom are young, a massive social crisis may just be around the corner.

and so, every five years or so, the government unveils a new industrial policy. the policy sets out a group of “thrust sectors”, which, despite the suggestive name, are theoretically the sectors that the government believes have the strongest investment potential, and in which bangladesh has a comparative advantage. information technology and pharmaceuticals are some of the usual suspects, whereas others, like shrimp and ship-building, make random guest appearances on the list. this year’s list includes the following:

  1. agro-products, food and agro-business
  2. manpower export
  3. ship building and environmentally friendly ship-breaking
  4. renewable energy
  5. tourism
  6. basic chemicals, paint and chemical products
  7. ict products and services
  8. garments
  9. active pharmaceutical ingredients and radio pharmaceuticals
  10. homeopathic medicines
  11. polymer production
  12. jute
  13. leather and hides
  14. hospitals and clinics
  15. automobiles
  16. plastics
  17. furniture
  18. handicrafts
  19. energy efficient appliances/electronics/electronic materials
  20. frozen fish
  21. tea
  22. home textiles
  23. ceramics
  24. tissue grafting and biotechnology
  25. jewelry
  26. toys
  27. container services
  28. warehouses
  29. new innovative and import substituting industries
  30. cosmetics and toiletries
  31. light engineering

the launch of new industrial policies is accompanied by a series of fervently organized seminars and workshops, but the vast majority of the debate centers not on the logic or premise behind the selection of these particular sectors, but rather the future of the state-owned enterprises or what to do about “sick industries” (which, frankly, is often the same debate).

once these sectors are defined and meekly accepted, the next step is often the introduction of a package of incentives for these businesses. the package generally takes the form of a tax holiday of some sort, or removal of duties on certain raw materials. the problem is, since these sectors are defined generally by political will or traditionalist thinking rather than by some level of public consultations, the incentive package turns out to be quite ineffective.

for example, recent research i came across indicates that while solar panels (thrust sector #3) can be imported with low or no duties, one of the fundamental problems is the import duty levied on other necessary components. most importantly, solar panel importers who want to supply the technology are forced to buy or import batteries at high tax or duty rates, thereby driving up their own costs. without the battery, a solar panel is useless – the power it generates throughout the day cannot be stored anywhere and is essentially lost. since our national grid does not currently allow us to sell excess power back to it, the benefits of solar power are lost without the use of a battery. so solar panel distributors (and therefore the users) have to knuckle down to quite high costs to pay for the already-expensive panel and the unnecessarily-expensive battery.

obviously, high prices are a major deterrent to greater adoption of solar power, and so solar power remains the bastion of either very remote areas with no national grid access (serviced by ngos at subsidized rates), or the domain of the very rich and environmentally-conscious (which effectively means nobody). oh, and the government itself. but the enormous and growing middle class in dhaka – the biggest consumer group – remains aloof from the potential of solar power.

of course, i’m not insinuating that making these batteries tax-free will lead to a drastic drop in the price of solar panels. solar panels themselves represent the lion’s share of the high set-up cost associated with using solar power, and are quite expensive to begin with. my point, instead, is that if the government talked to business before coming up with the list and the incentive packages, they would have known that one of the major constraints currently affecting the sector is this high tax on batteries. therefore, the incentives package that was designed for the sector should have included something along these lines.

this myopic approach plagues many of the other sectors as well. the tourism industry is frustrated with the frequent change in tourism secretaries, and the overwhelmingly negative attitude of those who occupy this position. the pharmaceutical industry has been lobbying for an industrial park to produce their own active ingredients, with a view to reducing imports and prices, for the better part of the last six years. export-oriented it companies are still unable to legally earn or have foreign currency paid into their local accounts in exchange for their services. and why, precisely, would a biotechnology company set up in bangladesh?

so instead of just declaring thrust sectors in policy and hastily assembling a tax holiday package, the government should talk to the industry, see what their problems are and figure out a way to solve these problems, if their objective is to realize the full potential of these sectors. this requires a detailed understanding of the sector, its value chains, its players and its potential markets, which sadly is beyond the current ability of most of the ministry of industry. but there are plenty of people around who can tell them these things: they just need to be willing to listen. also, understanding the sector well would mean that they’d be better able to make sure the sectors do succeed in reality, both in creating jobs and even diversifying exports.

thankfully, the government has five more years to figure these things out before they have to compile the next set of…umm…sectors in which to trust. and that’s more than enough time to learn.


we drive. the endless flow of traffic lights flicker across our faces, red, then green again.

a never-ending series of dazzling yellow headlights flow over us from passing cars. the car, bathed red in the glow of the taillights of the car ahead of us.

on her finger, the ring i just bought her. engagement ring? wedding ring? dating ring? friendship ring? the myriad possible meanings of the ring seem to flicker within the green stones. the silver band glows red, green, then red again.

don’t break me again. please.

our fingers, entangled infinitely in one another. i feel beads of moisture beginning to form on her palm. i know it’s only seconds before she feels them too, pulls her hand away with the excuse of sweaty palms.

our fingers intertwine tighter and tighter. on the radio, some anonymous crooner sings some song about love and loss, from a playlist i thought would be apropos to get her to forgive me.

outside, the air is still. the night is calm, punctuated only by the oncoming whoosh of a passing vehicle, or some lonely driver leaning on his horn. the darkness is infinite, only penetrated by the dim glare of a distant car.

“how can i ever trust you again? what’s the guarantee you won’t hurt me again?”

there are many answers i could give, many things i could say. but i’ve said them all before. ruined the meaning of each with hideous acts. so many promises i could make, but each of them broken into tiny pieces. so many dreams i could weave, but each one i’ve ended with vicious nightmares.

her hair falls softly across her face. i reach over to brush them away from her mouth. lean over slowly to kiss her, but at the last second she moves her face away. i’m left with just her cheek, and the bitter taste of a lonely tear winding its way down the side of her face.

unlike everyone else, when she cries, the tears stream down the side of her face. not by her nose, to pool over her trembling lips, but down the side, where they drip off into the oblivion of her shoulders. when she cries, she rarely makes a noise, but her shivers give it all away.

“i don’t know if i can ever trust you again. you’ve broken me into a million pieces, and i don’t think they can be put back together again.”

i grip her hand tighter, and she reciprocates slowly. the sensation sends shivers of hope down my spine. i kiss away her tears. she rests her head on my shoulder. one kiss for her forehead, one kiss for her nose.

she looks up, kisses me on the lips. soft. tentative. subtle.

i kiss her back. more forcefully. more hopefully.

she pulls away and stares out her window.

“give me time.”

and so we drive. the endless flow of traffic lights flicker across our faces, red, then green again.

Dreaming in Digital

Six months ago, we, in the midst of recovering from the delirium of Obama’s victory and promises of change, let ourselves be seduced by another changemonger’s campaign slogan. So what if “Digital Bangladesh” is nothing like “Yes We Can”? It was still just enough to make a disillusioned populace start to dream again.

And so, enraptured by this dream of change, like millions of Americans in early November, we swept a new government into power. “Digital Bangladesh” spoke to our hearts and souls, even if we had no idea what exactly it is that it meant.

Six months later, we still have no clue. And, even more worryingly, neither do the politicians who dreamt it up in the first place, it seems.

Let’s face it: Digital Bangladesh makes a great vision statement. Although it isn’t time-bound in any sense, it ranks up there with those tired old visions we’ve heard our politicians espouse so frequently – middle income country blah blah blah. At least it’s a newer, cooler vision, and is something that can appeal to the youth.

However, one would expect that, six months down the line, someone would at least have come up with a few accompanying mission statements, to articulate or explain what all this hype is about. But nobody’s done anything about it – the phrase remains just as ambiguous as it was six months ago. The longer it remains ambiguous, the more it will lose its allure.

We’ve seen this before – politicians hooking on to a concept or idea, then selling it to the people as the miracle cure for all societal or economic ills, and then beat that particular horse to death until nobody cares anymore.

So, in the absence of a proper explanation of Digital Bangladesh, I’m forced to create one myself. I see Digital Bangladesh as being the junction of two different dimensions – at least from the government’s point of view.

First, there’s the issue of service delivery. The e-governance train has long been a popular one for politicians, bureaucrats and civil society alike to jump aboard, but badly done e-governance is just as bad – if not worse – than none at all. What does this mean?

The government delivers services to its clients, whether they are civilians, businesses or institutions. We’ve all been through at least one such service delivery process: most readers have a passport, I’m sure. There are lots more we could potentially go through, but we tend to avoid them like the plague – they are all long, slow and terribly bureaucratic, not to mention cesspools of corruption and nepotism.

Transferring these inefficient processes to a computerized system won’t do any good for anyone – the delays will continue, and there will still be opportunities for corruption. What therefore needs to happen is that the government, prior to computerizing, needs to look at the entire process and find the steps that are unnecessary, or pose the greatest opportunity for corruption or harassment, and cut off these links in the chain. This will ensure government service delivery is simple, smooth and transparent, both online and offline.

The second dimension is the issue of infrastructure, which itself requires action on two fronts. The issue of physical infrastructure seems most challenging, but it can be easier than it looks: the government should let the private sector handle this entirely. GrameenPhone advertises its Community Information Centers, with computer access for all, and there are now computers on boats traversing our rivers. These days, you can buy a simple plug in device that turns your SIM card into a portable modem. Giving tax breaks to mobile companies who operate such free information centers would spur them to set up many more, since the marginal cost of an extra mobile intranet user is very low. The cost of the centers could easily be offset by the savings from the tax break; plus, it looks great from a CSR perspective.

Human infrastructure, however, is inherently more difficult. The government should help ensure that there is sufficient ability to use computers and online systems. These days, this is simpler and cheaper than ever – just the other day, I saw advertisements for computer training for 300 taka. What the government needs to do is provide this training for free to whoever wants it, or they can incentivize the private sector and NGOs to provide it on their behalf.

In the meantime, there are clearly lots of unemployed youth who are computer-literate who could help others use computers – a year or so ago, they were helping the Army build the new voter list. Reemploying them to help out in, or even run, Community Information Centers should be easy enough. Mobile companies can even franchise out these centers, like the way they’ve franchised FlexiLoad services.

Tying all of these dimensions together is a set of policies and regulations that enable and protect all these activities. We need tons of them – for data security, data integrity, data backup, system compatibility, online fraud prevention, electronic payments – the list is endless. All of these need to be in place before anything else can happen. At least by now, one would have expected the government to have assigned someone to start working on all of this. But nothing’s happened yet.

I’m writing this blog on a BlackBerry while listening to music on an iPod and texting on my mobile – clearly there’s no way I could become any more digital without becoming some sort of android. But for millions of Bangladeshis, Digital Bangladesh can make a massive difference in the way they live their lives. All they are waiting for is for the government to transform this vague vision into reality.