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.

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

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.

do traffic cops cause traffic jams?

everyone who has ever been to dhaka on a normal workday knows that we have the world’s least enviable traffic jams. on any given day, it can take up to half an hour to travel just a couple of kilometers. my daily commute, which clocks in at only about 7 km each way, takes me anywhere from 20 minutes on a good day, to almost an hour and a half.

urban planning experts complain about the lack of roads. drivers complain about slow-moving rickshaws. passengers complain about the driving skills of others. but everyone seems to agree that one of the major causes of traffic jams is the capacity and activities of traffic police in dhaka.

earlier this year, i decided to test this for myself, as part of a course on econometrics that i was taking at the time. being the pessimist i am, i naturally beleived that, the more traffic police there were on the streets, the more traffic there would be, and therefore the longer it would take to travel a given distance.

i figured that it would be a sufficiently easy model to test, and that getting data would be relatively easy. however, it’s quite a general and basic model in itself, and so there may be flaws in the analysis. the results are quite interesting and informative, but if you would like to bore yourself with the full gamut of econometric analysis, you can see it all here.

the results indicate that, on average, adding another traffic cop to the streets would reduce the average travel time by about 75 seconds. On the flip side, an additional car on the road would increase travel time by 5 seconds.

before we get in to what this could possibly mean, let’s talk about how i did this research. first, i picked a specific route for this study – asad gate to wireless, mohakhali, and the way back, via bijoy sharani and mohakhali rail crossing. this route was selected for several methodological reasons:

  • rickshaws are not allowed to travel on this route, and so the impact of these slow-moving vehicles on traffic jams was controlled. 
  • there are no schools along this route, which means that congestion on this route is also not due to school traffic.
  • parking is prohibited along most of this route, and so most vehicles are supposed to be in motion on this route.
  • this route is one of the most notorious jam-packed roads in the city, particularly in the evenings.
  • there is always generally a high concentration of traffic police on duty along the route.

i collected data on the time taken to traverse the route, the number of traffic cops along the route, and the average traffic gathered at two points during my trip. the last of these was collected at great risk to life and limb: once my car was stopped at the traffic light, i jumped out and counted the number of cars waiting at the light, and then jumped back in to my car once traffic started moving again. data was collected at both morning and evening peak traffic hours. morning rush hour here is defined as between 7 am and 9:30 am, and evening rush hour ranges from 5 pm to 8 pm. to randomize the data, i travelled at different times every day during these two blocks.

what do the results mean? well, to deal with the simple things first, the second result makes sense. given the limited road capacity, more traffic on the streets would obviously lead to more traffic and therefore increased travel time. 

the traffic cop phenomenon is harder to explain though. after all, most of their activity seems to standing at traffic intersections all day, languidly waving to cars to pass or stop. except, of course, if you have an accident or are being mugged. in which case they are most likely to disappear faster than a rabbit after a gunshot.

to explain why this occurs, it’s necessary to extrapolate from our data and use our logic. i surmise that this is because of the fear factor: if there is a traffic cop at the intersection, you are more likely to follow traffic rules and drive carefully. ergo, the more traffic police, the higher the likelihood of following traffic rules.

but that’s a simplistic piece of logic at best, and given the tendencies of bangladeshi drivers, it’s also rather hard to believe. instead, the simpler explanation may be that, as the morning progresses from 7 am onwards, two things happen simultaneously: more traffic cops come on duty, and traffic slowly decreases from the school rush to the commuting rush to the general traffic trends. similarly, as the evening progresses, more and more traffic cops come on for the evening shift while the commuter rush starts to decline.

but are ingenious police shift timings the only cause for this phenomenon? perhaps, but that is quite pessimistic. although travelling down the dhaka streets and watching the activities of the police force would reinforce one’s assumption that they are incompetent, there is also a need to be more objective. i would postulate that there is an extension of the “fear factor” hypothesis: since the primary task of the police is to reinforce the traffic light system, it’s likely that, if there are traffic cops, drivers are more likely to obey traffic lights, thus ensuring smoother flow of traffic and more effective traffic management. thus, there is less traffic, and simultaneously lower travel times.

this research, however, is by no means comperehensive and conveniently ignores several other important variables. for example, it does not take into account how many policemen were actively guiding traffic, as opposed to standing around chatting or seeking bribes while pretending to fine people (i know, gross generalization). similarly, it assumes that all traffic counted is travelling in the same direction, instead of turning or travelling in other routes.

finally, it ignores the fact that there are other underlying reasons for traffic, other than policemen or the number of cars. for example, one of the main reasons traffic jams occur in dhaka is that important intersections are closed off haphazardly across the city, meaning that cars that want to turn at a certain intersection often have to congregate at a limited number of turning points, thus backing up traffic. after all, traffic moves in flowing patterns, and blocking the flow inappropriately can cause it to back up indefinitely. think of water flowing into a bucket through a pipe with lots of holes. if you start plugging up the holes arbitrarily, the amount of water in the pipe will start to increase, until both the pipe and the bucket are flooded. therefore, ignoring traffic mnagement as a primary cause of the traffic jams is virtually impossible.

using these results for policy recommendations along the lines of increasing the number of traffic cops can be dangerous and will probably not solve traffic problems. however, it is undeniable that more cars will cause more traffic, and so traffic reduction must focus on controlling the number of cars or managing them better, so that they don’t clog up the limited pipes that make up dhaka’s streets.

political procrastination

the roads of dhaka are eerily empty for 8:30 pm. strangely, there are few traffic cops on the road – just a lone soldier dutifully manning the road 27 intersection. no sergeants astride their trusty motorcycles, no battalion of police positioned idly at major traffic points. few cars are on the streets – busses abound, but otherwise there are few other vehicles. thin queues of people seem stranded at bus stops. storekeepers rush to shut their shutters, half an hour before standard closing times. no noise, no incessant honking of horns, no road rage-infested drivers trying to push others off the roads. a lone beep from my car, at an errant rickshaw, seems to ricochet off the concrete walls.

my mobile flickers softly and vibrates twice. new message received. opening the inbox to read the missive seems to take forever, with the status bar seeming to sway lazily from one side of the screen to the other. finally it opens. “govt wanted to defer JS vote to dec 28…but now plans to hold polls dec 18 due to lack of consensus among parties,” it reads. i curse under my breath – is this the beginning of the end?

the drive turns out to be refreshingly but strangely quick. i’m home in 15 minutes, whereas the regular commute takes up to an hour and a half every day. sprint up the stairs to catch the news – have talks broken down? is this the political armageddon that we’ve been waiting for?

nothing but replays of the five adviser’s press briefing, and scenes of bnp leaders trooping in to their office. special correspondents eagerly wait outside every politician’s house, but no one has anything to report. stay tuned, they tell me, we’ll be back live with bnp’s press briefing.

the clock winds down. 48 hours expire, but more time is needed. the leaders are deeply embroiled in conversation, we learn, so stay tuned. meanwhile, nothing to do but watch tv commercial after commercial, while the same old news scrolls across the bottom of the screen, billed as “breaking news”.

at last, some of the leaders decide to brief the press. this is it, the moment of judgement for the future of the nation. khaleda’s nowhere to be found, surprisingly. perhaps her speechwriter couldn’t produce another classic government-bashing, blame-shifting, military-praising masterpiece? no matter. everyone’s favorite delwar has his own written page that he reads from.

no mention of 48 hour deadlines. no mention of boycotting or participating. no mention of anything but empty angry rhetoric aimed at the caretaker government. 

and, just as quickly as it had emerged, the anxiety and intrigue disappear. no, that’s wrong. the anxiety and intrigue don’t dissipate, but are replaced with anger and frustration. no concrete decision, no announcement, no sense of finality. only the usual talk about “the people” accompanied by a nearly desperate final plea for the withdrawal of the state of emergency. have the seven four demands now boiled down to only one?

miraculously, delwar agrees to answer the press’s questions. the first question is, traditionally, extremely wrong, and gives him space to vent his generic frustrations with the government. meanwhile, muzahid smiles creepily at delwar’s side. why doesn’t anyone ask him about the party’s decision?

finally some intrepid reporter talks about the people waiting at home for a decision. delwar evades the question, as usual, saying something irrelevant about free and fair elections. it takes several more tries for a journalist to ask the actual question: will bnp participate in the elections on december 18?

but delwar’s just too clever to answer that question that easily. we’ll meet the alliance tomorrow, he says, and then decide. 

and just like that, the press conference is over. no clear answer, no definitive direction, just another attempt by the bnp to buy some more time to prepare for the election. what did they do for  the past 48 hours, i wonder. couldn’t they have drawn up their contingency plans in all that time? why did they have to wait past the deadline to decide what to do?

the mobile flickers again. “nomination deadline extended by 3 days,” says the breaking news alert. great. that just gives them 3 more days to waver and flitter about. another three days of uncertainty for everyone trying to figure out if this country will just disintegrate into anarchy come 2009. 

i’m not a political person, as anyone who reads this blog will know. but this cat-and-mouse game of demands and deadlines is not helping bnp’s cause. they can’t seem to set a deadline and make it stick, and can’t seem to arrive at a decision one way or the other. meanwhile, the fantastic five run around town on the daunting cantonment-dhanmondi-cantonment commute to figure out a way to placate everyone, and extend deadlines to allow these people to continue to waver incessantly without a concrete decision.

if i was bnp, i would be highly concerned about my public image. spouting conspiracy theories off the top of one’s head as a means of buying time doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, at least not mine. and that’s all it boils down to – fear that poor preparations will lead to a crushing electoral defeat. but why are their preparations poor anyway? did a certain former “technocrat” actually end up doing any work, or was he too busy with his personal hobby, filing false cases against random influential people?

am i going to vote in this election? no. i plan to be somewhere else, on a much deserved vacation. but i, and all of the jonogon that delwar and all the others keep talking about incessantly need to know – nay, deserve to know – if bnp will participate in the election. if bnp will not participate, fine, but we the people have the right to know. if they will, even better.

it bothers me greatly that not even the top leadership of bnp seem to know what the ultimate decision is. there seems to be enough people regaling khaleda’s ears with monologues on the benefits of either course of action, but all that that seems to be doing is making it her own personal decision at the end. and that is truly scary. it all boils down to two choices for her: lose the election and lose face and power for the next five years, or boycott the election and destroy the country in the process. and, given her previous choices in life, and her potential need for revenge against the hasina of ’96, i fear she may choose to do the latter. 

in my opinion, the only reason that decision was not made tonight may be that she doesn’t trust her alliance partners quite as much as she claims to. i think she fears that, if bnp boycott the election, jamaat may go ahead and participate anyway, thus dissolving their alliance. jamaat could easily do that – look at 1996. given the recent dissension within her ranks, this would in effect her party to just another footnote in the country’s history. quite hard to launch an anti-government campaign against the government when even your partners are in bed with the other side, isn’t it?

in the end i think it boils down to a case of rats deserting a sinking ship. bnp will continue to hold out till the 23rd without giving a firm answer, and then eventually give in, once jamaat’s threats to participate no matter what finally sink in. then the other alliance will gleefully make use of their indecisiveness and crush them in the elections. alternatively, she might stand firm and refuse to participate. in which case i have a feeling that my fellow jonogon will wholeheartedly ignore her boycott calls and cast their vote for anybody they wish, making voter turnout remarkably high. that’ll ruin any claims of power and support that bnp can muster next year, and ensure that she is unable to destablize the country much. i think it’s just punishment for the charade that they have led us through over the past week.

one way or the other, the bnp now have to figure out a way to lose the election while still saving face. otherwise, given their recent performance, they may very quickly become just another minority party in a jamaat grand aliance.

vote virgins

with the support of a sponsor who wishes to remain anonymous, i conducted a small survey of first-time voters in bangladesh. the survey was conducted from november 4 to november 23, 2006, and covered a sample of 10,000 young first-time voters. the sample consisted primarily of students of various private universities, with some public university and college students thrown in. the survey was based in dhaka. respondents were asked whether or not they would be voting or not. i’m not delving into the methodology here, because it will take up too much space. however, enough safeguards were used to ensure the validity of the data collected.

at the outset, before i delve into the results, i would like to offer up some caveats. first, the sample is in no way large enough to be comprehensive and is not designed to present a picture of the majority of first-time voters. instead, it is confined specifically to those who are undertaking tertiary education, in order to provide a picture of what this group of citizens actually thinks.

secondly, as this research was conducted early in the tenure of the current caretaker government, the events we have seen occuring over the past few months has little to no effect on the mindsets of the respondents. although respondents were only asked if they would be voting this time around, we have tried to limit the impact of the current political climate on the responses. for this reason, the team actively avoided surveying those who were already politically aligned within their institutions.

finally, this survey was not designed to find out who the respondents would vote for: complexities including privacy issues and additional administrative permission from the institutions clearly meant that such an analysis would be impossible given the timeframe and budget of the research.

what, then, should this data be used for? the reason i was interested in conducting this research was because of a hypothesis that i had developed – that educated people were growing increasingly sick and tired of the political stalemate arising out of choosing between two major parties and the current political climate, and that they were becoming apathetic regarding their right to vote. while the results do not overwhelmingly support this hypothesis, they should be indicative of a general trend in this direction.

now, on to the much-awaited results!

  • of those surveyed, 57.42% indicated that they would not be voting in the upcoming elections. the remaining 42.58% indicated that they would be voting in the upcoming elections.
  • 27.93% of those who said they would not be voting aren’t or aren’t sure whether they are registered as voters.
  • 12.76% of those who said they would be voting aren’t or aren’t sure whether they are registered as voters.
  • 12.82% of the first-time voters who are not certain if they are registered as voters said that, if they were, they would vote in the coming election. the remaining sample said that they would not vote even if they were registered.
  • only 2.57% of those who said they would not vote said that the implementation of awami league’s electoral reform demands would make them willing to vote.

i realize these results aren’t groundbreaking, but should be a good indication of the way people are beginning to think in bangladesh today.

sorry for the delay in posting these, but it was quite difficult to get permission from the sponsor to post these until they had checked the data for themselves.

also, for the regular readers, sorry for the huge gap in postings. i’ve been spending most of my free time with a family member who was very sick, but that ended with his death last night. regular transmission should resume shortly.


dusk falls softly across the city.

it’s 5 pm, yet it seems like an eternity since i left home this morning. the smog of a day’s busy traffic melds with the fading light into innumerable hues of gray. the traffic crawls along at a sedate pace as usual. cars fit haphazardly into a mile-long column of chaos and frustration. intermittent angry car horns fade softly into the gloom.

just another rush hour in dhaka, i think to myself. isolated from the chaos outside thanks to the headphones of my mp3 player wedged in my ears, i engage in my favorite pastime, watching people. not staring rudely at individuals, but rather watching the entire mass, the entire population passing outside the car. i didn’t get any sleep last night, i remember, and try to let my body succumb to my exhaustion.

in the distance, an isolated pedestrian overpass, nearly devoid of pedestrians, who prefer the quick dash across the road through gaps between the halted automobiles. the overpass seems nearly empty, except for two figures, one bigger than the other, silhouetted against the sun setting behind them.

as i pull up closer to the overpass, i see the two figures are a mother and daughter, out perhaps for an afternoon walk or an impromptu visit to the store for some urgent groceries. yet they aren’t walking, rather they stand in one spot on the overpass, watching the traffic pass below them. the mother stands motionless, staring intently at the traffic with some problem on her mind, as if the solution lay in one of the cars below her.

her daughter, however, isn’t standing still. she’s about 6 or 7 years old. she stands on the overpass, her arms extended sticking out from her body, twirling in place, dancing softly to some unknown melody.

i reach for my camera to try and capture this moment, this little child twirling innocently in the haze of the imminent sunset while the city passes below her. but suddenly the traffic surges forward, and before i can even remove the lens cover, i’m too far away to take the picture.

another fantastic photo opportunity lost, i curse to myself.

and that, i realized, is the essence of dhaka. as tired and frustrated as we get with our own lives in this city, the tedium and the routine, the interminable traffic jams, the pollution, the incessant political conflict and the overpopulation, there still are small glimpses of beauty, spontaneity and innocence hidden away in the most unlikely places, if you only take time to notice. sadly, i don’t think i would have noticed had i not been too tired to do anything else – i’d much rather have been checking my email on my cell phone, calling a friend, or reading something or the other. that is the sad reality of our lives today – we’re so caught up in our own lives that we often teach ourselves to be blind to these things, or to subconsciously ignore them if we do see them.

i don’t know whether the two of them will be there again tomorrow when i take the same route back home. but i do know one thing – this time i’ll have my camera ready.

just in case.


now that it’s become quite fashionable for every group, association or random collection of nitwits to put forth a set of demands, i think it’s time for the bangladeshi people to put forth our own set of demands to the political parties for political reform in bangladesh.

i think it’s time for the common man to present the politicians with our own set of egaro dofa dabi:

1. for god’s sake, please shut up: we’re sick and tired of your inane banter and speeches and press briefings. none of it has had any effect, other than to get your face plastered across national (and now, thanks to youtube) international media. since you hardly ever have anything to say, other than personal rants against one another, why don’t you use the tried-and-true method of writing each other letters? or – here’s an idea – use email. i’m tired of reading newspapers filled with your personal slander. scientists recently figured out a way to remove arsenic from water, a breakthrough for bangladesh, but was that on any newspaper front page?

2. find some issues to talk about: right, so in your devotional speeches to one another, you’ve already covered the vital issues like illegitimate children, sexual habits and mental disorders. let’s now get some important issues for the two of you to fight about. the democrats didn’t win the recent us elections by talking about who is who’s puppet; rather, the elections were decided by more important issues, like the war in iraq or abortion or gay marriage or stem cell research. i wonder when bangladeshi politicians will get as excited about issues like a sustainable internet usage policy or intellectual property rights or perhaps even privatization as they do over a balding man and a man who is old enough to be a reincarnated mummy and their every move. no one cares about pictures. no one cares whose name adorns the most buildings. we care about food, clothing, shelter and security, and frankly with all your crap you’ve ensured that two out of those four things are already endangered.

3. stop making business suffer: if there is anyone more vomit-inducing than the whole lot of you, it’s fazlul haque from bgmea and mir nasir hossain from fbcci. seeing as i watch the news over meals, i really don’t enjoy the nausea engendered by their frequent whining about how your inanity affects the economy. stop giving these characters the opportunity to hold daily press briefings to talk repeatedly about these things. instead, figure out political mechanisms that allow you to get your point across without disrupting business. in addition, while the lot of you might have cushy jobs as the chairmen of massive enterprises, the average voter doesn’t have that luxury. if your programs disrupt our jobs and our attempts to scrap together a meager living, we’re not going to vote for you.

4. compassion is key: if those people getting injured and even killed on your behalf on the streets are truly your workers, i would have expected some of you to actually visit them in the hospital or to participate in their janaza. your utter indifference to how they are doing just reaffirms the common man that these are expendable people you hired off the streets for the sole purpose of getting injured or killed. if you are going to be violent, how about taking a bit of the billions you receive for parliament nominations to set up a fund to pay for the medical treatment and burial of these workers? also, statistics can speak louder than words most times – while we’re at it, how about a comprehensive public database of your many millions of members?

5. life is not a bruce willis movie: yes, the whole public uprising thing was cool back in the 90s. you deposed two power-hungry leaders back then, through organized and sometimes violent means. that does not mean that it works anymore. we bangladeshis are sick and tired of the petty violence that you have been using in an attempt to make a point. frankly, we understood the point several meetings and press briefings ago. while that’s all well and good, what’s the value of having the tv stations broadcast your people beating the crap out of other folks? stop having your leaders incite violent behavior through their speeches and thus endangering innocent bystanders in the process. you need to start seeking non-violent forms of violence that can get your point across with minimum collateral damage.

6. policy continuity is your friend: in 35 years of independence, i think bangladesh has achieved several near-miracles. our human development indices are higher than many other developing countries, our economy is booming and a wide range of experts have called us everything from a middle income country to one of the next developed countries. clearly, then, we’ve done something right. for each government to come into power and immediately reject the
past government policies is savage tomfoolery. try to learn from the mistakes of the past government and build on their achievements, instead of having to start from the ground up every five years.

7. transparency is beautiful: transparency and accountability are relevant not only for governments but for political parties as well. it’s time to make the election nomination and selection process as transparent as possible, instead of on the basis of who contributes the most money to the party. if you have the grassroots support and networks that you claim to have, why don’t you use them to see who the people of each constituency would like to see represent them in parliament, instead of donating nominations to people who don’t even live in the constituency? i’m sure this country is full of bright intelligent leaders that could play an effective role as a parliamentarian rather than the crop of sycophants you harvest in your offices. we also need more transparent election campaign financing procedures from the lot of you.

8. depoliticize the civil service: you may be in power for five years, but the civil service will be running the country for the rest of all our lifetimes. your unnecessary interference in their functions, through frequent transfers and the exercise of discretionary powers, seriously undermines the effectiveness of the civil service. what you need to do instead is to insulate the civil service from the political government, so that your ministers and parliamentarians can not influence their activities.

9. regulatory reform: despite all the fuss you raise over the war of independence, we still have a hefty stock of regulations from the british colonial era that seriously need to be reformed. you need to work on the existing regulations in bangladesh, instead of drafting new ones that you subsequently forget about, and look at how these existing regulations can be modified to remove the abuse of discretionary powers that leads to corruption. you also need to look at how to make them logical and relevant to the twenty-first century – for example, the policy of imposing higher duties on raw materials than assembled products is contrary to each and every economics textbook in the world, and can cause more harm than good.

10. let small parties work: frankly, a two-party or dual alliance system of government is not suitable for bangladesh. especially not the two parties that are around, who i fear have mostly lost touch with the needs of the common man. instead, the true meaning of this much-vaunted concept of democracy that you keep harping on about is letting the voice of the common man be heard. for this reason, there needs to be a wide variety of political parties in the parliament as well as in bangladesh. clearly the lot of you are useless at running a country – the problem is, now that we’ve given you both chances and turned out to be completely wrong both times, who do we choose to lead the country? the sad answer is, due to your ruthless alliance-forming and cartel-building, we have few options left. small parties can help fill this void, and can help parliament be more effective, by representing a wider cross-section of people than the current crop. they can also represent a wider spectrum of political viewpoints than your standard left-wing, right-wing model. so let them set up operations, grow and thrive. burning their houses and beating their workers are not effective ways to proceed.

11. stop screaming and learn to talk: it’s all well and good to see the two secretary-generals sitting on comfortable sofas smiling benevolently at one another, but that clearly hasn’t helped anyone in any way. rather, what we need is a concerted dialogue betwen political parties – not only on the national level but on the regional, district, sub-district and thana levels. i think what bangladesh needs now is a “no village left behind” policy to ensure that the fruits of development are spread equally throughout the country, and what will be necessary for this to succeed is dialogue between stakeholders in all areas to determine how best to develop their respective regions. frequent dialogue between political parties at the grassroots level can show that politicians are committed to development in bangladesh.

in short, i feel the time is right for politicians in bangladesh to take a radical step forward – the country as a whole needs politicians to put aside their petty differences and work towards a better and brighter future for bangladesh. perhaps what we need now is not election commission reform but urgent political reform instead. we the people need leaders that can lead and are committed to development, not those that slander each other endlessly and incite mayhem at the cost of the general public. maybe that will help solve the current impasse and prevent it from getting any worse in the future.

some notes:

  1. i know i don’t generally indulge myself in political discussions on this blog (with the exception of these posts), but i’m heartily sick and tired of the uncertainty and general confusion due to the current crisis, and had to vent in some way.
  2. the results and analysis of my research on first-time voters and their willingness to vote has been slightly delayed due to the current political scenario. it should be posted later this week.
  3. my last post marks the beginning of a new type of posts on this blog – fake news reports that are meant to be amusing. i feel that in this time of uncertainty and crisis that engulfs the country, it’s easy to become cynical about the future, but it’s also important to maintain your sense of humor at all costs.
  4. as always, comments are always welcome.

elegy for a dear friend

here lies


she fought valiantly for freedom and democracy
but always squandered it away

she will be missed.

rest in pieces.


for those who think i’ve declared death prematurely, be assured, we’re at war. we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the bombs, we’ve got the fighter jets (and more on the way). but we’re not sure who the enemy is, or what it is we’re fighting for.

frankly, i liked it better when the enemy was poverty, or unemployment, or inflation, or crime or anything else that could hurt us. and when the weapons were policies, rules, regulations and laws, not bricks, cricket bats, hockey sticks and bamboo. also, i loved it when those laws, policies and rules worked.

is it really that difficult for us to stop fighting each other and engaging in wanton destruction? is that the only way left to make a political statement? or is this an indication that we should just give up on law and order and engage in vigilantism? is the answer to every single problem a gutted car, a burnt factory or an innumerable number of people in the hospital or in the morgue?

but i still hope. foolishly, some might say. but i still believe that, a group of 144 million people that can rise up to protect their right to speak their own language can, 35 years later, rise up to do the things that need to be done to fulfill the potential we all know we have.

so let’s not bury bangladesh fully today.

let’s bury the parts of bangladesh we hate – the corruption, the deteriorating law and order, the dirty politics, the fanaticism, the spiralling prices of essentials, what happened today.

let’s wake up tomorrow, refreshed, cleansed, free of this anger that burns inside us.

let’s make a fresh start tomorrow and let’s solve all our problems.

let’s once again be proud of who we are, instead of reminiscing about who we could have been.

let’s learn all over again what it means to be a citizen of bangladesh.

but then, that’s just me, and that’s just the way i feel.

you’re right, it’s all just wishful thinking.


for all this talk of islamic radicalism and fanaticism causing global terrorism, what often gets left behind is the fact that, as long as poverty and illiteracy exists in the so-called third world, shit like this will continue to happen:

Police and local people said Amena, wife of expatriate Shyam Miah, slaughtered her two-year-old son Mamun in compliance with an edict she got from her Pir in dream on Friday night.

Amena, said to be a disciple of Kala Shaheed Pir of Akhaura in Brahmanbaria district, went to her sister-in-law’s house at Nagarpar from Kulubari on Friday along with her son Mamun.

On that night, she dreamt of her religious guru telling her to sacrifice one of her children for leading a ‘peaceful and happy life’.

“Amena slit the throat of her son at about 8:00am and sat in front of the body-unmoved by the harrowing scene,” says a firsthand account of the tragedy.

“She didn’t seem insane,” police said, when contacted.

and why, precisely, would she seem insane? after all, what does she know about ethics or any other fancy term that you and i can use to justify why we don’t sacrifice our children? she’s probably uneducated, or received primary education, and through its course, nobody probably told her explicitly that it was wrong to kill her children. rather, perhaps the closest exemplar she ever had was the religious story of abraham and how he tried to sacrifice his son.

please note, i’m not in favour of killing children. the reason i highlight this story out of all the crap in the paper this morning, is that the reason islam is suddenly witnessing an upsurge in bangladesh is not because of an increase in fanatical leaders or even deteriorating moral standards. rather, the increase is due fully because the poor are left with nowhere else to turn, except to islam as a way to solve their problems. this article highlights the phenomenon quite well:

Thousand of erosion victims of Shaghata upazila gatherted on the bank of Jamuna and joined a prayer seeking mercy from the almighty to same them from further erosion as government remained inactive to control it.

with this continuing failure of the government to provide basic services like water and electricity, or their failing efforts to stop the price of essential goods from spiralling, people are more susceptible to the teachings of imams who say that prayer can solve their problems.

i’m not certain where i’m going with this train of thought. however, i just want to point out that, in the absence of any intervention, whether from the government, ngos, donors or civil society, to improve basic knowledge or education levels, such fanatical behavior is to be expected.

for more evidence of the islamic upsurge in bangladesh, watch any random half hour of programming of the state-run bangladesh television network.