Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Can Biden save our planet from overheating?

Biden in climate summit

Every year, the Earth Day comes and goes while we continue to dig ourselves deeper and deeper toward climate and ecological disaster. Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, we have pushed our planet to the brink of climate catastrophe, so much so that for those of us born in this century, every year has been warmer than the 20th-century average with last year rivalling the hottest year in modern times.

For the first time in recorded history, concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured last month at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was more than 420 parts per million. It is a distressing milestone, especially if we note that the planet has already warmed by more than one degree Celsius around halfway to doubling pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide. 

Then there is methane, a greenhouse gas that is a shape-shifter. The rapid rise of methane from an obscure trace gas to a major player in forcing climate change is often ignored by the policy makers, although global methane concentration in the atmosphere is now nearly two and a half times the pre-industrial levels of roughly 770 parts per billion. Methane may account for a minuscule portion of the greenhouse gases, yet it is extremely effective at trapping heat from the Sun. Over a period of 20 years, it is 80-85 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Armed with these alarming data, on this year’s Earth Day, President Joseph Biden of the United States of America invited 40 world leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for a two-day virtual summit to discuss plans on how to save humankind from the looming “existential threat” resulting from anthropogenic climate change. At the summit, he urged them to combat climate change collectively in order to prevent the planet from heading toward the climate tipping point—a critical threshold where a tiny change could push the climate system into a completely new, irreversible state. Some scientists believe that a “global disaster” is already unfolding because the climate may have crossed the tipping point. 

Biden announced an ambitious plan to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to half their 2005 levels by 2030, reaching zero emissions no later than 2050. Although the proposed cut was part of the Nationally Determined Contribution under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the White House did not provide a specific road map outlining what has to be done to implement the plan. Nevertheless, the target of 50 percent cut by the end of the decade will entail a steep and rapid decline of fossil fuel use in virtually every sector of the US economy. And that will require, among other things, producing electricity from renewable sources, cars and trucks running on electricity, phasing out chemicals used in refrigeration and air-conditioning that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, and using greenhouse gas removing technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

While a broad spectrum of people in the USA and elsewhere welcomed Biden’s plan as an encouraging starting point, environmental activists argue that his aggressive goals to switch to clean energy by 2030 is “nowhere near enough” to keep our planet habitable. According to them, as the “biggest historical polluter,” the USA needs to aim for at least a 70 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels—the high point for US emissions—if he wants to achieve zero emissions by 2050. More importantly, they are justifiably concerned that Washington’s history of backing out of or failing to ratify climate commitments will jeopardise support for Biden’s plan.

To the conservatives and anti-environmental groups, Biden’s plan is a political hot air. They fear that if implemented, there will be massive destruction of wealth, surrender of America’s international trade advantages, creation of a huge intrusive government-run bureaucracy, inhibition of free markets and a precipitous drop in the living standards of most Americans. A cadre of Republicans beholden to Donald Trump and the ultra-right Fox News even claimed, albeit falsely, that Biden will take hamburgers and steaks off the menu as part of his plan.

It is, therefore, an open question whether Biden’s new policies will survive the American political system. In the past, policies on climate change have repeatedly shifted when Republicans were in power—first with George Bush undoing Bill Clinton’s attempt to join the Kyoto Protocol, and then with Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement negotiated by Barack Obama. Hence, for Biden’s policies to succeed, he has to convince moderate Republicans to break ranks with their conservative colleagues who have succumbed to Trump’s fallacious argument that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Biden’s policies could also face obstacles in the courts.

Not only will Biden have to contend with congressional Republicans, he will also have to balance the demands of environmental groups that want him to go big on renewable energy while at the same time be wary of what it will mean for organised labour—in part because there are fewer union jobs in the renewable energy sector.  

Biden’s age is also a big factor. In the best-case scenario, setting an emissions target for the next ten years seems plausible if he remains president for two terms. In the worst-case scenario, 78-year-old Biden will in all likelihood be president for only one term. What if Trump or another Trump-like chump comes to power in 2024 and rolls back everything put in place by Biden? After all, the Republican-controlled Congress wiped out most of the Obama administration’s environmental rules in the first 16 weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Biden’s plan overlooks an important aspect that plays, and will continue to play, a devastating role in heating up our planet. It totally ignores the fact that the heat-trapping gases presently in the air will not magically vanish even if we instantly stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That is because different greenhouse gases take different amounts of time to break down via chemical reactions. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime of hundreds to even thousands of years whereas nitrous oxide lingers for about 100 years. Methane dissipates relatively quickly, persisting for about 12 years. But there is a problem—a feedback-loop situation. When methane breaks down, it can turn into carbon dioxide, thereby replacing one greenhouse gas with another.

So, can Biden save our planet from overheating? Anyone hoping that Biden’s plan will lead to a habitable future on this fragile planet should be circumspect because like most politicians, Biden is working with targets, not solutions. Moreover, he is trapped by the short-term self-interest of multi-national corporations and fossil fuel industries who fear that any real change will cut into their profit and power. Besides, his initiative of cutting greenhouse gas emissions without simultaneously removing the ones currently in the atmosphere will not be enough to stop the nightmarish effects of climate change.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

Can we create an environmentally habitable Bangladesh?

Since independence, Dhaka’s population had exploded from just about 1.5 million in 1971 to over 21 million in 2020, a 14-fold increase as opposed to 2.5-fold for the entire population of Bangladesh. Hence, for all practical purpose, Dhaka is Bangladesh. As a consequence, Dhaka has undergone rapid unplanned urbanisation that has replaced its natural environment with a new environment. It is now a boom town with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class, and a vibrant gastronomic, cultural and intellectual life. In a nutshell, Dhaka is an incredibly bubbly city, full of energy and pizzazz.

Having said that, amongst the least liveable cities in the world, Dhaka is ranked behind Lagos in Nigeria, and the capitals of war-ravaged Libya and Syria. And in the Human Development Index, Bangladesh stands at 133 out of 189 countries. These statistics, though unflattering, reflect the myriad of problems with which Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh are beset with, thereupon making them surreal places to live, places that are both frenetic and paralysed.

Unbridled expansion of cities in Bangladesh has often meant inept replacement of houses in residential areas of yesteryears with multi-storied luxury apartments, high-rise offices, ritzy shopping malls, cultural centres, sports facilities, private schools and universities. In the process, low-income families have been forced into slum-like neighbourhoods, while the poorest of the poor have been pushed into omnipresent slums, where communicable diseases fester and fires sporadically raze homes to the ground.

Stifling in the summer, often overrun with cockroaches, rats, stray cats and dogs, with trash littered all over the neighbourhood and obnoxious odour emanating from the sewer-less, burlap draped, precariously perched outhouses, a slum is unquestionably a rotten place to stay. In their zeal to gentrify cities so that they become liveable for the upper- and middle-class people, city fathers often throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Instead, with a more humane approach, slums can be improved to the point where they become safer and environmentally cleaner places to live. As an example, Harlem in Upper Manhattan in New York City once epitomised poverty, crime and crumbling infrastructure. In the 1980s, urban renewal projects that included community revitalisation and housing rehabilitation programmes radically transformed the ghettos of Harlem into endurable hamlets.

In the race to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of people, cities and suburbs are likely to continue to sprawl across Bangladesh. The sprawl, however, need not be chaotic. In the new cities and suburbs, there should be preservation of some open space through parkland, promenades, scenic easements and cluster zoning that will provide breathing space and a sense of relationship between man-made environment and natural environment. Schools, houses of worship and neighbourhood parks, to name a few, should be within walking distance of the residential areas. This will reduce dependence on cars that are a major cause of global warming, not counting traffic jams. Simply stated, before any amelioration of the grimmer aspects of urban life can be hoped for, long-range green planning is imperative. Otherwise, we will be living in an eco-unfriendly jungle of concrete structures.

As cities grow in size, so does their impact on the environment. Most importantly, they can modify some of the local climatological factors in their immediate vicinity, resulting in a relatively small-scale but tangible variation in the local climate, which is called “urban heat island effect,” or more generally microclimate.

On a hot summer night, when we walk down a city street, we can feel the heat shimmering up from the dark asphalt roads and concrete pavements which absorb copious amount of solar radiation, whereas in wintertime, we can see clouds of steam pouring out of manholes or sewer gratings. With the loss of evaporative cooling normally provided by vegetation and exposed soil, the gain of reradiated heat from these surfaces, sewers and buildings, along with the heat produced by industries, the mean temperature of cities is on the rise. While microclimate does not produce dramatic changes in temperature, over the years the cumulative effects of these heat sources are clearly noticeable in the average temperatures of 1970s Dhaka and present Dhaka.

For the improvement of urban microclimate, it is important to maintain and/or create cold-air areas, open spaces and wooded patches. Trees an effective tool at fighting global warming will help to reduce temperature of the air by a process known as transpiration cooling. Furthermore, connected parks and green zones, preservation of lakes and rivers, creation of artificial water surfaces and large-scale heat retention expanses are essential elements of a habitable city.

Apart from microclimate, buildings contribute substantially to global warming because they use lots of energy usually generated by fossil fuels for cooking, lighting, heating and cooling. The reduction of heat loss in the winter and cool air in the summer through poorly insulated old windows is the key to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Additionally, within the context of local environmental and socioeconomic factors, several studies have been conducted to find innovative green solutions to the many climate-related problems caused by buildings. One of them is white roof which, according to researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, reflects three times the sunshine than a green rooftop garden that is used in many residential buildings in Dhaka.

In terms of air quality, Dhaka ranks as one of the worst cities in the world. Because the city is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, it is often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” Indeed, the entire population of Bangladesh is regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air.

Most of the pollutants in Dhaka’s air and elsewhere are anthropogenic, such as effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. Other sources are roadside waste dump facilities, methane-emitting agricultural waste, contaminants from foundries, not to mention dust and smoke from the thousands of slender, cylindrical chimneys attached to the wood- and coal-fired kilns of brick fields. The large quantities of pernicious pollutants emitted by these sources are precursors to the formation of smog, the worst form of air pollution with dangerous health consequences, especially for children and the elderly.

While Millennium Development Goals have helped many countries combat the issue of unsafe drinking water, majority of Bangladeshis still do not have access to clean water. Tap water supplied by local municipalities is dirty and therefore undrinkable, while people in the countryside are drinking water contaminated with arsenic and other life-threatening heavy metals.

A possible solution to the freshwater problem is rain and the roof a la Bermuda. Made of limestone blocks and sliced into individual slates, the roofs of houses in Bermuda are fashioned in step-like sloped surfaces with gutter ridges to collect rainwater, the most precious liquid in the tiny island nation. The ridges direct the water through a long concrete trough to a pipe that filters and funnels it into a tank buried alongside the house so that it can be pumped and used throughout the household.

All the cities in Bangladesh are dirty beyond description. Garbage can be found everywhere—by roads, on the roads; around parks, in the parks; by rivers, in the rivers; inside trash cans, outside trash cans. Garbage disposal is not a recent problem, though it certainly has been made more difficult by the sharp rise in population in the past few decades. Despite some progress, the overwhelming mass of household garbage is thrown into landfills in the outlying areas of the cities and left untreated. These unsightly and smelly midden heaps not only emit poisonous gases that are harmful to human health, but also provide a cosy home for the disease carrying vermin, mosquitoes and flies.

The problem is exacerbated during the monsoon season, when cities become submerged for days in a row. Consequently, the storm drains, albeit few and far between, clog up and the cities resemble a huge pond filled with filth and scum.

Finding a clean public toilet anywhere in Bangladesh is next to impossible. Decency dictates that women must suffer, yet allows men to indulge in the malpractice of emptying their bladder by the roadside. The offensive smell of urine, together with malodorous roadside trash, not only makes walking on the sidewalks a horrific experience, it also contributes markedly to odour pollution which, in turn, worsens the already poor quality of air.

As much as the government is battling to tackle this civic problem with signs at strategic points warning of prosecution for infractions, the seemingly endless number of offenders ignore the warning and happily continue to relieve themselves in public. That being so, we have no choice but shame the perpetrators.

Humans are not the only waste producers in Bangladesh. Industries are not far behind. Of the many industries which add hazardous wastes to the load already present from domestic wastes, two stands out conspicuously. They are garment factories and tanneries.

The canals and wetlands of Savar and Ashulia, located near Dhaka and home to hundreds of garment factories, are now effectively retention ponds of untreated waste and effluents produced by these factories. Nearby rivers are so polluted with toxic materials that they run purple, blue and black. Aside from making agricultural land barren and useless, the pollutants are loading the local air with noxious fumes.

Hazaribagh in the heart of Dhaka was once home to a slew of tanneries. Before their relocation to Savar, the tanneries discharged unprocessed liquid waste containing deadly chemicals into the nearby ponds, rivers and canals. These wastes eventually ended up in the Buriganga River whose once pristine blue water now looks like turbid sewage water. Needless to say, the river has suffered irreversible biodiversity loss.

Another plague from which there is virtually no escape, irrespective of where we are—in our homes and gardens, on our streets, inside our cars, parks and in other public places, is noise. Like second-hand smoke, noise has become an unwanted pollutant produced by others and imposed on us without our consent, often against our will. Without question, noise can damage hearing and there is no threshold for ear damage. But more subtly, noise increases tensions already heightened by other stresses of urban life.

Among the many sources of outdoor noise pollution, cacophony produced by the horns of automobiles, trucks and buses are the worst offenders, followed closely by construction equipment. The sound intensity level from these sources often exceeds 120 decibels, which is the threshold of pain.

Noise is a controllable pollution, but sadly the government has done very little to alleviate the suffering of its citizens from this scourge. Nevertheless, there is something we can do to stop noise from invading the interior of our house. Within the buildings, we can dampen sound significantly by constructing walls with dead air spaces.

Forests are the lungs of a nation, purifying the air we breathe. However, the increasing demand for land for agriculture, homes and industries caused by population explosion is taking a heavy toll on the forests in Bangladesh. To meet the demands, close to half the forests have been destroyed in the last 20 years or so by indiscriminately cutting down trees. Moreover, once the coal-fired Rampal Power Plant goes into operation, one of the most ecologically sensitive rainforests in the world – the Sundarbans – will be in its firing line.

Lest we forget, nature not only abhors vacuum, it abhors human interference, too. A true wilderness should be viewed bio-centrically. The forests should be free to burn, free to be blown away by storms, free to be washed away by floods and free to be attacked by insects. These are natural events to which forests are adapted to respond. The new forests that will emerge may be different from the old ones, but that is the way things change in a natural ecosystem.

The present problems of Bangladesh, alarming no doubt, are not unsolvable. There is every reason to expect that the country can be made habitable. To that end, policymakers need to know how transportation system can be designed to meet the needs of the people; what makes one neighbourhood exciting to live in and another boring; what human needs are not met in present housing; what environmental steps should be taken to improve the quality of air and water, and so on and so forth? The answers to these questions can then be incorporated in any future plans for redesigning old cities or building new ones, so that they not only become liveable but enjoyable as well.

At the same time, Bangladesh’s transformation into a liveable country cannot be achieved overnight. It will perhaps take decades, but before that climate change will leave an indelible mark on the country, thereby making the task of restoring liveability conditions even more arduous, mainly in the low-lying coastal areas.

Bangladesh is Mother Nature’s punching bag. The country is experiencing extreme weather phenomena that are growing only more dramatic, more devastating and more lethal by the year. Of the many threats from climate change, sea level rise will certainly be amongst the most impactful, making the entire coastline of Bangladesh uninhabitable and potentially displacing tens of millions of people in the coming years.

Preparing for climate change is much more than a technological challenge. It is primarily a problem of mindset and collective action. The way to outsmart breakdown due to climate change is to build climate resilience. We can surely do this by adopting environmentally sound lifestyles, not by reverting to antiquated ways, but by creating a new synthesis, a new way of life that utilises modern technology and knowledge to protect the Earth’s environment from destruction and foster its renewal.

Finally, grappling with the problems of Bangladesh and keeping the country liveable is a daunting task. Even so, with clear vision and open mind, it can be done. Success will hinge on the courage of the government to make bold moves and resist the temptation of easy fixes. Once we adapt ourselves to the vagaries of climate change, as well as achieve the balance of a liveable environment, life will be worth living for our children and grandchildren.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Cultural, Human Rights, International, Political, Religious

Are these the Religious Verses from the Holy Quran?

(The following 26 verses from the Holy Quran had been petitioned to the Indian Supreme Court by Waseem Rizvi, a Shiite leader in India, for the removal from Quran due to the vicious nature of the verses and excitement to violence. Whether the Indian Supreme Court will regard itself an appropriate body to remove them is open to question. But the verses do look like vicious in nature. Full translation of the verses from Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation of the Holy Quran is given below.)

The full transcript of the Quranic Verses forwarded by Waseem Rizvi for publication is given below. Please pay due respect to these Quranic Verses, as they are from the Holy Quran, only in English

1.Sura Al-Baqarah:

Ayat 191         And slay them whenever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for prosecution is worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who reject Faith.

2. Sura Al-i-Imam:

Ayat 151         Soon shall we cast terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers, for that they joined partners with Allah, for which He had sent no authority; their abode will be the Fire: and evil is the home of the wrong-doers!

3. Sura An-Nisaa:

Ayat 56           Those who reject our Signs, we shall soon cast into the Fire: as often as their skins are roasted through, we shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the Chastisement: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.

4. Sura An-Nisaa:

Ayat 89           They but wish that ye should reject Faith, as they do, and thus be on the same footing (as they); so take not friends from their ranks until they flee in the way of Allah (from what is forbidden). But if they turn renegades, seize them and slay them wherever ye find them; and (in any case) take no friends or helpers from their ranks.

5. Sura An-Nisaa:

Ayat 111         And if anyone earns sin, he earns it against his own soul: for Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom.

6. Sura Al-Maidah:

Ayat 14           From those, too, who call themselves Christians, we did take a Covenant, but they forgot a good part of the Message that was sent them: so we stirred up enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the Day of Judgment. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done.

7. Sura Al-Maidah:

Ayat 51           O ye who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: they are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guideth nota people unjust.

8. Sura Al-Maidah:

Ayat 57           O ye who believe! Take not for friends and protectors those who take your religion for a mockery or sport – whether among those who received the Scripture before you, or among those who reject Faith: but fear ye Allah, if ye have Faith (indeed).

9. Sura Al-Anfal:

Ayat 65           O Prophet! Rouse the Believers to the fight. If there are twenty amongst you, patient and persevering, they will vanquish two hundred: if a hundred, they will vanquish a thousand of the unbelievers: for these are a people without understanding.

10. Sura Al-Anfal:

Ayat 69           But (now) enjoy what ye took in war, lawful and good: but fear Allah: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

11. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 5             But when the forbidden months are past then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and pay Zakat then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

12. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 14           Fight them, and Allah will punish them by your hands, and disgrace them help you (to victory) over them, heal the breast of Believers.

13. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 23           O ye who believe! Take not for protectors your fathers and your brothers if they love infidelity above Faith: if any of you do so, they are wrong.

14. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 28           O ye who believe! Truly the Pagans are unclean; so let them not, after this year of theirs, approach the Sacred Mosque. And if ye fear poverty, soon will Allah enrich you, if He wills, out of his bounty, for Allah is All-Knowing, All-Wise.

15. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 29           Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth, from among the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

16. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 37           Verily the transposing (of a prohibited month) is an addition to Unbelief: Unbelievers are led to wrong thereby: for they make it lawful one year, and forbidden another year, in order to agree with the number of months forbidden by Allah and make such forbidden ones Lawful. The evil of their course seems pleasing to them. But Allah guideth not those who reject Faith.

17. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 58           And among them are men who slander thee in the matter of (the distribution of) the alms. If they are given part thereof, they are pleased, but if not, behold! They are indignant!

18. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 111         Allah hath purchased of the Believers their persons and their goods; for theirs (in return) is the Garden (of Paradise): they fight in His Cause, and slay and are slain: a promise binding on Him in Truth, through the Torah, the Gospel and the Quran: and who is more faithful to his Covenant than Allah? Then rejoice in the bargain which ye have concluded: that is the achievement supreme.

19. Sura Al-Tauba:

Ayat 123         O ye who believe! Fight the Unbelievers who are near to you and let them find harshness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him.

20. Sura Al-Anbiyaa:

Ayat 98           Verily ye, (Unbelievers), and the (false) gods that ye worship besides Allah, are (but) fuel for Hell! To it will ye (surely) come!

21. Sura As-Sajda:

Ayat 22           And who does more wrong than one to whom are recited the Signs of his Lord, and then turns away therefrom? Verily from those who transgress we shall exact (due) retribution.

22. Sura Al-Ahzab:

Ayat 61           They shall have a curse on them: wherever they are found, they shall be seized and slain.

23. Sura Fussilat:

Ayat 27           But we will certainly give the Unbelievers a taste of a severe chastisement, and We will requite them for the worst of their deeds.

24. Sura Fussilat:

Ayat 28           Such is the requital of the enemies of Allah – the Fire: therein will be for them the Eternal Home: a (fit) requital, for that they were wont to reject Our Signs.

25. Sura Al-Fat-h:

Ayat 20           Allah has promised you many gains that ye shall acquire, and He has given you these beforehand: and He has restrained the hands of men from you; that it may be a Sign for the Believers, and that He may guide you to a Straight Path.

26. Sura At-Tahrim:

Ayat 9                         O Prophet! Strive hard against the Unbelievers and the Hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their abode is Hell – an evil refuge (indeed).

Waseem Rizvi is a Shia Cleric in India

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political, Religious

Enemies of Bangladesh striking from within

More than fifty years ago, Bangladeshi people fought a bloody war against Pakistani brutal oppression. In suppressing the legitimate demands of the people of then East Pakistan, Pakistani military authority had the ready and willing support of armed gang of the 5th columnists – the so-called Islamist thugs trying to save the country for religion.

Bangladesh won the independence after shedding tremendous amount of bloodshed, sacrificing the dignity of tens of thousands of Bengali women, millions of people had to flee their homeland by crossing the borders in all directions to India. After nine months of war, the country achieved independence by beating the Pakistani force.

Now the 5th columnists are attacking the very foundation of Bangladesh from within and to add insults to injury on the day of independence, on the day when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman inspired the Bengali people to rise up and fight for our national dignity, for our national identity. How dare these Hefazat-e-Islam thugs attack Bangladesh’s national emblem as well as national properties when the country was primed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of its independence.

These Hefazati people are not only the enemy of the State, they are also the vicious people and criminals. They cannot tolerate the celebration of independence of Bangladesh, which broke away from their stark racist religious state of Pakistan. Even after 50 years, they are hankering after their fanatic country Pakistan and scheming to end the secular state of Bangladesh.

Now the question is, who are these Hefazati people and how did they get such a strong foothold in the country which they opposed so violently? To answer this question, one has to look back to the political history of Bangladesh. The killing of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, on 15th August 1975 was the turning point when the country had been wrenched out from secularism towards Islamisation. Ziaur Rahman who took control of the country after the turmoil of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s death started to change Bangladesh Constitution from secularity to Islamic Constitution, putting Bismillaher Rahmanir Rahim in the Preamble of the Constitution and stating Islam as the State religion. He then allowed Rajakars, al-Badr and other blatant religious groups who were violently involved in killing innocent people during the liberation war to come back to Bangladesh.  

At the same time, Saudi money started pouring in to open madrasas – Qawmi type which is of the fundamentalist variety – throughout the whole country. In addition, mosques were established in almost every street corner of the capital city and all major cities of the country with Saudi money. Ziaur Rahman surreptitiously encouraged these religious activities and with the explicit and implicit support of these religious bigots, he started a political party called the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). After Ziaur Rahman, Mohammad Ershad continued in the same vane allowing and encouraging clandestine foreign supply of funds for political-religious purposes.

At the moment, there are at least 64,000 Qawmi madrasas in the country and the number of students is assumed to be nearly 10 million (as par Institute of Commonwealth Studies). The exact number of madrasas or madrasa students is not known as these madrasas are not registered and regulated by the Bangladesh Madrasa Education Board, as these madrasas are financed privately. That is where the problem lies and the dark side of madrasa education starts to emerge. It is an open secret that Saudi Arabia as the main sponsor of the Salafist / Wahhabi ideology is the financier of these Qawmi madrasas and mosques, not only in Bangladesh but also in many other Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia also financed the setting up of Ibn Sina banks, Ibn Sina hospitals, universities, primary schools and even bus services and hotels in Bangladesh. The tentacles of Islamic financial activities go far and wide and are deeply rooted. Obviously, with such financial muscle comes the political muscle and any democratic government of a relatively poor country would be hard pressed to confront them.  

Hefazat-e-Islam as a political organisation emerged in 2010 when millions Qawmi madrassah people were readily available to populate this blatantly communal organisation. In fact, Hefazat has become the political forum for these Madrasa-trained people who have no vocation or skill to offer, other than simply reciting some verses from Quran without even understanding anything about it. These madrasas only produced millions of morons and enemies of the State. These people are total dead weight to the country.

Over the years, these madrasa-trained people had been piling up and they would now demand employment. That they are not suitable for any productive work is beyond their comprehension. However, the government should have warned them before they were allowed to go down the blind alley and now it falls on the government to train them and move them towards the constructive sector of the economy. These people, as they stand now, are now primed to be radicalised and can very easily be turned into Islamic terrorists.    

Demonstrating against foreign leaders or foreign powers, vandalising private and public properties, attacking minorities and their properties etc would seem to be the pastimes for these people. The government must stop them firmly. The whole sector of madrasa education should be closed down without any delay. The problem that the military-people-turned-politician had created in the past to get a foothold in the political field has to be tackled now. The country has to bear the brunt of the thuggery of Hefazati people by deploying the Border Guards to protect foreign leaders and saving government and minority properties, but can this extra vigil continue indefinitely? The root cause, the source of the problem needs to be tackled head on; otherwise, the mayhem caused by these illiterate madrasa-trained people may continue.

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Bangladesh, Economic, International, Political

Smallholder farmers in Bangladesh at risk from country’s growing prosperity

Today, Bangladesh has almost everything going for it; pre covid-19 growth rate had been one of the highest in the developing world, social sector achievements have been exemplary during the covid-19 period (2020 and early part of 2021), the country is faring much better than many other countries. Columnists, commentators of development experiences have been hailing the country for proudly shrugging off the infamous label of ‘international basket case’ at its independence in 1971, and rightly claiming a middle income spot now.

Unfortunately, however, the benefits of growth do not seem to be shared by all. The most deprived people seem to be the country’s 9 million or so smallholder farmers (SHFs). The SHFs (defined by landholding size of 2.5 acres (1.0 hectare) or less) constitute 84 percent of all farmers. One in every four in Bangladesh depend directly on small farming for their livelihoods, more if ancillary activities like food processing, marketing and transportation of agricultural products are included.

The country’s food security largely depends on the SHFs, and the government can ill afford to neglect them.  Yet, the SHFs belong to the poorest segment of the country’s population, and they are facing a slow process of decline.

Two factors are primarily responsible for this outcome.

The first is the rising income inequality which is marginalising the large majority of the smallholders.

The country’s income inequality has kept on increasing, and the SHFs, mostly at the bottom end of the income scale, have experienced a decline in their relative share of the country’s income.

The second and the more menacing threat facing the SHFs is loss of their agricultural land over time.

Available data, though rather fragmented and often not very consistent, indicate a worrisome trend of loss of land by agriculture, the large burden of which is borne by the SHFs.

Information emerging from rather infrequent land censuses as well as surveys by researchers indicate a decline of agricultural land area from 20.2 million acres (8.2 million hectares) in 1984 to 17.8 million acres (7.2 million hectares) in 1996 i.e., by 2.4 million acres (1.0 million hectare). This is about 12.0 per cent over the 12-year period.

Over the longer term, 1984-2008, there has been a decline in agricultural land. Bangladesh seems to have lost about one per cent of cultivated land per annum (about 80,000 hectares) over this period due to non-agricultural uses such as urban expansion, expansion of rural habitation, construction of roads and highways, economic zones, and other infrastructure facilities.

There is evidence of land loss brought out by other studies too. The Soil Resource Development Institute (SRDI) shows that over the 44-year period of 1976 and 2010, a total of 43 thousand hectares of land per year seems to have been lost to agriculture. A private survey of 6 divisions in Bangladesh shows that land loss is very high in Dhaka (a Division with very high development activities) than in Khulna. Given the growth momentum in recent years, it can be hypothesised that land loss has increased in recent years.

The loss of land however is not due to coercive tactics of the rich and the powerful, nor of the state.  

The coercive tactics by the private sector are not ruled out, but much more is lost through operation of market forces, though purchases by both rural and urban entrepreneurs, tax evaders, money launderers and speculators. Small farmers (needing cash to meet their various economic, social and health related exigencies) succumb to the offer of cash by the rich purchasers. Encroaching salinity, river erosion, floods and droughts increase the magnitude of land loss. These natural disasters ‘force them’ to sell a part or whole of their holding ‘voluntarily’.

But it is not only the private sector interests that gobble up agricultural land. The same is done by the public sector too, but for the ‘noble purpose’ of rapid economic growth. Big public projects like power plants, roads and highways, economic zones, airports, cantonments, parks etc., require acquisition of large swathes of land. Land holders are now compensated handsomely at about 2-3 times of the market price of land. The poor and cash starved SHFs even wish that their land is ‘marked’ for acquisition by government.

The government policy of handsome compensation unwittingly becomes an instrument for land loss by poor SHFs.

Growth pushing back the frontiers of agriculture is not unique for Bangladesh only. China, for example, is losing about 1 million hectares of land every year, and the USA about 400,000 hectares every year. But the difference is that while those countries can afford to lose, given their large land mass; Bangladesh, with high population and low land/man ratio, can ill afford to do that.

This dilemma between unhindered growth and protecting the landholding of SHFs raises the critical question: should Bangladesh sacrifice growth to protect smallholder interests?

This is an enduring dilemma, and this is certainly not what is suggested. Policies can be crafted without sacrificing either. Bangladesh badly needs infrastructure projects, economic zones and investments to continue its upwards trend of prosperity. But that does not mean that it will have to be at the cost of SHFs. It is possible to craft policies to accommodate both.

What is required is a much stricter land utilisation policy, not only by making construction ‘going vertical’, but also limiting the conversion of agricultural land for non-agricultural uses. The government could impose hefty penalties for land purchased for speculative and money laundering purchases. Further, the government could create a national digital ledger, which will contain information on land codified as agricultural (including fishery, livestock) and non-agricultural.  Conversion could be allowed only after careful review and only on national interests, and even that after public hearing of the views of land right groups/environmentalists and public representatives.

In addition, there should be increase in investments (i) on research to increase productivity of SHFs, by developing new and more productive varieties of plants, (ii) to improve transparency of land sales by Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), also called Blockchain, (iii) to reduce distress sales of land by farmers by providing loans on easy terms, and (iv) further increasing taxes on non-agricultural land. These policies if carefully developed and implemented could go a long way to stop the rot of our agriculture.

Dr Atiqur Rahman is an economist and ex-Lead Strategist of IFAD,