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Women’s Empowerment and State Repression

By Rahnuma Ahmed

If women’s empowerment is a progressive mainstream agenda, then why aren’t the struggles of women garment workers for living wages and safe and secure working conditions, not solidly a part of larger progressive movements being waged in Bangladesh? Movements which struggle to democratise state and society, to re-construct gender relations on equitable lines.
It is a question that is not only worth raising, it is urgent that we raise it, that we seek answers to it.
It is vital that progressive women’s organisations, writers, intellectuals, journalists, academics, actors/actresses, artists, musicians, song-writers, salaried persons, entrepreneurs, youth organisations, civil society forums etc., etc., confront the question, that they engage with it both as individuals, and as organised collectivities.
It is a question which should no longer be avoided, nor should it be silenced.
However, in most progotisheel circles, the question is not formulated in this manner.
But I see no reason for this, as mainstream progressive circles define themselves?in opposition to those whom they deem conservative or reactionary?through avowing their commitment to democratic ideals, central to which is the status of women, and their role in society. Central to it, is also the dichotomous idea that society is divisible into two types, traditional vs. modern(ising) societies, which co-exist within the same country, within the same nation-state. The idea that, leaving behind rural society and taking up waged employment in the formal sector of the economy opens up windows of opportunities for women: it enables them to break free from the patriarchal family. It creates the conditions for the emergence of new forms of femininities; women who are conscious of their legal rights, are integrated into the public domain, are consumers on equal terms with men (since the market offers `freedom of choice’). That these processes, in short, enable the transformation of women?lumped as backward, as an undifferentiated mass?into social citizens worthy of a modernising nation-state.
Mainstream accounts of the garment industry, as well as individual life-stories of its predominantly female workforce, is being written broadly along these lines. Through repeated assertions, this `history in the making’ narrative has become almost common-sensical, at least, among the educated sections of society, among those who view themselves as being forward-looking, and forward-thinking. As being society’s natural leaders.
By drawing literally millions of women from villages to cities, the ready-made garment sector (RMG), has caused a `silent’ revolution. It has transformed a way of life that had remained “unchanged for generations” (Syed Zain Al-Mahmood, The Star Weekend Magazine, March 19, 2010).
It has provided millions of women from poorer backgrounds with employment opportunities, a `happening’ that is unprecedented in the history of Bangladesh, and further back, when the landmass and its people, were part of Pakistan, or much earlier, when it was part of the British empire. In late 19th to early 20th century Bengal, women had become part of the industrial labour force by taking up work in the jute mills of Calcutta, but at its highest, their participation was 17-20% of the total workforce (Samita Sen, Women and Labour in Late Colonial India. The Bengal Jute Industry, 1999)
whereas, in contemporary Bangladesh, more than three-quarters of the estimated three and a half million strong who work in the RMG sector, which accounts for 75-80% of annual export earnings, consist of women.
Waged incomes for women working in the garment sector, says BIDS researcher Pratima Paul Majumdar, is comparable to “the difference between life and death.” In a poverty-stricken country like Bangladesh, women, as members of a patriarchal society, did not have access to resources or opportunities to “improve” their situation. They did not have a say in “decisions concerning their lives” (Swapna Majumdar, Bangladesh Garment Workers Have Taste of Freedom, July 15, 2002).
Traditional norms dictated that women should reside under the tutelage of a male guardian, but these have been broken as families have increasingly allowed their daughters to migrate to cities, to share rooms with other female garment workers. Many women have become the principal earner in their families, it has helped boost their self confidence, it has empowered them to make decisions about how to spend their incomes. A survey conducted by Nari Uddog Kendra reveals changes in the domestic division of labour: husbands of garment working women who are the principal breadearners, are more likely to take care of all domestic chores. Marrying later has meant delayed childbearing, and a decrease in fertility. Paul Majumdar’s study indicates changes in the average age at which women give birth to their first child, 17 years in 1991, 22 years in 2000.
An independent source of livelihood has “changed this conservative Muslim country’s society in immeasurable ways,” writes Vikas Bajaj (The New York Times, July 21, 2010).
New female subjectivities, new views about life, new ideas of self-worth. Twenty one year-old Maasuda Akthar married a man she met at the factory, later, turned down his offer of leaving her job for a more comfortable life at home, she does not plan to have children soon. Majeda Begum, 38 year-old, says, she wants her daughter to “study as much as she wants,” to not force her into marriage like she herself.
Surely there is nothing regressive in these social changes, nothing that should cause alarm among those who identify themselves as being progressive? On the contrary, for one of the cornerstones of the progressive identity of the Bengali Muslim middle class, historically forged during the colonial period, was resistance to female seclusion. Part of the silent revolution initiated by female employment in the garment sector has been women’s increased “visibility “: women are no longer content to live “a life of anonymity behind their purdahs, or veils.” Cultural norms requiring girls “to cover their faces” and “extremely restricted” mobility puberty-onwards, have broken down. Selim Nawaz, owner of Texmark, describes the silent revolution thus, “Thousands of women in their late teens and early 20’s are wearing cosmetics, carrying handbags and walking to work [i.e., are visible] every day. They are empowered in a modest way.”
Factory owners discourse, and all those who speak for global capital, whether thinkingly or unthinkingly, and this, in my view, includes mainstream progressives, overlooks the misery of workers. They choose to ignore, as Jeremy Seabrook writes movingly, that living in the city does not broaden the horizons of garment workers (Bangladesh’s Rioting Garment Workers, August 2010). “If anything, the wide skies and ferocious cyclones that devour land and flood crops tell them more about the world than their twilit factory experience.” House rents gobble up half of their wages, “home is a windowless room in a concrete building shared with five others or a sweltering hutment of tin. The urban poor are being compressed into a declining area of the city, while factories, palaces blazing with light, tower over slums and tenements.” Their diet consists of rice, dal and vegetables, no meat, eggs, fruit or milk. Their stories speak of “unreliable water supplies, long queues for the latrine, sweaty nights under roofs that retain the heat of the day, youth and energy sewn into throwaway garments, made with a Juki machine on a plastic-topped table under shadowless strip lighting.”

A plainclothed policeman stamping on a garment worker during the blockade of Bishwa road at Kuril in Dhaka. Sanaul Haque, New Age

Bangladesh, the big four world apparel exporters

While the left alliance of 14 garment workers’ associations insisted that minimum wage should be fixed at 5,000 taka, government-backed unions acceded to 3,000 taka in July. Protests broke out again when many factories failed to implement what had been agreed upon, or implemented it through applying a grading system which effectively lessened the pay of many workers. Nothing new, for, according to a news report (Ittefaq, May 31, 2006), factory owners? associations had till then signed 22 agreements with their workers, none of which had been implemented (Karmojibi Nari, Implement the Agreements).
Factory owners allege that worker protests are caused by “outside agitators or dim-witted workers who don’t understand the complexity of international trade” (newredindian, August 2, 2010).
But, Farida Sheikh argues, an analysis of media reports indicate that providing minimum wage rate will hardly hinder the profit-margin. In the financial year 2010, a pay rise would have resulted in 1.0-3.0% increase in the cost of garment products whereas the average profit margin was 8.0-10 % of export value. According to World Bank economic report, RMG exports nearly doubled in the last five years, from $ 6.4 bn, to 12.3 bn. (Death ?murder of a garment worker! The Financial Express, August 10, 2010).
At this particular moment of our neo-liberal existence, progressive forces, and the rest of the nation, are faced with two contrasting images of femininity, as captured by the photos on this page. One shows a plainclothed policeman, clutching a walkie-talkie with arm extended, to stomp with greater force on the young woman lying helplessly on the ground, snapped during garment worker protests at Kuril last year. The other, and it is images such as these that stare at us from the pages of dailies and weeklies, and from TV screens, which seem to proclaim a different kind of female empowerment.
Western feminists have anxiously noted how meanings of empowerment have shifted for younger women, how earlier emphases on social change and liberation have given way to individualised empowerment, constructed as personal choice or individual equality, how this has accompanied a highly visible shift in popular culture which deliberately re-sexualises and re-commodifies women’s bodies. ?I am not sure why, but I am reminded of these concerns when I look at the second picture.
I am also reminded of electoral manifestos, of the ruling Awami League’s pledge that food rations will be introduced for all labourers including garment workers. Pledges unkept, two years on. And interestingly enough, of Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh’s manifesto, pledging the introduction of a minimum wage structure and `equal pay for men and women,’ the provisioning of personal, financial and social security for female labourers, including garment workers.
I cannot fail to wonder why mainstream progressive forces do not raise questions about why women, who belong to the majority, who have initiated a silent revolution in Bangladesh are attacked and stomped upon by law-enforcing agencies of the state. Why those who represent and fight for securing decent wages for garment workers, such as Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum, is arrested and remanded, is threatened with dire consequences if she refuses to sign blank sheets, is also informed that she would have been `disappeared’ if the media had not quickly broadcast news of her having been picked up (Asian Human Rights Commission).
The ruling class, and this includes 45 members of parliament who are factory owners, promote images of femininity which make us forgetful of other images. Of brutality, of repression, whether by hired thugs and goons, or those belonging to the law-enforcing agencies. If progressive forces, particularly women’s organisations who claim to represent all women of Bangladesh, remain deluded and persist in ignoring the struggles of women garment workers, it is not unlikely that they will become irrelevant. To the majority of women.
Published in New Age, Monday January 24, 2011


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Malik-speak: Demonisation and Denial

By Rahnuma Ahmed

I don’t think anyone gets taken in by what they say. No, not any longer.
Not unexpected, for after all, how long can one spin the same old story and expect people to fall for it. Day after day. Year after year.
Even prime minister Sheikh Hasina had sounded exasperated. Factory owners, she said, give garment workers “not only insufficient but also inhuman” wages.
Coming from someone who heads a government which, as Shahidullah Chowdhury, president, Bangladesh Trade Union Centre, points out, is “essentially biased” towards protecting and promoting the interests of the rich (like all previous governments in Bangladesh), her comment is quite revealing.
Industry leaders, of course, had a fit. Labour unions had demanded 5-6,000 taka, owners grudgingly agreed to 3,000 taka. Far below living wages. But as Anisul Huq, former head of BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association), a factory owner whose clients include H&M and Wal-Mart, ruefully told the New York Times, ?If it?s 5,000 taka, I would close all my factories.? He added, ?Even if it?s 3,000 taka, lots of factories will close within three or four months? (July 16, 2010).
One cannot, of course, deny that the government needs to take measures to strengthen Bangladesh’s most successful manufacturing industry which accounts for 80% of annual export earnings. For one, it needs to ensure uninterrupted power supply. Abdus Salam Murshedy, the head of BGMEA, in an attempt to convince workers to accept 1,969 taka as wages said last June, “We have been reeling under acute gas and power crisis, which has affected our productivity.”
Second, it also needs to takes measures to bring down escalating food prices, as food inflation matters most to minimum wage garment workers. In May last year, rice prices went up by between 18% and 32%, according to the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh.
But in defiance of Bangladesh labour laws which dictate that wages should be reassessed and adjusted every three years, recent wage increases were awarded after 2006. After spilling blood. They have been dubbed “malnutrition” wages by some, “poverty” wages by others.
The acute shortage of electricity, insists B D Rahmatullah, former director general of the Power Cell (ministry of power, energy and mineral resources), is a “manufactured” crisis.?As a former insider, he should know; further, no one from the energy ministry has contested his allegation. One cannot help but ask, why would a government electorally committed to increasing and stabilising power generation, manufacture a crisis, much to the detriment of people’s, and industrial interests? WikiLeaks leaked Dhaka US Embassy cables incline me to suggest that the manufactured crisis is possibly aimed at rallying public support for awarding oil, gas and coal contracts to foreign companies (People’s Resistance to Global Capital and Government Collaboration is Vindicated, New Age December 27, 2010).
As for the food crisis, according to the Election Manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League-2008, “commodity prices increased by 100 to 200 percent” during the BNP Jamaat alliance rule (2001-2007), the “infamous Hawa Bhaban” under the “leadership of the son of the [former] Prime Minister [Khaleda Zia]” patronised “criminal syndicates.”?All true, but although the ruling party has changed, although Hawa Bhaban which ran a “parallel government” no longer exists, food syndicates still do. Fourteen months after taking power, finance minister AMA Muhith declared, a “cartel or syndicate of traders” is responsible for price hikes of essentials including rice, that the government was “seeking ways and means to stabilise the market” (February 2010).
Six months later, it seems the government had stopped seeking ways and means, for as Muhith stated, government attempts to break up the syndicate had failed (August 12, 2010).
It is obvious that the “rich” interests which the Awami League government protects and promotes extends not only to the garment sector but also to oil, gas, coal and food. That the government is committed to serving the interests of global and local capital. Not those of the majority. Not those who voted it to power.
It should also be obvious that the rich of one sector collude with the rich of another. At a reception in May 2008, accorded by the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) and BGMEA to the newly-elected office bearers of FBCCI, the apex chamber body, the newly-elected FBCCI president Anisul Huq and other business people, urged the government to take immediate steps for exploring coal and gas to overcome the energy crisis, to put an end to the debate on the coal policy, to go for open-pit coal mining (Daily Star, May 3, 2008).
Environmental activists say, the latter will lead to the forcible eviction of not 1,30,000 people as the government commissioned report claims, but ten times more, that it will wreck the environment. But those at the Chittagong reception seemed to shrug off these concerns, affected people could “easily be rehabilitated.”
“We are not blood-suckers,” he said excitedly, a young garment factory owner, whose name I’m afraid I couldn’t catch, he was on a talk show on a private TV channel, it was midway through, this was nearly 3 weeks ago. All this talk of “capitalism” and “exploitation” portrays us in a bad light. I refuse to listen to all this. I’ll walk out right now, he said, jerking his head toward what was presumably the studio door. While MM Akash, professor of economics, Dhaka University, sat silently grinning, while the anchor of the programme desperately tried to restore peace, I sat open-mouthed at the TV screen. Huh, and I’d thought all our drama queens belonged to the parliament.
Over the last few weeks, I have had the fortune to watch two other live TV programmes graced by factory-owners. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I heard AK Azad, president of FBCCI, chairman of Ha-Meem Group, fifth largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh, a big supplier of readymade garments for Gap, whose That’s It Sportswear at Ashulia caught fire last December leading to the death of 23 workers,?insist that safety measures were meticuloulsy followed in his factories. There were regular fire drills but since they were `merely’ drills with no real fires, it had been difficult to foresee and prevent the deaths. Where on earth are real fires lit during drills?
And yes, both Azad, and later, in another TV programme, Anwar-Ul-Alam Chowdhury Parvez, former BGMEA president, owner of Evince Group, insisted (seemingly speaking from the same script), the new wage structure is being followed in their factories, in all other factories that they know of, to say otherwise is a smear campaign, out to malign the industry. They spoke in a voice of benevolence, their workers were happy, contented, well-looked after. Parvez got a bit carried away, I never fail to address them as my children, I call them baba, ma, but he quickly fell silent when the anchor interjected, `but, how does that affect the wages paid?’
Factory owners’ self-construction as benevolent, kind, concerned and caring, as is evident from the discourse of BGMEA leaders, reminds me of colonial discourses since workers are simultaneously constructed as passive and backward, who are easily amenable to being `incited’ and `instigated,’ who turn `violent,’ go `berserk,’ on a `rampage,’ who vandalise, loot and destroy. They need to be pacified, and to do so,? an industrial police force has been established (October 2010). To maintain “law and order” in the export processing zones (EPZ), said the prime minister, to help maintain “smooth and uninterrupted productions” at mills and factories.
Even though leaders admit at times that there may be a few bad apples among the owners who give the industry a bad name, as a collective, they authoritatively claim to represent the nation’s interest, for it is they who are taking the nation forward, who have strengthened the national economy. The garment industry is a national resource, they say, but in contemporary business speak, as Lucy Kellaway writes, ownership is the biggest lie of all.?Using the “national good” as a rhetorical device covers “private advantage,” simply using the word “nation” does not make one “nationalists” (David Burrow).
Genuine worker grievances?rising from meagre wages, by all accounts, far short of living costs, and “notoriously” bad safety records?are covered up by speeches, both by factory owners and political leaders, who point fingers at “foreign” forces bent on sabotaging the nation’s progress, at vested quarters attempting to spread anarchy, at creating terror. Foreign, one must note, are both good and bad, the good ones are those that the owners are aligned to, foreign buyers, foreign investors, while the baddies are international labour rights and human rights organisations with whom local and national groups network to fight against grave injustices toward Bangladesh’s garment workers, who have the privilege of receiving the lowest wages in the highest earning industrial sector. The only industrial sector in Bangladesh which, since its inception, has been wracked by labour unrest, one which often enough spills out into city streets, whether in Dhaka, or Chittagong or Narayanganj, which disrupts public life, causes death and injury to members of the public (on December 12, 2010, a rickshaw driver was killed when police fired at demonstrating workers in Chittagong EPZ), and severe financial losses (cars set alight, buses torched).
But BGMEA enjoys the blessings of prime ministers both past and present. During her first tenure as prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, had inaugurated the construction of BGMEA Bhaban in November 1998. After completion, in October 2006, the building was inaugurated by then prime minister, Khaleda Zia.

The BGMEA Bhaban, illegally constructed on Dhaka city?s main drainage canal is, according to environmental activist group BAPA (Bangladesh Poribesh Bachao Andolon), primarily responsible for the capital?s chronic water-logging problem. ? New Age photo

The 15-story structure, standing tall, is illegal,?having been built on land that is government-owned, without approval from Rajuk, the city development authority, land which had been set aside for the Begunbari-Hatirjheel integrated development project. Having been built on land filling that was a part of the Hatirjheel lake, in gross violation of two laws, including the Environment and Wetland Protection Act 2000, it is said to be the main reason for chronic and severe waterlogging in Dhaka city. Urban experts, academicians and environmentalists have repeatedly called on the government to demolish the BGMEA building because it is right in the middle of the canal, it “defies the law in the heart of the city,” it inspires others to violate the law (Abdullah Abu Sayeed).
BGMEA’s vice president Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin’s response, the government must decide which is more important, the lake or the BGMEA, rests on the language of power. That of environmentalists, as do those of garment workers and their leaders, speak of justice. The law requires Rajuk to go ahead and demolish the building without waiting for a political decision, says noted environmentalist and director of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) Rezwana Hasan. ?If law is subject to politics, justice can never be ensured.?
I myself don’t understand what all the fuss is about. If the affected people of Phulbari can “easily be rehabilitated,” surely, so can the BGMEA headquarters? Maybe it is time BGMEA leaders and members learnt to live by the law, not to bend it to serve their own sweet will. It is only then that their claims of being committed to “national interests” will be honored by the public.
Published in New Age, Monday January 17, 2011


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People’s Resistance to Global Capital and Government Collaboration is Vindicated

Rahnuma Ahmed

In reality, WikiLeaks leak of diplomatic cables from US Embassy, Dhaka reveal nothing new, they only serve to confirm what many of us across the world knew.
But before writing about open-pit coal mining and Asia Energy’s US$1.4 billion Phulbari project, I’d like to remind readers that in `Is there more to WikiLeaks than meets the eye?’ I agreed with skeptics who thought Julian Assange, director of WikiLeaks, had been “compromised.” That the “selective” nature of the data suggests WikiLeaks has possibly been “manipulated” by interested parties (New Age, Monday Dec 6, 2010). Since then, stronger reasons have emerged.
WikiLeaks’ enlistment of the “very architects of media disinformation”?The New York Times, the Guardian, der Spiegel?to “fight media disinformation” is suspect, writes professor Michel Chossudovsky (Dec 13, 2010). While Julie Levesque raises crucial questions about how the whistleblowing site and Assange “demand transparency” from governments and corporations around the world, but fail to provide basic information about their own organisation (Dec 20, 2010).
However, notwithstanding this, given that the documents’ authenticity are not denied by the White House, it is essential that we scrutinise them closely and “expose” the systems and structures of power (Andrew Gavin Marshall). That we expose US diplomacy as a cover for furthering imperial interests, that we expose national leaders as collaborators in this project. Further, that we vindicate those who have insisted that national development is often a cover for subjugating the nation’s and peoples’ interest. A mask which hides personal greed, and party ambitions.
The list of those exposed is long: US ambassador James F Moriarty; American and British-owned companies (Asia Energy/Global Coal Management); prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s energy advisor; members of parliament. But the cast of characters is much larger, they include ministers, bureaucrats, Petrobangla, BAPEX (Bangladesh Petroleum Exploration & Production Company), PDB (Power Development Board), major political parties, experts, intellectuals, law-enforcing agencies, doctors and significant sections of the media.
A WikiLeaked cable from US embassy, Dhaka shows that Moriarty urged Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, the prime minister’s energy advisor, to authorise coal mining in Phulbari, saying that “open-pit mining seemed the best way forward” (Guardian, 21 Dec 2010). But for whom? He privately noted that “Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has sixty percent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the Ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months.” According to the cables, Chowdhury admitted to Moriarty that the coal mine was “politically sensitive in the light of the impoverished, historically oppressed tribal community residing on the land” but agreed to build support for the project through the parliamentary process.
This leak confirms the insistence of the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, that efforts to extract Bangladesh’s natural resources are commandeered by global capital to benefit multinational and transnational companies (MNC/TNCs), and their national accomplices. It confirms that long histories of impoverishment and oppression of local communities are not only to be ignored, policies leading to their extinction are to be approved by the government. That resistance, both nationwide and local, is to be circumvented through processes initiated by the nationally-elected parliament.
The proposed Phulbari Coal Project, through creating one of the biggest open-pit coalmines in the world would destroy 10,000 hectares including productive farmland in an area that serves as an “agricultural breadbasket” for Bangladesh. According to the 2008 Expert Committee Report commissioned by the Bangladesh government, nearly 130,000 people would be forcibly evicted from their homes and lands. Members of the National Committee say, numbers evicted are likely to be ten times more, environmental consequences promise to be disastrous. A dramatic increase in coal-based energy production will increase greenhouse gas emissions, and greatly aggravate the country’s vulnerability to climate change. Interestingly, Sheikh Hasina urged donors?US, European Union, World Bank, Asian Development Bank?to increase the pledged climate fund in February, but spoke only of building cyclone shelters.
Asia Energy, before metamorphosing into GCM, was forced to shut down its operations after paramilitary forces opened fire on peaceful protests of thousands gathered in Phulbari, killing Salekin, Tariqul and 14 year old Ameen, injuring hundreds, on 26 August 2006.

The rally at Phulbaria in Dinajpur culminating the Long March organised by the National Committee for the Protection of Oil, Gas and Mineral Resources, Power and Ports,?October 24-30, 2010. ?Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Moriarty pushes for re-opening the Phulbari project in July last year, the energy advisor agrees. Let’s look back and see what happened. On September 2, the National Committee calls for a siege of Petrobangla, “a den of MNCs.” Police suddenly launch an attack on the peaceful procession. Baton charge, kicks, punches. Very brutal. Anu is targeted in particular, blows aimed at his head are foiled by brave young activists. Members of the public are outraged, both government and opposition leaders, including Khaleda Zia, rush to the hospital.

Anu is admitted to Square hospital, incidentally, owned by the Square Group, whose managing director Tapan Chowdhury, was power and energy adviser to the military-installed caretaker government (2007-2008). No broken bones, but heavily swollen feet from police kicks. Doctors advise plaster casts for a month. The Health minister Dr Ruhul Haque visits Anu on the 5th day, his casts are suddenly removed, he’s issued a discharge certificate for having “improved satisfactorily” though he couldn’t stand up. Needless to say, healing was very painful and prolonged (Doctoral Complicity, New Age, Nov 9, 2009).
The agriculture minister Motia Chowdhury, prime minister’s advisor H T Imam visit Anu in hospital. Sheikh Hasina returns from China on September 6, discussions will be held with the National Committee. The government will not violate the national interest. Reassuring words, but the Committee learns on 9 September that immediately after her return Hasina approved the file for signing the contract. Khaleda Zia had extended her moral support to the Committee but after receiving a visit from the US ambassador falls silent.
The so-called `battling begums’ (The Economist), and their followers, unitedly fall in line with the US Ambassador’s suggestions.
The acute shortage of electricity is a “manufactured” crisis, insists B D Rahmatullah, former director general of the Power Cell (ministry of power, energy and mineral resources). Derated power plants need to be rated, the PDB chairman knows this very well. But repairing and maintaining government power plants, setting up new ones, doesn’t produce perks, you don’t get to own a house abroad. Niko and Chevron’s agents have penetrated the Ministry, they want to extract the most in the shortest possible time. The IPP (Independent Power Producers) policy was prepared after a tour to Washington financed by the World Bank. There’s corruption in Malaysia and India too, but our engineers are willing to sell their country just for a ticket abroad, they don’t stand up to the Indians like they do in Nepal, Malaysia and Bhutan. The cross-border electricity initiative between India and Bangladesh will cost 1,200 crore takas, it’ll provide 500 megawatts, whereas a similar power plant could’ve been built here for only 600 crore takas. It demonstrates the government’s subservient attitude towards the Indian government (Budhbar, Aug 18, 2010).
None of the higher-ups in the energy ministry have rebutted what Rahmatullah said. Nor has the energy advisor sued Nurul Kabir for libel. A TV anchor had gently warned him recently, to which Kabir had replied, he would welcome it, it would provide him with the opportunity of pleading his case before the court.
Governments change but power structures and vested interests don’t, say Anu and Rahmatullah. I agree. The AL government awarded Asia Energy its licence in 1998. Khaleda Zia’s regime cracked down on Phulbari’s protestors in 2006. Her energy adviser, Mahmudur Rahman (currently imprisoned) blamed “a small group of leftist parties without any influence whatsoever” for orchestrating the deaths and injury. Sentiments echoed by Asia Energy’s CEO, “the fault [lies entirely with] the organisers” (`You cannot eat coal.’ New Age, Aug 19, 2008).
The energy advisor’s promise of building support for open-pit mining materialises further.

Finance minister AMA Muhith in his 2010 budget speech stresses the need for creating a favourable public opinion toward open pit-mining. Petrobangla chairman demands at least two open-pit coal mines be started. The land ministry has begun land acquisition at Barapukuria to open its coal deposit; it is offering locals high compensation.
The parliamentary sub-committee on energy and power visits open-pit coal mine in Germany in late October. Headed by Shubid Ali Bhuiyan, it includes the chief whip, 4 MPs, the energy and mineral resources secretary. They are “highly impressed.” The sub-committee recommends open-pit coal mining on Nov 29.
Anu, you must name names, I insist, they must be exposed. In his characteristically diffident manner Anu describes, it’s a long-drawn concerted campaign, a thick web, many people, diverse forums, same message; it’s in the interests of national development. Whether it’s Hossain Monsur, Petrobangla chairman on TV, or Nuh-ul-Alam Lenin, an ex-CPB member, now publicity secretary of AL, blaming a handful of people `absolutely devoid of common sense.’ Or secretaries, joint secretaries providing training to government officers at the PATC. Then there’s a fortnightly magazine called Energy and Power, its editor is Molla Amjad, with 2-page spreads advertising Asia Energy. Chevron, too. Power is not a commodity that consumers buy, why the need to advertise? Businessmen too, but not all, he adds. Some are opposed to handing over control to foreign companies.
Newer leaks (24 December night) reveal that Moriarty met Chowdhury, sought assurances that US-based Conoco Phillips (from among 7 bidders) be awarded two of the uncontested blocks in the Bay of Bengal, that Chevron be permitted to improve the flow in Bangladesh’s main gas pipeline. The Bangladesh government “complied,” Conoco got the contract 3 months later, in October 2009 (Business Standard/India).
New Age contacts foreign minister Dipu Moni, prime minister’s energy adviser Chowdhury seeking their comments on the Wikileaks disclosure. They avoid questions. On Thursday and Friday, they stop receiving calls. Nor do they respond to text messages (Dec 25, 2010).
Where could one find a richer cast of characters falling over their feet to be handmaidens of global capital, working hard against the interests of the nation and its people, including the so-called `battling begums’?
Salam, people of Phulbari, for you are our true leaders.
Published in New Age, Monday December 27, 2010
Related links:
Wikileaks cables: Bangladesh Gas
More?Long March Images
Long March
You cannot eat coal: Resistance in Phulbari
A beginner’s guide to democracy
Bangladesh Now
Profits versus the poor

WikiLeaks cables: Bangladesh Gas

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US nudged Bangladesh to allocate gas blocks

BS Reporter / New Delhi December 25, 2010, 0:15 IST

Every time India would ask Bangladesh for rights to explore gas, Dhaka would say the country had to first find if there was gas available at offshore locations. For the last one year, the issue hasn?t even been mentioned in discussions with Bangladesh, top petroleum ministry officials said. But India?s loss has been the US gain and it managed to walk away with the prize.
WikiLeaks tapes released late last night revealed how US-based ConocoPhillips was selected from a field of seven bidders and awarded two offshore blocks for exploring gas in 2009. The company was awarded a production sharing contract, with a provision to export the gas in the form of liquefied natural gas in the untapped areas of the Bay of Bengal. The bidders had agreed to stay away from disputed waters in the Bay of Bengal, something US Ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty mentioned in his cables sent in July 2009. Conoco got the contract in October 2009.
Moriarty met Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina Wajed?s energy adviser, Tawfiq Elahi Chowdhury, and got him to assure that ConocoPhillips would be awarded two of the uncontested blocks and Chevron given permission to go ahead with the first of the three compressors necessary to improve flow in Bangladesh?s main gas pipeline. Within three months, the Bangladesh government complied.
Defending themselves against the charge that they had allowed the US to have an advantage by not being proactive themselves, Indian Petroleum Ministry officials said Indian finds of gas had reduced the pressure to secure gas from Bangladesh.
WikiLeaks tapes also revealed that Moriarty urged Chowdhury to approve plans by British company Global Coal Management (GCM) to begin open-cast coal mining in the country?s Phulbari area. In the cable, Moriarty quoted Chowdhury saying the coal mine was ?politically sensitive in the light of the impoverished, historically oppressed tribal community residing on the land?.
The energy advisor, however, agreed to build support for the project through the parliamentary process, Moriarty said in the cable.
In a cable posted by WikiLeaks that was sent in July last year, Moriarty said he had urged Chowdhury to authorise coal mining, adding ?open-pit mining seemed the best way forward?. Later on in the cable, Moriarty said, ?Asia Energy, the company behind the Phulbari project, has 60 per cent US investment. Asia Energy officials told the ambassador they were cautiously optimistic that the project would win government approval in the coming months.?
The ?Phulbari killings? as they are known took the lives of three boys in 2006 when police fired at a demonstration near the mine site. Asia Energy?s shares had crashed in the international market as a result and the company had to undergo a brand change, including a name changing.
In the WikiLeaks cables, Moriarty?s conversations with Indian ambassador Pinaki Ranjan Chakravatry, by contrast, revealed no discussions of a commercial nature, only a general approval by India of the change in government in Bangladesh and US endorsement of a joint South Asian task force on counterterrorism.
India?s high commissioner in Dhaka obligingly told the US ambassador that while India would ?prefer a primarily bilateral engagement?, Bangladesh might want a regional force for political reasons ? allegations that she was too close to India.
Chakravarty spoke of Bangladesh?s keenness to ?invest heavily in Bangladesh?s moribund railway system? including reconnecting the Bangladeshi railroad system to Agartala in Tripura. He said Indian companies would be interested in setting up power plants in Bangladesh, though the price of electricity ?is still under negotiation?. The US takeaway from the conversation is that regional counter-terrorism cooperation would help US assets enormously. Much of the rest is yet to become a reality


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Moshrefa Mishu,?illegally arrested and remanded.

By Rahnuma Ahmed

Labour rights leader Moshrefa Mishu is being escorted to the court in Dhaka on Sunday. ? New Age photo

I have known Moshrefa Mishu for the last 25 years.
Since the mid-1980s when the two of us had participated in long and intense discussions with other representatives of both large womens organisations and small womens groups, when we were trying to work out the possibility of forming a broad-based and united platform to collectively struggle and further the interests of women.
In the early hours of 14 December 2010, Mishu, who is the president of Garment Workers Unity Forum, was picked up from her house in Kola Bagan, Dhaka, by a contingent of a dozen or so in plainclothes (excepting one). They claimed to belong to the Detective Branch. They did not have an arrest warrant. Please remember that, as you read along.
She was produced in the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s (CMM) court after midday. Police sought a 10-day remand, the magistrate granted 2 days. She was accused of inciting garment workers at Kuril who were, according to news reports, demonstrating for payment of wages according to the new pay scale agreed upon by the government and factory-owners in August 2011. Demonstrating for, not against, and mind you, the government was a party to the agreement. Does it not strike you as strange that workers should have to demonstrate and picket, and to press for demands which are in effect, also the government’s demands? (workers had unwillingly agreed to the new wages because it fell far short of their demand for 5,000 taka as minimum wage, not the 3,000 taka which was agreed upon, which has been termed `poverty wages’). Workers at Kuril alleged that the management was not following the new wage board, it had added only 500 taka to each worker’s wage. Remember Kuril too, because I’ll come back to this later. Instead of imprisoning garment workers and their leaders, one would have thought government officials and factory-owners would be arrested for not complying with the wage board’s settlement.
She was remanded again, for 1 day, on December 17. The police added another allegation to their previous list, Mishu had been seen in the company of a Jamaat leader, travelling in his car. Where? When? Not surprisingly, the police could not substantiate their allegations, they could only insist that it needed to be investigated.
Mishu was produced in CMM court for the third time on December 19, afternoon. I was among a group of activists (university teachers, writers and a lawyer) who had gone there to express our moral support for Mishu. Only Sadia Arman among us was allowed to enter the courtroom as she’s a lawyer. She spoke to Mishu who sat in a bench at the back, with women police on either side. She was breathing with great difficulty, gasping for air as she spoke. She told Sadia that short of beating her, the DB police had tortured her in every possible manner. When Sadia asked her about the allegations against her, Mishu said, she had not been in Kuril but in Narsingdi, she had returned to Dhaka on 12th night, had been exhausted and had declined to attend programmes till December 16. She did not know why she had been arrested, they had not told her anything. Please note that the protests at Kuril occurred on 12th morning and that the allegations against her are not, according to the laws of the land, worthy of a remand.
We caught a glimpse of Mishu as she left the courtroom heavily surrounded by police. I watched a young policewoman flash a smile as she said confidently, oh, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s fine. As we turned the corner of the courtroom and stood above on the landing, we watched Mishu climb down the stairs assisted by policewomen. We could clearly see that she was unable to walk by herself. I remembered an Indian feminist friend’s excitement when Sheikh Hasina appointed Sahara Khatun as the minister for home affairs. I had not been similarly excited. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, I thought.
Mishu’s breathing difficulties increased, she had to be hospitalised immediately. She was taken to the National Hospital first, where the doctors gave her a nebuliser and oxygen. Her back pain — from a spinal injury, the result of an attempt on her life several years ago which had been staged to appear as a road accident — increased tremendously. While she had entered the hospital sitting in a wheelchair, she had to be carried out on a stretcher. She was referred to the Post Graduate hospital where doctors provided further oxygen, she was then referred to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. She lies in a `bed’ there, in a womens ward, hastily put together on the floor, as there were no vacant beds. Police surround her bed, both men and women, causing immense distress and embarassment to both Mishu and other patients, many of whom are confined to their bed and having to use bedpans for urinary and fecal discharges.
What induced this? Mishu was without medicine for more than 24 hours, the contingent who had gone to pick her up had only permitted her to change her clothes. Despite being a chronic asthma patient, she was forced to lie on the cold floor of the DB Headquarters with only a thin blanket to lie on, and a thin quilt as cover. By the time her sister was allowed to drop her medicine at DB Headquarters, she was already very ill,
the nebuliser was unable to provide any relief. She would have preferred a prison, she told her sister, as she would at least have some hours to herself, at the DB HQ she was interrogated at all odd hours, both during the day and at night.
What is equally worrying is that officials at the DB headquarters had told her sister before the court hearing on December 19, don’t worry, we’ll provide her with some hot water tomorrow so that she can take a bath. How could they have been so sure that their prayer for a remand would be granted? Is unseen pressure being applied by the government on the judicial process?
`First they asked for an end to slavery....'

A garment worker had explained to a Reuters correspondent that the reason for protesting was “because [the new wages are] too inadequate to make ends meet. We cannot submit to the [whims] of the government and factory owners.” Another had said, “We work to survive but….commodity prices are going up and we cannot even arrange basic needs with our meagre income. The 3,000 taka will be barely enough to buy food for my six-member family. How can I pay for medicines, the education of my children and other needs?” Nurul Kabir, the editor of this paper, in a talk show on a private TV channel the night Mishu was arrested, had said, he would like to give factory owners Tk 3,000 per month, for a period of three months, and would like to see how they managed to live on this meagre amount. I agree with him, I think such an exercise, conducted publicly, with daily updates, would prove to be tremendously educational.
Or, one could reverse what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned from 1926-1937 (the prosecutor had said at his trial “for 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning”), had written to a family member, from prison: “tell me what the following categories of people eat in a week: a family of,

  1. day labourers
  2. sharecroppers
  3. small farmers who work their own land
  4. shepherds whose flocks are a full-time occupation
  5. craftsmen (cobblers or blacksmiths)

Questions: how many times do they eat meat in a week, and how much? Or alternatively, do they just go without? What do they use to make soup? How much oil or fat do they put in, how much pasta, how many vegetables etc.? How much corn do they grind, and how many loaves of bread do they buy? How much coffee or coffee substitute, how much sugar? How much milk for the children etc.?”
Reversing Gramsci’s questions would mean that I would like to know how many times a week the owners of garment and knitwear factories?those who receive orders, and deliver supplies to Wal-mart, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Tesco, JC Penny, H&M, Gap?eat meat, how much oil and butter they consume, how much rice, what quality, how much coffee and beverages they drink, how much they spend on medicine and health, on their childrens education, on holidays, and all other personal and familial needs. I would also like to know how much they contribute, both directly and indirectly, to the election funds of political parties.
At her first court hearing, Mishu had stood in the dock and had asked, `Am I a common criminal that I should have to be handcuffed like this?’
No Mishu, neither you, nor other labour leaders, nor workers demonstrating for living wages, none of you are criminals. Those denying living wages to garment workers, are. It is they who are criminals. Your struggles serve to expose them for what they really are underneath their smooth and slick smiles, their expensive clothes. Petty, miserable, brutal. The real criminals.
Published in New Age, Tuesday December 21, 2010
Support campaign for release of Moshrefa Mishu

Imprisoned, or dead. Reflections on Victory Day, 2010

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By Rahnuma Ahmed

Najma Akhter, 23, a garment worker , is sleeping with entire family - her children, her parents and her siblings. Altogether, 11 family members share this one room. Mirpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Taslima Akhter

My heart was heavy on Victory Day.
On Dec 12, four people, including a rickshaw driver aged 35, were killed in Chittagong EPZ as garment workers clashed with police because the new wage structure when implemented, meant getting lesser wages. According to news reports, the management of South Korean-owned Youngone suddenly shut down all its units after workers protested the withdrawal of their Tk 250 lunch allowance. When 10,000 workers turned up for work on Sunday morning, they found the factory closed down for an indefinite period. Demonstrations and picketing took a violent turn when police opened fire with live bullets (600 rounds) and tear gas shells (150 canisters). Workers retaliated with brickbats, sticks and stones. The Deputy Commissioner (Port) in Chittagong claimed, rickshaw-driver Ariful Islam had died from a hurled brick; his employer however said, he had been shot dead. Eight injured persons had bullet wounds. Police filed cases against an unidentified 33,000.
Less than two days later, in the early hours of December 14, a contingent of 12 or so claiming to belong to the Detective Branch, all in plainclothes except 1, turned up at the Kola Bagan house of Moshrefa Mishu, president of Garments Workers Unity Forum. When her sister Jebunnessa wanted to see a warrant, they threatened to arrest her too. Mishu was only allowed to change her clothes, she had to leave her medicine behind: for asthma, and for a severe spinal injury from an attack on her life several years ago. She was produced in court after midday and remanded for 2 days on charges of inciting vandalism during worker unrest in Kuril (Kafrul, Dhaka) in June this year. At the end of 2 days, she was remanded for yet another day. She had Jamaat links, they alleged. It needed further investigation, they said.
Mishu? Remanded? For inciting vandalism? As we sat stunned with this news on the 14th, the gods played a cruel joke.
On December 14, a fire broke out in Ha-Meem Group’s sportswear factory in Ashulia, Dhaka. Fire spread to the dining area on the 10th floor where about 150 workers were having lunch. “Emergency exits were closed,” said Abdul Kader to Asia Times Online. To escape from the rapidly-spreading flames, 50-60 workers jumped off the tenth floor. Many, to their death.
Ha-Meem management says 23 died; hospital and clinic sources report 26 deaths, some newspapers report 31 but workers insist many more as relatives throng at the factory gates in search of missing family members. After being closed for two days to mourn the deaths of workers, it was re-opened on Friday, the weekly holiday, but also, a public holiday due to Ashura. The next day, a large chunk of concrete fell on the floor of the 8th floor, as the devastation caused by the fire was being repaired. Workers rushed out of the building fearing for their lives. At least 25 were injured.
A garment worker?s body in morgue. ??Taslima Akhter

According to the Fire Service and Civil Defence Department, fires broke out in 213 factories between 2006 and 2009. The number of deaths? 414. These figures include the Spectrum/Shahriyar Sweater factory collapse in 2005, when 64 workers were killed and 80 were injured, 54 seriously. It excludes the deaths caused by fire which broke out this February at Garib & Garib Sweater factory, built on marshy land. 21 workers’ died, another 50 were injured.
According to international groups dedicated to improving the working conditions of workers worldwide, the Bangladeshi garment industry is “notorious” for its bad safety record. Most of the deaths and injuries are entirely “preventable.” According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a global network of labour and women’s rights organisations, Bangladeshi factory owners “blatantly violate building code and health and safety regulations”; the government (regardless of which party is in power) “fails to enforce these regulations.” At Garib & Garib, fire rapidly spread because the floors were filled with inflammable materials such as wool threads, workers who were cut off by the fire could not escape because emergency exits were locked; material piled-high blocked the stairways. Fire brigade officials said, the factory’s fire-fighting equipment was “virtually useless.”
The joke played by the gods was undoubtedly cruel since it snatched away many lives? 23? 26? 31? more??but it pointed fingers as well.
Has any factory owner ever been picked up by the police, remanded, arrested, and charged because of factory fires? Not that I know of. The officer-in-charge of Ashulia thana says, (only) a general diary has been lodged in connection with the fire at Ha-Meem. Interestingly, Ha-Meem Group’s managing director AK Azad is also the president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).
Just as factory fires are not properly investigated, neither are acts of vandalism. One hears ministers, high party officials, intellectuals-serving-party-interests and experts claim every so often that these are caused by `outsiders.’ But these `outside forces’ are never specified. Despite turf wars over waste cloth from the garment industry (jhoot baybsha). Despite cutthroat competition among some of the owners themselves. Despite rumours that some were initiated to claim insurance. Despite competition between exporting nations, too. It is much easier to demonise Mishu, other garment leaders, and workers in general. After all, who knows what Pandora’s box a genuine investigation will open?
Nearly three and half million work in the RMG sector, mostly women. It accounts for 80% of annual export earnings and makes clothes for major Western brands such as Wal-mart, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Tesco, JC Penny. In 2006, the monthly minimum wage was fixed at Tk 1,662 (US$23). Since then, despite spiralling prices and soaring living costs, garment workers had received no pay rises, although Bangladeshi labour law dictates that wages should be reassessed and adjusted every three years. The new minimum wage approved in August this year?at 3,000 taka ($43) it fell far short of labour union demands of 5,000 taka ($72)?was grudgingly agreed upon by owners, unwilling to give Eid bonuses according to the new wage structure. Last year, the president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) had demanded a 30 billion taka subsidy ($428 million) from the government’s stimulus package fund to pay workers wages and bonuses. It was outrageous even by AL government’s standards which, as Shahidullah Chowdhury, president, Bangladesh Trade Union Centre, points out, is “essentially biased” towards protecting and promoting the interests of the rich. The finance minister rejected it outright, leaving the BGMEA mumbling that it was an “error.”
Clashes occurred in November this year because many factories had either failed to implement what had been agreed upon, or had implemented it through applying a grading system which effectively “lessened” the pay of many workers.
As I write, I remember Mishu telling me many years ago, I seem to be spending my life fighting for basic rights, those that are declared in the ILO Convention, are laid down in Bangladesh law. Struggling for more fundamental changes, for the re-distribution of wealth and resources, is a far cry. These basic rights should be enforced by the government, she said. In its own interest.
Was muktijuddho not fought for ensuring economic and social justice? For changing the lives of the greater majority for the better? The Awami League and its intelligentsia would have us believe that it was fought only against religious forces who had collaborated with the Pakistan government and its army, a sore enough point for the nation given post-1971 events. Given that the war criminals of 1971 were politically restored, given that Jamaat-e-Islami became BNP’s electoral allies, became a part of the government. But the trial of war criminals is a national issue, it should not be subjugated to serve the narrow interests of the Awami League. Nor should we allow it to be capitalised upon by imperial forces, to draw us into the ever-expanding `war on terror.’
A model at the catwalk of a Bangladesh Textile and Apparel Exposition fashion show held at Sonargaon Hotel on November 9, 2008. According to a BGMEA press statement, Bangladesh received spot orders for garments worth $59.47 million from foreign buyers at the exposition. New Age photo

The adoption and pursuit of neo-liberal policies have led to the emergence of new forms of femininities in Bangladesh. Women pose, strut down the aisle. The closed-off, vacant look they are trained to wear makes it difficult to tell whether they know that the garments they parade are soaked in sweat. In tears. And, in blood. Of other women.
Published in New Age, Monday December 20, 2010

Report on Norwegian assistance to Grameen Bank

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Press release , 07.12.2010

Norad submitted its report today on Norwegian support to Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in the 1980s and 1990s.

Minister of the Environment and International Development Erik Solheim requested Norad to prepare the report after the Norwegian television series ?Brennpunkt? raised the question of where the Norwegian aid money had gone.
Norad?s report shows that Grameen Bank transferred a total of NOK 608.5 million to its sister company Grameen Kalyan in 1996. Norway?s share of this amount is estimated to be approximately NOK 170 million. The Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka reacted immediately when it discovered the transfer in 1997. In the embassy?s view, the transfer was not in accordance with the agreement. The matter was raised with Grameen Bank. Following negotiations, it was agreed in May 1998 that NOK 170 million was to be transferred back from Grameen Kalyan to Grameen Bank.
?According to the report, there is no indication that Norwegian funds have been used for unintended purposes, or that Grameen Bank has engaged in corrupt practices or embezzled funds. The matter was concluded when the agreement concerning reimbursement of the funds was entered into in May 1998 under the government in office at the time,? said Mr Solheim.
The report: Review commissioned by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of matters relating to Grameen Bank (pdf)
Enclosures to the report:
Enclosure 1: Summary of agreements Grameen Bank (pdf)
Enclosure 2: Agreements relating to Norwegian support for Grameen Bank (pdf)
Enclosure 3: Conclusions from the joint evaluation carried out by Grameen Bank and Norway in 1998/1999 (pdf)
Press contact: Christian Grotnes Halvorsen, mobile tel.: +47 48 153 748

Long March: more images

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Bangladeshi citizens began a long march from Dhaka to Dinajpur to protect the country's natural resources. The march began at Muktangon in Dhaka with a rally and the first day ended in Ghazipur with a cultural programme. People joined along the way. The march will end with a rally at Phulbaria in Dinajpur on the 30th October 2010. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Volunteers arranged lunch for the marchers along the way. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The shops start early in preparation for the visitors. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The first campaigners arrive. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The first busload arrives. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The first activists coming in armed with posters. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Slogans being painted. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Signage. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Marchers march in. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

By afternoon many have gathered from all over the country. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Ordinary people from all walks of life. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Including many women. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Professor Anu Muhammad, a key speaker. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

And labour leader Mushrefa Mishu. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Speeches and cultural programmes go on late into the night. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Poet Arup Rahee with friend. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Catching up before heading back home. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Homeward bound. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Related link:

Nobel Peace Prize winner?s reputation under threat in riddle of ?40m loans

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*Fariha Karim, Dhaka, and Francis Elliott, Delhi*

The Times of London

The reputation of a Nobel peace laureate, credited with helping to defeat?global poverty through microcredit, hung in the balance last night after?allegations that he had diverted ?40 million from a bank set up to help the?poor.
Muhammad Yunus, internationally f?ted as banker to the world?s poor, now?faces an investigation by the Norwegian Government, which donated funds to?him.
It marks a further blow to the reputation of microfinance, once hailed as?the most effective way to help the most needy out of poverty.
The model of extending small loans to help to stimulate entrepreneurial?activity was pioneered by Dr Yunus in Bangladesh. It won him the Nobel Peace?Prize in 2006.
But letters obtained by a Norwegian film-maker suggest that Oslo?s embassy?in Dhaka was furious to discover that cash donated to his microfinance?vehicle, Grameen Bank, for housing loans had been diverted to another?company without its knowledge or permission. The arrangement, which Dr Yunus claimed had been made for tax reasons, was not mentioned in Grameen Bank?s annual report.
When his actions were challenged in formal correspondence, Dr Yunus wrote to?the head of an aid agency, Norad, asking for its help.
?This allegation will create a lot of misunderstanding within the Government?of Bangladesh. If the people, within and outside government, who are not?supportive of Grameen get hold of this letter, we?ll face real problem[s] in?Bangladesh,? he wrote.
Dr Yunus was ordered to return the money but while about ?17.6 million was?repaid, the rest of the funds were used for other social causes including?victims of cyclones, according to the Norwegian Government.
The chain of events ? which took place between 1996 and 1998 ? came to light?this week after the letters were aired as part of a documentary on microfinance that was shown on Norwegian television.
Although it said that there was no suggestion of tax fraud, a minister in?the current Oslo administration said that it was ?totally unacceptable? that?aid was used for purposes other than what was intended.
A report into the matter has now been ordered by the International?Development Minister after questions in the Norwegian parliament.
Dr Yunus could not be contacted for comment in Bangladesh last night and?aides said that he was out of the country.
A statement released by Grameen Bank said that the claims were false and?that a full explanation would be provided at the ?earliest convenient time?.
The Nobel Committee stood by Dr Yunus last night, admitting that it was?aware of ?isolated incidents? relating to Grameen Bank when it awarded him?the Peace Prize, but it does not plan to raise any further questions.
The director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, said: ?The?Norwegian Nobel Committee looked into Yunus and the Grameen Bank very?thoroughly before he was awarded the Peace Prize in 2006, and we used many?international and Norwegian experts to find out about the larger picture and?not just the isolated incidents. On this basis he was awarded the prize for?2006 and we are not raising any questions in this context.?
He refused to clarify whether the committee was aware of allegations of?financial irregularities, saying: ?We have a 50-year secrecy rule. I?m not?commenting on anything else.?
Erik Solheim, the Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International?Development, insisted that there were no suspicions of tax fraud or?corruption committed by the bank.
He added: ?Having said that, the Government of Norway finds it totally?unacceptable that aid is used for other purposes intended, no matter how?praiseworthy the cases might be.
?In the light of an audit review in 1998, Grameen Kalyan returned 170?million kroner [?17.6 million] to Grameen Bank. The additional funds have?among other projects been spent on emergency aid after a devastating cyclone?hit Bangladesh.
?I will ask the Norwegian Agency for Development Co-operation for a full?report into this matter. At the same time it is important to stress that we?are firm believers in microfinance as a tool in the fight against poverty.?
The allegations will further fuel the controversy surrounding microfinance?amid concerns that what has grown into a massive and largely unregulated?industry is doing more harm than good.
The Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, the hub of small-loan activity, cracked?down on microfinanciers after accusations that high interest rates and?aggressive debt collectors had led to more than 30 suicides.
Report in
Earlier article on Grameen Bank

On Forced Marriage, and Insourced Torture

Rahman?s case is one of the latest in a growing number of cases ? 29, at last count ? in which British intelligence services have been accused of colluding in the torture of British nationals and residents: Rangzieb Ahmed, Salahuddin Amin, Zeeshan Siddiqui, Rashid Rauf by the ISI, Binyam Mohamed in Morocco, Alam Ghafoor in Dubai, and Azhar Khan in Egypt. Rahman?s case provides the clearest indication so far, of torture outsourced

The Loving Face of British Imperialism

rahnuma ahmed

…the [Nigerian] nationalist leader Nnamdi Azikiwe urged Africans and other colonized peoples to prepare their own blueprint of rights themselves instead of relying on those who are too busy preparing their own.
— Bonny Ibhawoh, Imperialism and Human Rights, p. 155.
Forced marriage, says a British High Commission press release, is a crime (British High Commission, ?The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office Forced Marriage Unit Launches National Publicity Campaign on Forced Marriage,? Dhaka, 28 March 2006. The link, for unknown reasons, has gone dead). As opposed to arranged marriages, forced marriages — by dint of not being based on consent — are a form of domestic violence and human rights abuse.
To increase awareness, both in Britain and abroad, the British home ministry (HO), and the foreign ministry (FCO), jointly formed a Forced Marriage Unit in January 2005. The unit was tasked with launching a publicity campaign: radio and press adverts, TV fillers and poster campaigns, and providing information. To those at risk, those affected, and those who are survivors.
The British government, said the state minister for home, Baroness Scotland QC, is determined to protect young people’s “right to choose” their spouses. A determination backed by the state minister for foreign office Lord Triesman’s assurance that “help is available” for its victims. Continue reading “On Forced Marriage, and Insourced Torture”