Dhaka Burns

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Well I’m finally stumped for words. A party affiliated president, now
has the triple roles of president, head of the military and head of
the ‘neutral’ caretaker government. While rumours of a military
takeover abound, and the prime minister’s son threatens that they will
not go to the streets ’empty handed’, the news that the leader of the
opposition has not threatened immediate protests, but has rather opted
to see how the new head of the caretaker government conducts himself,
is a healthy sign. Too many lives have already been lost.
A lot of changes need to take place to erase the mistrust created. A
genuinely non partisan group of advisers need to be selected, the
election commission and the voters list, both clearly not neutral,
need to be changed, and he has to clearly demonstrate that he is no
longer a puppet. Unlikely based on his track record, but one can hope.
Given the current mood, another sham election will surely light the
fuse.
Shahidul Alam
29th October. Dhaka
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Clashes between opposition and Jamaat due to demand for neutral head of caretaker government. (upload incomplete)
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Above photographs taken on 28th October 2006 by Shahidul Alam.
And today 29th October 2006, a party affiliated president, makes himself president, head of military and head of ‘neutral’ caretaker government. Today’s photographs taken by Shehab Uddin. No unauthorised copying of any kind. To publish these or high res images, contact library@drik.net. More pictures and text to follow.
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Bank for the Poor

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It was 1988. The flood waters had reached Dhaka, and I needed a boat to get to the head office of the Grameen (Rural) Bank. A soft spoken unassuming gentleman, casually clad, sat at a plain wooden table. There was no air?-conditioning and the fresh breeze flowed freely through the open windows. My posh camera seemed quite out of place here.
Dr. Muhammed Yunus shook my hands warmly and words flowed easily from the man who had created one of the most remarkable organisations in banking history.

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Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus on the rooftop of the Grameen building in Mirpur. Dhaka. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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Nobel Peace Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The Grameen Bank gave money only to the poor. Loans to the landless were interest free. None of the debtors had collateral. 75% of the bankwas owned by the landless who could purchase shares of Take 100 (about two pounds; each in 1988. Only one share was allowed per person). The bank boasted 346 branches and 3,000,000 members, 64% of whom were women. Incredibly, about 98% of the loans were returned! It was rapidly expanding and by the following year, Yunus hoped to have 500 branches.
An economics graduate from Vanderbilt University, Yunus had been teaching at Tennessee State University when war broke out in Bangladesh in 1971. He got actively involved in the liberation movement and returned to the newly created nation in 1972 and took up teaching at Chittagong University.
The famine in ’74 touched him deeply. The sight of the dying in the streets made him question the validity of the economic theoories that he espoused. During this soul searching he mixed intimately with the villagers and learnt of their habits, their values and their problems. One of them was a woman who made Moras (bamboo stools). She was skilled and conscientious and worked long hours. He was appalled when he discovered that she earned only eight annas (about one pence) for her daily labour! Angered and dismayed, he sought out the reasons for this shamefully unfair setup.
It had long been claimed that laziness, lack. of skill, and extreme conservativeness was the root cause of poverty in Bangladesh. Here was a woman who was skilled, worked extremely hard and had taken the initiative of setting up a business for herself and was still being cruelly exploited.
She did not have the money to buy the bamboo, so she had to borrow from the trader. He paid a price for the finished stool which was barely the price of the raw materials. She ended up with a penny a day!
With the help of a student Emnath, Yunus made up a list of 42 people who worked under similar conditions. He paid out their total capital requirement of Taka 826 (less than a pound per head) from his own pocket. It was a loan, but it was interest free.
Aware that this was not the real solution to the problem, Yunus approached his local bank manager. The man laughed. The idea of giving money to the poor, and that too without collateral, was to him hilarious. Undeterred, Yunus approached the assistant general manager of Janata Bank:, Chittagong. The manager was encouraging,, but felt that in the absence of collateral, a guarantee by influential people in the village would be necessary. Yunus realised that this would eventually lead to some sort of a slave trade. The bank was adamant, and eventually he talked them into accepting him as the guarantor. The manager was reluctant in the beginning, but felt he could take the risk, the sum being so small.
The system worked, all the loans were repaid and more people were offered loans. Yunus suggested that it was time the bank took over the responsibility themselves and lent out money directly to the villagers.?So I tried to establish that this could be done as a business proposition. I became vocal against the banking institutions, arguing that they were making the rich people richer and keeping the poor people poor through something called collateral. Only a few people could have access to funds. The bankers were not convinced.
Finally they challenged me to do it over a whole district, not just a few villages. They said if I could do it over a whole district, and still come back with a good recovery, then they would reconsider. I accepted their challenge. They asked me to go far away, to where people would not recognise me as a teacher but would instead think I was a banker. So I went to a far flung district in 1978, and started working there.”
It worked beautifully. They had almost a 100% recovery. The small loans made a big difference to the people, but the banks still dragged their feet. Yunus realised that if he went back to the University, the project would die. He suggested the formation of a new bank. One owned by the people themselves. The banks were skeptical, but he got a lot of public support, and eventuual1y in October ’83, an independent bank called the Grameen Bank was formed.
Dr. Yunus is modest about his own contribution. Asked if the bank would survive without him, he smiled “Look at what we have achieved, could it ever have been possible without dedication at all levels ??
There is a more important reason for the bank’s survival. Contrary to most other viable commercial banks, this one is truly designed to serve the people.
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Woman receiving call on her mobile Grameen Phone, speaks to her husband who is a migrant worker in Singapore. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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Woman who has set up her mobile telephone business using a Grameen loan. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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Woman who has set up her mobile telephone business using a Grameen loan, takes her phone to a customer. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

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Woman who has set up her mobile telephone business using a Grameen loan, doing her accounts at the end of the day. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Always quick to accept innovations, Professor Yunus was the first person to order an email account when we set up Bangladesh’s first email service in the early nineties. He was user number six, the first five accounts being Drik’s internal numbers. Later he ordered the entire Grameen office to be networked and had generic email addresses issued to key personnel.
The bank now has nearly six and a half million members, 96% of whom are women. The $ 5.3 billion given out as loans and the $ 4.7 billion recovered are figures any commercial banker would be proud of. Since then other Grameen entities under the more recently formed Grameen Foundation have been born. Grameen Phone, a highly successful telecommunications company has provided phones to rural women, many of whom have become successful entrepreneurs. However both the Grameen Bank and micro-credit have had critics. The high rate of interest is seen to be exploitative by many. There have been accusations that the methods of recovery, often by overzealous bank officials, have led to extreme hardship. grameen-office-copy.jpg
The skyscraper that now houses the bank, many feel, distance it from the poor it represents. The close links with Clinton and Turner, and the uncritical position taken by Yunus in his public interactions with them, has also been viewed with suspicion. Yunus makes light of these observations. Regarding the criticism of his model, he has a simple answer. ?I make no claims to having a perfect system. The problem has to be solved. Should someone come up with a better solution, I would happily adopt it.?
Bangladesh has largely been known for floods famine and other disasters. Yunus has provided Bangladesh with a pride it badly needs. Many had hoped that he would enter politics, providing an alternative to power hungry politicians that people have lost trust in. While he has steered away from mainstream politics, Yunus was an adviser to the caretaker government. That this popular teacher turned banker should be the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2006 is a source of great joy to Bangladeshis, but an honour they feel was long overdue.
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(Photo by Munem Wasif / DrikNEWS)
Shahidul Alam
Drik Picture Library Ltd.
Dhaka 1988 and 2006
High resolution photographs available from Drik Picture Library: library@drik.net
and DrikNews: driknews@gmail.com, driknews@yahoo.com

Profits versus the Poor

?I have lost a son, maybe I?ll lose another, but I won?t let them setup a coalmine here.? To Tahmina Begum who had lost her son Toriqul to police bullets, her land was also her family. It could have been a ?B? rated western except that it is set in the east. People wanting to hang on to their ancestral land versus mining companies wanting huge profits. There have been only minor changes from previous scripts. When farmers wanted fertilizers and seeds, the police had opened fire killing them, when they wanted electricity to irrigate their soil, the police had opened fire killing them. Now that they want to retain their land rather than have it converted into coal mines again the police have opened fire killing them. The Shaotals, being indigenous minority groups, find themselves even more vulnerable within this persecuted community. In the shootings on the 26th September 2006, in Phulbari, Dinajpur, in northwestern Bangladesh, at least six villagers are known to have been killed, over a hundred are said to be missing.

Continue reading “Profits versus the Poor”

These strangers are family now

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PHOTOS and TEXT by SHEHAB UDDIN

Nepal Times Issue #304 (30 June 06 – 06 July 06)

Most people find shelters for senior citizens depressing and avoid visiting them. But working on this photo feature at the Pashupati Bridhashram over the past six months, I have been inexplicably uplifted. I forget the stress of living in Kathmandu and my homesickness for my native Bangladesh. I feel fortunate that I have a family, as many of the senior citizens once had. But what gives me hope is that even though they have lost families and possessions, they still care. They care for each other and they retain a deep sense of humanity. The story of how they landed up here is almost always the same: in their old age they became a burden on their families who dumped them at Pashupati. For the elderly, it?s sometimes a relief that they are in such a holy place and don?t have to bear the taunts of a home where they are no longer welcome. None of them came here willingly and no one has anywhere to go. The Pashupati Bridhashram is run by the government so its budget is limited, it is congested, short-staffed and shows signs of mismanagement. There are 230 residents, 140 of them women.


GREETING:
?Namaste, aram?? That is how Sankule Lati, 77, greets strangers with a namaste and a quick tilt to her head.


LAUGHING:
Til Kumari Khatri, 71, and Yadongba Tamang, 70, laugh and play like children. Til Kumari has been here since 1998. Her daughter-in-law brought her to the shelter one day and left saying: ?I?ll be back soon.? She never came back.

CHANTING:
Every morning and evening residents gather for bhajans. Those who can?t walk to the prayer room chant from their own beds.

BATHING:
Dhana Kumari Ranabhat, 99, takes a bath with the help of her husband Dil Bahadhur Ranabhat, 90. The couple is lucky, few here still have their spouses. Dhana Kumari was forced here after her husband died but married Dil Bahadhur, a retired soldier.

CHATTING:
Tirtha Maya Thapa, 75 and Man Kumari Thapa, 75, sit and chat. Tirtha Maya was so busy taking care of her parents, she never married. But after they died, her relatives evicted her from her house. Man Kumari?s long lost son came and took her home a few months ago.

EATING:
Bishnumaya Lati, 72, takes her evening meal with her two favourite dogs in attendance. She lives here with her husband.

COOKING:
Kanchi Khatri cooks food in the shelter. She was the maid servant at the home of an astrologer and when she was no longer able to work nine years ago, her employer brought her here.

PRAYING:
Laxmi Thapa, 68, prays to a wall full of pictures of the gods. She doesn?t remember where she was born or her family since she was married very young. Laxmi worked as a domestic all her life. Her alcoholic husband used to beat her up. When she broke her arm, her employer abandoned her so she came here. Now she prays all the time. ?I spent all my life helping others,? she says, ?now there is no one to help me.?

FEEDING:
Dipa Thapa, 75, has two pet cats in the shelter. They are her only friends. She used to sell flowers in Pashupati and when her husband died, she came here.

COMBING:
Ratna Maya Katiwada, 68, has kept to herself since she came here three years ago. No one knows the whereabouts of her family or where she is from.



RECITING:
Shanti Tuladhar recites a poem from her book, Unko Samjhana. She loves poetry and is still writing. Married at 30, her husband was in the army and when he died 12 years ago, she was sent here. Shanti doesn?t like to talk about her son. She reads us her favourite poem:

In my old age
Shanti Tuladhar
My sons have grown up
Huts have turned into high-rises
They?re adding floors one by one
For me, there is just the pyre left
As the house grew taller
We were pushed lower
Lower than the staircase dark and dank
My son has grown up but what has he done?
I became a burden and he brought me here
My family is foreign forever,
These strangers are family now.
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Demagogues at Airports

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He looked worried as most passengers would do, waiting for luggage that should have arrived. It had been a while since EK005 from Dubai had landed at Heathrow terminal 3. Belt 2 was almost empty. They announced that one lot of bags was yet to arrive. There was hope yet.

Nawaz Sharif at Heathrow

Now that we were the only two passengers left, we made eye contact. With a faint nod he registered my recognition, as celebrities often do. He asked me in Urdu, where I was from. Dhaka, I muttered, and we shook hands. He found no need to introduce himself as Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan. I resisted the temptation to ask him about his property in London, or the proposed tryst with Benazir.

This had occurred before, once at terminal 4 when General Ershad, the former president of Bangladesh had arrived. No fanfare, no waiting crowds, people walking by. I wondered how it felt. They both had absolute power when they ruled, and had used it with abandon. I remembered our resistance in the streets, the police brutality, the teargas. Noor Hossain and Milon’s death. Despite all the rhetoric about their closeness to the people, fending for themselves at the airport terminal was probably as near as they ever got to seeing what it was like on the other side.

7th June 2006

Biarritz

Boundaries

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Chobi Mela IV

She packed her load of firewood onto the crowded train in Pangsha. The morning sun peered through the lazy winter haze. The vendors called ?chai garam, boildeem? and the train slowly chugged out of the station, people still clambering on board, or finishing last minute transactions. Some saying farewell. The scene had probably not been very different a hundred years ago. Maybe then, they carried pan in place of firewood, or some other commodity that people at the other end needed. She would come back the same day, bringing back what was needed here. Only today she was a smuggler. The artificial and somewhat random lines drawn by a British lawyer had made her an outlaw. She was crossing boundaries. There were other boundaries to cross. The job a woman was allowed to do, the class signs on the coaches that she could not read but was constantly made aware of. The changing light and the smells as sheet (winter) went into boshonto (spring). The Ashar clouds that the photographers waited for, which seemed to wait until the light was right.
Rickshaw wallas find circuitous routes to take passengers across the VIP road. Their tenuous existence made more difficult by the fact that permits are difficult to get, and the bribes now higher. Hip hop music in trendy discos in Gulshan and Banani with unwritten but clearly defined dress codes make space for the yuppie elite of Dhaka. The Baul Mela in Kushtia draws a somewhat different crowd. Ecstasy and Ganja breaks down some barriers while music creates the bonding. Lalon talks of other boundaries, of body and soul, the bird and the cage.
Photography creates its own compartments. The photojournalist, the fine artist, the well paid celebrity, the bohemian dreamer, the purist, the pragmatist, the classical, the hypermodern, the uncropped image, the setup shot, the Gettys and the Driks. The majority world. The South. The North. The West. The developing world. Red filters, green filters, high pass filters, layers, masks, feathered edges. No photoshop, yes photoshop. Canonites, Nikonites, Leicaphytes, digital, analogue.
The digital divide. The haves, the have nots. Vegetarians, vegans, carnivores. Heterosexuals, metrosexuals, transsexuals, homosexuals. The straight, the kinky. The visionaries, the mercenaries, the crude the erudite, the pensive the flamboyant. Oil, gas, bombs, immigration officials. WTO, subsidies, sperm banks, kings, tyrants, presidents, prime ministers, revolutionaries, terrorists, anarchists, activists, pacifists, the weak, the meek, the strong, the bully. The good the evil. The hawks the doves. The evolutionists, the creationists. The crusaders the Jihadis. The raised fist, the clasped palms. The defiant, the oppressive, the green, the red. The virgin.
Whether cattle are well fed, or children go hungry, whether bombs are valid for defence, or tools of aggression, boundaries ? seen and unseen ? define our modes of conduct, our freedoms, our values, our very ability to recognise the presence of the boundaries that bind us.
Festival Website

Colliding with the State

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Lisa Botos from the Time Magazine office in Hong Kong, had done most of the hard work. Permissions had been obtained and the protocol arrangements had been made. The shoot was on. Having gone through the security hoop at the prime minister?s secretariat, I had settled in at the waiting room along with my colleagues photographer Aminuzzaman from Drik and writer Alex Perry and William Green from Time. That was when the trouble started. Officials rushed to usher me out of my seat. I was wondering what other security alert I had triggered off. My faux pas was somewhat more embarrassing. I had been sitting on the prime minister?s chair.
I had only been allocated a few minutes for the cover shoot, which went well despite one of my lamps blowing on me, but luckily the prime minister had agreed to our suggestion that we follow her on her trip to Pabna. I scurried to change gear for the outdoor shoot. Emptying memory cards, handing over existing images to to take to the library, a quick visit to the loo, were all things that needed to get done, except that I was told ?hurry, she is on her way to the helicopter.? Dumping equipment into my camera bag, handing over my laptop to, I stuck my digital wallet into the pile and made a dash for it. The loo would have to wait. That was when a strong arm jutted out in the corridor. The security guard had prevented me from running into the prime minister! Alex calmly asked me if I had run into other heads of state before. ?Only once? I had said, as I had nearly bumped into Mahathir while running up the stairs at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur. But that was a long time ago.
It was a long and eventful day and one I must write about, but for the moment you?ll need to settle for the cover image of the current Time Magazine (10th April 2006 issue) and Alex?s writeup.

Masterpieces To Go

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Another non-terrorist Pakistani story.

Under the shade of a colossal banyan tree, Karachi truck painter Haider Ali, 22, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation: a side-panel mural of Hercules subduing a lion, rendered in iridescent, undiluted hues of purple, yellow, red and green. His 10-year-old nephew, Fareed Khalid, applies a preparatory undercoat of white paint to the taj, the wooden prow that juts above the truck?s cab like a crown. Like Ali?s father, who first put a brush into his son?s hand at age eight, Haider is carrying on a master-apprentice tradition with Fareed, who spends his afternoons in the painter?s workshop after mornings in school.

The Land Became The Sea

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As we watch in horror at the scale of the event, several things come to mind. How events a thousand miles away can affect our lives in so many ways. How connected we are in our joys and our sorrow. I realise that Bangladesh was not as badly affected as our neighbours, and that we should take pride in our achievements, but Bangladeshi newspapers today gloated over the victory of the Bangladeshi cricket team over India in their headlines! While I fret over the fact that the media plays on the negative, to downplay a disaster of such proportions in favour of a cricket match said a lot about our sense of proportions. In 1991, when nearly a million people had gathered to demand the trial of a war criminal, the government had chosen to ignore the news and mentioned instead the man of the match in a cricket game in Shunamganj. I had hoped a free media would play a more responsible role.

As I watch BBC and CNN interview British and German tourists, and the director of Oxfam from her office in Oxford, I remember my experiences in the 1991 cyclone where one hundred and twenty thousand people died in Bangladesh. As I stumbled through the debris, trying to get a sense of what had happened on the night of the 29th April 2001, I kept asking “What happened that night?” The aid workers told me of the number of bags of wheat they had distributed. The government officials quoted the figure in dollars that would be needed for reconstruction, the engineers spoke of the force of the wind.

A young woman in Sandweep looked at me and said “The land became a sea, and the sea became a wave”.

I try to imagine the tsunamis hitting the coasts of India, and Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and remember her words. The thousands whose lives have been wrecked by the earthquake do not constitute the ‘experts’ that the media consider worth asking.

Shahidul Alam
27th December 2004
Dhaka

Dhaka Traffic Blues

Politically Correct Eid Greetings

Well, the long holidays are over, and the streets of Dhaka are slowly getting back to their normal frenzy. The horns, the put-put of the baby taxis, the bewildered stare of the taxi driver as he tries to interpret the gyrations of the traffic warden, the gentle smile on the bus driver as he parks the bus in the center lane waiting for the passengers to offload the chicken coops on the rooftop, the suicidal pedestrian who tries to cross the road over to Jahangir Tower in Kawran Bajar, the glee on Asma, the flower girl’s face as she spots me, and skips between two trucks, to my bicycle, knowing she has a sure sale, the babu in the back seat with the newspaper covering his face, the blind beggar coughing through the thick black smoke of the BRTC double-decker are some of the familiar signs that tell me that there is stability in my life and the world has not changed. In this season of greetings, and eco conscious, politically correct messages, I send you a recycled, lead-free wish.

May you find a way to travel
From anywhere to anywhere
In the rush hour
In less than an hour
And when you get there
May you find a parking space
The year has had its usual ups and downs for Drik, but the adrenaline flowing due to the constant crisis management during Chobi Mela has everyone hyped up. The big show on the 10th January looms. The hits in the web site have climbed regularly, and the December total of 105,857 hits is an all time record for us. It’s a credit to you all for having stuck with us for so long.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
May the good light be with you.
Shahidul Alam
Wed Jan 3, 2001