The Price of Social Distancing

Rahnuma forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

Workers sleeping in shipbreaking yard in Rahman Yard in Chittagong. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Continue reading “The Price of Social Distancing”

Amartya Sen: India’s dirty fighter

Half of Indians have no toilet. It’s one of many gigantic failures that have prompted Nobel prize-winning academic Amartya Sen to write a devastating critique of India’s economic boom

The Guardian

The roses are blooming at the window in the immaculately kept gardens of Trinity College, Cambridge and Amartya Sen is comfortably ensconced in a cream armchair facing shelves of his neatly catalogued writings. There are plenty of reasons for satisfaction as he approaches his 80th birthday. Few intellectuals have combined academic respect and comparable influence on global policy. Few have garnered quite such an extensive harvest of accolades: in addition to his Nobel prize and more than 100 honorary degrees, last year he became the first non-US citizen to be awarded the National Medal for the Humanities.
An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean Dreze, Amartya Sen
But Sen doesn’t do satisfaction. He does outrage expressed in the most reasonable possible terms. What he wants to know is where more than 600 million Indians go to defecate.

“Half of all Indians have no toilet. In Delhi when you build a new condominium there are lots of planning requirements but none relating to the servants having toilets. It’s a combination of class, caste and gender discrimination. It’s absolutely shocking. Poor people have to use their ingenuity and for women that can mean only being able to relieve themselves after dark with all the safety issues that entails,” says Sen, adding that Bangladesh is much poorer than India and yet only 8% don’t have access to a toilet. “This is India’s defective development.”

Despite all the comfort and prestige of his status in the UK and the US – he teaches at Harvard – he hasn’t forgotten the urgency of the plight of India’s poor, which he first witnessed as a small child in the midst of the Bengal famine of 1943. His new book, An Uncertain Glory, co-written with his long-time colleague Jean Drèze, is a quietly excoriating critique of India’s boom.

It’s the 50% figure which – shockingly – keeps recurring. Fifty per cent of children are stunted, the vast majority due to undernourishment. Fifty per cent of women have anaemia for the same reason. In one survey, there was no evidence of any teaching activity in 50% of schools in seven big northern states, which explains terrible academic underachievement.

Despite considerable economic growth and increasing self-confidence as a major global player, modern India is a disaster zone in which millions of lives are wrecked by hunger and by pitiable investment in health and education services. Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa, sum up Sen and Drèze.

The details are outrageous but the outlines of this story are familiar and Sen and Drèze are losing patience (they have collaborated on several previous books) and their last chapter is entitled The Need for Impatience. They want attention, particularly from the vast swath of the Indian middle classes who seem indifferent to the wretched lives of their neighbours. So they have aimed their critique at India’s national amour-propreby drawing unfavourable comparisons, firstly with the great rival China but even more embarrassingly with a string of south Asian neighbours.

indian slum
An Indian boy defecates in the open in one of New Delhi’s slums. Photograph: AP Photo/Kevin Frayer”

There are reasons for India to hang its head in shame. Alongside the success, there have been gigantic failures,” says Sen. He is making this critique loud and clear in the media on both sides of the Atlantic ahead of the book’s launch in India this week. “India will prick up its ears when comparisons with China are made, but the comparison is not just tactical. China invested in massive expansion of education and healthcare in the 70s so that by 1979, life expectancy was 68 while in India it was only 54.”

Sen and Drèze’s argument is that these huge social investments have proved critical to sustaining China’s impressive economic growth. Without comparable foundations, India’s much lauded economic growth is faltering. Furthermore, they argue that India’s overriding preoccupation with economic growth makes no sense without recognising that human development depends on how that wealth is used and distributed. What’s the purpose of a development model that produces luxury shopping malls rather than sanitation systems that ensure millions of healthy lives, ask Drèze and Sen, accusing India of “unaimed opulence”. India is caught in the absurd paradox of people having mobile phones but no toilets.

Even more stark is the comparison with Bangladesh. “Our hope is that India’s public policymakers will be embarrassed by the comparison with Bangladesh. On a range of development indicators such as life expectancy, child immunisation and child mortality, Bangladesh has pulled ahead of India despite being poorer.’

What makes this comparison so powerful is that Bangladesh has targeted the position of women not just through government policy but also through the work of non-governmental organisations such as BRAC and the Grameen Bank. As a result, there have been astonishing successes, says Sen, such as a dramatic fall in fertility rate and girls now outnumbering boys in education. All this has been achieved despite having half the per capita income of India.

Other impoverished neighbours such as Nepal have made great strides, while even Sri Lanka has kept well ahead of India on key indicators despite a bitter civil war for much of the last 30 years. Drèze and Sen conclude in their book that India has “some of the worst human development indicators in the world” and features in the bottom 15 countries, along with Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan. Seven of the poorest Indian states account for the biggest concentration of deprivation on the globe.

India, Kathputli
Street scene in Delhi’s Kathputli colony, where the houses have no running water, electricity or sanitation. Photograph: Donatella Giagnori/LatinContent/Getty Images

After this blizzard of facts and figures – and the book is stuffed with them – one might fear reader despair, but the reverse is true. This is a book about what India could do – and should do. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh are held up as good examples of how social investments from the 60s to the 80s have reaped dividends in economic growth. What holds India back is not lack of resources but lack of clear-sighted, long-term policies and the political will to implement them. Sen (still an Indian citizen) is optimistic, pointing to the political mobilisation following the rape of a young woman student on a bus in Delhi last December, which led to the rapid adoption of new measures to combat violence against women. The consciences of the Indian middle classes can be stirred, and, when they are, political action follows.

But he admits “intellectual wonder” at how it is that more people can’t see that economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable – and unethical. What underpins the book is a deep faith in human reason, the roots of which he traces to India’s long argumentative tradition going as far back as the Buddha. If enough evidence and careful analysis is brought to bear on this subject then one can win the argument, and it is this faith that has sustained him through more than five decades of writing on human development. It was his work which led to the development of the much cited UN’s Human Development Index.

Influential he has certainly been, but he acknowledges he still hasn’t won the argument. To his dismay, there are plenty of examples where people seem set on ignoring the kind of evidence he stacks up; in passing he asks: “How can anyone believe austerity with high levels of unemployment is intelligent policy for the UK?”

He laughingly comments that colleagues say his thinking hasn’t evolved much, but he dismisses the idea of being frustrated. All he will concede is the astonishing admission that he wishes someone else had written this book on India. “There are a number of problems in philosophy which I would have preferred to tackle – such as problems with objectivity. But this book had to be written. I want these issues heard.”

He says that the Nobel prize and the National Medal from President Obama may be “overrated” but they give him a platform, and he unashamedly uses it – giving time to media interviews and travelling all over the world to deliver speeches. That has led to compromises on the intellectual projects he would have liked to pursue, but life has been full of compromises ever since he narrowly survived cancer as an 18-year-old: there are all kinds of food he cannot eat as a result.

He is an extraordinary academic by any account – a member of both the philosophy and the economics faculties at Harvard – and is helping to develop a new course on maths while supervising PhDs in law and public health. He has plans for several more books and no plans to slow down. Mastery of multiple academic disciplines is rare enough but it’s the dogged ethical preoccupation threading through all his work that is really remarkable. None of the erudition is used to intimidate; he is always the teacher.

Some argue that Sen is the last heir to a distinguished Bengali intellectual tradition that owed as much to poets as it did to scientists, politicians and philosophers. Sen is the true inheritor of Rabindranath Tagore, the great poet and thinker of the early decades of the 20th century. A family friend, he named Sen as a baby; the only photograph in Sen’s Cambridge study is that of the striking Tagore with his flowing white beard.

But on one issue Sen admits he now parts company with Tagore, and instead he quotes Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bengal’s other great poet who became an iconic figure for the nation of Bangladesh. Tagore was too patient; Nazrul was the rebel urging action. And he repeats a quote he uses in the book: “Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” He wants change and that means he is about to embark on a demanding tour of Indian cities to promote the book. The doctors have told him that if he slows down it will be irrevocable, so he’s decided not to. Retirement is not an option.

The path through the fields

Bangladesh has dysfunctional politics and a stunted private sector. Yet it has been surprisingly good at improving the lives of its poor

The Economist Nov 3rd 2012

Villagers are doing it for themselves

ON THE outskirts of the village of Shibaloy, just past the brick factory, the car slows to let a cow lumber out of its way. It is a good sign. Twenty years ago there was no brick factory, or any other industry, in this village 60 kilometres west of Dhaka; there were few cows, and no cars. The road was a raised path too narrow for anything except bicycles. Continue reading “The path through the fields”

WHERE IS DEMOCRACY

‘Where is Democracy?’ based on Kolaveri D , is a satire on the state of democracy in Gujarat. Exposing the myth of Vibrant Gujarat the song raises questions about corruption, poverty, women’s conditions, the atmosphere of fear and how the image of one leader has been promoted while others have been pushed to a corner. Sung by Priyank Upadhyay, it has been directed and shot by young Anhad filmmaker Arma Ansari. While Manish Dhakad has acted in the music video, words by Shabnam Hashmi .

 Kolaveri D latest version 17th August, 2012

Amartya Sen: The New Elizabethans

Amartya Sen: BBC

DURATION: 12 MINUTES

The New Elizabethans: Amartya Sen the Nobel-winning laureate known as the Mother Theresa of economics for his work understanding and fighting the causes of poverty.
Best known for his work on the causes of famine, his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, argued that famine occurs not only from a lack of food, but from inequalities built into mechanisms for distributing food. Sen also helped to create the United Nations Human Development Index which is used to rank countries by standard of living or quality of life.
Now working as Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, he began at the tender age of twenty-three by setting up a new economics department at Jadavpur University in Calcutta, but he has also held professorships at Delhi University, the London School of Economics and the University of Oxford.
When in 1998 he was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he became the first Asian academic to head an Oxbridge college. In the same year he received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work in welfare economics.
The New Elizabethans have been chosen by a panel of leading historians, chaired by Lord (Tony) Hall, Chief Executive of London’s Royal Opera House. The panellists were Dominic Sandbrook, Bamber Gascoigne, Sally Alexander, Jonathan Agar, Maria Misra and Sir Max Hastings.
They were asked to choose: “Men and women whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands and/or given the age its character, for better or worse.”

Dhanmondi Brickbreakers on Vimeo


Dhanmondi Brickbreakers on Vimeo
The traditional form of brick breaking has now been replaced by machines that do the bulk of the job. As with most low paid jobs in Bangladesh, there are many associated risks.

Beating the enemies of microfinance

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Muhammad Yunus banks on beating the enemies of microfinance

The Nobel peace prize winner discusses recent attacks on his schemes to relieve poverty, from within Bangladesh and abroad

Madeleine Bunting
guardian.co.uk, Monday 18 July 2011 09.43 BST

Microfinance pioneer and Nobel peace prize winner Muhammad Yunus Photograph: Philipp Ebeling

Muhammad Yunus is good at being calm. At 7.30am in a chilly office in central London, he talks with urbane charm and all the dispassionate objectivity of a philosopher as he considers the Bangladeshi government’s campaign against him, and the possibility that it might destroy his life’s work building up the world’s first microfinance bank.
He is Bangladesh’s most famous son, known as the world’s banker to the poor, winner in 2006 with the Grameen Bank of the Nobel peace prize, a tireless campaigner at global summits for microfinance and social enterprise who can count Hillary Clinton, Nicolas Sarkozy and Mary Robinson among his many friends. But as the saying goes, a prophet is never recognised in his own country. Neither the global acclaim ? nor the protestations of both the French and the US government ? is making much difference to a government intent on destroying Yunus’s hold on Grameen Bank and the network of social enterprise companies he has developed over the last four decades.
Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina Wajed has accused him of “sucking blood from the poor”, and others have alleged corruption despite official government inquiries clearing him last month of any wrongdoing. In the end, the only charge that has stuck is that at a sprightly 70, he is too old to be managing director of the Grameen Bank. A charge made, incidentally, by the 77-year-old finance minister.
“I’m not hurt by the vilification in the press; I’m disappointed and I’m worried. I don’t want to see an organisation which has come all this way and brought so much good to the country and brought power to the people, come to this. Many people are angry but anger doesn’t solve anything,” he says.
“I want to calm things down. If we are prepared, we can do damage control.”
This is his first interview since the crisis broke early this year. Yunus is refusing to talk to the Bangladeshi media for fear of further inflaming the controversy, and he is adamant that he will not be drawn into speculating as to why the government has forced his recent resignation. He simply says: “I can’t see the purpose, I can’t see what the country gains, what the government gains.”
There is certainly a lot to lose. Any bank depends on confidence and the last few months have been turbulent for Grameen’s 22,000 employees and 8.36 million borrowers, 97% of whom are women. So far, repayment rates on the millions of small loans are holding steady and borrowers are not withdrawing deposits ? either could bring the bank to collapse. Yunus’s calmness in London is all about steadying the confidence of his Bangladeshi audience. As one of the most efficient and stable economic institutions in a desperately poor country, there are many who are hoping he will succeed and that Grameen will weather this storm.
It was a YouTube version of a documentary film made by a Dane and broadcast in Norway late last year about Yunus, Grameen Bank and microfinance generally that prompted the outcry against him. The film ? in Norwegian, it has not yet been translated ? eventually prompted a government review of the Grameen Bank, investigating a number of charges ranging from some obscure accounting between Grameen subsidiaries and the Norwegian aid agency in the 1990s, to the charging of high interest rates to poor borrowers.
The government review cleared Yunus in April, but made a number of recommendations for the future of the Grameen Bank. At the same time, the government followed another line of attack with the finance minister ordering that he resign because he is too old; Grameen Bank took the minister to court and lost. Reluctantly, Yunus decided that to avoid further turbulence, he had no option but to resign. He is hoping that “good sense will prevail” and the government will allow him to take up a position of non-executive chair to oversee the transition.
While Yunus refuses to be drawn on the reasons for this bitter political dogfight, his many friends and allies are rushing to his help. An international campaign, Friends of the Grameen, was launched in March, chaired by Mary Robinson, while both the US and the French governments have remonstrated with the Bangladeshi authorities. Clinton phoned to offer her personal support; Nicolas Sarkozy wrote to assure Yunus of his. It’s all a far cry from the day he stood up in Oslo and talked of putting “poverty into a museum” in his Nobel prize acceptance speech.
The most likely explanation for the attacks on him is that Yunus’s brief foray into politics in 2007 unnerved Sheikh Hasina. He announced he was going to set up a political party but ended up abandoning his the idea after only two months. His huge global reputation and the economic weight of the Grameen brand has made enemies insecure.
Yunus may be suddenly unemployed, but he is not short of offers. There has been plenty of interest from all over the world, he admits, adding that he has been offered institutes to head, initiatives to lead, figurehead positions. But on this he is very clear: he is not leaving Bangladesh.
If the man is under siege, so is the idea he nurtured. There is a crisis in the microfinance sector in India, where high rates of interest in the private sector microfinance banks were linked with suicides. Yunus is defiant about microfinance, which he still passionately believes has been of benefit to millions.
“We never said microfinance was a silver bullet,” he insists. “Or why would I bother to create 50 other companies ranging from agriculture to telecommunications? Job creation is the solution to poverty. Loans should only be given to fund enterprises. They mustn’t ever be used for ‘consumption smoothing’ or how can people pay back the loans? It has to be about income generation.”
“When microfinance spread across the world, some people abused it. Some went berserk. In my opinion, if there is any personal profit involved, it should not be called microfinance, which should be totally devoted to the benefit of poor people. People used the respect for microfinance. In every country where there was microfinance they needed proper regulatory authorities to oversee the sector and legislation to define it. I knew that the sector was crippled by an inadequate legal framework.”
Yunus recognises there was some “overbilling” of microfinance, but sees that as part of the way you win donors’ interest in a project. He certainly used powerful rhetoric to urge on efforts in tackling poverty. But beyond that he is unapologetic. He didn’t oversell it; when he talked of putting poverty in a museum it was a “hope”, he says, it was not a plan. And he is emphatic: “Microfinance does reduce poverty. Look at the people who have joined Grameen. It’s the most intensively researched organisation in the world.”
The research in Bangladesh has been positive but then the country’s economy has been growing at 8% a year, and the research has not been rigorous enough to separate out which has been responsible for poverty reduction. Yunus knows these debates about evidence but he will give them no quarter, and he simply repeats: “I believe it reduces poverty; it’s become the fashion to be negative about Grameen.”
“It was the media who built up microfinance,” he says.
On one thing even critics of microfinance agree. Whatever the problems now bedevilling the sector, its originator is being treated appallingly in Bangladesh. As for Yunus, he stoically insists his work must go on. He spends as much time talking about social business now as he does about microfinance, such as developing partnerships with businesses such as the food company Danone to create enterprise schemes for the poor. Institutes dedicated to social business have recently been launched in Glasgow and Paris.
“I’m programmed to keep working,” he smiles, and then he allows himself a little self-aggrandisement. “It’s like Socrates or Galileo. If you are saying something different or new, and it doesn’t fit, it will create tension. If people applaud, you’re not doing something new. If people get shocked, you’re in business.”

Ekti Mujiborer Theke

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He was the quiet one amongst us. The shadow that accentuated the highlight. In an organization known for its creativity and exuberance, Mujibor was the unsung worker. He swept the floor, lugged things around and was the one everyone called upon when things got bad. Looking for a picture of him, I realized he wasn?t even listed in the Drik Family Profile section. He never got mentioned in the acknowledgements, except for a general thank you to ?all the others who helped?. I could find no photograph of Mujibor, except for the one I took when he died.

Two of the photographs we eventually found. An old file photo of the Drik family. Mujibor is standing on the extreme right.



Another photo from our archives. Probably at a Drik picnic.

His is the typical story of the rural poor. With little education and no special skills, making a living had become difficult. His brother Moti, and cousin Delower who work at Pathshala and Drik, introduced him to us. A low paid job in the city was better than being out of work in the village. Drik also provided opportunities to learn. Mujibor needed to send money home, so sharing a mess with colleagues was the cheapest way to live. Skimping on food, another way to save more for the children?s education. Not a wise decision when one is in poor health, but Mujibor had little choice. The extra food allowance we provided was also sent home rather than spent on meals.
When he was diagnosed with TB, my sister Najma arranged for his treatment. But the treatment for poverty is more complex and needs long-term solutions. Over a third of TB cases in Bangladesh go undetected. Many of us who might be infected by TB face none of the consequences. A decent regular meal is often enough to keep the disease at bay. For many however, a decent regular meal is a tall order. With spiraling costs of food, and high house rents, sending money home, is often at the cost of one?s longevity. A trade off that many accept as given. Mujibor was 40ish. Not many people in Bangladesh know their exact age. Few have birth certificates. His life was unexceptional, his pay was unexceptional, his death was unexceptional. Once one accepts the reality of poverty. It is that acceptance, that the have-nots have to accept such lives and such deaths, that is exceptional.
Mujibor?s salary was considerably more than the minimum wage stipulated by the government. Yet he struggled to support his three children and wife, all of whom lived in the village, where costs were lower. He lived alone in the city.
I remember a migrant worker in Paris telling me. ?I live and work here, and send money home. Perhaps my sister will get married, perhaps we might even buy a plot of land, but the best years of my life are spent in loneliness and misery. Who will give me back my youth??
The inequalities between and within nations are propped up by systems which worship profit above all else. The buyers squeeze the sellers squeeze the suppliers choke the workers. A much more famous Mujibor*** had spoken of a golden Bengal (Bangladesh). That Mujibor?s followers will need to do more than name monuments after him and pursue insane acts of vengeance, for the gold to reach this Mujibor?s children.
Muhammad Al Bouazizi, a 26 year old fruit seller, set himself alight in Tunisia in protest. Mujibor?s protest was more muted. He suddenly fell ill and was bleeding from his mouth and rectum. He was immediately taken to hospital. We all rushed to his side. The doctor recognised me. He said he would take special care. He suspected lung cancer and that little time was left. We were devastated. He was transferred to Intensive Care. The family was called in from the village.
As I stroked his forehead as he lay with tubes stuck to him, I saw the taut muscular body, the kind all workers have. Like Sultan?s** paintings. He wanted water, but the nurses said it was dangerous. I was only able to convince them to wet his lips. He was parched and wanted more. We said goodbye. I used words, he spoke with his eyes.
It had been just over 36 hours when, a bit after midnight, the doctor talked of putting him on life support. We hadn?t told Mujibor, but the man knew he was dying. His gentle smile had long gone. When his brother arrived at around 1:30 in the morning, he simply said ?I?m leaving. Look after the children.? At 03:10 he had.
Mujibor and Bouzazi both died of a disease called poverty. Will the rage in Middle East and African nations spread to the rest of the world? They will say we are different, we have regular elections and a democratic system. Mujibor?s wife and children and millions of inhabitants of Golden Bengal might disagree.
*?ekti mujoborer theke lokkho mujiborer kontho? famous song sung during the liberation war, ?from the voice of one Mujib will rise a thousand other Mujib?s voices?
** S M Sultan, Bangladeshi painter known for the muscular men and women he depicted in his paintings of rural Bangladsh.
***Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (popularly known as Bongobondhu, friend of Bengal), who is acknowledged as the founder of the nation.

From the other side of the fence

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There is a certain arrogance in ?teaching? anything. The assumption that you know best, and the certainty that you are in authority. The clear hierarchy. Bhaiya and Apa, against tumi or tui. When advantages of age and access are coupled with differences of class, it forms a dangerous mix. One needs to tread warily. The medium of photography, because of its power, is a dangerous tool. One hopes to share the adventure of a new way of seeing, but stay alert to the traps of privileged voyeurism. To empower and not be patronizing. To open windows of opportunity. To let in fresh ideas, but not trample on thoughts that exist.
It?s been tried before. The novelty of teaching children, the moral high ground through providing what was absent, the exoticism of entering a world through eyes that have special access are ways in which new worlds have been ?discovered?. Rarely has it raised the question of the invisibility of worlds that leads to such discovery. Empowerment can only be explored where equality has previously been denied. How then does one approach exploitation? How does one undo wrongs when one is on the ?wrong? side of the fence?
There are no easy answers. No secret ingredient, that makes one immune to the hazards of benevolent intervention. Therein lies the magic of this medium. Stripped of the need for technical prowess that makes privileged knowledge a domain of the privileged. Unburdened by the material limitations of films and their cost. Liberated from the aesthetic leanings of conventional education, some children have a freedom that their ?well brought up? counterparts have long lost.

Photo:?Shawlin Akhter, 12

Photo:?Md. Shahin Alam, 15

It?s a contagious spontaneity. A boy and his shadow, hovering in suspended animation, take the ?decisive moment? to new heights. Clutching her prized possessions, a little girl walks through a rubbish tip, her hesitant smile lighting up the drabness of her surrounds. A lonesome worker, drooped in toil, rests his weary body. These are not images made because of some learned aesthetics, or some schooling of shape or form. No complex law of composition can compete with the contours shaped by a caring eye. No sermon on tempo and pace can replace the irrepressible energy of unabashed youthfulness. No theory on the use of negative space can contain the sheer audacity of an unbounded horizon. Did the ?teachers? not have a role? Of course they did. They stepped out of the way when they knew the time was right. They coaxed and cajoled when a little prod was needed. They said ?yes, yes, yes?, when they saw hesitation in expectant eyes. They waxed the wings of flight. They let imagination soar.
Photo: Md. Foysal, 13

These gentle, harsh, chaotic and elegant images remind us, not of some untapped potential that our intervention has released, but the humanity in abundance that our unabated surge for growth, leaves behind.
Exhibition and launch
Dhaka Diary
UNICEF website

Window to the soul

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A portrait they say, is not so much a likeness of the person being photographed, but a depiction of one?s character. More grand definitions talk of them being a ?window to the soul?. I looked at my portrait of this ?enemy of the country? as a labour minister had declared, and wondered whether I had indeed found a window to her soul. She had just been arrested in Gazipur, and I had no further information.

Moshrefa Mishu secretary general of Ganatantrik Biplabi Party. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

With numerous cases strategically lodged all over the country on trumped up charges, her arrest was always on the cards. In today?s countrywide strike for workers? pay, facing violent repression, their resistance was a defiant stand for the rights of the oppressed. She and the workers she represented, all knew the risks. She had to lead from the front, come what may.
One is generally kind to bread winners. They are the ones who sit at the head of the table, get the choice piece of meat, make after dinner speeches. Their comfort and their happiness is of prime importance to those who survive on that bread. Bangladesh earns 12 billion dollars from garment exports and gets three quarters of its export earnings from this single sector. One would imagine that the bread winners of Bangladesh, the two million garment workers, mostly women who had migrated from villages in search of work, would be offered a bit more than the Taka 1650 (less than USD 24) per month minimum wage.
But then these enemies of the country, didn?t stop at demanding more than a dollar a day for their work. They wanted weekends off, to be paid overtime, to be paid on time and enjoy statutory holidays. They even objected to their systematized sexual harassment.
So what if the garment sector was the most profitable, and the garment workers amongst the most poorly paid. Some workers getting paid as little as $ 12 a month maybe a bit on the low side, and maternity leave should really be given, but have some sympathy for the owners. Should the BGMEA bigwig owner who bought his wife the expensive Mercedes have to sell his car? It?s not only workers who find Bangladesh a difficult country to live in. The Merc, as I?ve been told, had been expensive to start with. With 850% tax being applied on luxury goods, the poor man had to pay nearly a million dollars for his wife?s set of wheels. OK, so it could have paid for a few $24/month salaries, but then his wife had other costs. They did have standards to maintain.
And these strikes were so annoying. Even in May, the death of the 25?year old worker Rana, led to unrest. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)?had to give up its normal task of extrajudicial killings to deal with?workers demanding decent wages.
I just heard that the campaign worked. Mishu?s been released. I should get on with my portraits. Perhaps I should photograph the garment owners to complement the picture of Mishu. Given my earlier failure with portraits, I would need to find the right metaphors for the window to their soul. A chunk of granite, glued to cold steel, wrapped in dollars could perhaps do the trick.
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related links: Unheard Voices