Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bangladesh likely to make u-turn from secularism to Islamic hegemony

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH, A Sunni Muslim majority country in a dramatic u-turn from secularism will adopt Islam as state religion and allow religion-based political parties to function.

Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina on Tuesday has expressed herself in favor of retaining Islam as the state religion, moving away from the secular provisions in the constitution that were incorporated when country gained independence in 1971, writes Indo Asian News Service.

The poorest nation of 150 million is the world’s third largest Muslim country. While Hindus is nine percent and rest are Buddhists and Christians. For centuries the minority religious communities faced persecution. The worst political-genocide bled the nation when India and Pakistan partitioned in 1947, triggering mass migration of Hindus to neighboring India and Muslims into Pakistan.

Pro-secularist advocates argue that the rural population and urban middle-class are largely moderate Muslim and practices tolerant Sufi Islamic philosophy. The moderate Muslims will be tormented by the Islamist political groups, which have an upper hand in state polity.

The rights groups and the independent press vigorously debated the summersault of the ruling Awami League, which is champion of secular politics for decades.

After a bloody war of Bangladesh independence from Islamic Pakistan, the new nation adopted secularism and enshrined in the constitution drafted under the founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, incidentally father of Hasina, the prime minister.

Subsequent military juntas’ after Rahman was assassinated in August 1975 doctored the constitution and incorporated religious expressions between 1975 and 1990.

Critics argue that such decision tantamount to defiance of the highest court’s landmark judgment in July last year. The court asked the government to restore the principles of secularism in the constitution.

Taking a new departure from the 1972 constitution, Hasina said that the Arabic phrase Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim will remain above the preamble of the constitution ‘Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim’ or In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate.

Sheikh Hasina told a special parliamentary committee formed to study amendment in the constitution in the light of supreme court verdicts that she would also like to see religion-based political parties to function.

Earlier, Hasina stated in the parliament that her government would keep Islam as the state religion, ignoring the emotions of the overwhelming secular population. However, her aides explained that the ethos of the majority of the population could not be tampered.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Monday, May 30, 2011

Bangladesh plans to reduce poverty by half

Photo: Koranic schools run on state coffer
SALEEM SAMAD

THE WORLD'S poorest country, Bangladesh envisions alleviating poverty by half and dramatically increased human development budget by 28 percent.

Planning minister A.K. Khandaker told journalists on Sunday that beginning July 1 government will invest in health services, education and infrastructure development. While power, energy and transport sectors received top priority, independence war veteran Khandaker said.

After years of under-investment in the power generation, the impoverished nation of 150 million has a daily shortfall of 2,000 megawatts, with rolling blackouts hitting the private sector, particularly manufacturing, hard.

The National Economic Council (NEC) chaired by prime minister Shiekh Hasina on Sunday has approved a 460 billion taka ($6.3 billion), of which 251.8 billion Taka, or 55 percent, will be its own money, which aimed at accelerating development activities, writes state-run news service Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha.

The remaining 41 percent or USD 2.54 billion will be from development partners as foreign aid, Khandaker briefed journalists after the meeting.

The World Banks says Bangladesh needs annual economic growth of 8.0 percent to achieve its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2021.

Nearly 13 percent has been budgeted for free primary schools and subsidies for controversial Koranic schools, while much talked about rural development and rural institutions have received nine per cent and 8.57 per cent for health, nutrition, population and family welfare.

The government after several hiccups finally approved a national health policy on Monday to keep pace with visible success in reaching the health-for-all goal.

Opposition and economist are critical of the government, regarding the slow and non-implementation of scores of development projects. The planning minister had no explanation to this widespread criticism, but said steps have taken to vigorously monitor the performance of the projects.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Yunus laments Bangladesh prime minister was badly advised

SALEEM SAMAD

NOBEL LAUREATE Professor Muhammad Yunus, the founder and former chief of microfinance bank Grameen Bank, lamented that the Bangladesh prime minister was wrong to criticize him.

In an interview with the BBC's Lesley Curwen broadcast on Wednesday, Yunus said he was forced to stand down last month. He said prime minister Sheikh Hasina had only done so because she had been "badly advised".

Yunus for the first time spoke to news media, since he was forced out of Grameen Bank following a brief spell of legal battle.

Microcredit guru, Yunus was charged with allegation of siphoning money from Grameen Bank, prime minister Hasina on Dec. 5 last year told journalists that he was sucking blood of the poor, writes wire service bdnews24.com.

Hasina, criticizing Yunus, said "there is no difference between a person who enjoys taking interest on money and one who takes bribe".

The pioneer of microfinance contested the prime minister’s observation that bank of the poor failed to play its role to eradicate poverty.

An estimated ten million rural women, beneficiaries of modest loans from the Grameen Bank were empowered and have broken the threshold of poverty. Tormented by the Islamist in the villages, these rural women voted a secular and democratic party to power, which is led by current prime minister Shiekh Hasina.

Meanwhile, Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, a former president of the Bangladesh Economic Association on Thursday said he believes it is difficult to overcome poverty through traditional ‘recovery-based’ micro lending activities. ‘Microcredit alone cannot bring in changes,’ he stressed.

Dr. Ahmad, chairman of a the World Bank supported microcredit funding agency Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) told English daily New Age that that introduction by the Microcredit Regulatory Authority certain conditionality for microfinance operations from June will streamline microcredit operations to some extent.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bangladesh let international company to sell natural gas to private sector

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH FOR the first time allowed an Australian energy company to sell gas to the private entrepreneurs within the country, amidst widespread criticism by social justice activists.

The state-owned energy exploration company Petrobangla, after protracted delays signed on Monday a gas purchase and sales agreement (GPSA) with international oil company Santos Limited.

The gas demand in Chittagong port and industrial city in south Bangladesh is 420-430 million cubic feet per day (MMCFD) against gas supply from possible sources reduced from 280 to 240 MMCFD.

Santos can now provide directly to gas starved Chittagong market to sell its share of natural gas to willing downstream consumers.

Petrobangla was scheduled to sign the GPSA in July last year, but it was delayed as the government Energy and Mineral Resources Division failed to take decision and finalize official formalities in time.

Petrobangla Chairman Prof. Hossain Monsur told reporters that the industrial production and commercial activities in Chittagong was facing serious crisis due to gas supply shortage, adding that he was hopeful about resolving the gas crisis in Chittagong by 2012 with support from the international oil companies, writes English daily The Sun.

Under the amendment to GPSA will allow gas starved industries in Chittagong. The export processing zones (EPZ) in Chittagong and a Japanese fertilizer factory have expressed to negotiate gas purchase directly from Santos, source said.

John Chambers, President of Santos Sangu Field Limited told English daily The Sun that he has received proactive responses from businesspersons in Chittagong who have already invested millions of dollars in infrastructure sector. But could not begin operation of their industrial productions due to gas crisis.

Entrepreneurs and investors in Chittagong demands primary fuel at any price to accelerate economic growth, Santos executive said.

Last year Santos acquired U.S, energy giant Cairn Energy Sangu Field Limited, which entered into Bangladesh in 1993. There is another stake of Sangu field which belongs to multinational company Halliburton.

Santos has plans to invest $120 million for the wells, drilling and connecting to national gas grid and complete in two years, 2012.

Economics Professor Anu Muhammad and activist of National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Port and Power said the bureaucrats in connivance with politicians were bent on giving away production sharing contracts to international energy giants. Whereas, the state-owned BAPEX was competent for oil and gas exploration, as they have demonstrated their skills, observed the activist.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bangladesh poised to offer Nobel laureate Yunus a position in the bank he founded

SALEEM SAMAD

BANGLADESH GOVERNMENT is contemplating to propose Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus a respectable position in the bank he founded, possibly after series of global uproar.Hours after Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus announced his resignation from the Grameen Bank as managing director on Thursday, government is considering to offer him an honorable position.

Microfinance pioneer Yunus announced Thursday his 'resignation' from the bank he founded as managing director, after two and a half months when he was forcibly removed by the central bank.

Last month, the United States and France exerted diplomatic pressure on Bangladesh to negotiate an honorable exit for Prof. Yunus. Robert O. Blake, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs threatened the Yunus issue will cause dent in US-Bangladesh relationship.

Finance minister A M A Muhith told BBC Bangla Service radio on Friday night that government is considering to offer Prof Yunus the position of emeritus member of the bank in recognition of his contribution to the institution.

He did not elaborate the roles and responsibilities of an emeritus member. But said, if necessary the Grameen Bank ordinance will be amended to have the new position in the bank.

Nevertheless, the minister said Yunus is a pride of the nation and the government wants to ensure a respectable departure for him.

In a letter of the central bank on Mar. 2 Yunus, 70, had no legal authority to act as the micro-lender's managing director, and alleged that its board had not obtained the central bank's sanction to re-appoint him beyond the bank's official retirement age, reports news portal bdnews24.com.

Yunus is confident and said that his resignation would not interrupt the operation of Grameen Bank. He believes that the eight million beneficiaries of the bank, mostly rural poor women will not be subjected to any difficulty.

Earlier Bangladesh finance minister A M A Muhith announced that deputy managing director Nurjahan Begum will be the stand-in managing director until the position is filled in by the board.

The Nobel laureate echoed Muhith’s statement, adding that Nurjahan would hold charge until a managing director is appointed in accordance with the Grameen Bank ordinance.

The government, however have rejected the Grameen Bank employees demand for making Prof Yunus chairman of the microfinance institution.

Yunus resignation announcement follows his losing a series of determined court battle against his 'removal' as the micro-lender's managing director for flouting rules when he was reappointed in 1999.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bangladesh anti-crime unit kills with impunity, despite promise to curb extra-judicial killings

SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladesh despite broken promises to curb the elite anti-crime unit has ignored to hold the organization responsible for extra-judicial killings, torture, abduction, and other abuses.

New York based Human Rights Watch on Monday blamed the elite anti-crime unit for an estimated 600 extra-judicial killings since March 2004 it was formed and dubbed Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) as a death squad.

The 53-page report “Crossfire”: Continued Human Rights Abuses by Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion," documents abuses by RAB in and around the capital, under the current Awami League-led government. Nearly 200 people have been killed alone during RAB so-called anti-crime operations since January 6, 2009, when the government assumed office.

At a news conference in capital Dhaka, Brad Adam, Asia director at HRW advise the Bangladesh authority to make major steps towards RAB accountable and reform in the next six months or disbanded it.

He urged United States, Britain and Australia to immediately withdraw assistance and cooperation unless dramatic improvements of RAB’s behavior and attitude. Responding the question of reporters, Adam argued that the victims of extra-judicial deaths none were terrorists.

Although the government has made numerous commitments to end the killings and to punish perpetrators, no RAB officer or official has ever been prosecuted for a "crossfire" killing or other human rights abuse. "Crossfire" is a blanket term used to justify most of the unit's killings.

RAB kills with impunity, even when the detained person is in custody, Adams concluded. [ENDS]

Monday, May 09, 2011

Nobel laureate Yunus says his removal was politically-influenced

SALEEM SAMAD

DESPITE THE supreme court had upheld Nobel laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus removal from the position of managing director of Grameen Bank by the central bank he is apparently not prepared to give in.

It’s unusual of pioneer of banking for the poor to break his silence, he made a press statement on Saturday. In a written statement, he explained why he appealed to the higher court seeking cancellation of the central bank’s order removing him from his position in the bank he founded, writes news portal bdnews24.com.

Yunus debated that some dubbed Grameen Bank he founded is a non-governmental organization. In reality, Grameen Bank is not a government owned bank, nor is it a NGO. Micro-lender Grameen Bank is a non-formal bank owned by the poor people, created by a special law. The microcredit guru explained that he must ensure that the achievements of the last forty years are not lost.

"I went to the court for specific reasons," he said. He thought it was a right decision to appeal the judgment of the higher court as the central bank gave him little room to explain his position before issuing the termination letter. The letter mentioned that Yunus held the position for the last eleven years illegally.

The statement reads, "I felt that this letter was not legally correct, and through this letter, not only was I wronged, but so was Grameen Bank. Nine elected members of the Board of Directors of Grameen Bank also felt the same.

"That is why the nine members of the Board and I filed separate writs in the High Court. We wanted these wrongs to be corrected. Therefore, we had to seek justice through all avenues offered in the Bangladeshi judicial system."

Yunus and the nine directors filed separate petitions challenging the legality of his removal, but the higher court in its verdict on Mar. 8 dismissed the petitions.

The central bank on Mar. 2 removed the Nobel laureate as the managing director for allegedly flouting rules when he was reappointed in 1999.

It said Yunus, 70, had no legal authority to act as the managing director, since its Board had not obtained the Bangladesh Bank's sanction to re-appoint him beyond the bank's official retirement age.

Yunus' legal team argued that Grameen Bank had been given special status and it was exempt from the rule.

The fate of 40 million poor people are connected to this debacle, he argued. The importance is to save the future of Grameen Bank and also to protect the hopes and dreams of the over 8 million borrowers. These borrowers are also the owners of 96.5 percent of the bank’s shares.

Yunus doubts whether there is a growing doubt as to whether any civil society effort can survive and retain its character and independence in this politically-influenced environment.

People have the impression that the interest rates on loans from Grameen Bank are very high. This is not true, which Yunus disputes. The interest rates on the bank loans are the lowest in the Bangladesh’s microfinance sector. The highest interest rate is 20 percent, on a declining basis and all of our interest rates are simple interest, says Review Committee’s Report.

Forty years ago, 85 percent of the population of our country was below the poverty line. Today, Yunus boast’s that 32 percent of the Bangladesh population is below the poverty line. In the next 20 years, is it impossible for us to raise this remaining 32 percent of our population above the poverty line?

Bangladesh became a role model for the developing world through the actions of its civil society, and the success of these actions. This catapulted Bangladesh into global attention, Yunus concluded.

Saleem Samad, an Ashoka Fellow is an award winning investigative journalist based in Bangladesh. He specializes in Jihad, forced migration, good governance and politics. He has recently returned from exile after living in Canada for six years. He could be reached at saleemsamad@hotmail.com