24 Nov 2015

Bangladesh poised between agony and ecstasy: the choice depends on us!

It beggars belief: a country the size of England and Wales somehow containing and supporting 160 million souls – 10 million more of them, guest workers beyond these shores.

Certainly the capital city Dhaka feels full, full to overflowing. Thousands of new people moving in from the countryside every week. A good proportion of them have been dispossessed by climate change, the waves of the rising seas eroding their land, much of it subsiding altogether. The many rivers are doing as much to destroy lifestyles that survived centuries.

Though the rickshaws and their gas-powered motor relatives are everywhere, so are the cars. Gridlock is a way of life. City dwellers are relaxed about a journey that at midnight takes 10 minutes, but in rush hour takes an hour or more.

Yesterday there was a traffic-relieving general strike. The second in a week. They both protested against the execution of two former opposition leaders, who had been charged with war crimes during the bitter violence and war that accompanied independence in 1971. There are serious questions about the conduct of the trial. Hence the strikes. Security has been tight, Facebook shut down for long periods, and the media somewhat restrained in what they discuss.

But beyond that, this is both a stricken and  a beautiful country. As I sat having breakfast today a brahminy kite swept down at speed, tilted, revealed its gorgeous chestnut wings with their black tips and spun away again.

This is indeed a green but disappearing land. Disappearing by the year. The palm-strewn riverbanks in the Delta region are eroding and submerging. The rivers are silting as fast as they deepen with the rise in sea levels. Thousands are displaced each year.

Twenty million are forecast to flee these lower water-logged lands in the next 30 years. The beauty hides this terrible truth. But it’s a truth peasant farmers have had to live with and adjust to. Many of them have simply become fishermen. Consequently Bangladesh has become the fourth fishing power in the world.

Urbanisation continues apace. Much of it concentrated upon the electronics industry assembling electronics for China, Japan, and Korea. Above all, manufacturing cheap – and some expensive – clothes for western consumption.

Since the horrific collapse of the Rana Plaza garment block two years ago, which killed more than a thousand, and from which 2,500 were rescued, conditions have improved, laws passed and the rest. But there is still a long way to go. And many of the workers have the insecurity of knowing either that their homes are already flooding or that they soon will.

Bangladesh is poised between the agony and ecstasy of life. Sadly she is closer to the agony than to the other. But which way she swings depends upon us. This is an able, beautiful, intelligent people. A sumptuous green place, despite its grubby urban streets.

Her own efforts as one of the world’s leaders in the use of solar power, for example, are a shining example. For the rest Bangladesh depends massively, more than any other non-island state, on next week’s UN meeting of world leaders at the COP 21 Climate Summit.

If the leaders dare to be ambitious, Bangladesh can work on in hope. If they settle for modest restraints on global warming, I do not want to have to be the reporter sent to see the unfolding tragedy.

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