South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Before the independence of this country we would see politicians rushing forward to the assistance of people in distress. When there was a food shortage in the fifties, young leader at the time, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, led the ‘bhuka’ (hungry) rally. When the disastrous cyclone of 1970 struck, the political parties all suspended their election campaigns to rush to rescue the devastated people in the coastal region. Communications were poor at the time and launches were the only means to reach the coast. Even so, political leaders and activists didn’t hesitate to go. Students, youth, cultural activists, women organisation leaders, everyone went.

After independence, during the floods of 1988, student and youth organisations were seen all around Dhaka city, making ‘roti’ (flatbread) to feed the poor. Leaders of various political parties visited the flood affected areas and helped the poor people as much as they could.

This trend continued during the 1998 floods too. Many educational institutions in Dhaka went under water at the time. PPRC and other organisations set up temporary schools so that the children could continue their studies. But now no such initiative has been taken, despite educational institutions being closed for over 18 months due to coronavirus. Most children in the country are deprived of the lessons being offered over the state-run television channel and also of online classes.

Education aside, political parties are not even coming ahead for the basic survival of the people in distress. In recent times the streets raged with the Hefazat mayhem, Companyganj resounded with the roars of Chhoto Mirza and then BNP’s Mirza Abbas came up with new revelations about the mysterious disappearance of party leader Ilias Ali. There is basically no political activity other than the secretaries general of the two major parties growling at each other.

Prothom Alo published some pictures of the total indifference of the leaders and activists of the two main political parties at a time when public life has been hit so hard by the lockdown imposed by the government to tackle the second wave of coronavirus. Anisul Hoque has written about this in his Friday column and I won’t repeat it here.

The political parties may not be able to do anything to control the spread of coronavirus, but at least they can do something for the poor. There are 350 members of parliament. Dhaka City has two mayors. The parties have their leaders and activists in all the wards. They have elected councilors. There are elected mayors and councilors in the other city corporations and municipalities around the country too. Every upazila parishad has a chairman and a vice chairman. There are chairmen and members in every union. Yet none of them have any tangible initiatives during this time of crisis.

While the political leaders and activists, and the elected representatives are not coming forward to stand by the distressed people, conscious members of the community are coming forward. Friday’s Prothom Alo carried a report of an organisation in Bogura, Alor Prodip, that was arranging meals including iftar and sehri for people with no means of income. An organisation called Bidyaniketan was carrying out classes for street children seven days a week in from the Daniya University in Shanir Akhra of Jatrabari, Dhaka. This ‘school’ began with just six or seven students and now has 60. There are many such examples all over the country.

I had previously written about the sufferings of old man with broken bones, a college student who lost his tuition jobs and about an unemployed engineer. The article received response from many persons within the country, eager to extend a helping hand. An officer of Asia Composite, a company in Karwan Bazar, visited the elderly man in hospital. An official of BRAC Bank informed Prothom Alo’s youth programme coordinator Munir Hasan that he too wanted to help those three persons. Their eagerness, their spirit was encouraging. No matter how tarnished our politics may be, love, kindness, empathy still lives strong in the hearts of the people.

The people who have a hand-to-mouth existence have been hit the hardest by coronavirus. Their families go hungry if they can’t work even a day. There is another class of people who are also in dire straits. They are the students and youth of low income families. They are about to complete their education. Some of them had completed their education and were looking for jobs. Most young people at this stage do not take money from their parents. They carry out tuitions or other part time jobs, of even dabble in small enterprises of their own. But coronavirus times have devastated their lives.

A student wrote, “It is so unfortunate. In the developed world today, banks or financial institutions offer student loans. In our country, even a grocer’s shop won’t even give you anything worth just Tk 100 on credit. They say, ‘You don’t earn, how will you pay back?’”

A student of the National University wrote, “My father died 11 years ago and since then I have been struggling to continue my studies. I even dropped out once, but then managed to overcome all obstacles and get admitted to the Honour’s first year at Manikganj Debendra College in 2016. Initially I would work part time in a library and also give tuition. But I lost both of these jobs in the lockdown. With the lockdown extended, I left the mess and returned to the village.”

Another unemployed youth lamented, “The prime time to get a job is running out. There have been no (public service) exams for long. So many young people are crossing 30 years of age. Sir, will the age limit be extended? Will you say something about this?”

A bike rider wrote, “I live in Dhaka with my parents. After finishing my studies, I got a small job. I got married last year and in the same month I lost my job due to the corona outbreak. I had a bike and so I used to earn money by ride sharing. I was managing somehow, but then the government stopped that too during the lockdown. How will I run my family, pay my house rent? Education has put me into this predicament. Without an MBA or BBA degree, I could have been shop assistant or ask people for help.”

Women are suffering inside the homes and outside too in our country, but they suffer in silence. They just lock their sufferings within themselves. Ninety per cent of the letters that come to the newspaper office are from men. Even so, a girl studying in the fourth year at a college under the National University wrote, “I am the youngest daughter of a lower middle class family. I was admitted to the National University with a lot of dreams that I would be able to support my family. But all that is a nightmare now. I am at home and my father is distraught. How can I comfort him? My Honours isn’t completed yet and so he is giving up hope. I am breaking down mentally. It is not just me, but thousands of students who face the same predicament. Students are conscious. I would appeal to the government to resume classes and exams, in keeping by the health and hygiene protocol once the lockdown is over. If not, our student life will soon come to a halt.”

These students are our future. These young people will take the country forward with their hard work and talent. We cannot lose them. No matter how late it has been, the government must wake up.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He may be contacted at [email protected]

*This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir