Politics

Bangladesh: Slums

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Bangladesh: Slums

Access to clean, drinkable water makes the difference between life and death in the sewage-infested slums of Bangladesh.

AS THE SUN rises over the narrow streets, a cacophony of sound heralds the new day. Armies of workers in small factories are busy making everything from salt to bricks and balloons. Yet one glance at their weary faces and ragged clothes makes it clear that no one here earns much money.

Welcome to Kamrangirchar, Dhaka’s largest slum – a grimy product of the mass urban migration that has transformed Bangladesh’s capital into the world’s fastest growing city. Here, over 400,000 people live within a space of just three-square kilometres. Once a dumping ground for the city’s waste, its ramshackle huts and sewage-infested streets are home to dwellers who constitute between a quarter and a third of Dhaka’s population.

While poverty and food crises are typical of developing nations, the extremity of squalor in the slums is beyond belief. Images of starving children are cliché but the psychological impact of malnutrition on children is less visible. Few realise how stunted children become when they go through life hungry, devoid of the necessities for growth and advancement. “A child’s world can be influenced by a plethora of aspects that shape his or her physical, cognitive, social and emotional development and maturation,” says Professor Varuni Ganepola, a psychologist at the Department of Social Sciences, Asian University for Women, Chittagong. “Children can suffer a loss of self-esteem and develop a poor self concept. Loss and depravation can affect the way he or she develops a sense of who they are in the way that they relate to their social world,” Ganepola says. Academics and policymakers alike have concluded that given adequate opportunities, the children of the slums could be a great asset to Bangladesh. However, they become liabilities faced with bleak futures when deprived of the basic human rights of food, education and healthcare.

In the slums, even giving a child a glass of water requires an act of faith. Far too many mothers have seen their young children taken away from them by diarrhea, dysentery and other water-borne diseases. Water lies at the heart of the complex web of problems facing residents. Slums spring up overnight, usually on landfills owned by no one. Since there is no owner of record, Dhaka’s municipal water company refuses to lay down pipes – leaving millions of slum dwellers without recourse to the city’s water supply. Enter the black marketers. Found in almost every slum, these middlemen provide, for a price, water illegally procured from the municipal supply. The quality of their water, however, is another matter entirely. Leaky hoses, held together by duct tape and spit, snake their way through ditches filled with raw sewage. Tests have shown the presence of E. coli, a potentially deadly bacterium. The middlemen freely admit that people get sick from the water, “We can’t help it because the water is contaminated with sewage.”

For adults with greater immunity, tainted water is not necessarily fatal. Young children, though, with weak immune systems ravaged by malnutrition can die within a matter of hours – the result of extreme dehydration and loss of electrolytes.

Occasionally, the state will undertake clearance drives, ostensibly to reduce crime rates. But these evictions deprive slum dwellers of homes and jobs and, ironically, may make them more susceptible to participation in criminal activities. Dr Rita Afsar of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) has conducted surveys, which show that 80% of criminals active in the city reside in middle-class areas, enjoying political backing from both incumbents and the opposition. She agrees that some squatters are involved in drug trafficking and prostitution, but says that most are honest labourers who have contributed to the growth rates of major sections of the urban economy – construction, transport and small businesses.

There is some cause for hope. In some slums, residents have banded together with NGOs to demand their right to safe, clean potable water. Dr. Diablok Singha lobbied Dhaka’s water authority to provide water links to slum dwellers. Though reluctant at first, they accepted on the condition that the NGO assumed the risk of non-payment of water bills. Dr. Singha agreed. “A win-win situation occurred”, he says. The mastaans, local slum barons who specialize in ripping off the poor, charge 15 times more than municipal authorities for water. Dr. Singha knew that the residents would happily accept cheaper, cleaner water. Only the mastaans lose out. Thanks to this ingenious project, many more connections have been established.

However, every week thousands more arrive at the gates of the city. Treating merely the symptoms will not affect a cure. For Bangladesh, the answer lies in providing better services and job opportunities in rural areas to stem the tide of urban migration. Adequate housing facilities and the provision of affordable healthcare and education is exactly what is needed to transform the county’s greatest liability into its greatest asset.  

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Politics

Maldives: New Arena

My article for SouthAsia Magazine:

Maldives: New Arena

FROM a land that was virtually terra incognita before the 1970s to one of the most popular spots on the global tourist map, the Maldives has come a long way from its humble origins. Though it is no longer the world’s source of cowries, it has completed a transition to democracy, it has emerged as one of the most prominent voices on climate change and has been named as one of the seven most important countries on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR). Such feats are impressive for Asia’s smallest country with a population of just 350,000 and an average land level of only 1.5 metres above sea level.

Not too long ago, Maldives was considered “a human rights pariah,” says Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. “Today, our bid to secure a [UN Human Rights] Council seat has won almost universal support.” And he is right. The Maldives received the highest number of votes ever won by any state, gaining an impressive 185 votes from the 192 member states.

This may be the first time the island nation is on a major UN body, but that hasn’t stopped it from making its stance clear on a number of controversial issues. Along with the European Union (EU), the United States (US) and the Arab League, the tiny country has condemned the “violations [by Syria] that amount to crimes against humanity.” Foreign Minister Ahmed Nassem firmly declared that “the time for promises is over — it is now time for action.”

Interestingly, while it supports the pressure on Syria, the Maldives has remained silent amidst rising demand for an international investigation into alleged human rights violations committed by neighboring Sri Lanka at the end of its brutal civil war.
The Maldives is the first country in the world that has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2020. It is the first in the world to establish a national trust fund to pay for evacuation to a new homeland. It has also begun to flex its muscles in international forums, in an attempt to create some sort of consensus on climate change.

The Maldives led a group of 80 member states (from all regions) which adopted the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 7/23 that for the first time in an official UN resolution linked global warming to an infringement of human rights. It established the Climate Vulnerable Forum – a group of the world’s most vulnerable countries, dedicated to taking moral lead in combating climate change. The tiny country was also crucial in helping to formulate a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Declaration on Climate Change in Delhi, India which stated that climate change impacts the right to development.

The consultative approach taken during the lead up to the final draft of the UNHCR resolution was commended by SAARC compatriots, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, showing that the Maldives believes in an inclusive, consensus-fostering approach. It seems to have learnt much from the failed Inuit petition of 2005, which endeavoured to obtain mandatory measures against greenhouse emissions of the US, preferring a more non-confrontational and, ultimately, more successful process. Instead of attempting to alter the climate change policies of a particular state, the Maldives has tried to influence the ongoing negotiation of a new climate agreement.

Global warming represents an existential threat to the island state. New studies indicate that sea levels will rise between 0.5 and 1 metre by 2100 (Economist, March 14, 2009). A rise of just under 0.5 metres would inundate 15% of Male, the capital and home to a third of the population. Four in ten people live within 100 metres of the ocean. Rising waters would contaminate the Maldives’ limited freshwater reserves, render its land unsuitable for agriculture and erode the beaches that tourists flock to; an attraction that the entire economy depends on. Eventually, increased flooding would make the islands inhospitable, even before the tempestuous seas inundate them completely (Harvard Environmental Law Review, Vol. 33).

Meanwhile, the country prepares for the worst. “For the sake of the Maldives and the rest of the world,” said the newly elected President Mohamed Nasheed in 2008, on establishing a sovereign wealth fund in the event of relocation, “I hope this fund never needs to be used for its ultimate purpose. If we are unable to save a country like the Maldives, it may be too late to save the rest of the world from the apocalyptic effects of self-reinforcing, runaway global warming.” Though wise words in difficult times, how long can the international community afford to spurn this Maldivian Cassandra?  

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