Search Wednesday February 5, 2003

Meanwhile: On Dhaka's streets, two radical changes
By Philip Bowring
Wednesday, January 15, 2003

DHAKA, Bangladesh: Inhabitants of this city of more than 10 million people can breathe more easily - on two different counts. Showing a determination rare in governance in Bangladesh, the administration of Prime Minister Khalida Zia has achieved what many thought was impossible by improving life in the poorest of Asia's mega-cities. Whether the gains will stick is another matter. But for now lives are safer as well as a bit easier.

Last October the government began a nationwide crackdown on crime, bringing in the army to aid and guide the police. Robbery, extortion, murder, rape and related crimes had become so commonplace that few felt safe at night in Dhaka's dimly lit streets. The police force itself was either a bystander or involved in crime out of greed or fear of retribution from better-armed gangsters, who often enjoyed protection from local politicians.

With the army to restore its backbone and provide firepower, the police rounded up many people on its lists of criminal suspects. The jails are bulging, the courts are working overtime - and not a few of the more notorious criminals appear to have met their end at the hands of the rough and informal justice (or injustice) being meted out by the joint police/army operation known as Clean Heart.

The new tactics raise grave human rights concerns, even though the government has mostly used legal powers and has grudgingly obeyed court orders to release or bail some suspects. But there is no doubt that the campaign is popular among all levels of society, the poor perhaps most of all. Many defend the campaign's excesses, saying that sacrificing individual human rights may be necessary to ensure the safety of the majority.

Begum Zia seems sincere in her efforts to break the links between crime and politics that have long besmirched Bangladesh democracy and caused otherwise sympathetic aid donors to tighten their purse strings. Many in the opposition acknowledge the success of the drive, though insisting that it is at least partly aimed at them.

Senior members of the opposition - and journalists and academics sympathetic to it - have been detained. But the government points out that many of its own party activists have also been arrested. Begum Zia coalition in Parliament has a large majority and she has firm grip on her party, so she has been able to take risks with some followers to enhance her leadership image.

The question now is whether the operation, which is scheduled to end soon, will have lasting results. When the army goes back to barracks will the police go back to their old ways? Could the army itself be corrupted by involvement with civilian issues? Will many of those arrested eventually be released by the courts for lack of evidence and return to business as usual? Will democracy be undermined as the army assumes a national guardianship role like that claimed by the military in countries such as Turkey?

It is too much to hope that law and order can be improved so dramatically without deeper changes in society. But politicians now know that law and order, however obtained, are popular.

Even more popular is Dhaka's newly clean air. As of Jan. 1, the two-stroke three-wheelers that clogged the streets and belched lead-laden fumes into the still air of a dense city have been banished - and the change has been dramatic. Not for the traffic: Slow-moving but nonpolluting pedal rickshaws have proliferated in place of the three-wheelers, which will gradually return as new gas-powered ones arrive. But what might have been a politically hazardous move, depriving drivers of a livelihood, has been a huge success.

The ban has also been a demonstration of the impact that Bangladesh's numerous nongovernmental organizations have on a government machinery devoid of initiative. NGO activists forced the issue by gathering data on such ills as lead poisoning of children.

NGOs have also been instrumental in achieving a ban on plastic bags. Such environmental concerns may seem surprising in a nation where many remain underfed and illiterate. But they show that that in an open society where NGOs are admired, not just tolerated, they can offset some of the failings of a creaky bureaucracy and a democracy which often seems more about personalities and elite competition than about policies for the public good.