In this time of political crises, how does young generation think about their desh (country) — it’s today and tomorrow. How are they struggling to create a critical niche for themselves so they could become important political economic actors to make a change in the contemporary realities? With these questions Centre for Bangladesh Studies, on July 21, at the Bishow Sahitto Kendra organised a social dialogue with young agriculturalist, poet, painter, journalist, researcher, environmentalist, lawyer, entrepreneur and other sections of the youth. Drawing from the conversations in the event, Nahid Riyasad writes about the thoughts, ideas and stories of resistance presented in this dialogue.
Our political culture does not have space for young voices. More specifically, mainstream political culture has so far failed to either create space for critical young voices or it failed to invite young minds to participate in their activities. The reasons are many. The political system is so ideologically corrupt and violent that it only reproduces itself. In this context, the Centre for Bangladesh Studies initiated a social dialogue to create space for young agriculturalist, poet, painter, journalist, researcher, environmentalist, lawyer, entrepreneur, anthropologist, economist, and other sections of the youth to come together to engage in a dialogue to reflect on the reality of contemporary Bangladesh, share their frustration, fear, hope and their thoughts on the future for Bangladesh.
The first installment of this dialogue was held on Saturday, July 21, at Bishow Shahitto Kendra premises. Singer, poet and founder member of Centre for Bangladesh Studies moderated the discussion that touched upon critical issues including the flawed development philosophy of successive governments; the promises and perils of the constitution of 1972, the assault of chemical fertilizer industry on our agriculture and ecology, the cultural tendency that created distances between people and our rivers, the role of young entrepreneurs to initiate an industrial revolution that will divest our import oriented economy to export oriented one. They discussed the way cloud of uncertainty and fear incited from the state repression affects young generation at larger, but more specifically the young generation in the margin of coastal belt to Chittagong Hill Tracts. Young speakers attempted to unpack the question of brain drain beyond the bounds of statistics that 10 per cent of today’s youth strives to escape Bangladesh. Their initiatives and experiences carry lot of hope for our today and tomorrow.
Eco-friendly agriculturist, Prantik Jogajog Kendra
As we speak in this room today, there is a war going on against our ecology. Essentially, our agriculture is controlled by the chemical fertilizer industry; they have turned the farmers into mere consumers of their products. If you talk to farmers anywhere in Bangladesh, they will say, the soil is dying (mati more jacche), soil is hardening. Why? According to government record, in Bangladesh, annually 28 lakh metric ton chemical fertilizers is used that costs farmers about Tk 11 crore. Environmentalists talk more about the visible damages, but there is more to it. In our fertile land, every centimetre of land is home to 1 billion microbes. With the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizer, these micro-lives are killed. Food produced through this process is a form of ecocide, deadly. It is killing the soil, destroying fertility. It could bring no good to our agricultural economy. To bring a radical change in this situation, we need to restore the 5000-year old agricultural knowledge that the industry propaganda has discredited, young generation and farmers must unite to fight against this system; otherwise, the society we hope for will never become a reality.
Marine and water resource researcher
The chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in our land for agricultural purposes, where do they go? Through the network of rivers they end in the seas — the area where I work. For long, we have proudly talked about our longest sea beach, we have talked about our beautiful bay. But do we know, about four years ago it was found that this much cherished sea beach has the largest dead sea zone in the world! These chemicals have created an aquatic environment in which marine lives can’t thrive. Inevitably, people in the coastal zone are affected because traditional livelihood such as fishing is not viable. Over 66 million people live in the low elevation coastal zone of Bangladesh whose livelihood is at stake. Now, if you go there to talk about saving nature or saving turtles, they will not be part of it, because the destruction of marine life has become a question of their economic survival. Therefore, there is a gap between the way we are discussing the issues here and the way they live these problems every day. To engage the young generation in the margin, we need to think about these distances.
Journalist, Green activist
There are many kinds of youth today. I want to flag that before we discuss why should today’s young generation even strive to save rivers! There are youth who took to street for equal-merit based examination to enter civil services. There are some who took hammer to beat these students involved in quota reform movement. Then there are an elite class who fly England to receive blessings from the Queen of England. I think, those who carry new thoughts and ideas, and care for the society should come forward and think about saving our dying rivers. Now, why are our rivers dying? They are dying because we have built small and big dams, flood protection embankments obstructing natural river flow. There is rampant encroachment of rivers. Then there is destruction of rivers in the name of ‘development’. For me, there are two other reasons that are not commonly talked about, but are very crucial. First is rather spiritual. Syed Waliullah, an influential Bengali novelist wrote, ‘when a society gets rotten, rivers die as a result.’ Drawing from him, I insist, rivers are the reflection of the society. There is a connection that brings to my next point — there is a growing cultural disconnect, distance with the river. If you go to visit Ahsan Manjil, you will see the Manjil is facing the mighty Buriganga. If you look around, you will see, all other houses have turned their back on the river. This cultural distance and the tendency that we don’t in fact feel for the crying river has brought us to this situation. Now, I propose, rather I ask the young generation to find their favourite river. We have about 300 hundred rivers in the country, if you can find your favourite, cultivate love for it, and start campaigning for your loved river, thus the movement to save our dying rivers will begin.
I am an entrepreneur. I am in the process of putting together a small industry. Today, I am a producer of leather bags. From my experience, I want to stress that we have to change our views on ‘doing business,’ often we don’t think, doing business could create opportunities for doing good. We can bring remittance that is the backbone of any economy. Today, in our economy, working class men and women toiling their labour, embracing slavery, bring remittance and run the wheel of our economy. We can change it by strengthening our industrial sector. Since government does not encourage the growth of local industry, we are dependent on Chinese or Vietnamese commodity. This can change with our ethical labour on industrial sector. If we design products with care and considering the need of the people, we can divest from our import oriented economy. Instead of becoming the market of global products, we can produce for ourselves and export to other nations. National bureaucracy is very discouraging; of course, they expect us to become the slave or multinationals rather than becoming an industrial actor of this economy. Young entrepreneurs have a really important role to play here.
Lawyer, human rights activist
Every sector we can think of is plagued with irregularities and corruption. As a lawyer, I think it is time to revisit our legal infrastructure. Is it serving its purpose? If we think of our liberation struggle, it was in a way a struggle for a constitution that will protect us, give us freedom. Before the constitution of 1972, there were many constitutions that did not guarantee us the protection and freedom we wanted. Has it given us the state we wanted? Taking the social contract theory, a constitution is the mechanism through which we can self-regulate, negotiate our relationship with the state. That has not been the case. Now is the time we ask about the failure of it. Young generation today must be equipped with the intellectual ability to question this legal infrastructure as it has failed to bring order in the society. We need to dismantle the existing state mechanism and law to transform it into a people’s state.
Abdul Halim Chanchal
For various reasons, I have moved to the outskirts of Dhaka and it became a really eye opening experience for me. First thing I noticed, farmers don’t often eat what they produce for the market because they are aware of the harm. About two months ago, I met a farmer who lost a lot of money because the middle men wouldn’t give him the price for his eggplant he produced that season. When I asked, ‘Why don’t you take it to the market yourself?’, he said that he is too ill for that, and his sons won’t do it. Even though we have an agricultural economy, our society and education system do not have a place for it. Therefore, farmers’ son does not want to lend their hand. There are no historically situated, locally relevant myths and stories to hold together the importance of agriculture, farming or other issues of social importance. We have failed to produce stories for the children to read and dream about. In many countries, children read and watch elements of their own localised myth which, in fact, help to flourish their intellectual agency and strengthen their bond to the nation and with its people. Should we fail to produce our own culture and narrative pattern for the youth, there might be more disaster at hand. Young generation must consider creating stories and myth that hold our history and reality together in a new cultural language.
There are thoughtful young minds around us, there are young people with dream and hope. What I find missing is a bridge. We say, we don’t have democracy, we don’t have the right to dissent, but there is young generation of dreamers who gets lost in the way because there is no way to connect with each other. We don’t have democracy, but we have social media. In social media, we see young voices, but these very individualised expressions, individual voices don’t find ways to find each other. Now, we can say that the political system is failing, cultural system is failing. We need to be worried about the fact that these thoughtful young minds are getting lost in the way. The education system we have cannot give voice to these minds, there is a disconnect. To reverse and disrupt what is going on, if we can even bring together ten young thinkers, scholars, writers — may be they will bring out a publication or something similar. It will create space, pave the way for the bridge we want to create.
Abu Yousuf Khan
For energy sector, our state minister said, we need USD 82.5 billion investment by 2041. From which, the government has already invested $22 billion, remaining $60.5 is now required — $3 billion per year. There might be a discrepancy between figures. Because in the Power Sector Master Plan or PSMP 2016, it was said that $150 billion is necessary which was revised later. Now, where is the money coming from? We know to get that money we depend on domestic and foreign financing rather than our revenue generation. Now, let’s see whether it is possible to arrange the money ourselves. From 2005 – 2014, the total amount of capital flight from this country was $61 billion — roughly about $5 billion per year. That means, with that money after meeting the annual demand of $3 billion per year for energy sector we could get $2 billion excess every year. In banking sector, which is the major source of domestic financing, the government has injected Tk 15,000 crore for recapitalisation since 2009-10 — Tk 1,700 crore per year. Another point to underscore is that the real income of people has decreased. From 2009, the tax-GDP ratio has been remaining slightly more or less 10 per cent of GDP. The problems of these three sectors which I have mentioned are not new. Rather over years, the crises in our different macro-economic sectors are aggravating. We have failed to maintain the price stability. In most months, the average import remains within the range $3-4 billion, but that would suddenly jump to $7-8 billion. This is happening because of capital flight. These problems have become persistent because of our wrong policies, wrong development philosophy. Therefore, young generation needs to challenge the policies and wrong development philosophy of the government.
In recent times, one of the much talked crises of young generation is the quota movement. At the heart of this movement is problem of unemployment. Even more surprising is the fact that, for India, Bangladesh is remittance earning source for them. But even before we talk about unemployment we have talked about the education system – the state of the public universities. In the media, we have seen how Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders have broken the backbone of a student. It has been some time now that they have broken the backbone of the education system. When university halls are used as a site of recruiting political followers – when a student from rural areas come to Dhaka, for them, the hall seat is very critical, they have no other place to go. Capitalising on these students’ socio-economic vulnerabilities, BCL cadres have turned the residential halls as concentration camps. This is not an overstatement. They are forced and grilled to believe something, become someone who can bring no good to the society. On the other hand, university administration has no accountability; we can’t even make them accountable for their teaching responsibilities. Is it possible to raise employable students with skills and expertise in this education system? We need to think about that.
In my view, critical thinking about the society, culture and politics can be done anywhere. In my case, as a teacher in a private university, I have created my field in the classroom, where I help to develop intellectual faculty of my students, where I encourage them to raise such questions. A major problem is that we fail to relate our daily questions and experiences with the existing political and social system. Despite all the factors, this country belongs to us and this is our responsibility to question the system.
Our cultural practices allow less logic and more authority in most of the cases. A modern state, in my opinion, allows an individual to achieve his or her maximum potential by creating an environment of cooperation and knowledge practice. How far are we from such a state? Our youth needs to be open to newer ideas and thought processes. There energy is now wasted on protests, now these times could be invested in more meaningful activities — this is also a draw back because our existing system forces concerned people to protest. I want to consider these protests as our expenditure, so that the next generation might get a more liberal and tolerating knowledge based society.
University of Dhaka
In recent years, I feel that many of the protests from the youth have emerged due to self interest. For example, the quota reforms movement, where the agenda was to secure facilities that is specific to a certain position, rather than betterment of a larger community. On the other hand, women are facing harassments and even rape, murder in every corner of the country, however, protests for those do not gather such number of people. I want to ask to the youth in general that why have they failed to form such movements that cover interest of the whole community?
President, Bangladesh Students’ Federation
The new generation is suffering in the contemporary socio-political cultural reality of Bangladesh and it is the youth who are responsible to turn the table for the betterment of the society. Any resisting voice form the youth are dealt with utmost force by the state, protesting youths are being man-handled by the students of the ruling party and sarcastically, it is the protesters who are facing the law. Even the teachers who stand along the students are facing severe consequences from the authority, which means, our spaces of resisting are shrinking. However, I believe, through intellectual practice and demonstrating that zeal of the youth while protesting irregularities can be our only pathway to a society of betterment.
Human rights activist
I would examine closely the idea of ‘young generation’ itself — who is included in this idea and who is left out (bad pora natun projonmo). I would like drawing my lived experience as a young indigenous woman. We often face this question that, why young generation prefers to leave this country for foreign nations? I would like to ponder on the answer to this question. Fear, uncertainty is our reality. Today, fear and absence of fear are the markers that decide the state of our wellbeing. This fear stems from uncertainty. Forced disappearance, police brutality, rape, road accident, communal violence and of course the reality of unemployment, violence of development contributes to the making of this uncertainty. Now, for young person from Chittagong Hill Tracts, the extent of uncertainty is even more intense — they breathe every second with the fear that Bengali Muslim majoritarian backed by the army will take away the little assurance they have in life. A young indigenous person in the CHT goes to bed at night not knowing whether s/he would have to wake up in the morning with the smell of burning ashes of their own belongings. This is the reality in Bengali Muslim hetero-sexist nation. Facing this wall of fear and uncertainty, we wonder why 10 per cent of young generation chooses to escape their own land? We need to think about the state that only speaks the language of oppression, it does not speak the language of equality of emancipation.
Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.
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