Development rhetoric and public health

Monwarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Aug 24,2019


A child is being cared for dengue infection in a hospital in Dhaka on Monday.  — New Age/Abdullah Apu

WE ARE living in a country and political culture where development rhetoric seems to be a way of washing away and hiding harsh realities that we are actually steeped in. Showy mega-projects costing billions are all going on visibly around us, giving an impression of a sort of mendacious development. In the meantime, citizens are living lives full of uncertainties and with lack of rights that they are entitled to. What people are meted out is disregard of and disrespect to their rights.

Development, and the reverberating rhetoric of it, has for long been government way, the rulers’ way, across the world to hide people’s attention from realities that they otherwise might find difficult to accept. In the age of swamping development rhetoric and narratives, people’s rights — democratic, economic and political — are more often than not relegated to secondary considerations. The undercurrent of development rhetoric, in Bangladesh or elsewhere, is that, say, once we are done with development, we would look into your rights.

The government of the Awami League, which has been now running the country for the third consecutive term, is also mouthful of development narratives disregarding and demoting people’s rights. Many mega-projects, which the government thinks substantiate its development narratives, have so far not changed and, there are reasons to fear, will not change anything for good for the people whose basic rights are nonchalantly ignored. Take, for example, public health, which gives a disturbingly bleak picture and shows how, under all these big talks of development and economic growth, the real and basic necessities of people are put under the carpet.

In the public health index, Bangladesh scores lamentably low. Its big cities, especially its capital, are growingly becoming unliveable. Processed foods, milk, medicines, water and air, in every index, the country fails flat to ensure what we can call a good public health situation.

To begin with food frauds that have made the headlines for the past three months, the scene is glaringly upsetting. Early May, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution, during its regular Ramadan monitoring, found 52 processed items to be of substandard. The products found to have been substandard include the basic, everyday items such as mustard oil, mineral water, soft drinks, salt, turmeric power, chilli powder, coriander and curry powder, chips, noodles, flour and more.

The High Court intervened and ordered the testing institution and other authorities concerned to monitor the market so that the substandard food items do not get on sales. After the order, mobile teams of different agencies found the substandard items rampantly on sales in the capital and other parts of the country. So far, we have not been assured of food safety and drives monitoring the sales of standard foods and withdrawal of substandard ones are not also regular and not largely effective.

Even before there came any assuring improvement in the food frauds scene, new worries had rushed to contain us. This time, pasteurised and non-pasteurised milk, marketed by all 14 companies — there is another company licensed to market pasteurised milk but has not yet begun producing and marketing though — came to make the headlines. The milk, sold mostly in pillow pouches, was detected having antibiotics, detergent and lead in a test and a retest by the Centre for Biomedical Research and the faculty of pharmacy of the University of Dhaka. Sadly enough, the research team’s findings came under attack from some very unexpected quarters and agencies including the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institution, which, as it admitted in the High Court, does not have the ability to detect antibiotic, detergent and lead in milk keeping to the required parameters. The court eventually ordered the national testing institution to have the pasteurised milk tested in four laboratories — the ICDDR,B, the Institute of Public Health, the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Bangladesh Livestock Research Institute — and all four reports from the laboratories supported the findings of the Centre for Biomedical Research and the faculty of pharmacy of the University of Dhaka.

The High Court then banned the production and marketing of pasteurised milk by the 14 companies and in a few days, the Appellate Division stayed the ban. The prime minister’s reported comment on the issue that milk powder importers might have influence in the recent studies and findings of harmful elements in pasteurised milk, which is mostly consumed by children, is also disheartening. As people, all we ask is safe food and the government and its agencies concerned must ensure safe food. Who is playing which tricks, or who is having a hand in what, or inside what, has to be sorted out by the government and its agencies responsible.

Safe drinking water has been another big issue worrying us all. Especially, citizens of the capital are plagued with the problem of safe drinking water for long. Different tests carried out in compliance with a High Court directive in late May and early July by the ICDDR,B, the Bureau of Research, Testing and Consultation of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and the microbiology department of the University of Dhaka, found bacteria and contamination in water supplied by the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority at several points.

The issue has, it seems, ebbed down and all we appear to remember is WASA officials putting some lame excuses to claim that the water they supply is safe while protesters brought muddy water supplied by WASA. Unfortunately, no definitive and demonstrative action has so far been taken to ensure safe food, drinking water and milk. Everything related to public health that should have been of prime concern is sidelined after much dillydallying, blame game and, sometimes, words of promise.

For the residents of the capital, air pollution, the silent and lurking danger, is a grave issue, too. Dhaka is ranked the third-worst city on the world Air Quality Index. Air pollution — there is no surprise in it — shortens an average Bangladeshi’s life by 1.87 years as a study by researchers from the University of Texas, University of British Columbia, Brigham Young University in Utah, Imperial College London and the Boston-based Health Effects Institute reveals. The government and authorities concerned have failed lamentably to ensure healthy air for us.

Sales of date-expired medicines and foods also contribute to the frightening public health situation. The recent fear, and an insurmountable one, is the epidemic dengue menace that has left, according to private accounts, over a hundred and has affected about 60,000 in all parts of the country breaking earlier records of the mosquito-borne disease.

The failure of the city corporations and other government agencies to contain the situation that seems to have already got out of hand indicates but a sheer disrespect to people’s rights to health.

Against the backdrop of the poor and dangerous public health scene, every word of the development narratives, which are conveyed as mantra by the government and its representatives, sounds ridiculous. These development narratives are an all-encompassing delusion, including the myth of continuous technological progress and the deceitful assumptions of endless economic growth which always benefit but a few.


Monwarul Islam is an editorial assistant at New Age.

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