Hartal, a long-missing word in Bangladesh politics, has hit headlines again when BNP called a dawn-to-dusk shutdown for Sunday after five years, rejecting the results of the elections to the two Dhaka city corporations.
Despite staging a comeback after a long time, the hartal enforced by a major political party had little impact on the everyday life of the city dwellers.
The traffic flow was significantly low as expected as private transports stayed off the city streets. With the passage of time, the streets, however, returned to their usual bustling, proving that the shutdown failed to get the desired response of the city dwellers as expected by the opposition BNP.
Shaheen Chowdhury, a resident of East Rampura, said he had actually thought the strike was unlikely to affect his work and movement. "There’re enough public transports on the city streets and I think an almost peaceful atmosphere throughout the day encouraged office-goers like me to move to their workplaces without any hassle," he told UNB.
Unlike Shaheen, a few city dwellers preferred staying indoors and spent time with their family members.
Farah Zahan, a student of a private university, was seen shopping in the city's New Market area. Asked about the strike, her response was a bit interesting.
"The strike is the reason for which our classes were postponed, I thought I should make the best use of the day for my chores," she said.
So was the response of Nazma Begum as she said the overall situation of her neighbourhood was unchanged despite the strike. “It came and gone… cast no impact.”
Visiting the TSC area on the Dhaka University (DU) campus, this correspondent saw a huge gathering near the entrance of Suhrawardy Udyan defying the hartal as the month-long Amar Ekushey Book Fair kicked off on Sunday.
Nazmul Hossain, a DU student, told UNB that the university area remained unaffected despite the shutdown and it encouraged him to visit the fair. "Some of the DU departments postponed their classes but some didn’t. So, the overall student turnout remained roughly the same," he said.
Police were deployed across the capital to fend off any untoward situation during the hartal hours.
BNP Senior Joint Secretary General Ruhul Kabir Rizvi along with some party leaders and activists took position in front of their Nayapaltan party office since early morning. BNP Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir also went to the party headquarters around 9:30am.
They brought out a procession in front of their office in support of the hartal and burnt a symbolic electronic voting machine (EVM) there.
Later, they took position in front of the gate of the party headquarters and shouted slogans in support of the hartal.
BNP candidate in the Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) Ishraque Hossain joined them around 11am.
Speaking on the occasion, Rizvi claimed that people were “spontaneously’’ observing their shutdown programme. “People have given their support to our hartal and they also rejected elections to two Dhaka city corporations,” he said, adding that their shutdown was observed peacefully across the city.
Meanwhile, huge law enforcers were deployed near BNP’s Nayapaltan office and adjoining area to avoid any possible unwanted incident. Around 11:45am, police asked the protesting BNP leaders and activists to leave within half an hour.
The protesters left before noon when Rizvi said they would resume their protest after lunch.
Fakhrul called the shutdown on Saturday evening, reviving the ‘hartal culture’ in Bangladesh politics.
Jatiya Oikyafront, led by Dr Kamal Hossain, extended its support to the BNP programme.
Awami League mayoral candidates Atiqul Islam and Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh won the mayoral race of DNCC and DSCC respectively in Saturday’s elections.
BNP last announced countrywide nonstop blockade on January 5, 2015 and it continued until April 4, leaving at least 120 people, including policemen dead, mostly in firebomb attacks.
BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia announced the programme as police barred her from coming out of her Gulshan office to join an anti-government rally over the first anniversary of 10th parliamentary election.
The BNP chief stayed her Gulshan office since April 4 that year as the blockade programme was on.
Amid the blockade, the party and the 20-party alliance also enforced hartals in different phases. They called a 45-hour hartal on March 30 for the last time demanding ‘restoration’ of democracy and people’s voting right.
She, however, returned to her Gulshan residence from her office signaling that the blockade was withdrawn. The party never withdrew the blockade programme officially.
BNP also never convened hartal or blockade programme after its negative experience during the nearly three-month blockade programme.
The party also did not call hartal even after its debacle in the December 30, 2018 general election following widespread allegations of irregularities and ballot box stuffing the night before the voting and when Khaleda was sent jail on February 8, 2018 as she was convicted in Zia Orphanage trust graft case.
The Moheshkhali Island, a popular destination for tourists, has now been transformed into a digitalised locality with modern facilities. In some cases, it is more advanced than some other regions of the country.
Moheshkhali’s digital transformation has helped third grader Tasnia learn different subjects directly from Dhaka through video conferencing under the distance learning programme of JAAGO Foundation.
Tasnia is not the only one. Several hundred other students are being taught by experienced teachers from Dhaka through e-learning.
“A teacher from Dhaka is teaching us English through video conference. We’re enjoying the class and learning new lessons regularly,” Tasnia told UNB.
Anwara Begum, a resident of the island, recently took her 6-year-old daughter to the Upazila Health Complex. As her condition was critical, duty doctor Shib Shekhar Bhattacharya consulted a specialist physician through video conference and prescribed the girl some medicine.
It saved a family of unnecessary worries, time and money.
Availability of technology also led to sprawling online business and employment generation.
Didarul Islam, Marufa Nasrin Lopa, Romana Akter and six other youths launched an online trading platform ‘E-business Centre’ for selling dried fishes produced on the island.
They are supplying dried fish to all corners of the country in addition to local buyers and tourists. These products are also being sold through online shopping platform Daraz.
All these changes were possible thanks to the implementation of a public-private partnership (PPP) project. The ICT Ministry, Bangladesh Computer Council, Korea Telecom and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) jointly undertook the "Digital Island- Moheshkhali" project.
JAAGO Foundation joined the project as an implementing partner in April 2017.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared Moheshkhali as a “Digital Island” on April 27, 2017. Since then, residents in the Moheshkhai Municipality and two adjacent unions are being provided with digital services, including e-service centre, digital school, e-commerce centre and high-speed internet for all.
The pilot project turned the island into an emerging technological hub.
Locals said the project helps local teachers improve their capabilities through e-learning and e-teaching.
Currently, 25 schools here are being provided with high-speed internet. Besides, a good number of students of ten primary schools are being taught directly from Dhaka through video conferencing.
Patrick Charignon, head of transition and recovery division (TRD) of IOM, said Moheshkhali Island was selected for the project as it is one of the least developed areas of Bangladesh. The illiteracy rate here was higher than other parts of the country. Besides, salinity of the soil impedes crop cultivation. The future of the island was uncertain as youths were migrating to other places.
The Digital Island Project aimed at creating opportunities for the inhabitants through expanding the existing services under the Department of Information and Communication Technology, he added.
The project achievements include the renovation of an existing tower and installation of giga microwave technology that enabled the residents to access internet with a speed of upto 100MBPS.
Md Jamirul Islam, Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Moheshkhali, said the Digital Island is a multipurpose project that connected one of the isolated sections of Bangladeshi people with the world.
“The island underwent a positive change thanks to the pilot project. The results are now visible. People are availing different services like telemedicine, distance-learning and community clubs. The upazila administration is performing 80 percent of its official activities through e-filing,” he said.
Moksud Mia, mayor of the Moheshkhali Municipality, said inhabitants of the island are being benefited by the project in many ways. Students are getting standard lessons thanks to access to internet.
Currently, the project is being implemented in three unions of the upazila. It should be expanded to seven other unions, he added.
Bangladesh’s capital city gears up for Saturday’s election to elect their mayors and councillors with the full use of electric voting machine (EVM) amid doubts and debates about its credible outcomes.
The Election Commission’s (EC) decision to use EVM in Dhaka city election, keeping up with the global digital trend dynamic, has not been without questions and scepticisms.
But when robots are chosen to do human jobs, software is formulating the data, should the new trend of digitisation be escaped? In contrary, can we really confirm everything to be decided by machines? Should there be any question behind using machines for everything? Why did countries ban on using EVMs in their national elections?
UNB analysed the history of EVMs, took expert’s commentaries, recorded allegations and confidence came from ruling party and the opposition over the use of EVMs in Bangladesh’s elections.
Awami League General Secretary Obaidul Quader on January 7 said their party will participate in the city corporation elections, no matter whether EVMs are used or not.
Quader, also road transport and bridges minister, said the country’s development that took place in the last 11 years is now visible to people. “The trend of progress will continue.”
But fearing misuse of EVMs, BNP on January 6, formally demanded the Election Commission to abandon its decision of using EVMs in the city elections.
A six-member BNP delegation, led by party standing committee member Amir Khosru, came up with the demand at a meeting with the Chief Election Commissioner and other Commissioners at the Nirbachan Bhaban.
BNP leaders said “EVM is nothing but a project of rigging votes automatically and silently without any uproar. The election results depend on EVM’s programming, not on the votes of people.”
Amid confusion over vote-rigging through EVMs, BNP mayoral candidates are contesting the elections to Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) and Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC).
CEC okayed EVMs on January 8
Confirming the use of EVM in the two city polls, Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda on January 8 said there is no scope for vote-rigging through the EVM system.
Nurul Huda said candidates can take a close look of EVM system to eliminate their misconception. Those who were taking training said that EVMs could not lead to election rigging.
“It is normal that the use of new technology brings a little debate among the people but it will be resolved after several elections,” Huda said.
He said there is no scope to backtrack from the decision of holding two city polls through EVM.
The CEC also said they are going to use EVMs in the elections to prevent the incidents of snatching ballot boxes and ballots which took place in the past.
High Court cleared EVMs on January 26
The High Court on January 26 turned down a writ petition filed challenging the legality of the use of EVMs in the upcoming elections to two Dhaka city corporations.
Supreme Court lawyer Eunus Ali Akond filed the writ petition on January 22 where The Cabinet Division, President's Office, law and EC Secretariat secretaries were made defendants.
The writ challenged the "Representation of the People Order (amendment) Ordinance, 2018" which paved the way for the use of EVMs in elections.
The use of EVMs is not obligatory as per Section 26 (A) of the RPO as it was not passed in parliament. It is contradictory to the Section 93 of the constitution, Eunus said in the petition.
EVMs in Bangladesh’s general election
Bangladesh in 2018, used 4,750 EVMs for the first time in 11th general election on a limited scale- in six constituencies among 299 parliamentary seats with direct assistance from 3,300 members of Bangladesh Army.
They provided various types of technical support, including training in this regard. Besides, same EVMs were kept ready in the poling centres for emergency backup.
Six seats comprised over 2.1 million voters were selected through lottery are: Dhaka-6, Dhaka-13, Chattogram-9, Rangpur-3, Khulna-2 and Satkhira-2.
The results from these six seats could be announced within hours after the voting ends.
Elections around the world through EVMs
EVMS for electorates have been in use since the 1960s when punched card systems were introduced. First widespread use was in the USA where seven counties switched to this method for the 1964 presidential election.
The newer optical scan voting systems allow a computer to count a voter's mark on a ballot.
A direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines which collect and tabulate votes in a single machine, are used by all voters in all elections in Brazil and India, and also on a large scale in Venezuela and the United States.
They have been used on a large scale in the Netherlands but have been decommissioned after public concerns.
Meanwhile, internet voting systems have gained popularity and being used for government elections and referendums in Estonia, Switzerland as well as municipal elections in Canada and party primary elections in the United States and France.
According to an estimate published in www.jagranjosh.com, 31 countries around the world used or studied the EVMs, only 4 used it nationwide, 11 used EVMs in some parts or small elections till 2019.
Five countries are using it on pilot basis, three have discontinued it and 11 others who used it on pilot basis decided to stop its use.
India has given technical support related to the EVMs to Jordan, Maldives, Namibia, Egypt, Bhutan and Nepal. Among them, Nepal, Bhutan and Namibia are using EVMs made in India.
Comparatively, the EVM is not yet the dominant choice of the world for recording votes in elections.
According to Wikipedia, the USA, Estonia, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Romania, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, the UK, Scotland and Venezuela have used electronic voting in some form.
Which countries banned EVMs in their elections?
In October 2006, the Netherlands banned the use of EVMs. In 2009, the Republic of Ireland banned its use which is followed by the Italy in the same year.
Germany introduced electronic voting in 2005. Germany imported voting machines to conduct its elections from a private company in the Netherlands.
The machines were later reported to have several layers of deficiencies. Germany intended to do away with those infirmities in its machines but before that the matter reached its highest court.
In March 2009, the Supreme Court of Germany ruled that voting through EVM was unconstitutional. The Court believed that transparency in elections is the constitutional right of the people, but "efficiency" is not constitutionally protected value.
Experts’ opinions on EVMs
Even EVMs triggered a fresh political debate, election experts opined fair polls are possible with the machine if a congenial atmosphere can be created.
Ex-election commissioner Brig Gen (retd) M Sakhawat Hossain, local government and election expert Dr Tofail Ahmed, Shushashoner Jonno Nagorik (Shujon) president M Hafizuddin Khan and Janipop chairman Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah talk to UNB about EVMs.
Brig Gen Sakhawat Hossain
Brig Gen Sakhawat Hossain said EVM is a very good initiative to ensure fair elections.
“There’re many problems in conducting voting with traditional ballot papers. We often see the incidents of snatching ballot papers, stuffing ballots, even at nighttime, and casting fake votes. If we want to resolve these problems, we must change the voting system and accept the EVMs,” he said.
However, about EC’s sudden decision in using EVMs, Hossain said: “The Commission should’ve discussed the issue with political parties, civil society members and other stakeholders about use of the voting machines before the announcement of the election schedule.”
He said manipulating elections through EVMs is a very difficult job because the entire team that operates the EVMs should be convinced for manipulation. “But our army personnel usually deal with the EVMs and ensure its security. So, we can trust them.”
M Hafizuddin Khan
M Hafizuddin Khan said people and political parties across the world, not only in Bangladesh, have questions and doubts over EVM use in elections.
“Voters are still not comfortable with EVMs due to their techno phobia. So, I think the Election Commission can use the voting machines on a limited scale unless all political parties agree to it,” he said.
Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah
Nazmul Ahsan Kalimullah said some political parties have wrong perceptions about the EVMs, though it is cent percent secure election system.
“Our Election Commission is using the latest version of EVMs under the supervision of Army. I myself examined the EVMs and found those are cent percent safe. Those who are opposing it are giving some observations about manipulation based on their assumption.”
Dr Tofail Ahmed
Dr Tofail Ahmed said voting machines can be helpful to ensure fair balloting if proper steps are taken and persons responsible for operating those are neutral and professional.
“First of all, I think, proper election atmosphere is necessary for fair polls. If the congenial election atmosphere is not created, voting is unlikely to be fair, no matter whether we use EVMs or ballots,” he said.
Seventy private clinics and diagnostic centres, out of 90, are operating in the district without licences, putting the lives of patients on the line.
Officials said the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) has started taking action against such clinics and diagnostic centres as they hardly abide by rules in providing services to patients.
The civil surgeon office has already served notices on three healthcare centres asking them to stop their activities.
Sources at the civil surgeon office said a number of private hospitals and diagnostic centres mushroomed in the district in recent times and are providing health services in unhygienic atmosphere.
There are 90 private hospitals and diagnostic centres in the district.
Of them, 11 clinics and 19 diagnostic centres are in Sadar upazila while 16 and 18 in Shibganj, three each in Nachole, 11 and six in Gomastapur, and one hospital and two diagnostic centres are in Bholahat upazila respectively.
However, 70 of them have either no licence or their licences have not been renewed.
According to the sources, the owners of 181 medical centres have applied for licences online to the DGHS.
However, 75 of the applications are incomplete. Twenty hospitals and diagnostic centres have obtained the licences while 41 others are waiting to receive their licences.
However, these hospitals and diagnostic centres started running activities even before getting licences.
Of the 30 healthcare facilities in Sadar upazila, 10 are situated around Modern Sadar Hospital and most of them are running illegally.
These hospitals and diagnostic centres are running various medical activities, including surgery and tests, violating rules.
Allegations are also there that they charge exorbitant fees from patients.
Contacted, Civil Surgeon of the district Dr Zahid Nazrul Chowdhury said they have issued notices asking three unauthorised healthcare facilities to stop their activities. A process is underway to blacklist such more hospitals and diagnostic centres, he added.
As most of the applications seeking liences are faulty, they received no instruction from the DGHS for visiting such institutions, the civil surgeon said.
He also said no private clinic or diagnostic centre will be allowed to operate in the district without licence.
The countless rivers crisscrossing the landscape of Bangladesh are said to be its lifeblood, and almost every human settlement in this low-lying delta since ancient times has taken hold and grown along rivers.
Their impact on the socio-economic sphere, and on its culture, can never be overlooked. Right down to the courtesy of acknowledging each river or tributary by its gender, as gleaned from its name.
The country is also home to countless beels, and the haors and baors in the country’s northern half are unique ecosystems known for their astonishingly rich biodiversity and further entrench its people’s relationship with water, the source of all life in the universe.
As if to cement the depth and importance of the special relationship, Bangladesh also holds the distinction of hosting the first museum in Asia that is dedicated to water.
The museum, situated in Pakhimara village of Nilganj union of Patauakhali Upazila, has a collection of water extracted from 87 rivers from Bangladesh and other international rivers in transparent glass jars. It also holds the short history of those rivers.
Established on December 29, 2014, by Action Aid Bangladesh (AAB), the museum is currently run by Kalapara Coastal Public Welfare Association with support from Avas, a private development organisation.
The premises feature a wooden boat set on sand with two wood sculptures of Ghazal fishes sitting on the base of the boat. The entire exhibition space across two floors of a tin-shed amounts to just 500 square feet, but in that you get the water samples, various photographs and fishing equipment to showcase the traditional water-dependent culture of the Bengal region.
Notable of these are fishnets, jhanki net, chai, sails, crab hunting tool, clay-made bowls, pots, utensils, and bamboo baskets, etc. The walls of the museum have been decorated with pictures of canals and rivers, fish of different species, fishermen and potters, as well as scenes of coastal people's livelihoods.
The Water Museum contains information on the history of the 700 rivers of Bangladesh alongside several photographs depicting adverse reactions to the environment due to climate change. It also holds detailed information about 57 transborder rivers of the country.
The museum is slowly gaining the attention of tourists heading to Kuakata sea beach as it sees a crowd of 150-200 visitors per day on average.
One of them, Rifat, said he strayed from his tour plan and made time after hearing about this museum from the locals.
“They told me it was one of the tourist spots before visiting the beach so I decided to take a look and I must say I’m not disappointed,” he told UNB.
Rifat also mentioned that the museum needs to be visited for everyone to understand the importance of rivers.
According to Action Aid Bangladesh sources, the establishment of the museum has evolved to counter the lack of adequate initiatives to protect the rivers across South Asian nations as the bilateral treaties and government policies on water management do not look at water from a holistic point of view.
They intend to uphold the issue of rivers and their water outside political bias and encourage re-imagining river from a humane and ecological point of view.
Officials in charge of the water museum said that after the museum was established, the arrival of tourists is increasing day by day.
Avas Executive Director Rahima Sultana Kajal told UNB the rivers are endangered and coastal people are among the most affected.
“We have to take initiatives now to protect water resources. And that's why we have to be aware. That is why this water museum was built to spread the awareness,” she said.
She also suggested that if the government moved the water museum to Kuakata on their own initiative the number of visitors would increase.
“People from all walks of life will be able to gain knowledge about rivers and value their contributions," she added.
The museum is open from 10 am to 7 pm six days a week, being closed on Tuesday. The fee for the visitors has been fixed at only Tk 10.