SOS-arsenic.net

Critical Reports

Content :

1.Coordinated Action Imperative

2.Arsenic poisoning: We are at risk

3.Arsenic: How some gained, and others lost

4.Facing arsenic disaster -Too much time has already been wasted

5.Arsenic, cricket and the WB

6.Arsenic-Poisoning and an uncertain Future By Sylvia Mortoza

7.Time for Action By Jamal Anwar

8. Whither Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper by M. M. Akash




1. Coordinated Action Imperative

One can hardly fault cynics for dismissing all the talking shops-seminars and conferences-on the arsenic disaster in Bangladesh, considered to be the worst case of mass poisoning in the world, worse than even Chernobyl's radioactive legacy in the Ukraine. At least three such high profile events have been organised in the past few days with the Prime Minister and the President expressing the government's intentions to address the problem. And we would hope this time round the cynics would be proved wrong.

It needs no telling that everybody moving in the donor-development circuit seems to have been jumping on the arsenic bandwagon ever since the problem surfaced but precious little have resulted as far as mitigation is concerned. This paper has been hammering for serious coordinated action between the government and 'development partners', to help the vulnerable areas revert to alternative sources of reasonably safe water and to attend to the health needs of the already affected people. But so far we have seen only a proliferation of NGOs, assorted consultants, bottled water and filter sellers and what not, catching larks, so to say, while the poisoning continues.

Governments (we have had three, including the present, since arsenic in tubewells became known) and the donors and development agencies have wasted nearly a decade, first trying to trivialise it, then suppressing the fact and lately waking up, albeit slowly. But we are still far from a well-thought-out national policy that can address all the aspects of the tragedy.

It is imperative that we stop dithering and start addressing the problem with the urgency and seriousness it deserves. Rather than leave it to the local government, one suggestion is that a high-powered inter-ministerial body be formed which would be intellectually equipped enough to take appropriate decisions and actions.

It is reassuring to find that at long last experts are saying favourable things about our rains, rivers and ponds despite the bad name they earned as sources of water-borne diseases, the main reason why tube well contractors-local and foreign, individual and agencies-could do brisk business in Bangladesh and become tycoons in no time. Hundreds of thousands of tube wells were sunk to tap underground aquifers disregarding the knowledge that over-extraction of these sources could have adverse ecological consequences, gradually drying up the aquifers and leading to surface aridity, apart from the current leaching of excessive arsenic in the water.

There is no reason why we cannot revert to our bountiful of fresh water reserves, taking care that indiscriminate runoff from farms and factories is prohibited at individual and community level. Ordinary people need only a little facilitation from the government or other agencies to take care of their own safe water needs, provided dedicated money-makers do not mislead them again.

With simple and affordable surface and rainwater collection, storage and decontamination methods popularised, we could start undoing some of the harm that poisoned tubewells have wrought for Bangladesh's people, provided the political will is there.

Source: Editorial, The Bangladesh Observer 16. 01. 02.

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2. Arsenic poisoning: We are at risk
by Quamrul Islam Chowdhury

By drilling hundreds of thousands of tube-wells -- both for irrigation and safe drinking water in the villages -- the authorities and planners unwittingly exposed millions of the rural Bangladeshis to the naturally occurring poisons in the groundwater. Now there is no time to waste for the planners and decision-makers. They must act and act decisively to save millions of people from slow mass poisoning by deadly arsenic.

Pinjira has lost her battle with arsenic. Sofura is missing. Zahangir is knocked down. Kamal Hossain's dream has been shattered. The sordid tales of thousands of innocent victims of mass poisoning of arsenic contamination have been hitting the headlines of national and international media for last couple of years. The problem of arsenic pollution in Bangladesh's ground water has turned into a crisis of unprecedented proportion. Millions of people in rural Bangladesh have been exposed to the risk. At the end of the year 2001, the claws of arsenic have also threatened thousands of people of 28 municipalities. The new government of Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia has already declared arsenic problem as one of its 100-day agenda for action.

In early 1996, arsenic contamination of groundwater was reported first in Bagerhat, Satkhira and Kushtia, three south-western Bangladesh districts bordering the Indian state of West Bengal. Some 61 out of 64 districts across the country (FEJB, 2000) face the menace of arsenic poisoning. LGRD Minister Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan and Health Minister Dr. Khondker Mosharraf Hossain informed that the number of arsenic patients crossed the 10,000-mark. Against this backdrop, an international arsenic week begins in Dhaka from this Friday. Three back-to-back international conferences and workshops will be held in the city this week. The World Water Forum of Journalists (WWFJ) is organising a two-day international conference on Arsenic contamination on groundwater: Media strategy from January 11. Dhaka Community Hospital is holding an international workshop from January 12. The LGRD Ministry is organising an international workshop from January 14. All to address the grave arsenic problem.

At the end of 2001, Bangladeshi officials admitted that some 80 million people -- more than 65 per cent of the country's population -- live in the arsenic-contaminated areas. Due to the sheer magnitude of the catastrophe, a resource-poor nation like Bangladesh is now struggling, not quite successfully, to cope with the problem caused by arsenic-contaminated tube-wells in the rural areas. Of late, there have been some efforts to mitigate the woes of the arsenic-hit villagers through distribution of water filtration devices. The authorities have also been reportedly seeking an easy solution to tackle this latest environmental hazard.

The authorities are ill equipped both financially and technically to deal with the massive problem. They have been at a loss how to deal with its fallout. The government launched a campaign to create awareness among the public about the hazards of drinking arsenic-contaminated water and issued warnings through radio and television. A National Arsenic Committee was formed to address the problem. But efforts to tackle the situation have to be far more widespread and intense. Most of rural Bangladesh has been caught up in an arsenic panic. Members of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh (FEJB) were the first to break the bad news. Now FEJB is trying to sensitise the officials and policy makers about the magnitude of the disaster. They have also been trying their level best to make the people, particularly the rural community, aware of the hazard and also of the ways to mitigate public suffering caused by the arsenic-contaminated groundwater.

Arsenic is a white, semi-metallic powder found in nature. Some of its compounds -- arsenite and arsenate -- are highly toxic and can cause skin cancer, kidney and liver failure, respiratory problems, and in extreme cases, death. Other symptoms include dark brown spots on the body, thickening of the skin of the palms and feet, and warts on hands and legs. Colourless, tasteless and naturally occurring in the sub-soils, arsenic has been seeping into the region's groundwater for years. Some experts say that arsenic beneath Bangladesh's fertile delta was probably deposited long ago after being washed down from the ores in the Himalayas. For long, the arsenic compounds called arsenic sulphides were submerged in groundwater and remained inert. But with the advent of intensive irrigation in the 1960s, the aquifers started to drop, exposing the poisons to oxygen for the first time. Once oxidised, arsenic sulphides become water-soluble. They percolate from the sub-soils into the water tables during every monsoon flood.

Late Amjad Hussain Khan, a Bangladeshi water expert, reportedly observed in 1997 that the arsenic contamination had originated in the Indian state of West Bengal bordering Bangladesh -- particularly on the eastern side of the Ganges-Bhagirathi rivers. The deadly poison then slowly seeped into Bangladesh's groundwater. He said that the western border districts, specially the south-western region of Bangladesh, were particularly vulnerable to arsenic contamination. The reason is that the sediments on both sides of the border have the same depositional history and geological environment -- the region being commonly known as the Ganges delta. Khan said that the aquifer of the contaminated zones in West Bengal and that of the areas within Bangladesh were hydrologically connected. He further observed that the groundwater of the region along the south-western border belt of Bangladesh is highly vulnerable to arsenic contamination.

The first reports of arsenic contamination of water appeared in 1978 in West Bengal. The initial theories blamed arsenic pollution on the use of insecticides and pesticides, metal strainers of industrial effluents, etc. But, subsequent studies proved such theories to be wrong. The School of Environmental Studies [SOES], Jadavpur University, near Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, started investigation in 1988 when reports of sporadic cases of arsenic poisoning began to appear in West Bengal. The study said that for centuries a 450-kilometre stretch of arsenic has been deposited in rich silt clay some 70 to 200 feet below the surface in an area covering about 35,000 square kilometres. The problem did not surface until the 1970s when the farmers in West Bengal began tapping huge amounts of groundwater to irrigate their summer crops, thus triggering chemical changes in the soil composition.

Scientists now advise that if a catastrophe is to be averted, pumping of groundwater must be reduced and farmers should increasingly try to tap surface water for irrigation. As the water table falls, pyrites -- a mineral which holds arsenic -- begins to oxidise and exude the poison, contaminating thousands of shallow tube-wells.

In June 2000, the Dhaka-based National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine (NIPSOM) tested some 1000 samples of tube-well water in 17 rural districts. And it found arsenic in at least 180 such samples. Arsenic toxicity in the water of the affected districts is 25 to 35 times higher the safety level set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The permissible level of arsenic in water is 0.05 ppm, according to experts. The Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission found the level of arsenic between 1.5 and 2 ppm in tube-well water in the districts bordering West Bengal. The situation was so bad that an even more dangerous level of arsenic toxicity was found in the water of a tube-well in the village home of the then incumbent Health Minister, the late Salauddin Yusuf, in Khulna, which is not far from the border with India. During 2001, the number of arsenic poisoned tube-wells was on the rise, creating a panic across the country.

Tests of water samples collected from the arsenic-infected areas of the country contained more than the normal percentage of arsenic. Twenty-eight per cent of the affected people had more than 100 to 1500 per cent more arsenic than the normal level in their urine, 47 per cent had 8 to 20 per cent more than the normal level in their nails and 98 per cent had 100 to 15,000 per cent more than the normal level in their skin! Twenty per cent of the water samples contained amounts of arsenic, 100 to 900 per cent more than the allowable quantity. The DCH tested 920 patients suffering from skin diseases, of whom 150 were suspected to have been suffering from arsenic poisoning. Samples of urine, nails, hair and skin were collected from 95 of some 105 patients.

Thousands of people of 28 municipalities of the country are drinking arsenic contaminated water from pipeline water supply system, a recent study has revealed. Earlier, it was believed that the wells including the deep tube-wells in the municipalities posed no threat to public health since they were safe. The tests were carried out by the Dhaka Community Hospital (DCH) in cooperation with The Daily Star between January and September 2001. The municipalities include the hill district of Rangamati where, until now, experts ruled out possibilities of finding arsenic even at low concentration. Laboratory tests of water samples collected from the municipalities revealed that all of them including those from privately owned wells contained at least 0.03 milligram per litre arsenic or three times the acceptable level (0.01 mg/L) for human consumption. For Bangladesh, the highest level of arsenic in drinking water is 0.05mg/L.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), long-term consumption of arsenic can cause various skin diseases. Experts studying some arsenic patients have concluded that long-term exposure to arsenic through drinking can lead to cancer in the bladder, intestine and even lungs. So far, official surveys in only 500 villages have found over 10,000 arsenic patients suffering from various forms of ailments including cancer related to arsenic poisoning.

The DCH study found the highest concentration of 0.199 mg/L arsenic in a deep tube-well in Gopalganj town that supplies water to more than 12,000 inhabitants. The second highest concentration was found in another Gopalganj town deep tube-well supplying water to more than 10,000 people. This one has an arsenic concentration of 0.177 mg/L. In Chuadanga town, a 170-feet deep tube-well, which is shared by some 20 families, has a concentration of 0.42 mg/L of arsenic. The users have been drinking from the well for the last six years.

In Kishoreganj and Laxmipur district towns, similar concentrations of arsenic were detected. In Kishoreganj, a privately owned well had presence of arsenic at 0.183 mg/L while in Laxmipur 0.267 and 0.140 mg/L arsenic was found.

Similarly, high concentration of arsenic was detected in Magura, Manikganj, Narail and Kushtia district towns. A total of eight teams collected water samples and other data. People at risk from drinking arsenic at high concentration were informed in writing. The Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE) was also informed about the status of arsenic concentration.

However, according to sources, none of the deep tube-wells with high concentration of arsenic have so far been shut down. The urban areas from where water samples were collected are Barisal, Brahmanbaria, Chapainawabganj, Chittagong, Chuadanga, Cox's Bazar, Dhaka, Dinajpur, Habiganj, Jessore, Jhenidah, Khulna, Kishoreganj, Kushtia, Laxmipur, Magura, Manikganj, Moulvibazar, Munshiganj, Narail, Natore, Pabna, Rajshahi, Rangamati, Rangpur and Sylhet. When contacted, Chief Engineer of the DPHE Abu Muslim said, "We have tested water in almost all the 100 municipalities and found eight of them to have contaminated water." "Alternative measures like iron-arsenic removal plats (IARP) have been installed to remove arsenic and in some places we have also shut down pumps. As soon as we learnt about contamination, we ordered for alternative measures," Muslim added.

The eight districts where the DPHE has taken alternative measures to remove arsenic are Rajshahi, Chapainawabganj, Chuadanga, Satkhira, Meherpur, Faridpur, Noakhali and Gopalganj. Meantime, Gopalganj Pourashava (municipality) Chairman Mohmmad Ali Khan expressed surprise when told about the concentration levels of arsenic in his town. "I am really surprised. We must take immediate measures to inform the people about the risks," Khan reacted. Until recently, government and non-government agencies have tested water in rural areas. So far, 61 of 64 districts are found affected by arsenic. According to the latest data, 85 million people in the affected areas are at risk of drinking arsenic contaminated water. LGRD Minister Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan said a preliminary survey to identify arsenic-affected patients was conducted in different rural districts of Bangladesh. He said instructions had been given to the Department of Public Health and Engineering to supply arsenic-free water to the affected areas. Besides, he said, instructions had been given to test the tube-well water locally in every district. He suggested that grassroots level people should be involved in arsenic mitigation programmes.

Stressing the need for undertaking preventive measures against arsenic toxicity, Dr. A.Z.M. Iftikhar Hossain, deputy programme manager of the Arsenic Mitigation Project, said his department had already developed a filter to purify arsenic-contaminated water. There is no definite cure for arsenic poisoning, but uncontaminated water and nutritious food over a period of time nurture sufferers back to health. Unfortunately, there are few alternative water supplies in the affected districts and most of the people in the rural areas cannot afford nutritious food.

As the mysterious sores first appeared on the work-toughened palms of Anil Chandra Das, a rice farmer in the southwestern Nowapara area, he kept grizzling in pain but just ignored it. But the lesions did not go away. Instead, the small purplish scabs on his palms began cracking and bleeding. Then the headaches started, accompanied by chest congestion and stomach cramps. And finally, in March, 1997 the man whose neighbours remember him for his breezy story-telling died.

With 61 out of 64 districts affected and 264 upazilas being the most affected, it is believed that at least 26 million people are at risk of contacting arsenicosis. Because, the people themselves with the help of private sector installed most of the tube-wells and so there are no records of how many wells exit. The estimate is between 6-10 million. If the current national pace of testing output cannot be improved, it will take 6-8 years just to test all of the existing tube-wells, observed an expert.

There is no pattern to arsenic contamination of groundwater. One well in a village may be safe while another well 100 yards away may be contaminated over the current nationally prescribed safe level of 50ppb. And the one after that may again be safe! Therefore, the only way to know if a tube-well is providing safe water or not is to test every tube-well. The contamination of tube-wells may change over time and so, people will at some point need to have access to local testing facilities so that they can regularly check the level of contamination in their wells. This facility presently does not exist.

There is still no clear medical understanding as to why some members of a family contact arsenicosis while others do not, even though they drink the same water. At what time and in what circumstances will people contact arsenicosis? What is the risk factor related to the onset of gangrene and cancer? There are no clear answers to these issues till date. There is a growing possibility that arsenic may be entering the food chain through contaminated irrigation water. This may have an effect not only on the food being eaten (which may eventually have adverse impact on the economy of the farming community), but also on the ability of the soil to produce crops.

While arsenicosis is not a contagious disease, it often appears to be to the affected rural communities. There are instances where affected children, having the raindrop pattern, kurtosis and melanomas symptoms on their skin, are being asked to leave school. Parents are deserting their families. Marriage prospects for the affected youth may be severely hampered. In the advanced stages, people may suffer amputation as a result of gangrene or cancer, severely affecting the chances of earning or sustaining a livelihood. If at some point, soil is found to be contaminated and food production becomes unmarketable, it would have far reaching implications in the socio-economic sector and national development. There is really no time to lose. This problem calls for a two-pronged approach; an emergency testing and awareness creation in the first place, followed by a second stage of a community based and sustainable set of activities.

The Department of Public Health Engineering (DPHE),and NGOs are working to develop and implement a four-part community-based and integrated arsenic mitigation programme. It is widely believed that action should be carried out on an emergency basis to undertake countrywide testing. The urgent need to test all tube-wells has to be addressed as quickly as possible.

The issue of sustainability must be addressed. Testing facilities must eventually be made available to the people on a continual and cost-effective basis through public and private sector partnerships. The government has an overarching responsibility to put in place regular and systematic groundwater quality monitoring for a wide range of parameters to ensure that knowledge base is increased and that the population is kept fully informed. Field test kits are improving. Arsenicosis patients can be looked for either by house-to- house search or through health camps. The next and perhaps greatest challenge yet is to help people to obtain safe water supply in a sustainable way in the long term, because arsenic contamination is not going to go away in the foreseeable future. While there may be more new technologies that have not yet been learned of, there are already enough reliable options available to move quickly to assist people in their quest for safe water supply. Rainwater harvesting is a household option that costs approximately Taka 5,000 for 3,000 litres. It is not new; it has been used for thousands of years. The issue is whether or how well people are able to conserve the stored water during the dry season.

Pond sand filtration is a community option, costing approximately Taka 42,000. Again not a new technology, it has been used to clean up surface water for many years, especially in the saline affected areas of the country. The issue is that the community has to agree to carry out regular maintenance. Another community option is the protected dug well costing approximately Taka 12,000. These wells tap water from above the arsenic contaminated zone and are a good option where the water table is high enough.

In addition to these traditional and well-known systems, UNICEF /DPHE are trying out other filtration systems, which employ a column filter filled with a media which adsorbs arsenic. Some of these systems can deliver or treat up to 500,000 litres of contaminated water on one filter pack, lasting up to 500 days before the filter media needs to be replaced. These are also effective at removing iron from the raw water and therefore, are even more popular with the community. The capital cost for this type of filter may at first seem prohibitive. However, simple mathematics show that the cost per treated litre is, in fact, very small -- approximately only Taka 0.4 per litre as calculated against the initial capital cost. The cost per litre for the second filter is much, much less when calculated against only the cost of the replacement filter.

In addition, the government is working with its partners to assist in developing a locally produced adsorbent media, which will be ideal for household filtration. So far, this locally produced media seems to hold good prospects and will be a cheaper option for household use. The aim is to reach a stage where affected communities can be informed about a range of options which might be feasible for each given situation; where the community will then decide which is the option they want to choose.

Many people in the past had warned the proponents of the Green Revolution about the dangers of over-extraction of groundwater for irrigation. But the policy-makers in the 1960s did not heed to such warnings. By drilling hundreds of thousands of tube-wells -- both for irrigation and safe drinking water in the villages -- the authorities and planners unwittingly exposed millions of the rural Bangladeshis to the naturally occurring poisons in the groundwater. Now there is no time to waste for the planners and decision-makers. They must act and act decisively to save millions of people from slow mass poisoning by deadly arsenic.

Now, the question that may arise is how to go about in tackling the problem. Here are some ways:

Emergency measures

Raising public awareness should be the starting point for any approach to deal with the arsenic problem

Groundwater treatment technologies that are cheap, efficient and easy to use should be applied at a large scale as an interim or midterm solution Immediate measures must be taken to protect the health of those living in areas where water is contaminated by arsenic

Improving nutrition and fighting under-nourishment has to be a central element of the fight against the arsenic crisis

Participation of the civil society has to be a key element of designing, planning and implementing remedial strategies

Intra-governmental coordination is a must for effective implementation.

Information dissemination and transparency play a key role in effectiveness of remedial strategies while building the confidence of stakeholders, particularly general public.

Long-term policy alternatives

  • An overall health policy to deal with currently-identified patients as well as those potentially at risk

  • Food security and improving nutritional quality of the food should be a high priority
  • Alternative livelihoods should be provided for those who are directly impacted by arsenic contamination as well as their immediate families

  • Water resource management on a regional or national scale is essential to fully exploit the abundant water resources available in Bangladesh

  • Scientific research has to be emphasised to reduce uncertainty, with due consideration to local conditions

  • Drinking water standard has to be re-evaluated based on scientific research, and

  • Coordination, management and dissemination of information should be undertaken through well-defined mechanisms.

Quamrul Islam Chowdhury is chairman-elect of APFEJ, chairman of FEJB and secretary-general of WWFJ.

Source: The Daily Star , 10. 01. 02


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3.Arsenic: How some gained, and others lost

by Afsan Chowdhury

In l995, it was in the air that something horrible had happened to the tubewell supplied drinking water system. There were rumours but that's all. By l996, it began to look like a crisis. The organization that took a lead in this was called Disaster Forum (DF). It was supported by OXFAM of the UK and led by Gowher Nayeem Wahra. He had been looking for evidence to link the rumours with the facts for sometime. On behalf of DF, he commissioned Dhaka Community Hospital to run a health camp in Pabna. Patients with strange ailments began to be noted there. It soon transpired that these were victims of arsenicosis. Till then the government had maintained a face of near total denial. They never even informed the people drinking arsenic contaminated tubewell water about the danger. This was a criminal omission. But this was done. It was a conspiracy of self protection created over many years of practice by those who knew. The secret became public.

******

THE NIPSOM doctor was explaining the history of the crisis. He was uncomfortable because the evidence that a cover up had happened was obvious. UNICEF was supporting its feeble efforts to do practically nothing.

"The first arsenic carrying tubewells were detected in l993 in Chapainawabganj. We sealed them and prepared a project for the government. But the project was never approved. We have got some money from Unicef to do some work but no programme exists." "But why didn't you inform the people. Don't they have a right to know? " "We thought it was a local problem. We didn't want to cause panic." Then he stopped. A government officer doesn't know the idea of public rights. He had no answer about rights.

******

WHAT became obvious was the extreme contempt in which the official technocrats and bureaucrats held ordinary people. The entire idea of development in Bangladesh is based on the GO-NGO co-operation model and the people have little role to play in this. NGOs are generically fund seekers and now provider of employment. Most of them have almost no reality beyond this. And this generally grovelling bunch conveniently represents the public face in the eyes of the donors who ultimately decide policies. Not because they want to but because they have to. The ability of the national counterparts is so low that they would not be able to formulate a policy without donor support. They are unable to disagree either because that might mean fund cuts. So it all ends up in the same basket.

******

WHEN the arsenic crisis finally hit the national media, there was some action and of course the World Bank came in. That means an appraisal mission and all that. As DF was part of the scene at that time, they came to see DF fellows amongst others. I remember the members of the British Geological Society (BGS), a very smug lot. "It's a very bad scene. Nobody here knows what is going on. We have got the facts". One of them looked happy in saying. Nobody had detected it before them.

I have recently learnt that BGS have been sued in a British court for failing to carry out tests including on arsenic when under contract to DFID and working in Bangladesh. These are the people whom we hand over our fate and wait to be taken care of.

The World Bank team was smarter, more sophisticated and certainly more duplicitous. They promised to brief everyone about their findings and of course never did. The World Bank has years of experience in "facts management" -- though some call it -- and of course did that. The report was given only to the Government's Directorate of Public Health Engineering (DPHE), those responsible for digging tubewells and feeling a bit of the heat then.

******

SUDDENLY the number of NGOs and foreign experts began to increase dramatically. The Japanese took over a village and started their own experiments. They came to see us and were a bit surprised that we didn't welcome them as others did. At the DF office, Nayeem Wahra said, " In our language, there is a proverb. A poor man's wife is everyone's sister-in-law. Would you allow us to go to any Japanese village and do such experiments?" They had no answer. They never thought that in servile Bangladesh, citizens of donor countries are even asked questions. We were considered so impudent that no discussion was possible. They hurriedly left not sure that this was a proper welcome for the Japanese, Bangladesh's largest donor.

******

THE government never took the matter seriously but they were always concerned that the crisis never became a political embarrassment. Because the BNP government had rejected arsenic mitigation proposal in 1993, and never taken the problem seriously, the then AL government was willing to criticize the past. Minister Matia Chowdhury spoke about use of surface water but Matia Chowdhury's goodwill was overwhelmed by the technocrats and the donors. The World Bank in consultation with a selected few outfits and individuals made the plan and then placed it and it was accepted by the senior bureaucracy. I remember all the promises made about "participation and consultation" but I suppose that's the only way the World Bank can operate. Their best friend in keeping secrets away from the people is always the government. When a committee was formed by the then Health Secretary -- a donor friendly Secretary who later also steered the Health and Population Sector Programme (HPSP) -- the DF found that they had attended the meet to form the group but had been left out. It's at this point that the caucus took over in which records would show that the informal "arsenic beneficiary group" was born. I will not independently name them but they can be traced through their collaborative links to the Government and the World Bank. In fact, the WB had even given a room to the NIPSOM experts to write the programme which was duly welcomed. After all the accommodations at Paribagh are much better than that at Mahakhali.

******

I have nothing against the Bank. This is what they do. They have served their historical purpose and are on the wane as WTO swings up. They are now the most radical sounding outfit in town. There is so much evidence of their global failure that nobody talks much about it anymore. We do because we are so much behind the world and we still suck up to them. Plus, this is where senior bureaucrats go for their cushy jobs. The WB functions best in countries like ours because we have no performance audits, no accountability, extreme crony corruption and, to be honest, inadequate mental faculties to challenge them. Those who have chase them for assignments. And so everyone has a stake in the World Bank. What irritates is their pontification. It's plain bad taste. But then who will hand out consultancies to keep our brains well fed if they don't?

******

WITHIN a year our NGOs, the private sector arm of the government had enough plans and projects to get the sector up and running. I remember reading in a World Bank document that $l50 million could lead to a sustainable solution for the problem. Ultimately, they came up with 50-60 million dollars plus another few million dollars to be raised from the consumers. The NGOs were called SOB -- Support Organizations of Bangladesh -- though I understand that SOB also means something else. I wonder if this was a Macnamarasque slip or not?

******

THE last government spent more than $ l50 million buying MIG jets and a frigate to protect our national security and the borders. At a protest meeting held at the Press Club we compared the crises. India versus arsenic, India versus global warming, environmental versus military treat. People have made fun of our position when we say that the environmental security is a serious one, certainly bigger than the border issue. But face the fact, who would be insane enough to grab us?

So when the crisis gets even worse, I hope the MIG planes will attack the arsenic sources to oblivion, the frigates will threaten away the waves of the rising water level from our shores and the army jawans will bayonet all the tubewells to death. That will be a security activity everyone will cheer. In fact, more may be spent to protect the Indian border from us by India than our entire national budget.

******

I once attended a meeting at UNICEF. When I mentioned the need to look at all water sources including surface water use and mentioned that we had successfully carried out experiments to show that, a lady who represented the British NGO Water Aid sniggered and said, " I don't understand the local people. At the first excuse they want to jump back to the pond." There was approving laughter all around. It has remained for me the defining description of our problem.

******

I am not with the Disaster Forum, which was an outfit of volunteers. But the problem has remained. But that experience has taught me that development without accountability is a lie. And we live by that.


Afsan Chowdhury is Senior Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.

Source: The Daily Star 15. 01. 02


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4.Facing arsenic disaster -Too much time has already been wasted

Editorial

If organising and attending conferences is any indication of the seriousness of this government in facing the arsenic disaster then we are into happy times. In the last few days no less than three international conferences have been held in the city, the last two being addressed by the President and the Prime Minister. There could not be a firmer public expression of political will by a government than this. Now the challenge is to turn this official commitment into, to quote the President, "widespread and affordable action".

To start with we must immediately formulate a comprehensive national policy, both short and long term, to address this disaster. We also must create a structure within the government that will have a singular focus to tackle the arsenic problem. So far the location of all government activities in the LGRD ministry has been a mistake. This ministry already has its hands full and cannot be expected to address this disaster.

We propose the formation of an inter-ministerial body -- perhaps a Task Force -- located at the PMO and headed by the PM herself with a very high level secretariat empowered to take quick and decisive action. Along with it we need an expert group, taken from all those who are active both within and outside the government to form the brains trust for all government policies. At the same time we must request all donors to act in a coordinated manner and with the Task Force. At present too many donors are spending a lot of money without really knowing if the resources are being effectively spent.

The biggest challenge before the nation is to provide alternative source of safe water for our people other than tube-wells. The alternative, as we see it, is only one --going back to the consumption of surface water and water collected from rain. We realise that we are talking of a massive change of a habit that has grown over the last two decades of using tube-well water. It is also extremely easy to use requiring virtually no effort in storing and preserving. However the task is not as difficult as it may seem at first. Bangladesh ranks No.2 in the world in terms of possessing fresh water reserve, most of it in our rivers and ponds, which require to be made germ free. Simple and affordable water purifying methods will have to be popularised. As for rainwater, affordable method of collecting and preserving it will have to be introduced.

As is evident from above the tasks before us are enormous, urgent and multifaceted. We are heartened by the interest the PM and the President have shown in this matter. We hope that the official conference, which will end tomorrow, will respond to most of the suggestions we have given above. The most important is that we need to act collectively and urgently.

Source: The Daily Star 15. 01. 02


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5.Arsenic, cricket and the WB
by M.I. Hasan

AS an occasional visitor to Bangladesh and intermittent reader of The Daily Star, it was a delight over the past few days to read the sardonic pieces by Afsan Chowdhury both in the op-ed section (on Arsenic) and in the sports section (on our cricket team). He must be congratulated for his writing. They are so different from the drab stuffs: bringing in gynaecologists, the Finance Minister, the IMF-World Bank. In his accounts of the recent jamboree organized on the Arsenic problem as well as non-performing of the cricket team, and the economy and/or the Finance Minister.

It is refreshing to read the wry humour in his analyses of the current sad scenarios in Bangladesh, with the hint of the tragic-comic consequences on the country. The dubious roles of the Government and 'donors', such as the World Bank (WB) and the Japanese agency, over the past decade regarding the Arsenic problem needs to be exposed further. How so much money is being spent (mostly on self-serving seminars), how money borrowed by the Government of Bangladesh from the World Bank is being used mostly for unrealistic advice from foreign consultants, and how different donors (such as the Japanese or the Canadians) have banded together to make their own deals without making much of dent yet on the widespread Arsenic problem.

Another aspect that requires more exposure, of course, is how weak-kneed governments in Bangladesh have fallen prey to these donors peddling their agenda and not-so-relevant ideas. The recent non-productive exchange between the IMF-World Bank and the Government (read the current Finance Minister) has again exemplified the uneven nature of these deals. It was astounding (as an expatriate familiar with the worlds of international finance) to see the coverage and the courtesies given to the IMF team last week culminating in a meeting with the Prime Minister, no less! I guess the Finance Minister presumes now that pleasing the IMF-WB operatives by making self-deprecatory off-the-cuff remarks is more worthwhile than proper protocol and maintaining self-esteem of the nation!

On the other side, the second-rate professionals at IMF-WB (as characterized by Nobel winner Joseph Stiglitz) must be chuckling at giving nothing away and at the same time getting uncalled for royal treatment unlike elsewhere (except possibly for some banana republics!) -- and in the bargain finally getting a Finance Minister to mouth their own agenda in his dialect.

A similar syndrome, of over-reaching and mouthing more than one can deliver, seems to afflict the sports arena. As reported recently, myopic politics in the land-grabbing tradition as applied to the Football Federation has led to the FIFA banning Bangladesh, where the game was going from bad to worse anyway. On the other side, the cricket team continues on what must be a record-breaking run of pathetic performance as a Test team and, notwithstanding all the media hype and the politically-correct changes also in the Cricket Board, it is difficult to visualize any significant improvement. It would indeed be more self-respecting for our men to 'retire hurt' now from Tests instead of plumbing low levels of performance to the point of absurdity, including recruiting gynaecologists.

Similar to the case of the misplaced gynaecologists serving the cricket team(s), the roles of the IMF-WB and the local midwives in charge of the Bangladesh economy now also need to be realistically evaluated. And in such an arduous task of self-analysis for the nation that must be undertaken sooner rather than later -- not by the parasitical breed of consultants and pundits -- the role of an honest media would be crucial.


Source: The Daily Star, 21. 01. 02

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6. Arsenic-Poisoning and an uncertain Future
by Sylvia Mortoza, 10. 05. 01

A two-week survey carried out by DCH/SOES team between December 1998 to January, 1999 covering 10 villages of 8 districts that has turned up more patients than expected is a bad portent for us all. What this means is that, either the situation is worse than we thought, or that we are incapable of keeping pace with its advance.

When we learn that arsenic in the groundwater of one village in Bogra is as high as 1.5 mg/l, we should be worried. This causes us to think that other villages and other districts are similarly afflicted.. This idea is borne out by the information coming out of yet another village, Izrapara, in Sarisabari, which now is identified as the village with the largest number of people affected by arsenic-poisoning as more than half the people doctors examined already have the tell-tale signs of skin lesions. Worse still, out of 48 children below the ages of 11 examined, 16.6% are similarly afflicted.

With much the same story coming out of almost all the villages now being tested for arsenic-contamination, it is time to take stock of the situation and measure it against our achievements especially when we hear that people in villages like Chattarpaya of Thana Senbag, are still drinking the water from tubewells which are known to have a high concentration of arsenic. This particular village also has the dubious distinction of being the village with the highest concentration of arsenic (4.7 mg/l) found anywhere in the world.

What is sad about it is that years after the problem was uncovered, villagers in many places are not only drinking water that is contaminated with arsenic but are blissfully unaware that they are being poisoned or that the skin lesions they see have been caused by this poison. This scenario is being constantly repeated around the countryside and smacks of inefficiency on the part of the authorities. Arsenic mitigation programmes in Kushtia and elsewhere in the southwestern region of the country has, according to reports, also suffered a setback due to a similar lack of concern. In fact it may even be correct to say that nobody seems to be responsible for supervising the programmes undertaken either by the government or private NGOs. That people are still ignorant of what has befallen them is hard to accept as UNICEF appointed a publicity agent to inform and educate the people on all aspects of contamination and arsenic-poisoning.

One major problem being encountered is that people believe that the illnesses and diseases caused by the ingesting of arsenic are the work of evil spirits. If this is allowed to continue, treating patients becomes almost impossible and gives a chance for charlatans to take over. But there is another problem many doctors at the health complexes in Upazilas are so divorced from the problem they are unable to recognise arsenic-induced illnesses when they see them.

This can be easily remedied by refresher courses and by diseeminating knowledge on these diseases to all medical personnel. The result of such ignorance is easy to tell as these doctors could prescribe incorrect courses of treatment for the smitten which can be very dangerous. In just one village, seven members of a family are reported to have died because the cause of their illnesses was unknown until a team of doctors from the Rajshahi Medical College came and identified it. Other difficulties being encountered by the people are related to the sealing or marking in red of contaminated tubewells WITHOUT ENSURING AN ALTERNATIVE SOURCE OF DRINKING WATER. The obvious result of suchs neglect is that the people have no other choice but to drink the water from the tubewells, knowing them to be contaminated. It is quite one thing to drink contaminated water unknowingly but to know one is consuming a known poison must be a nightmare, especially for parents of small children. Another problem being encountered is that many villagers do not comprehend the danger especially when the same tubewell has been used for years without anyone getting sick. This is certainly something difficult to explain to people, so if people believe the tubule is safe and their illnesses are caused by evil spirits, who can blame them?

Although there are reports that the government is pondering digging some covered ring wells with hand pumps to alleviate the problem of a shortage of arsenic-free drinking water, generally it can be seen that little has been done to implement this plan. Although the DPHE has a scheme to install 40 ring wells within the district, still no ring-well has been installed despite the selection of contractors. The officials are not even sure how many people in their area are suffering from arsenic-poisoning, although an unconfirmed survey report does say that 40 per cent of the people are sick. When asked, these officials are likely to blame the shortage of manpower as the reason for the lack of action but as Arsenic Control Committees have been formed at the grass-root level, (i.e. the ward level to district level) no programme for creating an awareness among the people about arsenic contamination, water management, nutrition or which measures to take to face the arsenic threat appears to have been taken up.

In Chapainawabganj, a project under the auspices of the Watsan Partnership Project (WPP) is now underway in 160 villages of 3 upazilas. The WPP works in partnership with three other organisations, CARE, DASCO and IDEA and 15 local NGOs and their joint programme consists of creating awareness among the people of the harmful effects of consuming arsenic-contaminated water. It also includes the transfer of technology for the removal of arsenic from the water as well as a programme for identifying patients. Such projects are worthy efforts but, although it would seem that removing or reducing the arsenic in the groundwater is simple, applying such remedies as are available have not always been acceptable to the people. The problem with this is that, though many, if not all of these treatments work, if they are not acceptable to people, or people cannot understand the basic concept, these will all become useless as soon as supervision is removed.

If despite international coverage on the disaster, policy-makers are still unable to comprehend the seriousness of the situation we are in, the nation is in trouble for, if solutions are not in the process of being put in place, they should be. Nowadays, small babies are also showing signs of poisoning. This should have been expected as arsenic is a "teratogen" meaning it can jump the placenta barrier. That this problem warrants our undivided attention seems to be missed. First and foremost people must be told what ails them and they must be told what they can expect and taught to recognise the symptoms of arsenic-poisoning for themselves. If they make a mistake in diagnosis, this is not important but arsenic-poisoning is, for when consumed over a long period of time it can be a cause of skin, liver, lung, kidney and bladder cancer.

Already it has become an outsize burden on the country's health services and for this reason alone we must reduce exposure to arsenic-contaminated water to as near to zero as possible. Meanwhile we must intensify the search for reliable alternative sources of water. But as Bangladesh is a country of approximately 127 million people, this is no easy task, which in itself makes the problem unique. This difficulty is all the more painful when we know that caught in the early stages, arsenic-poisoning can be reversed by providing people with arsenic-free water. This means the longer we wait to take put alternative arrangements in place, the worse it will be for us all.

Jamal Anwar

Content

  1. Whose Fault
  2. Wrong Result
  3. What is Wrong?
  4. Arsenic Contaminated Water and Disposal of Arsenic
  5. Stop and Abandon Tube Wells
  6. Project Report
  7. Images

I wrote an article about Sulekha almost a year ago: "Arsenic Mitigation : A Costly Delay", which ran in the Daily Star, 8. 01. 2000. Sulekha, an young girl suffering from arsenic poisoning, was then fighting for her life at 232-bed Faridpur Hospital. This month, January 2002, I visited her parent's house once again. Her mother wept when she saw me and said, "You see, here lies my princess. She left us forever four weeks after you left. Here she lies! We could not bury her beneath her beloved garnet apple tree because of the flood but now she lies close to my door."

Here lies Suekha's grave


A little girl
With a golden face,
How she cried when her
Doll playing days were over.
May her soul rest in peace.

1. Whose Fault

She stopped, took her sari to dry her tears and told me what had happened, " When Sulekha came back from the hospital her whole skin became infected and began to rot. She could hardly breath. Sulekha implored me, 'Mama, what evil have I done that I have to suffer and die? I have not done anything wrong. And yet I must suffer and die. Mama, please tell me, how long shall I suffer?'

    "O My love has gone to a far country, If God would only give me wings
    I would fly thither.
    I would go to that golden land, flying.
    We are simple women."

The story of Sulekha repeats all over the country. In most cases the cause of the suffering and death is unknown. Even Sulekha did not know. Nobody dies immediately, if one drinks arsenic contaminated water. People accept suffering and death as fate. You can not say, "Don't drink this water:" You have to give education and alternatives.

Vashan Char was declared by the NGOs as an arsenic free area. But on my visit, I found all wells dug at 30 meters are dangerously poisonous. Afsan Chowdhury, Senior Assistant Editor of the Daily Star comments (15. 01. 02):

    NGOs are generically fund seekers and now provider of employment Most of them have almost no reality beyond this. And this generally grovelling bunch conveniently represents the public face in the eyes of the donors who ultimately decide policies. Not because they want to but because they have to. The ability of the national counterparts is so low that they would not be able to formulate a policy without donor support. They are unable to disagree either because that might mean fund cuts. So it all ends up in the same basket.

    I have recently learnt that BGS have been sued in a British court for failing to carry out tests including on arsenic when under contract to DFID and working in Bangladesh. These are the people whom we hand over our fate and wait to be taken care of.

    The World Bank team was smarter, more sophisticated and certainly more duplicitous. They promised to brief everyone about their findings and of course never did.

    The last government spent more than $ l50 million buying MIG jets and a frigate to protect our national security and the borders. At a protest meeting held at the Press Club we compared the crises. India versus arsenic, India versus global warming, environmental versus military treat. People have made fun of our position when we say that the environmental security is a serious one, certainly bigger than the border issue. But face the fact, who would be insane enough to grab us?

Sulekha and other lives could have been saved, if appropriate, simple and affordable mitigation projects had addressed the problem in the last decade. But the situation is getting worst day by day. The Bangladesh Observer in an editorial comments (16. 01. 02),

    " It needs no telling that everybody moving in the donor-development circuit seems to have been jumping on the arsenic bandwagon ever since the problem surfaced but precious little have resulted as far as mitigation is concerned. But so far we have seen only a proliferation of NGOs, assorted consultants, bottled water and filter sellers and what not, catching larks, so to say, while the poisoning continues."

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2. Wrong Results

The NGO Forum aided by the Danish Developing Agency and others with impressive offices spread out so called arsenic mitigation network all over the country. Faridpur Sadar is under their project area. When we wanted to start a project in Faridpur, they wrote that they are already working in this area, and that better methods such as three peacher system or two bucket system have been very successful. The fact is that the both systems have been totally failed. Most of the areas are not yet surveyed and, in the cases where the areas were surveyed, wrong results were handed over to the rural population. It is acceptable, if people do not know the exact results of their water tests, but it is criminal if they are told that their water does not contain arsenic or is below standard although it is highly toxic and poisonous. Mohammed Zakir Hossain of Alyabad Union informed me that the World Mission has tested their tube well and recommended it safe for drinking. I found the water contains 0.50 mg/l (WHO standard 0.010 mg/l) arsenic A new well was dug at Mohammed Shafi's house under arsenic mitigation programme and was recommended drinkable.

I could not find anything on any arsenic mitigation project of the World Bank/UNICEF/DEPHE/NGOs programs for identifying wells or giving alternative choices. These projects have been presenting their agenda at international conferences and have informed us about their programs (highlighted with boldly decorated words) on the Internet. But the villagers who are suffering do not know anything about these people. If they bring water samples to DPHE for analysis, they are turned away because DPME says they do not have chemicals. Shahidul of Wireless Para, Faridpur said, "They give me the wrong results, I compared with Calcutta analysis. After drilling a new well at Wireless Para, they say this water is good but I found that this water is as bad as the water from the well which made me sick.

At Alipur, Faridpur a dug well did not contain any arsenic but all tube wells contain arsenic about 0.50 mg/l and so I advised the people to drink water from dug well. They did not believe me and brought the water sample from the tube well to NGO office. They certified the water to be safe.

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3. What is Wrong ?

In January 2001 I visited NGO Forum's impressive three story office at Faridpur. NGO Forum gives training and other mitigation activities. I asked the Chief, if they had any field kits or equipment to analyse arsenic in drinking water. The information that I obtained that they do not analyse any water but they distribute the arsenic kit (Merck- Germany) to different NGOs, who successfully mitigate arsenic!!!

I went to one of the NGOs at village Ambikapur and requested to lend one of their arsenic test kits. I tested several poisonous wells with the borrowed test kit and found that they show absence of arsenic. I found that test chemicals have become inert. When I looked at the test kit box, found that it should be preserved in a dry place and at a temperature between 15-25 C. Average temperature in Bangladesh at the moment is above 28 C and humidity is about 80-90%.

I could not find any protective measures by any of these NGOs. Now who is going to be responsible for misinforming those who were advised that their water is safe? The great consultants and their counterparts who sit in air-conditioned decorated rooms in the capital should look for the needful!!!

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4. Arsenic Contaminated Water and Disposal of Arsenic from Municipalities Supply System

A recent study has revealed that hundred thousands of people of 28 municipalities of Bangladesh are drinking arsenic contaminated water from pipeline water supply system. The British Geological Survey reported that deep tube wells are safe but it is not true. The deep tube wells of Faridpur (Anwar, All Quite On Arsenic Front, 2000) contain very high amount of arsenic. At Gopalganj town deep tube well supplying water to more than 10, 000 people contains arsenic concentration of 0.177 mg/l. Similarly high concentration of arsenic is found at Chauadanga, Kishorganj, Laximpur, Magura, Makikganj, Narail and Khustia district towns (Chowdhury, 2002).

Arsenic sludge is dispose of nearby water.

However, arsenic can be removed through oxidation, coagulation, sedimentation and filtration. Additional basins for such are required not high tech. Bangladeshi architects and water engineers can solve the problem, if they act according to the requirements of the country and not the requirement of the donors. We have seen recently constructed water purification unit at Faridpur town aided and designed by the Dutch Aid, supplying contaminated water and disposing arsenic sludge in the Kumar River!!!

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5. Stop and Abandon Tube Wells

At the end of 2001, Bangladeshi officials admitted that some 80 million people - more than 65% of the country's population - live in arsenic-contaminated areas (Chowdhury, The Daily Star, 10. 01. 02). Our surveys show that many of the villages where two years ago the wells did not show arsenic concentration above standard are now highly contaminated.

People can develop the habit of drinking water with iron, especially when it is freshly pumped. About 70-80 percent of arsenic is reduced with the sedimentation of iron, if it is kept overnight Most people ignore this warning. Especially in winter months they ask for freshly pumped water because it is warm. When I request them not to drink, they smile, "We have to die someday!"

Tube wells are sunk on contaminated aquifers. Cheap PVC plastic pipes are used to sink a well, and they cannot be completely pulled out, when well is moved to other place. This is an easy way to further contaminate aquifers with organic and inorganic pollutants. This practice is also followed when making deep wells for agriculture. Contaminated water from upper aquifers flows directly to deeper aquifers. This has happened in Faridpur and other districts, where most deep aquifers are contaminated with arsenic. We have repeatedly warned to sink new wells. But international organisations/organisations attached to arsenic mitigation activities did not care at all. British Geological Survey's report gave the impression that deep wells are unaffected by arsenic poisoning (BGS, 1998). Many deep wells were sunk without sealing contaminated aquifers under arsenic mitigation project, thus contaminating precious deep aquifer with arsenic.

Bangladesh has to forget using tube well water and money should be spent for alternative water as:

    • Water from Dug Well
    • Rain Water
    • Protected Pond Water
    • Community based Water Supply.

Use of rain water is not accepted by the rural population. They collect water from the roof but after one day they can see organisms swimming in the water. The roofs of rural area are shaded by trees and vegetables to protect people from the heat. The crows and birds drop biological contaminates. Rain water can be used only during rainy season in Bangladesh.

Pond water is an alternative arsenic free source but fish farmers use highly toxic chemicals such as aldrin/dieldrin (The Dirty Dozen) and chemical fertilisers to kill predator fish before releasing fish fry. During dry season excessive growth of algae takes place. In the rainy season, rain water drainage from the catchment area brings brings a lot of suspended sediment and makes the surface water highly turbid. Slow sand filters become clogged and ineffective. Pond sand filter is not effective in removing all biological contaminates (BRAC, 2000).

At present effective alternative is Community based Water Supply and Water from Dug Well.

The construction of dug wells that existed 30 years ago has almost vanished from the country. Advantages of dug wells are.

  • Dug wells are indigenous technology in Bangladesh.
  • The wells are cheaper and easier to construct and less susceptible to bacteriological contamination (BRAC, August 2000).
  • Natural biological filtration occur, when water percolates through sand bodies (develop microbial flora whose metabolism contributes to the effectiveness of removing effluents)
  • In dug wells within the standing water simple sedimentation take place and has been found frequently a substantial reduction in BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand).
  • Natural iron coagulation and settlement occur within standing water (decrease in arsenic, suspended solids, ammonia, nitrate and phosphate content).

Protected dug wells provide acceptable bacteriological quality but usual investigation and monitoring methods are inadequate in Bangladesh.

In fact diarrhoea, which may be caused by bacterial, viral or parasitic infections is responsible, according to some estimates, for six million deaths per year. We intend to introduce water without pathogens (bacterial, viral, parasitic) and enteric diseases. The following methods for dug holes are suggested:

  • Dug holes can be constructed only during dry season (at the lowest level of ground water) for the safety and guaranteeing water supply throughout the year.
  • Experienced dug well constructors will lead traditional methods of constructing dug wells.
  • Selection of well position will be taken after evaluating local groundwater movement, distance from sanitary and pollution from agriculture and animal wastes etc.
  • Lithologs of dug wells will be documented to provide optimal information on, geological environment of sediments, aquifers and regional setting of dug wells.
  • A thick layer of clay mixed with jute will be placed around the wall of the well to prevent contamination from the shallow ground or from the surface and collapsing of the wall. This will be further protected through lining of terra cotta rounded clay rings. Converted hand pumps and roof with bamboo material or tin are constructed after the completion of dug wells. The wells are covered and water is drawn from the well using hand pump (tube well).

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6. Project Report

Millions of school children (5-17 Years old) are drinking arsenic contaminated water. Almost 80 percent of rural population is analphabetic. Arsenic mitigation can be highly successful, if school students can be educated and transfer their knowledge to their parents.

We intend to introduce 500 arsenic free water units for 500 schools in the rural area of Faridpur district. In other words, 25,000 students will get arsenic free water, education and environmental consciousness that will influence their parents. More than 60 percent of the students in rural Faridpur are women.

After reviewing present situation on the basis of peoples acceptability and tradition the following aims have been suggested:

  • Our goal is to help these people help themselves escape death. By the people, for the people, using simple, affordable methods.
  • Enhance traditional wisdom to combat arsenic poisoning and environmental degradation in rural Bangladesh;
  • Priority of the project is to give people an immediate cheap solution. Our studies show that "Open Dug Holes" is the simplest solution. But we aim to obtain waterborne disease free water at affordable means.
  • Arsenic contaminated water from the tube wells will be removed by simple clay pot filter (Sun-air-Clay Pot Method). The villagers will do production and maintenance of the filter. Villagers will produce clay pots, sand filters, microbial disposal etc. and later distribute to other villagers and thus a rapid mitigation project can spread all over Bangladesh.
  • To find out alternative arsenic free water. Experience has shown that tube wells near water pond contains less arsenic, at particular depth water is arsenic free, aquifer on channel sand in particular area arsenic free etc.
  • Introduce Village Home garden for medical and bio-pesticide production. Home garden represents the blending of knowledge gained by ecologists studying the dynamics and stability of tropical ecosystems with the knowledge of farmers and agronomists on how to manage the complexities of food producing ecosystems.
  • Women's participation.
  • Cultural and traditional heritage.
  • Stop using aluminium, polythene products and use of natural products.

SUCCESSFUL ARSENIC AND DISEASE FREE WATER UNIT AT VILLAGE AMBIKAPUR FARDPUR

Open dug holes do not exists in Bangladesh. Before UNESCO abandoned dug wells, replacing them with hand-pumped tube wells about 30 years ago, dug holes were very common in Bangladesh. The use of dug holes can be seen in North Bengal Mahastangar since third century B.C. Dug well is an indigenous technology and thus social acceptance is very high.

BRAC, the largest NGO of Bangladesh with pocket full of financial backing from international donors intended to construct two new dug wells in Jhikargachha upazila (sub-district), one of the worst arsenic affected areas. But it is not understandable, why they failed to do so with the best research evaluation department and excellent network all over Bangladesh!!!

We have successfully installed the first experimental dug hole with hand pump at village Ambikapur:

Advantages of dug wells are.

  • Dug wells are indigenous technology in Bangladesh.
  • The wells are cheaper and easier to construct and less susceptible to bacteriological contamination (BRAC, August 2000).
  • Natural biological filtration occur, when water percolates through sand bodies (develop microbial flora whose metabolism contributes to the effectiveness of removing effluents)
  • In dug wells within the standing water simple sedimentation take place and has been found frequently a substantial reduction in BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand).
  • Natural iron coagulation and settlement occur within standing water (decrease in arsenic, suspended solids, ammonia, nitrate and phosphate content).

Soil Purifies Water

Santee, California, USA, a suburb of San Diego provides unusual approach to sewage treatment. Water is pumped from oxidation ponds into one or another of the basins, where it slowly soaked through soil. The water is purified variety of ways while it is contact with the soil:

  • First, it is filtered ; contaminants in the waste water become lodged in the voids and spaces that exist in all soils, much as occurs in an activated carbon filter (Coffel, 1991).
  • Some toxic are rendered harmless when they react with elements in the soil;
  • Others become part of the soil;
  • Countless microbes inhibit in most soil. Micro-organisms in soil remove nitrogen, germs, bacteria, and viruses.

State officials of Santee were far from convinced that the system would produce really clean water. They were especially concerned that viruses would find through the system.. However, after extensive testing, with special attention to viral organisms, the state approved the water.

Soil is, in fact, more resilient in handling the constantly changing blends of toxic materials. The diverse community of organism present in soil are better able to react to changes in the chemistry of the waste water to be treated. Soil filters are more effective when plants are grown on them.

Surface water percolates through (4-6 meters) soil, silty sand and accumulates in fine to medium sand (aquifer) of dug wells. If dug wells are constructed with proper care, natural biological system removes nitrogen, germs, bacteria and viruses.

Our ancestor knew this wisdom. Even now people say, "Drink crystal clear water. Don't drink water with micro-organisms!"

Foreign aid experts do not understand our culture and can not speak local language. The project disappears as soon as they leave the country. The beneficiaries are mainly their industry and partly local contractors and consultants. Afsan Chwdhury, a Senior Staff Reporter of Daily Star (15. 01. 02) reports:

    I once attended a meeting at UNICEF. When I mentioned the need to look at all water sources including surface water use and mentioned that we had successfully carried out experiments to show that, a lady who represented the British NGO Water Aid sniggered and said, " I don't understand the local people. At the first excuse they want to jump back to the pond." There was approving laughter all around.

CONSTRUCTION OF DUG WELLS

Early morning of December 26th, 2001, we met Sk. Khoash, an old man of age 83 used to construct dug wells thirty years ago. Mr. Khoash is also an well known folk meditation singer. When I requested him to make a dug well, he smiled, "In many long long years I made thousands of dug wells. But now I am old." After repeated request he agreed to construct dug well with his son and grandson.


Constructor Bayati (Village Concert Musician) Mannan is proud of Arsenic free Disease free Dug Well with hand pump and filter (January 2002). This is the first Dug Well after 30 years at Village Ambikapur, District Faridpur. Hundreds of people drinking water from here. Local tea shops made advertisement - "Arsenic Free Tea Available Here". People is getting inceptive to make their own well. Most people does not know that dug wells are arsenic free. Thirty years ago each house had a dug hole for drinking water.

I was astonished to hear about his knowledge on ground water, capillary pressure, casing mechanism, oxygen content in hole and water and disinfections of water by traditional wisdom. His long haired son Mannan, an well known Bayati (Folk Concert Singer), cannot only make dug hole can also play excellent flute and violin.

7. Images


8. Whither Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper

by M. M. Akash, 23. 09. 02

The truth has ultimately been revealed. So this time we are again going to have a donor driven strategy of poverty reduction and it is going to be approved neither through an extended participatory process in the bottom nor through a minimum national debate in the parliament in the presence of all concerned political parties. Thus we think it is high time to start our second phase of the campaign on the contents of draft strategy, which is after all the real substantial issue!

As many as 1.28 billion citizens of our planet are now living below the poverty line income. This is what the World Bank says in its World Development Report, 2000. Almost 72 percent of them live in Asia and about half of the one billion Asian poor live in South Asia alone! Bangladesh is a low-income poverty ridden country of this South Asian region. Every one man in two is considered to be poor in Bangladesh, if we accept the international definition of absolute poverty as offered by WB. According to WB if the income of any citizen in this world is below one PPP $, he is to be considered as a poor man. Various scholars have heavily criticised this definition because of its over-simplicity and minimalist bias. However, in spite of the criticisms, it has been used quite widely for inter-country comparison of poverty, which obviously requires such a homogeneous standard of measurement.

What actually are the characteristics of these "Poor People"? Basically they are that part of the society who are relatively most deprived from income, wealth, education, social security and political power. They are the defeated victims of an unequal competition in an intrinsically unequal society. In Bangladesh there is going on a continuous process of unequal and unjust competition through which a greater section of the middle class is slowly becoming the member of a lower middle class and after a brief period of life and death struggle to hold on they also ultimately in most cases slide down to swell the ranks of the poor. Now days in the literature you will find another category: "Poor Becoming Extreme Poor!"

Therefore there must be present an absolutely clear recognition of the following truths in any document promising to change the lots of the lower-depth. Firstly it has to be recognised that if there is unequal distribution of initial endowments like wealth, education, security and political power in the society, then there cannot be any fair and equal competition. And the relatively deprived is generally bound to be defeated in that unfair economic and political game. Secondly one has to recognise frankly that the main challenge before a strategic planner planning to reduce poverty is to design such policies that will enable the poor and the weak to win in spite of the unequal nature of the game. So far we find mainly two types of strategic answers to this question.

The radical answer to the above question is to start with a revolutionary redistribution of wealth and power from which will follow an egalitarian growth or pro-poor growth within the society. The problem of that answer lies in its abstract nature. If one means business one should not stop here and proceed further in order to concretise and chart out a political road map for achieving that so called "Revolutionary Redistribution" which is of course not so easy!

On the other hand the traditional mainstream thinkers are prone to believe that the natural law of "Struggle for Existence and Survival of the Fittest" holds good in the society as well and therefore what one can mostly do is to device a few "Safety Net" measures for at least protecting the rights of the poor to live. The true meaning of these "Safety Net Measures", however, is to maintain the cheap labour reserve for the more powerful employers of labourers in the society. That is why they have set the minimum subsistence income or the so-called poverty line income as the norm for the millions of poor people of the globe. Professor Anisur Rahman, one of the founder members of the first planning commission of Independent Bangladesh had rightly ridiculed this concept of poverty as the "Livestock Concept of Poverty"!

We have traversed a long way in the last century where we had observed the rise and fall of cold war between supposedly two diametrically opposite schools of thoughts in the field of development discourse. The practical experiences of the last century taught us two very definite lessons:

Those who were in favour of radical "Affirmative Action" for the deprived classes actually forgot that it does not mean either "Charity" or "Benevolence". It is actually a question of right of the deprived people justified not only by an external moral ethical ground but also by an active fulfilment of all necessary responsibilities by the enjoyer of those rights. The logic of affirmative action for the weak actually remains valid as long as it can be shown that this help is temporary and time bounded and the helped object will become an autonomous subject in due course of time. In fact in the early part of the last century we really saw the great socialist experiment being started with a radical redistribution of power and a move towards making the people the subject of their own development. But after a period of spectacular rise and success on the basis of a generous support from the above the people there slowly lost all their initiatives and had become a play-toy in the hands of the centralised state power. This is the real reason why people did not make any protest when the state elites in many of these socialist countries shed their masks to recapture openly the state owned wealth and thereby were able to turn themselves into "Mafia Capital" or "Corporate Capital". This was perhaps the biggest tragedy of the twentieth century but the lessons should be well taken. Those who were in favour of radical "Affirmative Action" for the deprived classes actually forgot that it does not mean either "Charity" or "Benevolence". It is actually a question of right of the deprived people justified not only by an external moral ethical ground but also by an active fulfilment of all necessary responsibilities by the enjoyer of those rights. The logic of affirmative action for the weak actually remains valid as long as it can be shown that this help is temporary and time bounded and the helped object will become an autonomous subject in due course of time. In fact in the early part of the last century we really saw the great socialist experiment being started with a radical redistribution of power and a move towards making the people the subject of their own development. But after a period of spectacular rise and success on the basis of a generous support from the above the people there slowly lost all their initiatives and had become a play-toy in the hands of the centralised state power. This is the real reason why people did not make any protest when the state elites in many of these socialist countries shed their masks to recapture openly the state owned wealth and thereby were able to turn themselves into "Mafia Capital" or "Corporate Capital". This was perhaps the biggest tragedy of the twentieth century but the lessons should be well taken.

On the other hand the so-called victorious capitalism had tried to introduce various reforms e.g. progressive taxation, social security schemes, etc. in order to address the issue of unequal distribution. But the experiences of twentieth century has also made it quite clear that such standard reforms or safety net measures could not stop the absolute growth of the total number of poor people living especially in the historically resource poor regions. This traditional safety net approach is merely a tool for intervention only when somebody is sliding down into the pit of poverty. In that sense it is a curative treatment and not a preventive treatment of the disease of poverty. Thus if the spreading rate of the disease is equal or higher than the recovery rate then the number of poor patients will obviously not decline if not increase! Bangladesh is a very vivid example of this chronic poverty syndrome. During the whole decade of eighties the head count ratio of income poverty in Bangladesh remained almost static fluctuating in between 52.3 p.c. (1983-84) and 49.7 p.c. (1991-92). Presently some people are claiming that there was an impressive decline in the rate of poverty in Bangladesh during the decade of nineties. More precisely they say that in year 2000 it has come down to only 39.8 p.c. Leaving aside the statistical and methodological controversies even if we accept the last figure as it is then what does it actually mean? It actually implies that in 1983-84 there were 38.7 million poor people in the country but now the total number of poor has actually become almost 50 million! The complacent observers are actually presenting the picture of poverty of our country in relative terms, which again helps them to hide the increasingly alarming size of the poor population in our country. And it does not require a great knowledge in economics to understand that in a country where 50 to 60 million people i.e. almost half the population lives in an abject condition of poverty, everything is going to turn fragile and vulnerable.

At present it seems that the Donors especially WB are very anxious about the poverty of Bangladesh. Now a days Donors no longer give grants or untied aids. Most of the loans coming from WB is either for a particular project or based on one or another certain strategic policy framework such as SAP (Structural Adjustment Programme). SAP has miserably failed not only in Bangladesh but also in many countries of Asia and Africa. The main policy thrusts of SAP are:

Indiscriminate Privatisation of not only industries but also major utilities e.g. water, electricity, gas, railway, port, etc.

The so-called policy of free market policy, which actually means almost unilateral withdrawal of all tariff and non-tariff restrictions by the aid-recipient country.

Withdrawal of all kinds of subsidies in the name of "Efficiency".

Tightening the belt of the government in order to ensure so-called macro stability of the economy.

SAP was introduced in Bangladesh from the middle of eighties when the country was under a Martial Law Regime led by General Ershad. Later in 1990, five years after the introduction of SAP General Ershad was forced to resign from power facing a mass upsurge the backbone of which was the united movement of workers and employees, organised students and agricultural labourers. However SAP is being continued still now. At present it is at its last phase and is trying to privatise all the remaining industries in the state sector whether it is profitable or not. There is also a high pressure on the government to dismantle BPC (Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation) in order to establish the complete control of MNCs on the gas and oil sector of Bangladesh. Similarly there is a high pressure from US embassy in Bangladesh to hand over the Chittagong Port to a foreign US based company. Meanwhile SAP was evaluated through a national participatory process of all the stakeholders including WB in Bangladesh and the conclusion was negative. The participants even raised the demand that WB should pay compensation for imposing harmful policies that have created a slump in the economy, increased poverty and unemployment as well as caused mass discontent in the Agricultural Sector by withdrawing subsidies. And finally it was recognized that nobody actually owned the SAP. The Minister also confessed that they were forced to accept the SAP under pressure otherwise loans or grants whatever little was coming would have been stopped. [Debapriya Bhattacharya and Rashed Titumir (ed), Stakeholders' Perceptions Reforms and Consequences: Report on the First National Forum of SAPRI, Bangladesh, CPD and Proshika, Dhaka, 2001]

Given this unfavourable background not only in Bangladesh but also in all over the world the WB had to recognise the failures of SAP at least partly and they tried to put the blame on the local host country government who according to them were not sufficiently committed and have numerous governance problems. And side-by-side they also recognised the need for the safety measures to offset the so-called pains of the reform process. Last of all came the announcement of a "Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper". WB was now insisting that Bangladesh and many such highly indebted countries will have to prepare a PRSP within a prescribed limit of time (In the case of Bangladesh it is September 2002) and submit it to them for preliminary scrutiny and then they will in turn forward it to the September meeting of the member states of the board of directors of WB for the final approval. Till then all so-called soft loan options will be remaining withheld.

At this juncture our organisation "Peoples Empowerment Trust" in co-operation with Action Aid Bangladesh launched a nationwide campaign against this process of donor driven PRSP [Please See our dialogue paper, "PRSP: What, Why and For Whom" in our web site]. The central theme of our campaign was "OWNERSHIP". We pointed out that like SAP, the Government is now again preparing a PRSP under the influence of the "Carrot and Stick" policy of WB and IMF. And this will produce a paper without any national ownership. We demanded to start the process of PRSP from the ground by first arranging dialogues with the people in the field to understand their understanding of poverty. We also proposed that the PRSP must be integrated with the existing long term and medium term national plans of the country. In that case PRSP will become a part of the whole and not the whole itself. Otherwise, we predicted that the sad story of SAP will be repeated again and we will have to repent afterwards saying, "PRSP failed because of lack of ownership and commitment"! We also apprehended that within PRSP there will be incorporated some of the unfinished macro agendas of the failed strategy of SAP and this is perhaps the real hidden agenda of WB behind PRSP.

In response to our campaign Government of Bangladesh tried to meet both ends in a novel manner. They at first tried to prepare a PRSP in a hurried manner before the Paris Consortium meeting and to give it a semblance of bottom up participation they hired BRAC to arrange twenty-one dialogues. On that thin basis the consultants were asked to prepare a draft PRSP. It was finished just before the Paris meeting and our finance Minister took it with him to Paris calling it interim PRSP. But whatever negotiations took place in Paris it seems that the finance Minister was not at all happy with the donors' standpoint. Later after coming back to home he proclaimed in an open statement published in the top national dailies that although the donors ask us to sit at the driver's seat, but after sitting there we find that the steering wheel is really in the hands of the donors and my task is just to repair the tires and tubes after the accident. Subsequently we found that the name "PRSP" was dropped and the government circulated a draft paper named "Bangladesh: A National Strategy For Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction" for discussion.

We hailed these moves towards a correct direction and asked the Government to proceed further and incorporate the real demands of our people within it instead of those SAP agendas superimposed by the donors. At the same time we also started to think and plan about a critical engagement with the content of the draft "National Strategy for Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction" [published by ERD, Ministry of Finance, GOB, in April 2002]. But to our utter surprise, we find that in the last budget session the finance minister retreated from his post Paris position saying that the WB and IMF actually have a stronger approval of his regime compared to the previous one. He also added that hopefully after finalizing what he this time called PRSP on the basis of dialogues held between the donors (meaning WB and IMF) and his Government, soft funds would be obtained to implement that so-called "mutually approved PRSP". Thus the truth has ultimately been revealed. So this time we are again going to have a donor driven strategy of poverty reduction and it is going to be approved neither through an extended participatory process in the bottom nor through a minimum national debate in the parliament in the presence of all concerned political parties. Thus we think it is high time to start our second phase of the campaign on the contents of draft strategy, which is after all the real substantial issue!

Actually any plan that does not have the courage to attack inequality cannot but have a pessimistic result. Look at China, Vietnam, South Korea, Cuba, and all other poverty reduction success stories even well recognized by WB, you would find that the success could only be achieved on the basis of an egalitarian growth based on fundamental redistributive measures.

At page one of the NSEGPR (National Strategy for Economic growth and Poverty Reduction) it is written: "For operational purposes, the strategy paper will form the core of the sixth Five Year Plan (2002-2007) beginning from 1st July, 2002."

But in his last budget speech the finance minister spelt out his own understanding of this strategy paper in terms of the following words: "This strategy will be subsequently converted to PRSP which will provide the basis for holding dialogues with the development partners... Necessary administrative and economic reforms will be implemented in phases to implement this strategy. A three year macro-economic framework will be developed for achieving the purpose of the strategy The budget deficit will be contained within sustainable limit, domestic resource mobilization will be augmented to gradually achieve self-reliance and domestic borrowing by the Government will be scaled down. Besides wastage and misuse of resources will be curbed in all spheres of the economy. Private sector will be promoted and made more robust." [Section 26 and 27 of the Annual Budget Speech, 2002-2003]

From the above statement it seems that a standard SAP policy package based on a three-year rolling investment plan for macro economic stability is the chief concern of the Finance Minister whereas poverty reduction strategy can wait until more resources are available from the donors. This statement creates apprehension about the status of our ongoing sixth five-year plan process. Will it be continued or will it be stopped? What will be its status vis--vis the NSEGPR and what shape the NSEGPR itself will take?

We know that at least twenty-one dialogues were held with different sections of the people at three successive levels -- Upazila, Division and National -- before finalizing NSEGPR. It will be extremely useful from the people's point of view to look at these dialogue reports spelling out people's own priorities. The paper has presented the summary findings of these dialogues in chapter three titled " Participatory Consultation on Poverty Reduction Strategy: Emerging Lessons". As reported there, the participants roughly identified seven past commendable achievements and at the same time pointed out to sixteen urgent failures in the field of general development, especially the development of the deprived and poor. These are worth mentioning:

Achievements

  1. Bangladesh has been able to reduce acute deprivations measured in terms of food and income entitlements.
  2. Some increase has taken place in educational and health facilities for the poor.
  3. The wage of the rural labourers has increased.
  4. The traditional money lending business has been curtailed.
  5. The volume of remittance transfer from the foreign countries has increased.
  6. Employment opportunity in the non-farm sector e.g. fishery, poultry, small business, services etc. has been widened.
  7. The role of the Women Entrepreneurs in the rural areas has increased.

But side-by-side the number of areas of key concern was quite large:

Failures

  1. The law and order situation has deteriorated extremely!
  2. Especially the vulnerability of the poor and the weak has increased enormously.
  3. "Mastanocracy" has increased very much.
  4. The administration in general and especially the law enforcing agencies do not have any accountability.
  5. The political parties have, as it seems, recruited the dropouts from the S.S.C. and H.S.C. examinations in order to turn them into terrorists under political protection.
  6. The poor people are generally disorganized and are not aware of their rights.
  7. The power of the local level Government (UP and UZ level elected body) is inadequate and there is also lack of accountability.
  8. The quality and standard of health services at local level is quite low.
  9. In the field of education there is no uniformity and inequality is being enhanced by this dual education system.
  10. Not only health and education, other governmental services e.g. electricity, water and road services all are in equally deplorable condition.
  11. The standard of agricultural extension services is also quite low.
  12. There is an extreme lack of coordination among the N.G.O., C.B.O. and the G.O.B.
  13. Regional inequality especially rural-urban gap is increasing.
  14. Politics has become polarized and conflicting.
  15. The micro level borrower and saving groups have not been able to form a united federal body of their own.
  16. Poor have neither voice nor any participation in the policy formulation process at local, regional and national levels.

Although the above list can't be considered as comprehensive and complete yet one would wonder what actually has been suggested in the strategy paper to address these important issues, which were self- identified by the people from the bottom?

Fundamental weakness of the draft

The draft document concentrates mainly on a technical growth projection exercise and gives very little attention to the really thorny problems, which did surface up in the preparatory dialogues. It is rightly recognized that in the nineties the national inequality index (GINI INDEX) has been increasing at a very accelerated rate (i.e. 2.1 p.c. per annum, see P7)! But in the very beginning of the technical exercise it was fatalistically assumed that nothing could be done to reduce the present level of inequality. Moreover it was further assumed that in future the inequality in the society would continue to increase. Only on that basis the projection suggests that if and only if Bangladesh could achieve a sustained average growth rate of seven percent over the next twenty years we will be able to reduce absolute income poverty from the current level of 50 percent to 25 percent. This actually reflects the "Millennium Development Goal" for the developing countries (Reducing poverty rate by half within next twenty years). But if we assume that our growth performance would continue to remain same as before (i.e. two percent per-capita income growth) then number of poor people will rather increase from 63 million to 64 million. And still a tragedy is that, if our plan even if 100 percent successful, would only be able to reduce the number of poor people living in the society to a level of only 43 million (the current level is about 63 million). So only 20 million poor people at the margin will be able to cross over the poverty line within next twenty years and almost 68 percent of the currently poor will continue to remain poor.

Actually any plan that does not have the courage to attack inequality cannot but have such a pessimistic result. Look at China, Vietnam, South Korea, Cuba, and all other poverty reduction success stories even well recognized by WB, you would find that the success could only be achieved on the basis of an egalitarian growth based on fundamental redistributive measures.

This strategy paper describes the role of the private sector as "The Engine of Growth". But let us look at the facts more critically. Our past experiences have clearly proved that there are two distinct types private sectors in our country. The largest private sector is the agricultural sector and non-formal rural urban sector. During the last decades in spite of the lack of or little state help they played the leading role in augmenting our economic growth. On the other hand the big corporate sector and the co-operators of MNCs actually had failed to produce any significant growth in the modern sector (of course the Garment sector is the only exception but that also is based on special international opportunity and the cheap women labour of our country). So the plan should have specified which private sector they want to target: the big defaulters or the productive entrepreneurs?

The plan surprisingly remains silent or ambivalent about a few burning issues of our country. Let me mention a few here. What is going to happen to our garment industry after the withdrawal of MFA agreement in 2005? How will you face the pressure to privatise Gas, Electricity, Water, Railway, etc. and what would be the net impact of such a reform on the poor? How can the government mobilize more resources from the rich? How education and health sector can attain uniformity at least in the basic level? These are really thorny and difficult issues and also popular issues because they touch the pockets of the rich and if successfully implemented can change the lives of the poor. Actually the plan takes it for granted that hard anti-poor reforms within the framework of SAP will be occurring and wishfully hopes: "The pro-poor programmes will be made strong to complement the liberalization agenda. Macro economic stability and robust growth would ensure that employment losses as a part of needed economic restructuring can be offset by rapid growth in other sectors" (P 27-28)

But all previous studies here and in most of the countries of the world shows that donor driven SAP measures cause slump, poverty and inequality instead of growth, affluence and justice. So what is the basis of this wishful thinking?

Conclusion

The strategy document abounds with numerous rhetoric on "Pro Poor Growth". But never goes beyond the traditional safety net measures. It starts with a self-defeating assumption that inequality cannot be reduced. It is funny to find a chapter titled " Policies and Institutions for Reducing Inequality" where at the very beginning it is stated that what can be done at best is " to prevent any serious worsening of income distribution to ensure poverty reduction as average income increases". It also remains silent or rather supportive of the measures of SAP dictated by the foreign donors. It totally ignores or pays scant attention to the real issues of life that had actually surfaced up during their own dialogues with the people. Finally it is not clear whether the document will be under national ownership or the donors will hijack it, especially the WB who has both carrots and sticks at its disposal.

But it will be very unfair if I do not point out at least one very strong and the most pro poor statement of this strategy paper. At page 39 it is rightly mentioned: "A faster pace of poverty reduction would require greater voices of the poor. Greater voices would be ensured through moving beyond the narrow domain of micro-empowerment measures such as access to credit. For greater agency role of the poor, measures would be taken for building institutions for the poor at sectoral, sub-national and national levels with emphasis on developing new institutional ways and means for collective empowerment. This would be needed not just for catalysing the active pressure group function of the poor but also for increasing their aggregate claims in the distribution of overall benefits for economic growth and distribution"

Whoever has written this deserves to be congratulated for speaking the truth. This should have been the starting point of this strategy document and focus should have been concentrated on further concretising effective means for effective empowerment of the so-called poor. Instead, the ruling class has relegated this statement to a corner of the text, and has kept it hanging in the air. Perhaps they do not want "faster pace of poverty reduction"! I would like to end my discussion on the draft strategy paper with a statement by Naom Chomsky. He said that a text could be understood by not only looking at what it contains but also what it omits and ignores. (Concluded)

M M Akash is Professor of Economics Department, University of Dhaka, The Daily Star, 23. 09. 0 & 24. 09. 02

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