Issue: 2018-01-12 | The Daily Star

First issue of 2018

The editor's note of the Star Weekend issue of January 5 was a wonderful piece of writing to wrap up the news that has gone by last year. The past year has left many indelible impressions for us to ponder and we all have to do a little soul-searching in order to face the year ahead.

We embark on a new year in which we will read more news—good, bad, exciting. Stories and events in 2017 may have had a small impact or led to some change in our lives. It may even have brought about changes in the government. But without some sort of lesson learnt from the news that was reported day after day, there is little point to reporting on issues that matter.

Mashudul Haque

Central Road, Dhaka

 

An informative read

The last issue of the Star Weekend addressed the most crucial issues of last year and provided updates about them. I enjoyed reading the articles since it gave me more information on issues that were almost forgotten. We live in a time when the social media rules the roost. One second we are on to something, and then we forget about that very issue by merely opening a new tab or scrolling down. The last issue of Star Weekend which had articles on disappearances to the state of Haor after the floods, was a timely reminder to all of us that there's still a lot to do. Sure, it may be a new year, but the problems of old continue to plague us and we need to address them and find solutions as soon as possible.

Sharmin Akhter,

Farmgate, Dhaka

Wonderful year-end satire special

I read with utmost interest the timely year-end special satire issue of the Star Weekend magazine. How wonderfully you have described worrying events of 2017 with wit and a good sense of humour!

Every write-up ranging from politics to sports, human rights to education was a marvel to read. Let good sense prevail among us all that the happenings of the past will not reflect in the new year. We hope Bangladesh will enter into a new era in 2018 and its troubles will slowly be addressed.

I wish every writer in the Star Weekend team and its voracious readers a prosperous, wonderful new year.

Nuzhat Rifa Ehsan

Baridhara, Dhaka

Few contemporary advances in biotechnology have captured public imagination as much as the discovery of the CRISPR-Cas system. Startups like Intellia Therapeutics and Editas Medicine have raised hundreds of millions of dollars on the promise of CRISPR-based gene editing. This could be a truly revolutionary moment in the history of human technology.

But what exactly is the CRISPR-Cas system? CRISPR-Cas is a collection of DNA sequences and proteins often found in bacteria that protects them from viral infection. It can act as a kind of bacterial “immune system”—recognising very specific snippets of viral DNA, and then destroying these DNA sequences to eliminate invading viruses. Just as human beings are engaged in a constant immune war against infectious bacteria and viruses, bacteria themselves struggle against viruses that attack and kill them. These bacteria-killing viruses are called bacteriophages—“eaters of bacteria”.

It is the ability of the CRISPR-Cas to target and destroy very specific DNA sequences that makes it a powerful tool for genetic engineering. If the system was not so precise the bacteria could miss its target, or risk destroying its own DNA and killing itself. The same precision can now be used by genetic engineers—in 2017 CRISPR gene editing was used to cure genetic deafness in mice, and it is only a matter of time before similar applications are extended to human patients.

Electron microscopic picture showing morphology of cholera pathogen

As with many tools in biotechnology, from painkillers to vaccines, the CRISPR-Cas system was not synthesised from scratch by human engineers and chemists. It is something already found in the wild, a product of nature that we can reshape for our own purposes. Thus, to fully realise the potential of technologies like CRISPR gene editing we must continue to generate more knowledge on the natural diversity and functionality of this system.

Many people would be surprised to hear that such a cutting-edge topic in biology is an active area of research and discovery in Bangladesh, but this is exactly the case with recent research conducted at icddr,b by Professor Shah Faruque and colleagues. Professor Faruque had maintained an active research team in icddr,b for over two decades, and has now moved to BRAC University to strengthen life science research in the Department of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

Professor Faruque's findings, recently published in the prominent Nature Publishing Group journal Scientific Reports, analyse the CRISPR-Cas system in a group of cholera bacteriophages, viruses that attack Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria responsible for causing cholera. Dr Faruque's results build on the research of Andrew Camilli, who discovered these viral CRISPR-Cas elements in 2013.

The vast majority of CRISPR-Cas systems studied previously exist in bacteria to defend against viruses. In a remarkable twist, the particular elements studied by Professor Faruque exist instead in the viruses that attack bacteria. 

These cholera-killing viruses are our allies in the fight against this deadly diarrhoeal disease—previous work by Professor Faruque's group has shown that these naturally occurring viruses help to stop seasonal cholera epidemics in Bangladesh by killing the pathogenic bacteria in contaminated water.

Professor Faruque's recent paper uses cutting-edge whole genome sequencing to show that these viruses use the CRISPR-Cas system to suppress the defences of cholera bacteria and infect them more effectively. By studying DNA sequences from multiple viruses and bacteria collected in Bangladesh over many years, Dr Faruque and his group were also able to demonstrate that the viral CRISPR-Cas system is continuously evolving. The virus and the bacteria are locked in an “evolutionary arms race”, their genetic material constantly mutating to counter the other's defence mechanisms.

These findings could be used to engineer viruses to kill the cholera pathogen for therapy or for environmental control of deadly epidemics. Given the serious danger that cholera epidemics pose during times of crisis in developing countries, from the conflict in Yemen to the crowded camps of displaced Rohingya Myanmar nationals in Bangladesh, this work could have great value for saving human life in the future.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this research is that it was entirely done by Bangladeshi scientists, with no foreign collaborators. These results are a testament to the value of supporting local scientists and developing our own research capacity, without being overly reliant on foreign specialists. Other members in Professor Faruque's research team in icddr,b who contributed substantially to this work are Iftekhar Bin Naser, M Mozammel Hoque, M Ausrafuggaman Nahid, Tokee M Tareq and Kamruzzaman Rocky.

Professor Faruque has recently left his position at icddr,b to start a new research group at BRAC University, where he can focus on expanding the research capability of one of the nation's premier private universities. When asked about his future plans at BRAC University, Professor Faruque expresses his motivations for this new initiative with passionate clarity: “The purpose of this endeavour is to build the life science research capabilities of a Bangladeshi university, to increase its visibility to the donor community, and in turn attract more research grants, to be able to build the next generation of Bangladeshi researchers.”

Zain Omar Ali is a freelance science writer and received his Master's in Molecular and Cellular Biology from Harvard University. 

Since its announcement, the Rampal power plant has ignited intense debates. The involvement of National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), the Indian company financing it, has been discussed at length. On the other hand, much less is known about the companies bankrolling all the other fossil-fuel power plants popping up around the country, whose total electricity production exceeds that of Rampal. China, currently Bangladesh's largest trading partner, is investing in most of these.

The energy sector has a long history of financial backing by China, but 2016 really stood out for the high number of power plant deals signed—at least seven in number. These credit lines were secured in the same year that President Xi Jinping visited the country.

2016 was the year Chinese investors doubled down on their investments in coal power plants in Bangladesh, but this also stood in stark contrast to what was happening inside China itself.

Early last year, China pulled the plug on over a hundred coal power projects within its own borders, some of which were still under construction. The country diverted its own resources to solar and wind power, pledging to produce an astronomical 130 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2020.

During a session of their parliament in March last year, Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council of China, said, “It is necessary to phase out, stop construction and slow down the coal-fired power generation capacity by over 50 million kilowatts to [...] create space for clean energy development.”

With China making up a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, the move to cap its fossil-fuel-driven energy was lauded internationally. However, the same climate-change conscious point of view was not extended to the rest of the world. The country continued to invest in hundreds of coal-powered projects globally. The biggest recipient countries include India, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Vietnam and Bangladesh, among others.

The fact that there are to be more coal-fired power plants than ever before in Bangladesh, a country that contributes to only 0.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is why it is necessary to take stock of the projects at hand. 

One of the biggest of these coal-powered projects include the Chittagong Power Station, colloquially known as the Banshkhali Power Station. Approved in February 2016, the project is worth USD 2.5 billion, and is a joint venture among S Alam group, Shandong Electric Power Construction Corporation (SEPCO3) and STG Development Group. The Bangladeshi-Chinese partnership will put forth 30 percent of the funding and secure the rest internationally. Interestingly, the coal required to fire this power plant will be coming from Indonesia, a country where China invests in coal mining. The power plant would have a capacity of 1,224 megawatts, nearly as much as that of the Rampal Power Station.

Shortly after the power plant was approved, demonstrations swelled in Banshkhali, with four protesters dying in clashes with armed law enforcers. The protests arose out of allegations of forced acquirement of land. “When plans of a coal-fired power plant were announced, the local people were enraged,” says Liakat Ali, Convenor of Banshkhali's Homestead and Graveyard Protection Committee in an interview archived online by Center for Bangladesh Studies.    

           

“You are making a mistake by not giving up your land. Your uncles, aunts and cousins will sell off their lands, and all the plots surrounding yours will be filled with sand. There will be no sign of your land. What use will there be by resisting the acquisition?” says Ali, quoting project workers acquiring the land.

Power Construction Group also signed two other deals the same year. In June, a deal was signed between them and Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) for a 1,320-megawatt power plant, in Maheshkhali of Chittagong. Another deal was struck with Meghna Group for two coal-fired power plantsat Daudkandi in Comilla at a cost of USD 1.75 billion, Mostafa Kamal, chairman of Meghna Electricity Generation Co Ltd told The Daily Star.

The second biggest project on the list, which is worth USD 2 billion, was also signed in 2016. It is being constructed as a joint venture between the Bangladeshi government entity Rural Power Company Limited and the company Norinco International China. The 1320-megawatt coal-power plant will be set up in Patuakhali, and 70 percent of the project financing will come as a loan from the the Export-Import Bank of China. Norinco is a state-owned defence company that makes everything from revolvers to long-range missiles. The entity is also involved in mining and oil and gas exploration; power plants however are not featured on their website.

The other company which signed on the biggest shares in 2016 is China Energy Engineering Group, which got on board with two power plant project deals last year. The group first signed with BEXIMCO for two power plants—one of them, in a positive deviation from the rest, is a 200-megawatt solar power plant in Gaibandha. In addition to the solar power deal, the Chinese company is also building BEXIMCO's nascent 660-megawatt coal-fired power plant.

The other project this Chinese company signed up for is the USD 1.56 billion Payra coal-fired power plant, which aims to produce as much electricity as Rampal. The deal was made with an entity called the Bangladesh-China Power Company Limited, which is a joint venture of China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation and Bangladesh's North-West Power Generation Company Limited. 

Just last week, Xinhua News Agency published an interview of the State Minister for Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, Nasrul Hamid, in which he stated that Payra will be developed into a USD 12 billion dollar hub.

Hamid said,“We're thinking of generating at least 9,000 megawatts of power from here, investing USD 10-12 billion in this area.” Critics have been quick to point out that the coal power plants are beside the Andharmanik river hilsa sanctuary.

The Power Division of our government aims to generate 19,000 megawatts of coal-powered energy by 2030. If all the deals signed recently come to fruition, they will be 6,000 megawatts closer at least. Interestingly, the same Power Division also included the following in their Master Plan, published on March 2015: “Before the country's natural gas reserves start to decrease in 2018, before the imports of coal and LNG [liquid natural gas] starts to increase in 2021-22, and before the country's industrial structure changes from labour intensive to energy intensive ones, the Government must strive ahead with the promotion of EE&C [Energy Efficiency & Conservation], to urge the general public to lead energy efficient, non-energy wasting and most productive lives.” Maybe China could get behind this, too.

Government records? Who cares… throw them away

Where do you think important government records should ideally be stored? In a safe? Or should we say a "digitised safe", going by the country's favourite motto? Well, as per the law of the country, they should be stored in the National Archives if they are more than 25 years old. Believe it or not, there was actually a time when the authorities didn't prefer to store them at all.

Nine years ago, around 40 kilos worth of important government documents were recovered from a waste paper shop at Anandabazar, adjacent to Shahidullah Hall of Dhaka University. How important were these papers, you ask? An example is a document dating back to 1992, from the then Deputy Governor of Bangladesh Bank to the finance ministry about the formation of the bank's investigation cell.

According to the shop owner, certain vendors brought him government documents every month for sale. Unfortunately, the government authorities had to buy back all the documents at BDT 16 per kg. You don't need a financial expert to describe this deal as “not a very good one”.

An invitation for a cup of tea at the Supreme Court

The following happened to officials of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) seven years ago this month after they published the results of a household survey.

On January 13, weeks after TIB published a survey which described the judiciary as the “most corrupt” service sector of the country, they were asked to attend a tea party at the Supreme Court.

This was perhaps the only time when a journalist not covering the entertainment beat—no offence to any one—was compelled to inform the readers of the entire guest list of a “tea” party on the front page of the newspaper. The next day, TIB officials revealed that the court had in fact taken their findings quite seriously. However, nothing else was heard about the survey after that.

A market crash that few can forget

Were you a part of the crowd that blindly poured money into Bangladesh's stock market between 2008 to 2010? If the answer's yes, then you probably have the date January 10, 2011 etched in your mind. The share trading that day stopped after just 50 minutes. Between December 2010 and January 2011, the DGEN index fell from 8,500 by 1,800 points, a total 21 percent decline.

There were protests on the roads; people had lost money to the tune of lakhs and the chaos, albeit for a brief period, even led to a slight fall in the stock exchange in Mumbai.

Looking back, many analysts described the abnormal increase in the number of points in the share market as manipulated, meaning there were certain players who had bought plenty of shares beforehand in a bid to increase the overall price of the market. Once the price went up, they sold their shares and left, leaving the rest of the people in jeopardy. Several analysts blamed the security exchange commission for overlooking the supposed malpractices in the share market.

According to experts, the middle class, who never really invested in the share market in the past, did so during that period because of the increasing price and the hype. They, however, were the biggest losers. Most of them didn't really know when to stop buying.

Want to be a millionaire? Sell vegetables

There's no doubt that vegetables are good for your health. But Sana Ullah, who was arrested six years ago this month, took that phrase to another level. For 14 years, Sana deceived the police and sold Phensedyl. According to a report published in The Daily Star, he and his wife reportedly sold 10,000 bottles of the banned drug every week in the capital. Both he and his wife posed as vegetable vendors. They would often cover the drugs with fried fish, tomatoes and other vegetables. Other times, these bottles would be stored inside fruits. Since these food products were perishable, officials never really checked them thoroughly at the border or in the capital. As a result, their business flourished. Prior to his arrest, Sana owned a four-storey building, a number of flats in the capital and two microbuses. Moral of the story? Never underestimate a man who knows his vegetables!

Dhaka's first and last bus map

Let's face it: maps and Dhaka don't go together. Even Google maps, which recently started displaying the amount of time that you would need to go from one place to another, often ends up showing incorrect data. However, for some reason, a group of American researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Bangladeshi start-up Kewkradong, decided to challenge that idea four years ago this month. They sent volunteers with smart phones around the capital and collected data from them after each stop. While they were successful in making the map, it didn't get enough support thereafter and the project was binned two years later. But hey, who needs maps when you have the universal mama on the roads to guide you through every route. These foreigners I tell you…

The world's number one all-rounder

Shakib Al Hasan wasn't the only Bangladeshi cricketer to top the ICC rankings list. In January 2015, Salma Khatun, the former Bangladesh women's national captain, topped the all-rounder's rankings in the T20 format. She was also rated the world's best bowler in the format. Things, however, went haywire from there on. She was removed from captaincy and eventually, lost her place in the side two years on. Despite the sad ending, Salma's elevation to the top—albeit for a brief period—goes to show the potential that the country's women cricketers, who rarely get the chance to play international cricket, have.

When a European Court voted in favour of Bangladeshi fruit pickers

After being shot and injured on a strawberry farm in Greece, 30 Bangladeshis filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights in Brussels in January, 2016. While they had filed a case in Greece, the accused were acquitted. The European Court in Brussels, however, voted in favour of the Bangladeshis a year later and the owners of the farm were asked to compensate each and every one of the victims. The farm owner, who had stopped paying the farmers their wages, threatened to shoot them if they didn't stop protesting.

The events that have unfolded since the Dalit commemoration at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, have been mostly predictable and not entirely unexpected.

It's no secret that the past few years have been especially hard for Dalits with crimes and atrocities against them increasing by an overwhelming 66 percent since just 2007. So it makes obvious sense for a crucial Dalit celebration, one which Ambedkar memorialised by first starting the annual pilgrimage to Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 1927 to also become an event to reclaim Dalit pride and strengthen political affiliations. The historic 200-year-old battle, which is controversial in academic history, has been preserved as part of alternate Dalit history for decades.

The idea of Dalits celebrating a battle where outnumbered Mahar soldiers defeated the brutally casteist Brahmin Peshwas, in the very heart of Peshwaland, was clearly an insult to their descendants' “upper” caste pride. Scroll reported that Uday Singh Peshwa and the Akhil Bharatiya Brahmin Mahasangh, among others, urged the Pune police to deny permission for the event and labelled it, and the Bhima Koregaon commemoration—it has occurred peacefully for decades—as “anti-national”. Eventually, its organisers, the Bhima Koregaon Shourya Diwas Abhiyan, secured the permission for the event.

But if the gatherings of Dalit political and social assertion in the past have taught us anything, it was that violent “upper” caste retaliation was just lurking around the corner. Be it the Dalit Asmita Yatra in 2016 where returning Dalits were attacked, or the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, where Ambedkar led thousands of Dalits to drink water from a public water tank after which “upper” castes attacked Dalits, they have always been “punished” for showcasing pride.

So, in an almost scripted repeat of these previous events, as Dalits returned from Bhima Koregaon Monday, men carrying saffron flags attacked them viciously. They threw stones, shattered car windows and set vehicles on fire. Twenty-eight-year-old Rahul Phatlange died, while several Dalits were injured and over 40 vehicles were damaged. The remaining Dalits in the mostly “upper” caste village are now fleeing their homes anticipating more such attacks.

Despite the severity of the attacks, most mainstream media organisations and television channels saw no merit in reporting it, just like they have ignored reporting on most Dalit atrocities in the past. So, Dalits naturally turned to the only way we have—throughprotests. As soon as Dalit protesters blocked roads, shut down shops and brought Mumbai and the rest of Maharashtra to a standstill, mainstream media suddenly noticed how “mobs have held the city to ransom”—again, typical of their biased reporting on Dalit issues over decades. Most newspapers focused on how their protests were an inconvenience but hardly addressed the details or their context.

There was nothing new about the grossly privileged reactions of “upper” caste Mumbaikars either, who were angry about how Dalits were placing “self-interest” over that of the nation. Or how the “common man” loses their livelihood in a protest without even acknowledging the common Dalit who had lost his life. The political parties, their trolls, and their mouthpieces masquerading as news channels also dusted their old excuse from Rohith Vemula's death that when Dalits call for attention to the violence they face because of their caste, they are actually “dividing the nation” and “breaking India”.

“Why can't they just shut up and suffer in silence like they have for thousands of years,” seems to be the flagrant yet tired logic at work. The naysayers clearly had no interest in why or how protests have become the only way for Dalits to make themselves heard.

And since Dalits show no signs of giving up on their pride and assertion, it's likely these “upper” caste, privileged forces will react in the same way again, just with different postcodes and players. Except this time, there is one minor difference. If the Right wing has perfected their playbook of oppression both on-ground and online, Dalits have caught on as well. Unlike in the past, this time Dalits (and their allies) were prepared to fight back. Their arguments were sharper, their reasoning clearer and Dalits in particular were able to excellently articulate why they need to stand up for themselves. Radhika Vemula, Rohith Vemula's mother, emerged as a formidable Dalit leader when she strongly argued how the media has repeatedly let Dalits down, focusing on the blockades and traffic jams after protests but ignoring the actual atrocities.

People attend a protest rally against what they say are attacks Dalit community. Photo: REUTERS

Even as the mainstream media snubbed the attacks, many online publications, including this one, produced several well-reported pieces tracking down the finer details of the events. While the forces controlling the saffron-flag bearing attackers clearly wanted to clamp down on Dalit pride, they ended up further pushing it into national spotlight.

From a community-specific event, Bhima Koregaon commemoration is set to turn into a national Dalit memorial next year. The “upper” caste violence and reactions might be the same but like a quickly adapting powerhouse, Dalit response to it is evolving each time they occur. That itself is a lot to hope about.

Yashica Dutt is a New York-based writer and journalist who is about to publish a non-fiction book on growing up “lower” caste in India. She has worked as a Principal Correspondent for Hindustan Times and is the founder of Documents of Dalit Discrimination Tumblr.

Reprinted, with permission from ThePrint

The neighbourhood around Dhanmondi Lake is a quiet residential area. On each side of the narrow roads, there are only residential buildings, a few grocery stores and the tranquil greenery of Dhanmondi Park. However, every morning, the narrow roads surrounding the lake become some of the busiest in Dhaka city. There are at least 12 schools and two colleges operating within only one square-kilometre of this neighbourhood. Turning residential houses into schools, many of these improvised educational institutions do not even have basic facilities such as playgrounds, libraries, adequate number of classrooms, canteens and transportation for students. Some of these schools don't even have any approval from the government.

Dhanmondi is not the only area; most of the residential areas of Dhaka city, including Mohammadpur, Uttara, Azimpur and so on, are crammed with unauthorised schools. The writer contacted with one such school located in Azimpur, which was an academic coaching centre in 2016. When the government declared a ban on all coaching centres—an initiative which ultimately failed—its owners instantly turned it into a lower secondary school (up to grade eight), just by installing a billboard. The school lures its students in with the promise of “confirmed A+” grades and “100 percent confirmed suggestions [list of questions which may appear in the exam]” in the Primary School Completion and Junior School Certificate Exams.

Cover: E R Ronny

Drawn in by these promises, when guardians bring their children to the school for admission, they find that their children are being registered, not as students of Royal Public School, but as students of different other government approved schools. When contacted, one of the founders of the school, reveals to Star Weekend, on conditions of anonymity, “Since the government does not grant permission to establish any more schools in Dhaka, all the new schools of the city are now following this practice. We request an approved school to register our students under their institution's banner so that the students can appear before the board exams.”

“The students only take part in the board exams under those institutions, but we provide them with all the lessons and teaching-learning materials,” he further adds. According to the Board of Intermediate and Secondary Education, Dhaka, there are only 301 authorised schools and 122 authorised colleges in Dhaka respectively.

However, according to an unpublished survey conducted by the students of the Institute of Education and Research, University of Dhaka, there are at least 1,300 unauthorised secondary schools and more than 600 unauthorised higher secondary colleges in Dhaka city. Their numbers could not be confirmed even by the respective government offices—in the government records these unauthorised institutions do not exist and as a consequence, these educational institutions remain beyond the purview of any type of government monitoring.

In fact, an investigation by Star Weekend found that many of these institutions are operating like coaching centres. The students' psychosocial development, which requires carefully planned co-curricular activities, practical learning through laboratory sessions and excursions, among other things, are never taken care of. For the most part, the teachers are not qualified enough, with many of these institutions recruiting university students as teachers. Sometimes they hire other school teachers on a part-time contract with the sole aim of helping their students obtain GPA 5 at any cost.

Such institutions have mushroomed all over the country and cater to a huge number of students. For instance, Star Weekend contacted another such unauthorised school that also started its journey as a preparatory coaching centre for cadet college admission exam, but now operates three branches of its secondary school in Uttara. Each of these branches teaches around 500 students and sends them to government approved schools to appear for their board exams. They have unauthorised schools and college branches in more than 30 districts.

In districts like Dhaka, Tangail, Bogra, Chittagong, this school operates multiple branches of schools and colleges. However, according to board officials, the school is only permitted to enrol students up to grade five.

A high-ranking board official says, anonymously, “These unauthorised schools are abusing a privilege which was intended for students with special needs and impoverished students. There is a rule which allows a school or college to register a board exam candidate through an external category if the student is unable to participate in the classes owing to financial problems or physical disabilities.”

The board official also adds that the unauthorised schools enrol their students in multiple approved schools so that the board cannot question any particular school for registering so many external candidates. “Many political big shots are behind these unauthorised institutions. Please do not reveal my name in your report,” he appeals.

According to a 2016 survey of Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS), there are 19,847 government-approved secondary (private and government-run) schools in Bangladesh and 4,238 higher secondary educational institutions. BANBEIS officials told Star Weekend that in terms of secondary schools, Bangladesh has already reached its saturation point and there is no need to establish secondary schools except in a few remote chars (river-island) and haor areas. They explain, “The teacher-student ratio in secondary school and college is 1:41 and 1:32 respectively, which is quite satisfactory. The problem is that some institutions are overcrowded with students and some institutions get very few students, due to the institutions' poor performances. Therefore, the government is focusing more on enhancing quality of the existing secondary level institutions and discouraging quantitative increase of such institutions.”  

The question then is, despite having so many approved schools, why are the students going to unauthorised schools?

An answer lies in the bleak situation of authorised privately-owned secondary and higher secondary educational institutions, whose teachers recently staged a fast-until-death hunger strike, demanding regularisation of their jobs under the government's Monthly Pay Order (MPO) scheme. According to Golam Mahmudunnabi Dollar, acting President of the Federation of Non-MPO Educational Institutions' Teachers and Employees, “We have been taking classes for 22 years without any salary. Every year we are given hope that our job will be regularised and we shall get MPO. But this hope is never materialised. The budget of non-government schools and colleges are so small that we can hardly purchase essential teaching-learning equipment and furniture.”

“Our schools can only charge limited fees from the students as fixed by the government but they do not get any support from them. Our teachers are not paid at all,” he further adds.

These teachers are then forced to seek employment with coaching centres and unauthorised schools to earn an income. On the other hand, the unauthorised schools, remaining beyond the purview of the government monitoring, charge exorbitant tuition fees from the students by promising them “confirmed A+” in the board exams.

Due to the poor condition of the non-government, approved secondary schools and their teachers' affiliation with the unauthorised schools, the guardians are also more interested in enrolling their students in the latter.

There are two government bodies to monitor and supervise the academic activities of the schools. When asked about the monitoring and supervision process, the officials of the educational boards and Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education share a harrowing description. The duty of monitoring and supervising the secondary and higher secondary educational institutions of the country is shared by the inspectors of nine boards of intermediate and secondary education and district education officers under the Directorate of Secondary and Higher Education (DSHE).

Each board monitors secondary schools and intermediate colleges of six to seven districts. However, to monitor hundreds of educational institutions of these districts, each board only has one inspector for schools up to secondary level and one inspector for intermediate colleges.

When asked about how they monitor the school with only person, a school inspector of a board says anonymously, “It is actually impossible for us to visit every school in every district and inspect their academic activities. There are inspectors assigned by the Secondary Education Sector Investment Program (SESIP) under DSHE who are in charge of inspecting academic activities.” However, the school inspector also reveals that the school inspectors of the respective boards actually visit a few schools in a district but report that all the schools shave been covered. The practice of taking bribes as “gifts” from the school authorities is also rife among school inspectors. The Education Minister Nurul Islam Nahid himself admitted as much, when he told school inspectors, “You can take bribe but take it within a tolerable level. I cannot order you not to take bribe...”

On the other hand, the school inspectors of DSHE claim that they are “toothless” inspectors who can only write reports on the academic performance and send it to the boards. According to DSHE officials, they cannot take measures against the low-performing schools, nor can they take any measures against the unauthorised schools. The DSHE officials further added that only the respective upazila or district administration can take measures against the unauthorised schools.

The officials argue that most of the non-government schools are owned by friends or relatives of local elected representatives. Whenever DSHE officials want to take any measures, the local representatives intervene and they have to stop. As a result, at present, monitoring and inspection activities in the secondary and higher secondary educational institutions are virtually non-functional.

Professor Dr Mamtazuddin Patwary of Bangladesh Open University thinks that there is no alternative to enhancing the institutional capacity of the schools and personal capacities of the teachers. The ministry must collect information about all approved or non-approved institutions—about their owners and teachers. Teachers of the educational institutions must be trained adequately. “People shouldn't be able to randomly open educational institutions wherever they want, or call themselves teachers without any proper qualification. If we want quality education, we must have quality educational institutions—there's no other alternative,” he adds.

He also highlights that educational institutions must be freed from undesired intervention by political leaders and corrupt government officials. “Otherwise, our education system will completely collapse in the near future,” he apprehends.

Several measures have been taken recently which can improve the situation. One of these measures is recruiting teachers in the non-government educational institutions through Non-Government Teachers' Registration and Certification (NTRC) exam which can prevent the recruitment of unqualified teachers. BANBEIS has also taken up a project to prepare a complete profile of all the students of the country, including their daily attendance and monthly academic performance, which will allow them to track the students' academic trajectory. This step can also prevent unauthorised educational institutions from running their operations under the shelter of approved schools and colleges. However, these initiatives may turn futile like the minister's promise to ban coaching centres if corrupt practices cannot be stopped among government officials and political leaders.

The writer can be contacted at shahnawaz.khan@thedailystar.net

Razib Datta's work encompasses drawing, text and digital art. He often deconstructs the traditional language of art and cinema through his works.  A collector of photographs, newspapers, and file stills, he uses what he finds to conceptualise his work. Razib studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Chittagong. His works have been showcased in events organised by Kala Kendra, Bengal Foundation and others.

"Let's go. Let's publish.”

So said Katharine Graham, The Washington Post publisher, on the phone to her editors, making a decision that turned out to have historic consequences for the United States and that elevated her paper to national standing.

In the vein of recent films on journalism like Spotlight and the older and much revered All The President's Men, comes The Post. The historical drama, about the publication of the Pentagon Papers by

The Washington Post in 1971, is directed by Steven Spielberg and features two universal favourites in its lead roles, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.

Meryl Streep portrays Katharine “Kay” Graham, the publisher of the paper, alongside Hanks' Bob Bradlee, executive editor. At the centre of the film's narrative is her decision to run the story despite the legal, financial and personal risks of doing so.

The New York Times had originally broken the story that the American government had been lying about the “success” of the Vietnam War. After the Nixon administration got an injunction against the Times because it was “jeopardising national security”, the Washington Post took up the story.

Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower, worked as a military analyst for the RAND corporation, which was then under contract with the Department of Defense. Unlike how Wikileaks works today, Ellsberg had had to slowly but secretly photocopy what later became known as the Pentagon Papers over a period of three months.

Ellsberg had first leaked the classified 7,000-page document, a study of US involvement in the Vietnam War between 1945 and 1968, to New York Times journalist Neil Shaheen. The Times went on to publish sections of the top-secret document before the Nixon administration won a court injunction against further publication. It incriminated the administration as having full knowledge that the war was highly unpopular and futile.

Ellsberg then approached the Post among other newspapers. The national editor of the Post, Ben Bagdikian, flew to Boston to get the documents from Ellsberg, bringing them back to D.C. in a box which he kept beside him on the plane in the next seat. It was, as Graham wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography “Personal History”, an “expense the Post didn't mind paying.” Both the Times and the Post fought the order in court that went on to the Supreme Court and ultimately won.

A woman's battle

Katharine Graham belonged to a wealthy family which owned The Post. Though the heir apparent after her father retired, a woman in charge of the paper was out of the question. Instead, her husband was appointed. Graham only took over the family business following her husband's death by suicide. She was still finding her feet in a boys' club, and faced condescension from her peers and members of her newsroom.

Graham became a role model for young women after her courageous decision to publish, supporting her editor who was pursuing an explosive story when her company was also going public. She battled personal insecurities, sexism, and inexperience in the news industry to preside over a pivotal moment in the newspaper's trajectory.

Graham wrote in “Personal History” that her time at the helm of the Post made her “more aware of women's problems in the workplace and of the need to get more women in the workplace.” This is still the case with male-dominated newsrooms with few females in leadership positions in the industry at large.

In an era of “fake news”

The Post is particularly relevant in an era where the current US president has labeled reporters as “scum” and “dishonest people” and decried reporting critical of him as “fake news”. TIME magazine called the film “an urgent reminder of how much journalism matters.”

Amy Pascal, the producer of the film, had said that after Donald Trump won the US elections, “this movie took on a different urgency. It became even more relevant”. Spielberg and his team purportedly took the decision to shoot and ready the film in a span of only six months.

The Post's publication of the Pentagon Papers set the stage for Watergate and ultimately, the downfall of the Nixon presidency. The Pentagon Papers have since been declassified.

As attacks on press freedom become more commonplace, it is perhaps important to recall what the 1971 verdict in favour of the Times and the Post said. “Far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly – “only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.”

Though harking back to a nostalgic time for newsrooms filled with smoke, jangling telephones, and clunky presses, the Post demonstrates why journalism matters even today. A free press doing its job can have a profound effect on a nation, such as the recent stories of harassment and abuse faced by women in Hollywood and DC reveal.

This is not about surviving weddings for the ones getting married. Nope. They need a lot more help than a mere page full of words can ever provide. They need tales with clauses, injunctions and other legally horrific sounding words.

This survival guide is for the guests that refuse to leave the comfort of their home but they must.

Do you really want to go?

If you really want to avoid weddings, you need to have some decent excuses prepared beforehand. Winter comes for about a week or two every year. That means you have more than 11 months to prepare. Using work as an excuse is unimaginative. Unless, of course, your work is taking you out of the country to save polar bears suffering from heat strokes in Zimbabwe. At the least, you can post a Instagram picture with a Mayfair filter sitting in an airport showing off a watch and your shoes like everybody is required to.

An excuse works when you have been invited less than a few days before the occasion. Some people about to wed are terrible. They invite you months early in anticipation of their marital bliss. You cannot possibly ever say no to that. How do you make an excuse for two months from now? You cannot.

How comfortably can you dress?

Imagine summer weddings in Bangladesh. Hot and steamy but not quite like a hip-swaying dance number from a Hindi movie. Our heat and humidity combined with the dust in the air can make an uncomfortable chocolaty concoction like a failed Masterchef entry. And all that happens under the clothes.

But winter means every place is air-conditioned and you can put on your thickest, manliest, sweatiest coat on for the women to admire. We have it great. For the women though, it is a major trade-off. Do you want to be warm and alive? Or a fashionable hypothermic corpse?

It is make-up friendly

A wedding cake is just like a regular cake but covered in layers of often bland fondant making it appear like a majestic sculpture. Wedding makeup is like the fondant on a cake. You layer it on till the person beneath is  better hidden than a muddy Arnold Schwarzenegger in front of the alien Predator that cannot see through mud. It's a pre-requisite of wedding attendance in Bangladesh. Some men also comply. In the summer, the face-mask will melt and eventually the true person will show up like, well, as Arnold Schwarzenegger emerges out of the lake as he prepares to make the Predator very, very dead. But winter preserves the make-up. Nothing melts. It is also the best time to have choc-bar ice-cream. Only in winter, the women tell me make-up may crack. For the men that use make-up, it is often light enough not to crack.

And then there's the food

We go to weddings because as men, we want the kachchi. We are quite open about it, including opening a couple of notches on the belt and a button here and there to facilitate the expansion of the belly. You can't do that in summer. Your already light clothes cannot stand more relaxation without an indecent exposure of a belly. Only belly anyone wants to see at a wedding is that of a roasted mutton.

But in winter, underneath all your heavy jackets and shawls, you can relax, let your paunch out. Unfortunately, you can't relax too long as the food gets into competition with the winter season. Can it get cold and inedible before the winter weather runs out? So appear on time, wait in queue to sit as the first batch and eat till you run out of space.

In the end there's that bit about crying. Luckily, you're in Bangladesh and not in China's Sichuan Province where the Tujia people start crying a full month in advance. But you can hurry home and get back to watching movies like you intended all along.

Ehsanur Raza Ronny is a confused dad, all-round car guy, model car builder, and cartoonist. He is also Editor of Shift (automobiles), Bytes (technology), and Next Step (career) of The Daily Star.

I know, I know, mountain climbing isn't on everyone's agenda. Being a dedicated couch potato who can barely run two kilometres without dying, it was the furthest thing on my mind. Yet in 2014, I found myself talked into my first mountain climb ever—Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia at 4,095 metres.

...and I haven't looked back since.

Less than a year later, I huffed and puffed up Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania at 5,895 metres. Less than a year after that, I was dragging myself up to 4,650metres while skirting the Salkantay Mountain in Peru.

Was it hard? Yes. Was it painful? Yes. I'm not the blubbering kind and my tear ducts are abnormally dry (my optometrist said as much), but even I burst into tears in all but one of my climbs so far.

And yet I will happily (if delusionally) go climb another, and so should you. Here's why:

1. You don't know if you can or cannot do something until you actually do it.

Underneath all the “Oh, that's only for insanely fit people” or “I'm too lazy for that” lies the fear of failure, and the even scarier thought of that fear becoming true. For years, I had unconsciously convinced myself that I couldn't cook, couldn't play a musical instrument and couldn't keep a cactus alive to save my soul, and so I simply didn't. When I finally broke through that barrier, and went ahead and did those things, I realised that it was all just in my head. It wasn't difficult, I did suck at first but I got better and better, and if I hadn't spent so much time telling myself I couldn't and instead used that time to practice, who knows where I'd be now?

2. It is motivation to put your life together.

After confirming my first mountain climbing trip, it dawned on me that I should probably prepare a bit for it. It was unlikely that I'd be the fittest person in the group, but I sure as hell was not going to let myself be the weakest! And so I started going to the gym for real for the first time in my 26 years of being alive.

You may have heard of “keystone habits”—habits that start a chain of other good habits. Starting with the gym, I soon found myself regularly taking the stairs to our apartment on the 10th floor, in order to simulate a “climb up a mountain”. I also started to eat healthier to build up strength. My stamina increased, I slept better, and felt stronger—a strange, new but pleasant feeling for someone who won't stand if she can sit, and won't sit if she can lie down.

Smiling while struggling suck in all the oxygen we could find in that thin air.

3. You learn to pace yourself (on the trail and in life as well).

Most people assume that there is a particular standard of fitness to attain in order to climb a mountain. Though being at your fittest and healthiest definitely helps, what matters more is your pacing. You know you've hit the right pace when you're not going so fast that your heart is hammering its way out of your chest, and not so slow that you're starting to cool down.

It can be hard to stick to your pace, especially if you are climbing in a group where everyone's paces vary. You may be the faster one and get annoyed at the other sloths, or you may be the slower one and feel pressured to catch up with the superhumans (this is me). You can try to avoid this by ensuring that you climb with a group of people who are of the same fitness level. But sometimes you don't get to choose who you go with, in which case, you can break into pairs with similar pacing, and move separately in smaller groups. You can also be patient and match the slow pace in the spirit of teamwork and unity, or be open with your group about taking it slow and allow them to get ahead of you (but not before agreeing on certain meeting points along the trail in regular intervals for safety reasons).

4. They've got your back.

On Kilimanjaro, we had an entire support team with us, without whom we would never have survived even halfway up. What struck me most was how earnestly they wanted us to summit. Our guides weren't just people who pointed the way, they were our psychologists cum coaches who refused to let us give up on ourselves (and believe me, we wanted to plenty of times). Our porters didn't just carry our things, but quite literally carried us when we got too weak.

5. You earn the right to see beauty reserved for very few. 

My late mother observed me limping around the house after I returned from my first climb, and in genuine puzzlement, asked: “Why do you torture yourself like this?”

I suppose different people will have different answers—to prove something, to test one's limits, to conquer a fear, to impress girls, to add to one's résumé, etc. For me, it's because the mountain is beautiful, and it is the kind of beauty you do not see down here. It is the kind of beauty that requires struggle and sacrifice to witness, a type of beauty that is earned and therefore cannot be taken for granted.

6. That feeling when you reach the top…

That being said, I don't climb mountains just for its good looks. I also climb to build myself up, and perhaps even defy my own expectations.

If you are feeling a little down, a little less sure of yourself, or in need of a change, I really believe mountain climbing can help. When I climbed my first mountain, I had just exited a low point in my life and was struggling with the echoes of an emotional upheaval. The mountain I was physically climbing was, in a way, a representation of the uphill journey I was trying to make privately in my own head.

So when I reached the summit at the dawn of a beautiful day, I naturally had a lot of feelings running through me, but the most intense feeling was this: INVINCIBILITY. I hadn't just conquered the mountain, I had also conquered myself.

7. What goes up must come down (that also means you).

Unfortunately, I found out very quickly that I quite literally could not come down the mountain. My legs had stopped functioning and the never-ending trail seemed to descend straight down to hell. Your chances of injury are in fact higher when going down, and having to pay the utmost attention to where you are stepping drains out your already-dwindling energy.

But hey, that's life – it's pretty dandy to be up top, but boy does it hurt when it's time to come down a peg or two. And just when you've experienced the euphoria of your invincibility too.

It does serve as a reminder that, though you may not be able to control or avoid your downfall, you can prepare and make the journey down hurt less. In mountain climbing, you do it with support gear (knee braces, fitted shoes), proper pacing and adequate rest. In life, you do it with humility and generosity. After all, they say you meet the same people on the way down, so the kinder you were on your way up, the gentler your way down will be.

8. It's life in High Definition.

On my Kilimanjaro trek, I took a swig of my lukewarm coke infused with a limp piece of lime that came with breakfast. It was the BEST COKE of my life. When we completed the climb, returned to civilisation and showered for the first time in six days, it was the BEST SHOWER of my life. These are things I normally would have found mundane and not worth mentioning, but boy, could I have waxed poetry over that bottle of coke and that shower.

If you ever find yourself feeling blasé about your current life, then go climb a mountain. You will find the air you breathe fresher; the water you drink sweeter; the smiles you give and receive more sincere; and the sky you look up at night brighter with more stars than your eyes can handle. It's a different life, and you will feel like a different person with a different set of dreams and concerns.

Now, admittedly it's not a life you can sustain forever (I certainly would not be able to go longer than a week or two in the wild, pooping in bushes and hoping nothing will come out to bite me in the ass), but for that short amount of time that you are on the mountain, it is, to quote Disney, “a whole new world”.

9. The person who came down is not the same one who went up.

Aside from discovering a whole new world, you may also discover a whole new you. Being away from your usual luxuries (your phone, your couch, your bed, the internet) and thrown into a new and strange set of circumstances awakens different parts of you that you probably never even knew existed: the adventurer, who otherwise would remain stifled, confined between a swiveling office chair and the computer screen; the survivor, who in most cases slumbered on, not required in a world of comforts that you live in.

Even as I returned to my normal pre-climb life and typical daily routines, something within my little world had shifted. In the context of a game, it would be as though I had “leveled up”, with replenished points and brand new tools/weapons, ready to take on whatever was next with renewed vigor.

10. I told myself I would never do it again…

The first few days after my first climb was pure torture. I was dizzy with exhaustion, puking out the non-existent contents of my empty stomach and unable to even look at a flight of stairs without wanting to cry. I promised: never again.

But in less than a few months later, I was happily booking my hike up Kilimanjaro.

The first few days after my Kilimanjaro climb, I could barely walk, having shredded the bottoms of my feet into a raw, painful mess (this is what you get when you don't tie your shoes properly tight). I thought: okay, that's enough now.

Naturally, it only took me a few more months to cheerfully book my next climb.

The lesson here is not that I am a masochist, but that some things are totally worth the pain. Some experiences build you up, make you that much better, and take you that much closer to the manifestation of all that you are capable of—and isn't that what we all want?

So, who wants to try Everest with me?

Atiqah Nadiah Zailani (https://atiqahnadiah.wixsite.com) is a Malaysian professional aspiring for a balanced, sustainable life by living well with less, who solves problems and gets things done for a living. 

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