The alternative road to dissent

 Published in: The Daily Star on February 1, 2017
The alternative road to dissent

Luckily we don’t live in the United States of America. Luckily we don’t have to take to the streets to protest the executive orders of the president. But yes, we have issues. In any democracy, it’s common to have issues and its super common to voice dissent. Currently, our point of concern is to ensure a free and fair national election. And thank God, the search committee has at least one person who is acceptable to most and is, by profession, a teacher to many, a mentor to most. Therefore, we have hope. However, thanks to social media, hopelessness is also becoming a big part of our psyche.

I woke up to a tweet by an extremely intelligent young woman talking about how the Honourable Prime Minister could not afford to claim the Champion of the Earth award anymore, since she was going ahead with the Rampal coal based power plant. I also woke up to see that a renowned photographer was arrested and then later released by the police during the anti-Rampal protests that happened in the capital the other day. BBC also ran a full story on it with most major newspapers covering the protest as headline news. Unfortunately, I am exposed to many sides of the same story on a daily basis. So, I know and don’t know much at the same time. But there are a few things that we stick to when it comes to decorum and ethics. So, when the ex-Vice President of the US Al Gore referred to “dirty” coal over and over again and confronted our current Prime Minister, something in my heart did not seem right. The debate in Davos seemed unpleasant. Courtesy matters. That is why, even at home, even in our tiny little home screens, we have grown a distaste for those who scream and argue their points in our late night talk shows. In media, which reflects our life and conviction, one must exercise restraint and be gracious. Thomas Friedman, the moderator, did not violate this rule and was, most thankfully, moderate.

Amidst all the protests regarding Rampal, what about presenting the case in a different light? How about a Rampal debate in Rampal, between the government and the Civil Society where all the relevant questions can be answered and where even a neutral monitoring cell can be set up? Instead of taking to streets, how about a visit to Rampal to talk to the locals and gauge the risk by all those who protest? Maybe a trip to Rampal could help? At the same time, one could wonder how the 1200 MW Quang Ninh Power Station, which was last commissioned in 2014, and also the Thang Long Power Project of 600 MW coal-fired power plants are both located within 6 km from Halong Bay in Vietnam, which is a UNESCO world heritage site? How was that allowed? One could wonder how Jinnah power project of 2000 MW is located adjacent to a mangrove forest; how the Yokohama coal fired power plant is located near a residential area; how multiple coal fired German power plants are, till date, located on town and river banks.

And of course, how can the American ‘Pleasants Power Station’, a 1300 MW power plant, be located at Willow Island in West Virginia, only 1 km from Wayne National Forest? These are natural curiosities that need a fair response. Your columnist is certainly not an apologist for anyone, but before we protest Rampal, it may become more useful to ask the pertinent questions in a public forum instead of being engaged in a rhetorical protest. A visit to Rampal, (which is off from the World Heritage Site by 69.6 km) coupled with a detailed knowledge of the plant and the Pashur River may evoke a better response and help all parties clarify the need for Bangladesh to claim its reasonable carbon space. After all, Bangladesh uses 2.5 percent of coal while the West uses 41 percent of it!

The same proposal is applicable to the minimum wage demands in Ashulia. Many have registered protests, many have slammed Bangladesh, many have taken it to the official level, but how many protests have even considered that the unit prices of readymade garments being made in Bangladesh are not going up? In spite of a rise in exports (this year relatively modest), no one is paying more to any of manufacturer. And yes, there is a global recession and the fact that the brands can’t pay more because the consumer isn’t buying more stands in favour of the arguments of the brands and the retailers not increasing prices. That is understandable. But who’s going to look at the manufacturers’ pockets and gauge if it’s deep enough to revise the minimum wage at this point of time, considering the annual increment of 5 percent is anyway going to be effected now? Who’s going to pay for the production loss of 15 days resulting from all the Ashulia protests that happened?

I heard a rather strange and sad story the other day. A senior government official (with heart) had gone to visit an activist in the hospital a while back and sympathised with him, and scorned the police for having beaten him up. He offered help and compensation. The victim with a broken leg was satisfied. A day later, the official had gone back to visit him again with a bag of goodies and surprisingly learnt that the patient had been released. Now…that is a threat to the credibility of the civil society activists. Unfortunately, much of what we protest lack meat and many of us either depend on random rhetoric or our alternative ‘copy-paste’ tools. Neither rhetoric nor imitation could ever satisfy the quest for truth ever. Therefore, be it Rampal or Ashulia, it is best to clarify points on a public forum where the administration or the private sector can be forced to be accountable. Let us also remember that one can only demand accountability when one has complete knowledge of the issues being discussed. Otherwise, let’s raise questions and wait for answers, failing which we can all take to streets and protest, yet once again.

Discrediting any one, any issue, any sector takes almost no time in today’s world. But restoring lost glory is difficult. In spite of social media being a strong indicator of popular opinion, I risk wrath by sharing the last two statuses that prompted my final departure from Facebook three years ago:

1) A status “My father died this morning” receiving 110 likes in less than 10 minutes.

2) A “check-in” status when entering Banani Graveyard accompanied with a selfie.

More recently, a friend of mine reported that a housewife had requested her FB friend to give a “like” to her having bought puti mach (small fish) from the bazar. National issues may be subjected to endless similar social media statuses, but real protest requires real gumption, knowledge and the courage to share, educate and confront. We need to stand together and take responsibility to demonstrate that there’s enough reason to believe in what we believe in and that in case, if we fail, we have the grace to accept the “other” as well.