The Tireless Politicking of the Tires

 Published in: The Daily Star on December 2, 2015
The Tireless Politicking of the Tires

He found a tall stalk of fennel by the seashore, broke it off and discovered that in the hollow centre contained a dry, soft substance that would burn and stay alight for an extended period of time. He climbed to the top of Mount Olympus, snuck quietly into a den and stole a spark from lightning, lit the dry substance and carried the reed back.  This is how Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and saved mankind.

Today, the young Prometheus is someone very different. He pours gas or anything else that can burn quickly on the tire, lights a match, and starts the fire. Besides this, he talks to television channels while setting fire on tires instead of reeds, and instead of saving mankind, he tirelessly fuels fear in the minds of the audience. Today he throws bricks and stones at cars, and attacks journalists. At the end, he even says, “Bhua” (bogus). While our young Prometheus chants slogans and provides fire for the mankind, we stay hooked to our television screens and watch the reporters run for their lives with the cameras rocking from one side to the other and often even doing 360 degree turns. Often, the tires burn and we watch tales of fear unfold in high definition.

Well, that’s all it takes to define and set the parameters of violence in this city these days. Life has been so uneventful for us that only a few bricks and two burning tires symbolise revolution. Maybe we have all ignored young Prometheus long enough for him to have his pockets fill up with the neighbourhood Borobhai’s generosity oozing from the bus stand revenues. Maybe our neighbourhood Borobhai needs young Prometheus to chant a few slogans, spread rumours, use megaphones and then stage lame demonstrations to illegally occupy areas that belong to the public. Maybe all of us get too scared too soon. Or maybe . . . it just suits us to feign fear.

Why are tires set on fire on our streets? Why do bricks injure our drivers who work to shield us with their lives and loyalty? Why are stones pelted at uncompromising journalists who cover events at the cost of endangering their own lives? Whose interest is in question here? How is private interest in any way greater than that of the public? Basically, what is “public” interest and does it exist at all? And most importantly, who is the young Prometheus? And why have we given birth to him?

The concept of the ‘public interest’, most plainly, refers to considerations affecting the good order and the wellbeing and the ‘common good’ of the citizens. In case of a conflict between public interest and a private interest, it often takes a public servant to resolve and promote confidence in the integrity of public administration. In cases where conflicts between public and private interests invariably happen, the cases then must be appropriately disclosed and managed.

On November 29, 2015, the eviction drive of the mayor of Dhaka North had caused quite a stir. A drive that should have been ideally handled by a magistrate was in reality handled by the mayor himself. The mayor went aided by police and even had a minister with him. Later on, the RAB joined in too. If just an eviction of illegal occupation requires such a huge number of security personnel, then how will the city deal with recovery drives of illegally occupied lakes and areas? With serious water logging issues, which will begin from April, how will the mayor handle the endless number of mastaans (many of whom live within our own circles) and recapture occupied water bodies? Point is, if it takes a mayor to lead an eviction drive and serve public interest, who will it take to decide on far greater issues that directly relate to the daily interests of the citizens? If clearing roads and illegal occupancy are publicly opposed, how will this city ever see the light of the day? Perhaps we should then just let the mayor kill the mosquitoes and clean the streets?

While watching live coverage on television the other day, even I felt that fear was indeed infectious. Watching the close shots of the two tires burning was painful as all the channels ran the event live. I guess we need to also remember that positive changes need to happen behind camera coverage. Cameras capture truth but over-coverage often damages the purpose. Had the rumour of a worker being killed not spread so quickly, the event would have ended long back and without so much noise.

Way back in the 1990s, a number of reforming mayors transformed Bogotá into an enlightened municipal government in an apparently troubled country, through creating an extensive bus rapid-transport (BRT) network, parks and public libraries. The same needs to happen in this city of ours. Transformations and corrections can take place in public spaces but the media needs to decide what to focus on. I am certain that had we not seen the two tires burn throughout the day, the responsible thugs would have surrendered long ago and would have abided by law.

A lake or a land has just not been grabbed without compensating someone who wields authority of one kind or the other. Therefore, those who occupy our footpaths are not to be singularly blamed, rather the circle of the beneficiaries who grow rich at the expense of these hapless vendors, needs to be exposed. If anyone is using the name of the public office and violating the basic norms of public interest, the media should bring those elements to task. To put it simply, since private interests unfortunately attempt to influence public policy, since money tends to tamper with the policymaking process, ordinary citizens along with the media must look away from the flame of the tires and refocus on the flame of corruption that takes place under the guise of public interest.