Friday, February 09, 2007

Filtering out the Arsenic of Corruption

As Bangladeshis watch enthralled the reeling in of the corrupt 'big fish' by the military-backed caretaker government, and let out a collective exultation of “finally!”, an event in the United States has added to this exultation.

Dr. Abul Hussam, a chemistry professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, won the 2007 “Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability” for developing an inexpensive, easy-to-make system for filtering arsenic from well water. Of Bangladeshi origin, the chemist plans to donate the $1 million prize money for distributing these filters to needy communities around the world.

Dr. Hussam was moved by the plight of millions of Bangladeshis poisoned by tube-well water laced with arsenic - leading to serious skin conditions, tumors, breathing difficulties, cancer, and ultimately to agonizing death - and made it his quest to find a solution.

After experimenting with hundreds of prototypes, he finally found the right combination of sand, charcoal, brick and cast iron to filter out almost any trace of arsenic from well water. In the northern district of Kushtia now, these systems are being produced at the rate of about 200 per week, at a cost of about $40 each. Over 30,000 filtration systems have already been distributed throughout the country.

Coming in the wake of Dr. Yunus’s Nobel Peace Prize last year, Dr. Abul Hussam’s achievement should lift the heart of even the most stubborn pessimist.

In light of Bangladesh’s current attempt to make corrupt kingpins accountable for their past misdeeds, the success of Dr. Hussam’s discovery suggests a compelling question: Will Bangladesh be able to filter out the arsenic of corruption, greed, nepotism and misrule once and for all from the roots of its government, no matter who may be in power?

Conscientious Bangladeshis hung their heads in shame when the Berlin-based Transparency International ranked the country as the most corrupt in the world five years in a row, beginning with 2000. They witnessed with horror the powerful and the unscrupulous looting the country’s treasury, the Faustian bargains political parties made with one another and the terribly widening gap between the rich and the poor. (What a contrast, for instance, to a Bangladeshi taxi driver in New York named Osman chowdhury who returned a lost bag of diamond rings worth $500,000 to the owner after she had left it in the trunk of his cab. If only Bangladeshi politicians and their sycophants could learn honesty and integrity from this humble man!)

Both the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party indulged in thievery and gangsterism with impunity, and functionaries of both parties – mercenaries, really - created a twilight zone in which their words were the law. Only the ‘fittest’ thrived in this twilight zone, the fittest being those in or close to power, and their henchmen down the food chain.

Now there is hope that the darkness may be lifting, that those who abused power and amassed fortunes at the expense of the nation and its citizens will be brought to justice.

Because it is the army, backed by the interim government, that is spearheading the crackdown and the cleansing mission, some Bangladeshis are already protesting that democracy is in danger.

What planet are they on? Democracy cannot flourish in a vacuum. It can thrive only in the fertile soil of accountability, responsibility, and good governance. When the soil is saturated with the arsenic of greed, nepotism and solipsism, what thrives is “thugocracy,” not democracy. This has been the sad lot of Bangladeshis since 1991, following the overthrow of the military dictatorship of General Ershad.

The country has been kept afloat not by any government in power, but by the innate genius of common Bangladeshis – the human capital - and their entrepreneurship and creativity against all odds.

What is critical is for the interim government to proceed with prudence, and not try to bite off more than it can chew. One measure of this prudence can be seen in the systematic way in which the army is being used to snag progressively ‘bigger fish’ with each passing day. Ultimately the biggest fish – an unholy group of crooks and criminal masterminds across party lines – will have to be hauled in for justice to prevail.

Visiting Bangladesh last November, friends and relatives repeatedly told me that if only the government got off the back of the people and the powerful were held accountable for their actions, the country could achieve wonders. While neighboring India was earning billions of dollars in foreign exchange through the Internet-driven boom in IT services and products, Bangladesh was moving backward through debilitating strikes and plundering of the nation’s assets by the privileged.

Will decades of national nightmare be soon over, and will a new and responsible government usher in an era of enlightened democracy, of accountability, of law and order, of economic and educational opportunity for all? Let’s hope the groundwork is now being laid for such an outcome, so that future generations can look to this interim government as one that, after fits and starts, found its calling and made good on its promise.

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