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Raindrops keep falling on our heads (but we rescued the laptop)

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Photo from The Daily Star, Sunday, August 20

Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 24

Midway through the first afternoon of the workshop at the University Grants Commission (UGC) in Dhaka, one participant rubbed his head and glanced up towards the ceiling. Sure enough, there was a steady drip of water coming through the acoustic tile.  He shifted his chair.  A couple of minutes later, drips appeared in other places.  Participants started moving tables and chairs, and a janitor placed a bucket below the leakiest spot.  Then someone noticed water dripping onto the lectern and seized the laptop, rescuing not only the machine but the day’s PowerPoints.  I looked up at the acoustic tiles, many of which were stained brown and black.  Obviously, this was not the first time rain had come through the roof on the fifth floor. No one complained or even commented.  In Bangladesh in monsoon season, you expect to get wet. 

There is flooding in Bangladesh every year, but this year’s floods have been worse than usual.  In the north of the country, rivers and streams have burst their banks, inundating thousands of acres of farmland and washing away homes, schools, shops, vehicles and livestock.  So far, at least 100 people have died, and more than five million have crowded onto narrow levees, erecting flimsy shelters of bamboo poles and tarpaulins, without food, clothes, clean water or sanitation facilities.  The government, NGOs and relief organizations are distributing food and other supplies but there are fears that the death toll will rise as water-borne diseases spread. Farmers have lost their rice crops, and the flood waters have washed out the fish ponds that provide the main source of protein for the rural population. Roads, bridges and railroads have been washed away, further hampering relief efforts.  The front page in Sunday’s Daily Star featured a photo of a woman walking along the buckled railroad tracks of the Dhaka-Dinajpur line. The force of the waters had washed away the track bed, and submerged the tracks for three days, leaving them looking “like those of a roller-coaster.”  Railroad officials promised to restore service before Eid-ul-Azha, the traditional Muslim festival and holiday which begins on September 1. Many people doubt that this will happen, given the extent of the damage and the famously glacial response of government agencies to any sort of crisis.

The capital, Dhaka, has so far escaped serious flooding, although rising water in streams and lakes has washed away banks and inundated the rough shacks and market stalls where poor families, many of them migrants from rural areas, eke out a living as bicycle rickshaw drivers and roadside vendors.  Some roads in low-lying areas have flooded but on the main highways the water usually flows quickly into the storm drains; only during long periods of torrential rain are the roads under water. In 2002, in a move that could well be emulated by other cities (even those that do not experience monsoon rains), the authorities banned the use of plastic shopping bags that clog drains and waterways.  When you go shopping in a supermarket or the smaller “super-store” in Dhaka, the clerk puts your purchases in a paper sack or bag made from thin cloth.  The city’s action was followed by a national law that imposed fines and prison sentences for the import, distribution and sale of plastic bags.  Enforcement has been sporadic, partly because of corruption, but environmental groups have praised Bangladesh as a world leader in banning plastic bags.  There is still plastic around—for example, in water bottles and the liner for the trash bins in my hotel room—but plastic bags are no longer a major cause of flooding.

The morning after the laptop rescue the rains came again, heavier than the day before.  In the hotel lobby, my colleagues Suruchi Sood and Amy Chadwick and I waited with our briefcases and backpacks for the hotel van, wondering how we would get in without being soaked.  The staff of the Ascott Palace were up to the challenge. At the entrance, a canopy extended a few feet into the street.  The van drew up and a guard held up a brightly colored umbrella, almost four feet in diameter, to cover the three steps from the canopy to the door, while still remembering to give me the customary salute.  Most travelers were not as lucky.  Bicycle and bicycle rickshaw drivers pedaled unsteadily through the torrent, one hand on the handlebars and the other clutching an umbrella.  Cars sped past them, their tires splashing them; one poor guy got a double whammy when cars passed him simultaneously on both sides. Auto-rickshaws—the so-called CNGs, powered by compressed natural gas—stalled out, leaving their drivers to push them through the traffic to the roadside. At junctions where the traffic was stopped, a colorful stream of umbrellas crossed the road.  The street cleaners and construction workers, carrying bricks in baskets on their heads, had no protection from the rain.

Most participants showed up late for the workshop that morning. Nasir Uddin told me it had taken him 2 ½ hours to make a five-mile trip across the city, but he was nonplussed; he was from the port city of Chittagong, where flooding is usually much worse than in Dhaka. Most Bangladeshis, while complaining about inadequate drainage systems, poor maintenance of roads and bridges and corrupt public works officials, are resigned to annual flooding; their country, regularly submerged by water and lashed by monsoon storms from the Bay of Bengal, is on the front line of climate change. 

The UNICEF-sponsored workshop brought together 45 faculty, most of them from universities outside Dhaka, for three days of presentations and discussions on curriculum and research in communication for the development (C4D)--the final event in a six-month project in which our team has conducted a research study on what universities are already doing in the field, and made recommendations on how to strengthen capacity.  I had met some of the participants on two previous trips when I visited 11 institutions around the country and met almost 100 faculty.  They greeted me warmly, but I always had to apologize for not remembering their names or universities; somehow, name tags were not on the workshop to-do list. 

After a break of a couple of hours, the torrential rains resumed and the buckets came out again. The noise of the rain on the roof drowned out almost all sound in the room; even with the PA system, it was difficult to hear what presenters were saying.  But we were on a tight schedule and the show went on.  The rain eased off on the third and final day, just in time for the presentation of certificates by Abdul Manan, the UGC chair, a mild-mannered, affable and witty historian who, although he is a senior government official, lacks the pomposity that seems to infect many who reach this level. We assembled on the dais, with the Bangladesh UNICEF C4D chief, my friend Neha Kapil, and her number two, Yasmin Khan, reading the names.  With 45 certificates to hand out and the program running late, I had devised a traffic plan: participants would enter stage left for the presentation, handshakes and photo, and exit stage right where they picked up a flash drive with workshop materials.  It worked pretty well until the name-reading got a little ahead of the presentations and the participants started piling up stage left. Yasmin paused, and the traffic flow resumed.

The on-stage traffic snarl seemed appropriate for a city where, according to a report in the Dhaka Tribune, the average vehicle speed is seven km (less than five miles) per hour. Unlike in many other South and Southeast Asian cities, few Bangladeshis ride motorcycles; the roads are filled with cars, buses, trucks, auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws and vans (tricycles with a short bed for carrying cargo or building materials). Lane discipline is not part of driving culture; vehicles dodge, weave and cut across oncoming traffic, with collisions missed by important inches. Traffic signals and stop signs are roadside ornaments.  “These traffic lights were a bad investment for Bangladesh,” Yasmin told me. “No one obeys them.” The buses look as if they have run the gauntlet, with battered panels and shattered windscreens, but sport upbeat slogans: “God bless you with his love. Have a nice tour” or “For luxury stay.”

In Dhaka, the rush hour has turned into a rush day--you can be snarled in traffic at 2:00 p.m. or 11 p.m.  By the same token, traffic flow seems totally unpredictable.  Leaving at 5:00 p.m. from UGC, we made it back to the hotel one day in less than half an hour; the next day, the same journey took 90 minutes.  From a writer’s perspective, the main benefit of getting stuck in traffic is being able to read (and having time to write down) the entertaining commercial  signs-- Decent Sanitaryware, Bengal Foam (a clothing store), Aluminium World, Dominous Pizza, Green University. In the upscale Gulshan 2 area, where many expatriates live, the real estate developers compete for pretentiousness: Navana Real Estate, Different, Dependable, Definitive. Definitive? Dhaka has several large military bases, their entrance gates graced with an assortment of military hardware—fighter planes, naval patrol boats, tanks and armored personnel carriers, and banners exhorting young people to join up.  Some sport slogans: the army engineering base on the airport road welcomes visitors to “Sapper’s Dell—Disciplined, Efficient, Loyal, Laborious.”  Laborious?  I think they mean hard-working. 

The UGC is on Statistics Road, prosaically named for the Central Bureau of Statistics a few doors down along a wide dirt road, where bicycle rickshaws weave among the potholes.  As we jogged along it in an Uber, Amy said she thought it was aptly named. In statistical research, she noted, you have to wade through potholes and garbage to get to the other side.

The Ascott Palace is in Baridhara, or, to give it its full name, the Baridhara Diplomatic Zone.  It’s really a large gated community, separated from the commercial district of Gulshan 2 by a lake, and from the busy Jamuna Future Park Road by a large wall.  There are only two entrances, both with security checkpoints where construction workers, street cleaners and service staff line up each morning to show their entry permits.  I use the word “security” loosely, because the guards usually do not stop traffic to ask for papers; however, you have to weave between concrete roadblocks to enter.  In the zone, traffic is light.  That’s partly because there are no commercial businesses—only apartment blocks, hotels and most of the embassies.  The US Embassy—or Fortress America, as I like to call it--an ugly red-brick string of buildings, is technically outside the zone, across the road from one checkpoint, but it has high walls and security cameras; at night the sidewalk outside is closed to pedestrians.  For the convenience of visa-seekers, the Canadian High Commission is just down the street; if the Americans won’t give you a visa, you can try next door.  Inside the zone, every embassy and apartment block has armed guards; police in camouflage fatigues and semi-automatic weapons are deployed at key locations.

Fortunately, it’s only a 10 minute walk from Baridhara to Gulshan 2.  In between the boutiques, Italian restaurants, European bakeries and coffee shops, you find the real Bangladesh.  On the roadside or under tarpaulins, people selling fruits and vegetables and tailors with their sewing machines, ready to make quick repairs, hole-in-the-wall pharmacies, copy shops and grocery stores, tea stalls, drivers napping on the beds of their bicycle vans or playing a board game with pebbles. Because it’s now almost impossible in the US to get shoes repaired, I packed my Birkenstock sandals, hoping to get them resoled.  Down an alley, I found a cobbler, squatting under a tarpaulin. He examined the soles, pulled out a length of rubber and indicated where he would cut and replace the sole.  An hour later, the work was done. “How much?” I asked.  He shrugged.  I offered 200 taka. He looked a little disappointed so I added 100 more. That’s about $3.50.  He smiled and shook my hand.