The main opposition party BNP has once again called upon a hartal, this time on 30th November. The leaders of this respected party are claiming that this strike is meant to ensure basic human rights for the people of Bangladesh. But such a claim is clearly a smoke screen for BNP’s protest against the government for snapping away the residence of Begum Khaleda Zia. BNP’s first hartal for this reason was observed right after Begum Zia was forced to leave her cantonment house. That brought great suffering to the those who were left home-bound instead of going to their kith and kin to celebrate Eid. After 2 weeks the opposition party has announced a second hartal for this very personal issue and the third one in total after AL took power.
Hartal is used as the last resort by opposition parties throughout the globe, when all other ways to get their demands fail. Although the economic and social consequences of such drastic measures are debated in national and local news media and at public forums with monotonous regularity, opposition politicians claim they have no alternative but to recourse to fight the intransigence and deaf ear of the party in power. This story has become a common scenario for both the parties.
Hartal is not simply an inconvenience and a nuisance, it is tantamount to a call for an “economic boycott” of our own goods and services by our own politicians during the period hartals are in effect. In stronger words, one may regard the calls for hartals as an act of constitutionally sanctioned economic terrorism. Why should we not regard the call for a hartal an act of economic terrorism when the citizens of a free country (buyers, sellers, shop-owners, factory workers, business executives, transportation workers, students, and academic institutions, etc.) are forced to stay out of their normal and routine activities for fear of retribution and physical harm? Reluctant shop-keepers and innocent bystanders lose properties and many even get killed by hartal-enforcing hooligans.
If we analyze the history of Bangladesh we will see that hartals are called by major political parties when they lose their grip on positions of power. Once an opportunity opens up with the offering of a new government contract, or some private entrepreneur taking an initiative for major investment, the ministers and the entire government machinery including the lending bank officials line up to get a share of what can be grabbed from the project. These are the same politicians who get involved in hartals and lockouts when they switch from a position of power to one of powerlessness.
But the question is: can hartal deliver in democracy of Bangladesh? Political protests, open political dialogue and debate are the fundamental rights of citizens of a free society. But how can politicians promise citizens a better economic future if their acts themselves are directed towards destroying the economic fabric and infrastructure of the country they want to rule? Of course, the blame for loss of output and welfare due to recurrent calls for hartals rests equally on both the major political parties. Both the leading parties have kept the National Parliament inactive, which is the highest house of this country for political dialogue. But when the opposition party always boycotts parliamentary sessions, the government can take any decision at its sweet will. And as a consequence, the opposition bench calls upon hartal out of nowhere.
UNDP report on the economic loss due to hartals claims the loss of 3 to 4 percent of annual GDP, apparently causing discomfort in some circles. Leaving aside any contentions about the precise measure of the loss of economic output and the magnitude of the parameter reflecting the negative effects of hartals, one must recognize that the GDP does not provide an accurate measure of the welfare of the people. The GDP measure does not reflect the welfare loss brought about by the inconveniences, hardships and anxieties the citizens have to withstand during the periods of hartals and thereafter. The GDP loss would be further aggravated when one considers the measure of discouragement for foreign investments, potential loss exports and imports due to delays in productions and distribution.
Hartals and the concomitant loss of output and welfare may seem as being a short-term phenomenon by the hartal-callers. Political instability is probably the most important discouraging factor for foreign investment and capital inflow. Political instability not only drives away foreign investment, it discourages domestic investors and encourages capital outflow. In a capitalist and free market economy, sources of funds for business investment and expansion depend on the strength and efficiency of its financial market.
Unfortunately, even after 39 years of its existence as an independent country, the financial market in Bangladesh is still in a primitive state. Because of recurrent hartals and rampant corruption, public distrust in corporate accounting and finance, business conditions are not congenial to stock market activities. Profitability of businesses is already cut by bribes to government ministers and officials even before factories are built and operational. If businesses are not profitable and the factors that foster economic growth are hindered by hartals, lockouts and corruption, the financial market will remain ineffective to generate sources of funds for business expansion and cease to function efficiently. Thus, hartals have long-term political and bleak economic implications.
The most immediate effects of hartals are loss of many daily essentials worth millions of taka which are perishable unless refrigerated or cold-stored. A small fisherman whose catches are for daily sales, a small farmer whose produce, such as vegetables and dairy products, are ready to be traded for purchase of his daily essentials cannot afford to lose their sales. The next day when the hartal is called off, there is bound to be shortage of these daily necessities. The public rushes to buy whatever they can get, driving prices up. High prices do not revert back in days to come and the result is an economy-wide inflationary pressure. Day laborers lose their wages and are thrown into uncertainty about post-hartal employment. Loss of work and income throws them into further financial ruin and poverty. If hartals bring misery to the public, how can such tactics gain widespread public support for political and economic reform?
Democracy provides the forum for reasoned and thoughtful political dialogue and public discourse. Resorting to violent means such as damaging and burning private and public properties during hartals to voice dissatisfaction against the policies of the party in power is becoming increasingly common and the citizens have already started showing their annoyance and non-compliance. Hartal is a political tool to be used only when everything else fails and the issues raised are popular public concerns and demands. If the objective for calling hartals is to make the party in power unpopular and dysfunctional, then such calls and political protests are better motivated by those issues the citizens are struggling with on a daily and hourly basis. Some of these issues are corruption, health care, money laundering, politicians’ family members investing and transferring money to foreign countries, deteriorating law and order situations, lack of clean and safe drinking water, road side city garbage disposal, and shortage of electricity, etc.
Bringing remedies and reforms to these issues will improve ordinary citizens’ life and living and at the same time awaken the voters to the lack of concern of the party in power. Issues concerning political reforms, law and parliamentary affairs must at first be debated on the floor of the parliament. The party in power must allow open and timely forum for the opposition parties to voice their opinions and arguments. Hartals and protests may be warranted when the opposition is denied such a forum.
Democratically elected politicians in power are not obliged to listen to the voices on the streets but to the voters who elect them. Neither the Awami League (AL) nor the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) is going anywhere in our national politics. Personal, mutual dislikes between the leaders of the two parties and the acrimonious atmosphere they have created among the politicians of the country seem to have reached an irretrievable point. The politics of personal destruction and dislikes has made the democratic process blatantly farcical and Bangladesh has become an object of jokes and ridicules in late night comedy shows on Western television. It is well past the time that they attempt to reconcile and work towards harmonious coexistence for the greater cause of the people.
The time to think about the socio-economic environment of Bangladesh has come. So, why not observe a “hartal” against corruption and hartal itself?