ANY visitor to Bangladesh cannot miss the massive infrastructure projects, especially roads and highways, dotting its landscape.
Despite its slow crawl to modernity, Bangladesh still served up a series of eye-opening experiences about deprivation that jolted me out of my comfort zone.
The horrendous traffic snarl was one such nerve-racking encounter.
Bangladesh’s highways radiating from Dhaka are built to handle some 200,000 cars at any one time but an influx of a million more and the inflow of another half million rickshaws ensure that its roads are perennially bursting at their seams, a veritable chaos of humans and vehicles seeking to go somewhere but heading nowhere!!
It is easy to empathise with the daily sufferings endured by the commuter let alone the shorthanded traffic policemen who are poorly equipped to handle the bedlam.
Pedestrians, deprived of amenities such as underpasses and overhead bridges to cross traffic- choked roads, risk life and limb as they run the gauntlet to scamper across the road.
It’s small wonder then that a short journey would take hours, a trip made worse by the time wasted in navigating potholed roads and lanes, permanent scars left behind by the many heavy vehicles plying the superficially paved roads.
Travelling in Bangladesh was a nightmare of tricycle rickshaws jostling with motorised vehicles and pedestrians suspended in time as everything and everyone was reduced to a crawl in an atmosphere of noise, smog and dust.
Our destination, Mymensingh, a city located on the banks of Brahmaputra to the north of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, was a three-and-half-hour journey by car through a landscape of rice fields interspersed by fish ponds, ramshackle hamlets and hovels.
The nerve centre of a fishing economy, Mymensingh’s population of five million are primarily housed in slums where sanitation and waste disposal facilities are scarce.
And that insight itself served as a premonition of what awaited us at the Brahmaputra coastal village community.
PURPOSE OF VISIT AND THE ENGAGEMENT PROCESS
The Aug 18-21 programme kicked off after breakfast prepared by the BAU International House chefs.
Our team consisted of Prof Datuk Aileen, Syazira Osman accompanied by the Bangladesh Agriculture University (BAU) team comprising the head of the fisheries department, Prof Fatema, Prof Md Mokhter, Prof Zoader Farooq and students of the faculty.
We proceeded to the Brahmaputra coastal village, where we had a dialogue with the locals to find out the problems faced by the community.
It was an eye-opening experience as many of us were insulated from the hardships experienced by the poor.
The rural squalor, the untreated effusion of both animal and human waste, the lack of access to water and proper sanitation, and the derelict, makeshift huts that its denizens called homes left a montage of human suffering on our psyche.
Over 15 families came out to share their plight.
Their problems revolved around continuous sand dredging and over-fishing which led to a loss of income.
These twin problems were compounded by the use of obsolete fishing equipment that resulted in a meagre catch thus rendering fishing an unviable source of income.
HOW USM CAN PLAY AN EMPOWERING ROLE
Universiti Sains Malaysia can alleviate the problems besetting the Brahmaputra coastal village community by developing a strategic engagement plan that will equip local leaders with the resources they need to build the requisite economic capacity for their community.
USM aims to adopt a strategic engagement plan while familiarising itself with the dynamics of the impoverishment in the target community.
This community visit programme is the first step to facilitate engagement, the setting of common goals within a structured framework, designed to access resources that will assist them in becoming self-sufficient.
USM had conceptualised a poverty-eradication project that seeks to increase incomes in a sustainable and viable manner.
Since fishing is no longer a viable form of livelihood, it is recommended that a three-pronged approach targeting the female cohort of the Brahmaputra coastal village community be adopted.
This approach should focus on:
CAPACITY-BUILDING for women in the community in textile and agrobased processing skills;
COMMUNITY joint ventures centred on textile manufacture sub-contracting; and
VALUE-ADDED initiatives that seek to turn existing agricultural and fishing produce into marketable products.
Overall, the visit was an insightful experience into the unpredictability and variation of existence that poverty-stricken societies are often subjected to.
It is hoped that the USM Brahmaputra Community Empowerment project will not only ensure the economic upliftment of the hitherto deprived Brahmaputrans but will also ensure their access to improved standards of living.
The writer is director of Community Network, Division of Industry and Community Network, Universiti Sains Malaysia