Dr Gareth Stanton was in Bangladesh in early April for a conference that marked the conclusion of a three-year collaboration between our Department and the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka (currently having its 50th anniversary!). The conference was held on the 12th and 13th April at that university’s Centre for Advanced Research (CARS).
The focus for the conference was ‘Communication, Environment and Cultural Change’. Over the two days, participants heard papers addressing a wide variety of themes from reactions to cyclone events in Bangladesh to coverage of environmental issues in the local press in the Sundarbans, home of the Royal Bengal Tiger and a unique mangrove-based eco-system. Various environmental pressures on the region mean that important tree species are dying and salinity levels are changing. The historical role of protecting the region’s population from the effects of cyclonic activity has been steadily eroded in a part of the world that is already living on an environmental knife-edge. The Chair of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh (FEJB), Quamrul Islam Chowdhury, spoke at the conference about the way in which environmental reporting in the Bangladeshi press has become increasingly displaced by political journalism and opinion. This is especially clear in the current political climate where a political stand-off between the two leading political parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP,) has led to a series of national strikes (hartals) and the months of February and March witnessed what some have seen as the equivalent of the ‘Arab Spring’ in central Dhaka’s Shahbag district.
In the wake of the on-going war crimes trials in Bangladesh, thousands of demonstrators have been on the streets calling for the death penalty for ‘razakars’, an Urdhu word for volunteers, but here in Bangladesh the term for those who collaborated with the military forces of East Pakistan during the 1971 War of Liberation. The Shahbag protestors have often been youthful and techno-savvy using social media and blogging to share their views and messages. After what was seen by some as initial government support, there has been an Islamacist backlash with demands being made for the reintroduction of segregated education at all levels and the death penalty for blaspheming bloggers. The day after the conference was over it was the Bangla New Year, Pahela Baishakh. Amid the joyful crowds and general celebration there was an apparent tension and the theme of the annual parade put on by students of the University’s Arts Faculty was a ‘razakar’-free Bangladesh. Some of this year’s wonderful floats made by the students themselves presented this theme. Behind all the politics, however, the environmental threats remain very real. One paper at the conference presented the results of earthquake modelling for Dhaka based on knowledge of building resilience across sections of both the old and new city. Tremors in excess of eight Richter’s would in all likelihood see many buildings collapse totally and cause casualties in the millions. The news of the terrible tragedy at Rana Plaza in Sava just outside Dhaka gives a terrible intimation of the havoc a large-scale earthquake would actually cause as well as shining a light on the conditions in Bangladesh’s massive garment industry.