Reclaiming People’s Rights to Public Services and Natural Resources

A Seminar was held today (January 30, 2008) at the Women’s Voluntary Association auditorium in Dhaka titled “Reclaiming People’s Rights to Public Services and Natural Resources,” as part of the programs scheduled for the 2008 Global Economic Justice Forum currently taking place.

Ahmed Swapan Mahmud, executive director of VOICE, moderated the seminar, which began with a presentation on Access to Natural Resources by Rubayat Ahsan, Research fellow, VOICE. Sardar Arif Uddin, Team Leader of Action Aid Bangladesh, Ms. Aude Leroux-Levesque, VOICE Communications Intern, Dr. Piash Karim, Professor of Economics and Sociology at BRAC University, also presented speeches in the seminar.

Dr. Piash Karim protested against the privatization of major industries like jute and water. He warned against the privatization of WASA as it will turn an essential service into a business for profit, just like what happened in many African countries. He said that it is possible to reclaim ownership over the land and forests with a democratic government that is participatory and accountable. The struggle for rights to public services is a global struggle, he said, citing many examples from the past 100 years of similar injustices.

Ahmed Swapan lamented the inadequate budget allocation in the health sector, which is putting access to health out of reach for the poor. The privatization of basic services such as water and education, and social injustice, is causing the people to suffer. He cited the example of the controversial Asian Energy coal mine in Phulbari as one such injustice, and called for fair rights and wages for laborers, garment workers and the workforce in general. He also mentioned the Magurchora gas field explosion, which caused billions of taka in damages and untold environmental damage. As a nation, we can overcome these injustices and succeed in our struggle, he added.

Mr. Sardar Arif Uddin, Team Leader of Action Aid Bangladesh, spoke out against the culture of unjust and discriminatory practices, and the exploitation of the country’s people by International Financial Instituations (IFIs), funded projects and companies. The state is relinquishing control of health services to companies, he said, who are implementing policies that further marginalize groups such as the elderly and the poor. The private sector is shaping the market perception to a more company-oriented mindset, away from the state, he added.

He also called for a separation of the concepts of health and treatment, explaining that we need to work on causes of bad health, which is connected to social issues, rather than treatment, which is a strategy of private companies. He said that the imposition of contraceptives on women would increase profits for private pharmaceutical companies. He also mentioned the need to raise income and reduce income erosion, so that the government may transfer tax funds into public services. He also objected to the Sundarban biodiversity project being shut down, saying it was just one of many failed projects funded by the ADB, along with the micro-credit program for indigenous people. The shrimp-farming project greatly damaged biodiversity in the region.

Mr. Rubayat Ahsan, presented comprehensive data on land and water resources, forests and fisheries showing that years of neglect have depleted these natural resources and destroyed a once-vibrant biodiversity in the country. The government should ensure access to health and education services are provided in line with international human rights standards, he said.

Ms. Aude Leroux-Levesque pointed out the irony in the fact that social and economic injustices on a global level keep multiplying even as we become more and more aware of what is happening. She said that communication technologies, such as the internet, have the potential to mobilize and unite the people across borders in the struggle for people’s rights.

Mr. Swapan concluded the seminar by reiterating the need for unity in the struggle for basic rights. Economic growth alone does not translate into true development, he stated. The seminar was well attended by members of the CSOs, NGOs, Trade union groups, Rights activists, and journalists, and many participants from different community organizations offered their opinions.