Flash floods have been a regular feature in low-lying areas of even capital Dhaka.
©bdnews24.com/Muhammad Mostafigur Rahman
I have always taken great pride in identifying myself as a citizen of Bangladesh. Our rich history and the culture of struggle in defence of our rights — our right to our own language, our right to decide who will provide leadership to us, our right to express our opinions, the different movements and popular uprisings which eventually led to the creation of our own land, Bangladesh – all of this has been unique in any history behind the rise of nations anywhere.
Even when we have had successive hiccups in our own governance systems, starting with the assassination of the founding father of our country, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the killing in prison of four national leaders instrumental in the creation of the government-in-exile in 1971, followed by the successive military and quasi military governments that seized the state, the murder of yet another president, General Ziaur Rahman, the people of this land have resisted and changed systems which always have tended to turn autocratic. Ironically, the very people who have been the mainstay in all our struggles, the catalysts for change as it were, end up losing their primacy, are no longer important, no longer need to be taken into consideration. Somehow, the aftermath of each new success that the nation has achieved, has always been followed somehow by a seeming apathy, a lack of action in ensuring that the process that people fought for remains in place. That accountability and true democracy are a given right, a birthright of the citizens of a land that was carved out through the active participation of its people, is an idea often surrendered at the soggy altar of opportunism. Broken dreams are scattered all over the place.
Since the Pakistan occupation army conceded defeat and surrendered, clearing the way for Bangladesh to emerge as a sovereign nation-state on 16 December 1971, people across the spectrum of this land have engaged themselves in the rebuilding of this war-torn, devastated nation. I take great pride in having been one of the early pioneers, especially as a woman, which was a rarity then, in working and living in remote rural areas with the most disadvantaged and marginalised communities. And they were communities, particularly the women among them, that taught me firsthand how development as conceived of by the urban educated and primarily male elites did not elicit the intended results, nor did it reach those people who were meant to be the real beneficiaries of these efforts. What came out very strongly was that until and unless people themselves took up their own responsibilities and learnt to negotiate their space as equal citizens with the same rights and entitlements as all others, unless they convinced themselves that there were no constitutionally based differences in class, gender, ethnicity, beliefs or social positions, development could and would be subject to manipulation and lead to corruption and mismanagement. We understood that the basic tenets of human rights could be violated with impunity unless people themselves took it upon themselves to be the real actors in the development process. For me, these realities set the agenda for what development should be.
We discuss climate refugees. Who are climate refugees? Bangladesh has had a long history which has been amply reflected in much of our literature, our songs, the folklore of people affected by river erosion, floods, cyclonic storms, typhoons, tornadoes.
I realised early on, before the word ‘gender’ gained the wide appeal it now has in development language, that patriarchy in its many forms was firmly entrenched not only in the minds of men but in those of women as well. Separate efforts had to be made toward addressing this issue. Unfortunately, all the above lessons that those of us privileged to have had such close interaction with peoples were able to imbibe, were ideas we rarely had had much chance to dwell on or experience earlier as students. The sadness is that those ideas still remain unfulfilled. Not ignored, but unfulfilled. I use the plural, peoples, deliberately, as they are more than one set of concerns, experiences, issues and problems that each group and category faces. That is why it is so important now to understand the word Intersectionalities. We now need to learn to understand this new concept and its implications on people and situations.
Out of this experience a new concern arose, both globally but resounding soundly with us in Bangladesh, and the concern centred on the environment, on the need to ensure the protection of nature’s resources and their continuity. Globally, the term Climate Change became the new buzzword. How much of it was a result of understanding truly what it meant, how much was related to negotiating space and whether this too had a connection with the concept of Intersectionality were and are thoughts that have been paramount. Since the first World Summit in Rio on Environment and Climate Change in 1992 and subsequent conferences on this issue, much has been written. The discussion has manifested itself in many angles. The scientific, in terms of understanding the changes that are occurring either as a result of interventions or as a consequence of changes in time and space. The political, such as who is to be held responsible for reducing emissions. Do the nations that have the most emissions have a responsibility to reduce emissions, or simply pay for those countries such as Bangladesh and other low lying countries, the island states, etc., to be able to ‘help’ people most affected to learn to ‘adapt’? The debate on ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ continues. And then comes the economic. Do nations or international players for that matter have the right to pursue development without taking into consideration the ecological factors, the environmental consequences of each action or intervention? Does Intersectionality play a role in determining who are benefited by these interventions and in what ways? Do the impact and effects of climate change have a gendered dimension? A class dimension? A geographical dimension?
We discuss climate refugees. Who are climate refugees? Bangladesh has had a long history which has been amply reflected in much of our literature, our songs, the folklore of people affected by river erosion, floods, cyclonic storms, typhoons, tornadoes. The river is a major part of our lives, both a boon, a blessing and a demon, a curse. This is centuries old. So, do those affected by the vagaries of nature now suddenly get classified as climate refugees? To an extent yes, except we did not know of the term then, many years back. What about economic refugees, then? When prime agricultural land, when mangrove forests and other coastal or fragile ecosystems and space are acquired by commercial interests for their own business and profits, such as special economic zones, export-oriented shrimp farming, ship-breaking industries, coal-fired power plants through evicting people from their own lands and we turn around and say they are climate refugees, are we not then misusing as also abusing the term? When climate funds are set up either nationally or globally, every nation, such as ours, tries to get the most from these funds. We use the term loosely and justify the need for the use of such funds often to fund critically unsound and problematic projects in the name of Climate Adaptation.
I raise these questions here for us to debate and ponder. I hope that at some point it will be useful to have a clear, informed debate on the use and misuse of the impacts, the solutions and the intersectionalities around the concept of Climate Change. For me, setting the agenda for 2016 means a need to incorporate and encompass all these issues in their totality, not in the isolation of one from the other.
Khushi Kabir is a leading rights and developmental activist, and coordinator of One Billion Rising campaign in Bangladesh.