Irony of ironies, Ripon Kumar Das of Faridpur, once a budding footballer who was selected to attend a special training program at no less a citadel of the sport than Manchester United Football Club (MUFC) just eight years ago, is today earning his keep as a sweeper - just not the kind granted the liberty of roaming the football pitch a la Franz Beckenbauer, but rather one of the most neglected and lowly occupations in the country.
People involved with football in his locality think that wrong decisions in terms of career choices made for him by the District Sports administration and Bangladesh Football Federation has forced this situation on him.
Ripon used to play football in the village field from his childhood and his passion for football drew many people’s attention from a young age. As years passed by, he dreamt to be a footballer.
Panta Das, mother of Ripon, said “Ripon is the eldest son of my two sons. My younger son Tapan is too young to do anything. So Ripon had to follow his father’s footsteps and become a cleaner. If not, we would have faced starvation.”
Nazmul Islam Khandaker Levy, general secretary of Faridpur District Sports Organisation, said a 12-member team of budding youngsters in their early to mid-teens, including Ripon, had been chosen from across the country to go train for 10 days at Manchester United’s famous Carrington facility in 2012. The trip was facilitated by Airtel, the mobile network that has since been merged into Robi Axiata.
During those ten days, the young boys got footballing tips from members of the MUFC playing squad, as well as coaching staff. After returning to the country, he had to return to his home district Faridpur due to lack of supervision by BFF, Ripon said.
Later, he joined as a sweeper at Faridpur Road and Highways Department for maintaining his family, he added. Even then, after finishing his routine work, he would always find his way back to his field of dreams, the local football field, where none could take the ball off his feet.
Pranab Kumar Mukharjee, coach of the District Football team, said “Ripon has a passion for football and whenever he got a chance he went to the ground for practice purpose. He still has a dream to be the best football player in the country.”
Abul Kashem Bhola, general secretary of Faridpur Football Association, said “Very few footballers as talented as Ripon are found in the country. If BFF had played its role properly (of cultivating talents), he would not have to do this job.”
Bhola still believes Ripon will get opportunities to fulfill his promise.
“I am working as a sweeper due to poverty and I do this thinking about my parents. I had a wish to be a popular football player. When in England, renowned footballers (including the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Wes Brown and others) trained us and they taught us how to play better, but on returning to the country there was no opportunity to put what we learned into practise.”
Like the true footballer he is at heart, and certainly with his feet, if not by his occupation, Ripon only wishes to use his skills on the field to bring joy to the people watching.
“If luck smiles, the government shows some initiative, then maybe I will be able to please the spectators on the field with the ball again,” he said.
For as long as almost anyone can remember, Nilkhet in the heart of the capital has been known as the hive of bookworms, where students, academics, publishers, booksellers and photocopy shops meshed together in an informal industry unto itself.
Often it has been said, that there is literally nothing, yes literally nothing you cannot find in Nilkhet. If there is, produce it - and one of the photocopiers will sort you out just fine, with an offer you cannot refuse.
Since March however, the deadly and indiscriminate strike of the COVID-19 pandemic has also served to cripple this cutthroat market-meets-noisy library, and its charming used books corner, nestled slightly apart from the main market, where you were as likely to find the complete works of Honore de Balzac as obscure histories of BAKSAL.
Thankfully however, a group of young and enterprising connoisseurs is determined to defy the curse of the virus on their reading habit, by helping some of the countless sellers who own the individual stores that make up Nilkhet get into the ever-growing online marketplace for books.
Gronthomongol, a project of the Pashe Achi Initiative (Standing With) stemmed from when co-founders Tahmid Hasan and Rafiul Chowdhury witnessed two booksellers’ futile attempts at selling books streetside in a nearly empty Nilkhet - itself a scene hard to imagine.
“Back then we just supplied essential foods to the homeless as part of our humanitarian initiative,” Tahmid, also a student at nearby Dhaka University - an extremely important factor behind the Nilkhet legend - told UNB.
“We realized that these sellers who make ends meet for a negligible profit need to be helped out too. Some of them were even forced to sell their shops after going out of business...If this continues, bookshops in the area would gradually deplete and that will be unbearable for the country's book lovers.”
Initially, PAI bought books from those two sellers in bulk and started selling those at a fixed rate of Tk 200 through Facebook. Witnessing the overwhelming response they received, they soon rolled out the Gronthomongol project, with the specific aim of helping a greater number of Nilkhet booksellers stay in business.
“Earnings from these books are also spent on humanitarian causes. Initially, a part of the proceeds were used in helping underprivileged people who got hit hardest by the pandemic. Now we are also providing aid to flood-affected communities in different parts of the country,” Tahmid disclosed.
Having started in May, the project is currently working with over 50 of the bricks-and-mortar stores in the Nilkhet area. Other than volunteers of Pashe Achi Initiative, the project now employs jobless labourers for packaging and out-of-work ridesharing for delivering books.
Initially, the project only sold new books bought in bulk but now they are also collecting secondhand and rare books from the Nilkhet sellers. Apart from them, the Gronthomongol project often receives donated books from the buyers. Through the PAI Facebook page, they sell both academic books and the more literary kind.
Tahmid considers the project necessary to sustain the incomes of low-margin enterprises who clung on to small businesses before the coronavirus pandemic hit, and then were left without any income. Anybody who has been to Nilkhet will realize that ‘social distancing’ is one concept not found in any book ever sold in the market.
“It’s a question of survival and providing them with financial aid in this crisis period is in turn helping out the nation,” he said.
He also noted that although they started the project to support book stores, the ever-growing economic crisis caused by COVID-19 is still putting many of them out of business.
Pashe Achi Initiative is at present looking to expand project Gronthomongol, alongside their other humanitarian efforts throughout the country, the founders informed UNB. Currently, they are shipping books outside Dhaka at an added delivery charge of Tk 150, while delivery inside Dhaka is free.
In true Nilkhet style, they have an offer you cannot refuse.
Though it appears that the number of corona cases has marked a fall over last two weeks, health experts said the positive case rate is actually now higher than in the past as the transmission is gradually growing for lack of effective preventive measures.
They also said the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) has taken a ‘suicidal’ decision of reducing the number of daily corona tests in the country at a time when the infection rate is rising alarmingly.
According to them, many infected people are now out of detection and they are turning ‘super spreaders’ of the virus. And for this, they said, the country will enter a long transmission cycle, wreaking havoc on human health, society, economy and every sector.
However, DGHS authorities attributed the decline in the number of tests to change in the definition of recovery, discarding the follow-up or second tests, inclement weather or flooding in different areas, the imposition of test fees and people’s lesser concern over the virus infection.
The health experts said people’s confidence in the corona testing systems has eroded due to test scams by JKG and Regent Hospital, a complicated system for registration of test and delay in report delivery.
According to the DGHS, 3,533 confirmed coronavirus cases were detected during the past 24 hours as of Wednesday, increasing the total cases to 193,590.
It said 14,002 samples were tested in 79 labs across the country during the period and the infection rate is 25.23 percent while the infection rate is 19.75 percent against the tests carried out up to now. This has so far been the highest single-day positivity rate. The previous highest rate of 24.95 was also recorded two days back on Monday, manifesting the high transmission of the virus.
Contacted, Prof Dr Nasima Sultana, additional director general of the DGHS, said it is still not clear whether the virus infection has decreased or increased. “The current data shows the transmission has increased and the rate is gradually growing. “But this is also true that people are not undergoing unnecessary tests now. Only suspected people are coming for tests. So, it’s usual that the infection rate will be higher than the previous time.”
She said now they have the capacity to conduct over 20,000 tests every day, but people are showing little interest in giving their samples and it indicates that the virus may show a falling trend.
“Now we don’t conduct follow-up tests as the definition of recovery has changed. People in flood-hit areas also can’t properly undergo tests. It also seems people’s worry about the virus has decreased a lot. Earlier, the sample test was scheduled from 11am to 3pm. Even after 3pm, many people were seen standing in queues. But now no one is found after 1pm. So, the sample test has declined,” Nasima said.
But according to DGHS website data, around 23 lakh corona suspects have called the hotline numbers of the directorate expressing interest in the test over the last 13 days. Of them, only around 1.90 lakh people had been able to undergo tests.
A virologist at Dhaka Medical College said the testing system has been made harder discouraging people to avoid tests. “One has to register in advance for the online sample testing. Once the prescribed number is met, there is no chance of registration.”
Talking to UNB, Prof Nazrul Islam, former Vice Chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), said coronavirus transmission is still on the rise but the tests declined sharply over the last two weeks.
He said though a smaller number of samples have been tested, over 24 percent infection rate has been recorded for the few days. “It indicates the virus is still showing an uptrend.”
He voiced concern that the fall in the number of tests is only contributing to the spread of the virus since many infected people are remaining undetected, and they are freely moving everywhere.
Prof Nazrul Islam, also a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC), said the current daily poor testing rate does not represent the real corona situation in the country.
“It’s our bad luck that the fee on corona tests was imposed on July 2, and the number of tests started dropping from July 3. But there’s no alternative to increasing the number of tests and identifying the infected people to contain the virus transmission,” he observed.
Prof Nazrul said the country should conduct at least 25,000 sample tests every day to know about the genuine corona situation, and now it has that capacity as the number of laboratories has increased substantially.
The noted virologist said it is fact that people are also showing lower interest in undergoing the Covid test these days due to the imposition of a fee, providing false test reports, hassles in providing samples and delay in having test results. “People are losing confidence in the testing system due to JKG and Regent Hospital’s scams. People aren’t only less serious about the test, but also about wearing masks, social distancing and health hygiene rules. It’s a dangerous sign.”
Contacted, Prof Be-Nazir Ahmed, former director (disease control) of the DGHS, said, “The corona infection rate is still increasing in our neighbouring country, India, which was hit by the virus well before us. What we’ve done more than them that the virus would decline in our country! The main thing is that the test has declined at a time when the infection has increased.”
When Wari went under lockdown, he said, 50 percent people of the area who underwent tests found positive for the virus. “These are hidden patients. If we can’t trace the hidden patients, the infection will gradually rise. If we want to control the situation, we must scale up tracing, testing, isolation and quarantine across the country. Or else, it’ll enter a long transmission cycle, wreaking havoc on human health, society, economy and every sector.”
Prof Be-Nazir said the DGHS is either trying to hide the real scenarios or they do not have the capability and enough data about the corona transmission.
Students of Singpur Government Primary School in Mirpur upazila of Kushtia are deprived of sports and recreation facilities as the only playground of the school remains waterlogged for the better part of the school year.
During monsoon, the playground of the school turns into a waterbody as every corner of the ground is full to the brim. Anyone who visits the school for the first time in the rainy season can easily mistake it for a pond.
The field goes under water even in light rain, forcing the school children to refrain from playing and other recreation facilities.
The teachers and students also have to make it to the school building by crossing the stagnant water.
The students of the school as well as young people in the area who use it when school is out are getting frustrated at not being able to access the field.
In fact, all the school grounds in the union have the same picture.
Local people have claimed that every year, a minimum amount of money has been allocated for the development of the school playground but to no avail.
In the fiscal year 2019-20, Tk 43,000 was allocated for the development of the playground of the school but the reality is what people have seen for the last several years.
They also demanded immediate steps to develop the school playground for the interest of the young people. The more sports are practiced, the more they will stay away from distractions like drugs, they said.
Sufiya Khatun, Headmaster of Singpur Government Primary School, said “Tk 43,000 has been allocated for the filling of soil at the school ground in 2019-20 fiscal years, but it did not work though few sand-laden trolleys have been seen for covering the field.”
Masud Rana, Primary Education officer of Mirpur upazila, said “I have heard the matter and the headmaster of the school has been asked to inform me in a written statement.”
Abdul Khalek, Chairman of School Managing Committee, said “In every rainy season, the playground of the school went under water. Already, the authorities concerned have taken steps to cover the field which was not enough. However, it needs to be filled well.”
Mahabubur Rahman Mamun, Dhuboil Union Chairman, said steps will be taken to remove water from the school field.
Linkon Biswas, Upazila Nirbahi Officer, said “I have no idea about it but necessary steps will be taken to remove water from the school playground.”
Experts say the COVID-19 pandemic has dashed hopes of achieving the UN’s 2030 agenda to eradicate poverty through Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
COVID-19 has hit Bangladesh’s economy hard and threatens to derail the country’s impressive achievements in poverty reduction.
Economists say it’s not possible to achieve the index of SDGs by 2030 amid the slow economic activities in the wake of the pandemic which has left millions without jobs.
They called upon NGOs and the rich to come forward alongside the government to stand by the poor to help them cope with the rough situation.
Millions of new poor
South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) says Bangladesh's poverty rate may rise to 40.9 percent due to COVID-19. In addition to 34 million existing poor, according to government figures, in case of uplifting the poverty line income by 1.25 times, there are another 36 million people who are ‘non-poor’ but can be categorised as vulnerable.
Bangladesh Economic Association (BEA) said nearly 36 million people have lost jobs between March 26 and May 30 during the general holidays. Around 61 million people are currently working in the country’s job market. Nearly 59.5 million people moved into different class structures during this period, of which 25.5 million people became extremely poor, it said.
According to the latest survey of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), Bangladesh will have 16.4 million new poor in 2020 as the income of working-class in urban and rural areas has fallen sharply.
About 13 percent of people have become unemployed due to the pandemic. Under a post-lockdown optimistic scenario, the country’s overall poverty will increase by 25.13 percent, where rural poverty will be 24.23 percent and urban poverty will be 27.52 percent, it said.
BIDS Research Director Binayak Sen said they ran several scenarios - representing successive severity of lockdown - under the “wealth plus labour status” approach. In a scenario where there is an 80 percent drop in income for the labour class in urban areas and 10 percent drop in income for the labour class in rural areas in the ‘hard lockdown’ exercise, there would have 16.4 million new poor.
“If we consider a 25 percent higher poverty line, then an additional 16 to 20 percent of the population would be in poverty in rural and urban areas. If we update our age-old poverty line accordingly, it will result in a much higher poverty where rural poverty would be 45 percent, and urban poverty would be 36 percent,” he added.
The economist said, “We have two kinds of vulnerability in poverty - one relates to the risk of slippages of the near-poor into poverty, and the other pertains to the risk of slippages of the moderate poor into extreme poverty.”
Extreme poverty rate rising
According to a recent UN report, COVID-19 has pushed more than 250 million people to the brink of starvation and dashed hopes of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030. The pandemic has ended hopes of poverty eradication by 2030.
COVID-19 will push 176 million more people into extreme poverty, compounding long-standing neglect of low-income people, including women, migrant workers and refugees.
Executive Director of the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI) Dr Ahsan H Mansur said the poverty rate went up vastly in the country as millions lost jobs.
“The extreme poverty rate doubled from the existing 10.5 percent while the poverty rate went up 30 to 35 percent from the 20.5 percent as millions of people in the country lost jobs amid the COVID-19 fallout,” he said.
Dr Mansur said the government must take necessary steps to tackle the situation. Otherwise, it won’t be possible to overcome the situation in the next two years.
Executive Director of SANEM Dr Selim Raihan suggested undertaking some ‘politically feasible’ policy reforms in the areas of trade, tax, banking sectors; explore ways for generating resources (domestic and external) to support the fiscal stimulus and ease monetary policy measures; suspend LDC graduation target by at least three more years; raise voice at the global level to push the SDG target year from 2030 to 2035.
According to the announcement of the UN, the decline of global extreme poverty continues, but it has slowed. The deceleration indicates that the world is not on track to achieve the target of less than 3 percent of the world living in extreme poverty by 2030.
‘Implementing SDG indexes tough’
Talking to UNB, Dr Shamsul Alam, senior secretary and member of the General Economics Division (GED) of the Bangladesh Planning Commission, said several crore poor people can’t work following the Coronavirus fallout. “So, obviously, an impact fell in poverty rate temporarily,” he said.
Citing 2015 data, he said, 25 percent of the five crores poor are at risk all-time in Bangladesh because of climate change and other reasons.
“Now it must further increase in the situation. The number of poor people maybe 6 or 6.5 crore and the percent will be more than 30,” he added.
Dr Shamsul Alam said it’ll be very tough to implement SDGs indexes by 2030 due to the impact of COVID-19.
“Bangladesh is committed to bringing its poverty rate under ‘zero’ level and that means 3 percent to achieve SDGs by 2030. But it’ll be very tough now to implement due to the impact of Coronavirus,” he said.
The Ekushey Padak-2020 recipient urged the NGOs and rich people to come forward to help people affected by the pandemic.
“The government can’t tackle the existing impact of Coronavirus alone. So, NGOs and rich people have to come forward to help the affected the people to overcome the situation,” he told UNB.