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Wednesday / May 22.
HomemitwocentsStuck in the Poverty Trap

Stuck in the Poverty Trap

Natural talent may abound in Bangladesh, but for millions scrambling to break through the poverty trap, a shortage of fundamental services like eye care prevents those talents from ever being realised, writes Geoff Lawson.

This month the travelogue comes from another nation of the sub-continent as the call of more involvement in cricket lured me from Sydney’s winter to the summer heat and humidity of west Bengal.

Bangladesh, like India and Pakistan has the sport of cricket as the central theme of its recreation and culture. From 1947 to 1971, until the bloody civil war, the nation was known as East Pakistan. The repercussions of the war crimes committed and the relationships broken, are still being felt in this crowded land of 150 million souls. Many of Pakistan’s current military chiefs and the more fundamental elements of the infamous ISI (Pakistan’s CIA equivalent) were central players in the civil war. They still peddle their influence and prejudices today.

Poorest Nation

Bangladesh rates as one of the poorest nations on the planet. It has the earth’s highest population density on a land mass roughly equal to Victoria. The average height above sea level of the entire nation is two metres. Global warming and its repercussions should worry the hell out these people, but in
my nearly four week stint with the Benglas I did not hear or read of a single reference to carbon footprints
or greenhouse gas emissions.

He was told be could wear the contactlenses for four months

I did experience several days of general strikes (hartals), where the opposition parties called the working public to down tools in protest of government policies. Those disputed policies included the latest sanctioning of U.S. oil interests to explore the Bay of Bengal and insufficient reference in the constitution to the observance of Islamic culture. The government dismissed these demands as politics only and rejected the religious overtures in a country that is 95 per cent Muslim. Hundreds were arrested and 50 or so injured during the hartels, which sometimes ran 48 hours continually.

The chief whip of the opposition had the shirt ripped from his back and was flogged with lahtis (cane truncheons) by the police in front of the parliament building. To this, the government gave its imprimatur as he had “…touched a policeman” (when defending his cranium no doubt). The likes of this action, we in Australia have not seen since the anti-apartheid protests on the 1971 Springbok tour, or the Vietnam protests before that.

We were told not to leave our premises

for fear of being pinpointed as strike breakers and having our vehicle stoned, so we left for the national stadium from our digs in the diplomatic zone at 5.30am… The protesters were still napping at that time! The upside was the traffic was much lighter.

Eventually the public could not afford to miss any more work and the hartals began losing their support and effectiveness. No work, no pay was hitting the back pockets and stomachs hard.

Crowded and Chaotic

At an educated guess, the principal city
of Dhaka holds approximately 22 million; the same population as Australia.

I wrote recently about the traffic issues of Mumbai and the need for rail lines in Sydney to get cars off the roads. In Dhaka the traffic simply crawls from A to B like a viscous liquid filling every available edifice as it fights its way through, over and around pedestrians and superfluous traffic signals and officials. The buses
are crammed tight and there are often as many passengers attached to the outside as there are inside. The air quality is poor with so many ageing vehicles constantly on the road spewing gases, greenhouse, noxious, visible, unseen, dangerous and otherwise.

Unlike India and Pakistan where the auto rickshaw and motorbikes rule the roads, in Dhaka the common or household variety of rickshaw is ubiquitous. Rickshaws in central Sydney would solve all of the CBD mobility problems with zero emissions and practical obesity control. For a few taka (about 70 to an AUD$1) you can be ridden several kilometres by a struggling 50kg local peddling his arse off to make a living.

The rickshaw drivers have an ambivalent attitude to picking up foreigners – they will often get paid many times the local fee but the calorie rich visitors are sometimes twice or three times the weight of the indigenous fare payer. When two goras (foreigners/whities) hopped on a rickshaw outside the stadium the other day the chalok (driver) was horrified… he lasted 400 metres before requesting we split up!

Optical Care Wanting

India and Pakistan have a good number of quality optical professionals and outlets; Bangladesh incredibly less so. One of the national team players came to me seeking advice on his current eye problem. He had been hit by a cricket ball with the attendant bruising and swelling. The complicating factor was the diagnosed punctate keratitis at the local hospital. He also had questions about his new prescription and spectacles, which he said he found trouble batting with.

In terms of comfort alone, it wasn’t surprising – there are no sports frames available, the specs must be worn under a helmet, and perspiration is a huge issue in the tropical climate.

He was -0.75 sphere in each eye which prima facie shouldn’t have caused too many vision issues but the kicker was that he had tried some contact lenses. The keratitis followed soon after, so I did some extrapolating. He had bought them over the counter in an “optical store” many of which I had passed on the main streets. There, he was told he could wear the contact lenses for four months!

This young man was trying to make a living by playing cricket. But his chances of getting into the national team where the rewards, at AUD$25,000, are lucrative by Bangladeshis standards were slipping away. He’d been told to rest until given the doctor’s all clear, and therefore had limited opportunity to be selected in the squad for the upcoming tour.

He was frantic about the delay and the fact that neither his specs nor his contact lenses were providing him with the level of vision he needed to play an elite sport. I couldn’t reassure him about much at all – I was there to teach fast bowling and had no instruments for any degree of exam.

There was no contact lens specialist in the whole of Dhaka. Ophthalmologists with plenty on their plates were the sole avenue for a qualified ocular examination and therefore, the aftercare factor for any contact lens patient was virtually zero. This could be the end of a promising cricket career and perhaps the start of a long haul peddling a rickshaw… all for the want of a good optical practice.