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Frequent clashes cost millions and cause uproar

Poor hit hardest by strikes in Bangladesh

Frequent clashes cost millions and cause uproar
Many of the country's poor dread the constant political eruptions reporter, Dhaka

April 3, 2013

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Every time opposition political parties call a hartal – a general strike - Muhammad Jasim panics.

He provides for his family of six by driving an auto rickshaw through the busy Dhaka streets. A day without driving means a day without income, which has an immediate impact: the family misses out on at least one square meal.

But taking to the streets on a strike day is a daunting prospect. Deadly clashes between strikers and police, bomb blasts, arson, smashed vehicles and looted shops are commonplace. Vehicles tend to stay off the streets to avoid violence. As most schools and businesses also close, bringing normal public life to a halt, there are few fares anyway.

“During hartal there’s lots of violence on the streets and I’m really scared to drive. Picketers once smashed the glass of my vehicle and I narrowly escaped death,” said Jasim. He was speaking on Tuesday, a day when the 18-party opposition alliance enforced another 24 hour nationwide strike.

“On a hartal day we have much lower income. But the rickshaw owners force us to drive despite the risks to life. The owners and political parties are all same. They care little for us,” said Jasim.

Ariful Islam runs a tea stall at Kawran Bazar, one of Dhaka’s busiest business districts. He came to Dhaka last year, leaving behind a wife and two children who depend on the savings he sends home.

At first, he stayed open all day long in all circumstances. His courage went up in smoke when two crude bombs exploded near his shop during recent strikes.

“Closing means a big loss for poor people like me, but I also fear for my life, because if I die my family will become helpless,” he said.

Anti-government strikes are growing in frequency. A total nine days of strikes took place in March and started again on the second day of April. The ensuing violence has seen dozens of people killed including policemen, thousands injured and vehicles and property worth millions vandalized.

According to official estimates, a one-day strike costs the economy US$200 million.

And although the uproar might not be taking places on their streets, people in largely rural Bangladesh also suffer as a result of political agitation.

Mohsin Mian, 45, a farmer from Bogra district had a very good harvest of potatoes and tomatoes. Yet instead of making a profit he is counting his losses.

“Most of my produce has been wasted because when there’s a strike, it’s almost impossible to get a truck to carry goods to the market. Drivers fear that picketers will destroy their vehicles,” said Mian. He added that it could take him up to five years to recover from losses caused by recent strikes.

There are growing calls for laws to ban violent strikes. But both ruling and opposition parties are so far noncommittal about the issue.

“Political parties are only thinking of their own interests, to get into power. They don’t care,” said Mian.

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