Conversation with Hasnat Abdul Hye

Dhaka,  Fri,  22 September 2017
Published : 18 May 2017, 21:42:40

Conversation with Hasnat Abdul Hye

Hasnat Abdul Hye is a man with several credentials, having spent a short spell as a teacher at Dhaka University, then joining civil service from where he retired as secretary in 2000, and all along following his literary pursuits on the sidelines. He proved his mettle as a teacher and distinguished himself in civil service. More than as a civil servant, he is widely known as a writer of fiction, travel books, treatises on aesthetics and critical essays on social, political and economic issues both in Bengali and English. Books published by him number over 100 for which he received the Bangla Academy Prize in 1977 and Ekushey Padak in 1995. He started writing a column in the Bangladesh Observer in 1982 while still in service, captioned 'Dateline-Gram Bangla' which was widely read and appreciated for the insightful analysis of the rural scene. After retirement he devoted full time to writing and reading and wrote columns in several Bengali and English dailies emerging as a prominent columnist besides being a creative writer. 

Hasnat Abdul Hye turns 80 today (May 19) and in keeping with his wont to keep privacy does not want any public celebration of the occasion. Prof. Mustafizur Rahman, former Vice-Chancellor of People's University of Bangladesh and currently a professor at City University, Dhaka, had an intimate conversation with him on his life and works. The conversation is reproduced below: 

Prof. Mustafizur Rahman:  What is your feeling on the eve of your eightieth birthday which is a milestone in anyone's life ? 

Hasnat Abdul Hye: I do not observe my birthday so the eightieth birth anniversary to me is the beginning of just another year. Of course, I consider myself lucky to have a long life which made me a witness to many momentous events, and let me see the changing lifestyle in the country.

Question: Looking back what do you think are your achievements and failures ? I mean, how would you evaluate your life spent so far? 

Answer: I have had several incarnations in my life. The successes and failures have to be considered in their contexts. I began my career as a teacher at Dhaka University. Having studied economics in Dhaka, America and England I had prepared myself for academic life. But the social values prevailing in the then Pakistan put a premium on bureaucratic power and status. I left the academia before I could leave any permanent mark like publication of articles on economics. Though I spent eight long years studying economics, I left no legacy as a teacher. I consider that a failure. 

Question: What about your experience as a civil servant? Don't you consider yourself  as a successful civil servant ?

Answer: Success in civil service means following prescribed rules, established procedures and what Max Weber described as 'precedent'. A civil servant considers himself successful if the prescribed rules and regulations are observed while discharging duties. It requires hard and sincere work no doubt, but there is no sense of creativity or originality in what one does. A successful civil servant merely maintains continuity by repeating what others have done before. There is no scope for innovation to bring about qualitative change according to his ideas. He is the proverbial cog in the Leviathan of bureaucracy. This is what makes administrative reforms so difficult. Bangabandhu tried to change the colonial type of administration through district governorship that would have democratised administration along with decentralisation but his cruel assassination nipped the reform measure in the bud. When I was secretary in Local Government Division our ministry tried to strengthen local bodies giving them more power and autonomy. Other ministries were lukewarm about it and so the recommendations went into the cold storage. |The frustration of not being able to initiate any change in the status quo gives a sense of failure which I experienced on more than one occasion.

Question: You mean, your long career in civil service has given you no satisfaction or a sense of fulfilment?  

Answer: While denied scope for innovation civil servants can feel gratified doing their duty timely and judiciously. Even though routine in nature, quick disposal of cases and giving decisions promptly have their own rewards. Occasionally, civil servants, particularly at field level, have to engage in 'social engineering', like promoting literacy, popularising family planning, ensuring gender equality, coping with natural disasters, conducting campaign for immunisation through vaccines, implementing poverty alleviation and overseeing various social safety net programmes. These are responsibilities in which civil servants have some leeway in being innovative and exercising individual discretion. At senior level in the secretariat the ability to come up with new development projects and help formulate new policies can also give satisfaction to civil servants, but the opportunities for these were few and far between in my time because almost all development projects were donor-driven, and policy making was the outcome of the conditionalities attached to the aid or loan. While at the field level I had occasionally my moments of glory in respect of work relating to 'social engineering', at the policy making level my contribution was peripheral in the sense that it comprised complying with aid conditionalities. With reduced dependence on aid the situation may have changed now.

Question: What do you think of corruption in government?  

Answer: It occurs among low-paid employees at field level and usually does not involve senior officials unless there are major development projects involving substantial amount of funds. Even in the latter case not all senior officials are guilty of malfeasance. Corruption involving big money mostly takes place at national level where major projects are approved, tenders for purchase of materials or constructions are floated. A nexus builds up between public and private sectors, sometimes with the involvement of foreign agencies. Bigger the projects longer are the tentacles of corruption.

Question: What is the way out of this bane in government?

Answer: Greater transparency, accountability at all levels and making information on all major tenders and implementation of projects available regularly to the media, civil society and Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).

Question: The measures you mention have been talked about many times under all governments and yet not much improvement is visible. How would you account for this? 

Answer: This is mostly because there have been more rhetoric than actions by vested interests who prefer status quo. There has to be consensus among all, both within and outside the government, to strengthen the ACC. 

Question: Why ACC has not been able to stem the tide of corruption? 

Answer: To judge by news that appear in media from time to time, the ACC is very active and trying its best to carry out its mandate. To be successful it has to be allowed full independence with sweeping powers to pursue cases of corruption, particularly involving big fish, without fear or favour, whether they are in power or out of power. Making ACC a constitutional body may give it the required authority and independence. Look at India and see how powerful is the SBI which regularly goes after the big guns.

Question: Let us turn to your other credentials, that of being a writer. Why do you write? Is it for fame? For money or anything else? 

Answer: At first I wrote for fun, to please myself. I did not realise the power that can be wielded by pen. As I became aware about various social ills and instances of injustices, my moral indignation led me to use my pen to expose these. From a writer of romantic mould I became a socially committed one. To answer your question, I now write to create awareness about social problems that particularly affect the poor and the disadvantaged men and women and also about their heroism in the face of adversity.

Question: Can writers change society through their writings?

Answer: They can influence public opinion that may lead to social change.

Question: Were your duties as a civil servant in conflict with writing?

Answer:  Yes and no. Preoccupation with official work left little time. Unwritten censorship acted as a brake on writing sometimes. On the other hand, my profession as a civil servant benefited me in other ways. The varied experience that I gained in the course of my official work became a source of valuable materials to use in my writing besides suggesting the subject of writing in many cases. The unwritten censorship has made me write with subtlety and ambiguity using metaphors and symbols which may have lent greater aesthetic value to my literary works. 

Question: You have been writing columns on economic issues in the Financial Express for the past several years which you did not deal with before as a columnist. Why is this change in the subject matter of your column?

Answer: The Financial Express is the only English daily specialising in economic issues. I wanted my column to be of a piece with the main character of the paper. The opportunity to go back to the subject of my original career, i.e., economics also acted as inspiration. I'm glad to be in touch with the 'dismal science', not as an academic but in the style of a newspaper columnist who has to keep the average reader in mind. 

Question: Bangladesh has been recognised as a model of development and in the last meeting of the Board of Directors of Asian Development Bank, Bangladesh has been described as one of the six Asian emerging countries maintaining growth momentum. This is a dramatic reversal of the demeaning epithet of 'basket case' hurled at us after independence. To what do you ascribe this success story?

Answer: The success may appear like a miracle but behind it lies hard work and determination of our farmers, workers, particularly female and migrant workers, small and medium entrepreneurs who followed the path of export-led growth. The government on its part has created the enabling environment through prudent macro-economic management. 

Question: What do you see as the challenges to our economy?  

Answer: Inadequate infrastructure development. Bureaucratic red tape. A weak financial sector plagued by non-performing loans. A less than robust capital market. Tax avoidance and tax evasion that compels government to borrow. An investment rate stuck in 22 per cent of GDP. Competition from cheaper producers of garments in Asia and Africa. Risky political conflict. Uncertainty over tax-free access to the UK market after Brexit. Last but not least, the potential threat of protectionist wave sweeping over the global economy. Having gone over the litany of problems, actual and potential, I should also highlight the positive side. The country has made steady progress attaining lower-middle income status in spite of many odds. Even if slight improvement is made and incremental change can take place for the better the development momentum will continue to pick up. 

Question: On the eve of your eightieth birth anniversary what is your wish?

Answer: To have happy dreams that uplift the spirit to soar higher and higher like Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. It is one of my favourite books. The other is Paolo Coelho's The Alchemist. Both the books celebrate optimism bred by sweet dreams.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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