Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina accepts a gift from Camden councillors Nasim Ali (left), Abdul Hai (right), and MP Keir Starmer,
Published: 18 February, 2016
by KEIR STARMER
LOW cloud and heavy fog obscure the view to start with, then one rice field comes into view; then another; and soon all that can be seen is a green sea of rice fields, divided by slow moving wide rivers.
On the rivers wooden fishing boats moving as slowly as the river.
This vast rural, peaceful, and flat landscape – seen through the window of our descending plane – gradually gives way to a very different urban landscape as we approach Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh.
Rough roads, half-completed buildings and corrugated iron shelters crammed into every possible inch of space come into view. And people.
People everywhere: walking; in rickshaws (thousands of rickshaws); on bikes; and hanging off the back of very crowded buses built many years ago and very obviously accident-damaged from top to bottom.
Everyone in a hurry; everyone carrying something – water, fruit, fish or any manner of others items; bustling.
And then we land in Dhaka, described (accurately) by travel writers as a place where millions of individual pursuits constantly churn together in a frenzy of collective activity – an urban melting pot constantly bubbling over.
I am with a Labour Friends of Bangladesh (LFB) delegation visiting Dhaka and Sylhet; a delegation which includes fellow London MPs Stephen Timms and Steve Reed, Camden councillors Nasim Ali and Abdul Hai and executive member of LFB, Robert Latham.
Our purpose is three-fold. To foster Labour Party relations between the UK and Bangladesh at a national level, to hold discussions with officials in Dhaka about the issues commonly raised with us by our Bangladeshi constituents and, for me, to better understand the country which is home for over 20,000 of my British Bangladeshi constituents in Camden.
To say that we had a packed programme would be a gross understatement. Within 36 hours of touching down in Dhaka, we had met and held discussions with the President, the Prime Minister and three ministers (foreign affairs, finance and home affairs).
We had also been welcomed to a full session of parliament by the speaker.
We faithfully raised the issues of most concern back home in Camden: the controversial decision to locate visa processing arrangements for Bangladesh to Delhi (an issue raised many times with me by British Bangladeshi constituents), the difficulties experienced in land disputes by British Bangladeshis and the vexed question of how the UK now treats international students.
In return, the Bangladesh government impressed on us the importance of UK support in tackling climate change (a small rise in sea levels will see great swathes of Bangladesh flooded), tackling international terrorism and the digital revolution.
There are many perspectives on politics in Bangladesh and we therefore held meetings not only with the leader of the official opposition but also the leadership of the Bangladesh National Party.
Bangladesh was born in bloodshed in 1971 when many laid down their lives for independence and freedom. Further tragedy followed in 1975 when “Bangabandhu”, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, then Prime Minister, and his family were assassinated (during our visit to the memorial museum the delegation fell silent more than once).
But history in Bangladesh is a contested issue and, as a delegation, we wanted balance and discussion.
Another perspective is, of course, poverty and we spent time in Korail, Bangladesh’s largest slum.
With more than 50,000 inhabitants in 100 acres and no money to speak of, the challenges are enormous.
We ditched our minibuses and walked round with locals as they showed us their schools, their maternity unit and a special class dealing with children with extreme autism.
As we chatted in our (very) broken Bangla with very many of those living in this giant slum, we were struck by their spirit and resilience: an ability to take what comes with a smile and handshake rooted in a profound belief that things can only get better. Running water and decent homes may be in short supply but compassion and humanity overflow.
At first light we leave for Sylhet, the area in north east Bangladesh where most of our Camden British Bangladeshi community hail from. There we will swap city for village and get gain yet another perspective on Bangladesh.
• Keir Starmer is Labour MP for Holborn & St Pancras.