Not the hero we need right now

SN Rasul

Would anyone really have cared if the students had protested in some other fashion?

  • Do our leaders know what it’s like to be in the shoes of these students?

So the VATman strikes again. He, actually, struck sometime in June but only now has the city’s university-going youth taken to the streets to protest, just as the new semester begins. For the uninitiated: Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, aka AMA Muhith, or, affectionately, the VATman, has levied a 7.5% VAT on private university education. And if you were out on Thursday or Sunday, the students reacted with wide-spread protests, though, perhaps, at a slight delay.

These protests, as far as has been heard, were peaceful. There has been no violence and no sign of vandalism — apart from random vehicles carrying the “No VAT on education” slogans which, one presumes, were not done by the owners of the said vehicles. The metaphorical feces hit the fan when the police fired on the initial protest in front of East West University in Rampura. Some say this was disproportionate use of violence against the protesters, whose right to protest was protected legally under the Bangladeshi constitution. One is inclined to agree.

Other universities joined in soon enough, with the entire city coming to a stand-still because of the blockade that the protesters had brought upon various crucial intersections of the city, in front of their respective campuses: Rampura, of course, Bashundhara, Mohakhali, Airport Road, parts of Mirpur Road, among others.

As neither an economist nor a partial observer, my opinions are derived from the vantage point of a neutral observer, and hence, I am more inclined to try and see — try being the operative word — Muhith’s side. Perhaps, like the Dark Knight, Muhith is to Dhaka what Batman is to Gotham (I apologise to the fictional city of Gotham for the comparison). Maybe there is method in his madness; maybe the VATman is the hero we need, not the one we want right now. Though why exactly we need him remains shrouded in stupendous mystery, especially with the rhetoric he has utilised.

But, for now, it seems, the VATman has imposed himself on the city, and all the students could say was: “Nana nana nana na, VATman.” The DC comics analogies end there, I promise.

Trying to figure out, however, the reasoning behind this supposed VAT has led to interesting discussions. And the eventual cop-out that the government has since then used as an excuse was the ultimate cherry on top of this clustermuck sundae.

First, a little bit of math. These are my assumed facts: 1) A 7.5% VAT on all private education. 2) Top private universities in Bangladesh charge about Tk6,000 for each credit. Courses are usually three credits. 3) There are 450,000 private university students currently in Bangladesh. Let us, for the sake of making a point, assume all of these students went to the “elite” private institutions.

The imposed VAT would increase the cost of each credit by Tk450. The government, as a result, would be raking in a grand total of Tk20.25cr per credit. Per course? Tk60.75cr. That is about $7.8m. And if we take the entirety of a four-year degree, the government will have the privilege of juicing out close to Tk255.1cr, or $327m, from the already depleted sources of most private university students.

Depleted because — this is nothing new — these are not wealthy families. Due to limited number of seats in public institutions — also not new — even the middle class and the lower-middle classes have been forced to enroll their kids into private universities. This has come at the cost of land, savings, gold, anything they could get their hands on. There’s a reason this city is bursting with private universities that never go out of business; one cannot walk on a street without running into a depressingly boxy building with a signboard advertising as such.

Finance Minister Muhith thinks otherwise. Apparently, these students are spending Tk1,000 a day. Even single people with jobs with a loaded daddy don’t spend that kind of money. People who do, tend to go abroad. Why would anyone in their right minds — not considering selfless, charitable people in their “right minds” — choose to stay here if they could afford to hightail out of here? They wouldn’t.

And then to say that the universities would be the ones paying the VAT and not the students themselves? There aren’t enough synonyms for “inane” to retort back with. As a consumer tax, and this has been said again and again, VAT is paid by the consumer. If, by some miracle, the government were able to cap private university tuition fees, the students would still pay in the form of lost out on resources, since these institutions are non-profit — in theory. Nothing new there either.

But, maybe the students wouldn’t be so protest-happy if the government had a good track record of using our hard-earned tax money for good. All we see are flyovers under construction which cause more traffic jams than they save, and are really a short-term solution to an immensely long-term problem. All they can claim to be are obsequious motifs to an already collapsing city. Where would this $327m dollar go, exactly? If they had better roads to protest on and a competent government to protest against, maybe there wouldn’t be a protest to begin with.

Some have also taken issue with the fact that the city has been brought to its knees as a result. Having just travelled from Bashundhara to Panthapath, utilising a mixture of walking, rickshaw-ing, and CNG-ing, through the little backward alleyways of Norda, Banani, and Farmgate, I am inclined to sympathise with this sentiment. And it doesn’t help to see these protests turn into “hang-outs,” with some of the participants taking selfies and dancing in the ensuing rain.

But these are desperate times. And, for a lot of these students, this is perhaps the only way they can be heard. If we weren’t inconvenienced, would we notice? Would any of us really care if we saw these proceedings without being stuck for hours on end in mindlessly numbing traffic jams, forced to get out of air-conditioned cars to live, for one day, in the shoes of one of these students?

Probably not. Who knows? But don’t listen to a defeatist. Because, eventually, that’s what made us, and the government, listen. In a country where change is merely a fairy-tale, this is the extent to which you need to go. I guess in some forgotten crevice within some godforsaken slum, there’s maybe still some hope left.

Source: Dhaka Tribune