Filtering Out the Arsenic of Corruption


Hasan Zillur Rahim

As Bangladeshis watch enthralled the reeling in of the corrupt “big fish” by
the military-backed caretaker government, and let out a collective
exultation of “finally!”, an event in the United States has added to this

Dr. Abul Hussam, a chemistry professor at George Mason University in
Fairfax, Virginia, won the 2007 “Grainger Challenge Prize for
Sustainability” for developing an inexpensive, easy-to-make system for
filtering arsenic from well water. Of Bangladeshi origin, the concerned
chemist plans to donate the $1 million prize money for distributing these
filters to needy communities around the world.

Dr. Hussam was moved by the plight of millions of Bangladeshis poisoned by
tube-well water laced with arsenic—leading to serious skin conditions,
tumours, breathing difficulties, cancer, and ultimately to agonizing death
—and made it his quest to find a solution.

After experimenting with hundreds of prototypes, he finally found the right
combination of sand, charcoal, brick, and cast-iron to filter out almost any
trace of arsenic from well water. In Kushtia these systems are now being
produced at the rate of about 200 per week, at a cost of about $40 each.
Over 30,000 filtration systems have already been distributed throughout the

Coming so soon after Dr. Yunus’s Nobel Peace Prize last year, Dr. Abul
Hussam’s achievement ought to lift the heart of even the most stubborn

In light of Bangladesh’s current attempt to make corrupt kingpins
accountable for their past misdeeds, the success of Dr. Hussam’s discovery
suggests a compelling question: Will Bangladesh finally be able to filter
out the arsenic of corruption, greed, nepotism and misrule, once and for
all, from its government, no matter who may be in power?

Conscientious Bangladeshis hung their heads in shame when the Berlin-based
Transparency International ranked the country as the most corrupt in the
world five years in a row, beginning with 2000. They witnessed with horror
the powerful and the unscrupulous looting the country’s treasury and the
widening gap between the rich and the poor. They watched in disbelief the
Faustian bargains political parties made with one another and the
encroachment of religious dogma in official discourse and government

Both the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) indulged
in thievery and corruption with impunity, and functionaries of both parties
—mercenaries, really—created a twilight zone in which their words
became the law. In this zone, only the “fittest” thrived, the fittest being
those in or close to power, and their henchmen down the food chain.

Now there is hope that the darkness may be lifting, that those who abused
power and amassed fortunes at the expense of the nation and its citizens
will be brought to justice.

Because it is the army, backed by the interim government, that is
spearheading the crackdown and the cleansing mission, some Bangladeshis are
already protesting that democracy is in danger.

What planet are they on? Democracy cannot flourish in a vacuum. It can
thrive only in the fertile soil of accountability, responsibility, and good
governance. When the soil is saturated with the arsenic of greed, nepotism,
and solipsism, what thrives is “thugocracy,” not democracy. This has been
the sad lot of Bangladeshis since 1991, following the overthrow of the
military dictatorship of General Ershad.

The country has been kept afloat not by any government in power, but by the
innate genius of Bangladeshis—the human capital—and their
entrepreneurship and creativity against all odds.

What is critical is for the interim government to proceed with prudence, and
not try to bite off more than it can chew. One measure of this prudence can
be seen in the systematic way in which the army is being used to snag
progressively “bigger fish” with every passing day. Ultimately the biggest
fish—a select group distinguished by unimaginable fraud and corruption
across party lines—will have to be hauled in for justice to prevail.

When I visited Bangladesh last November, friends and relatives told me
repeatedly that if only the government got off the backs of the people, and
those in power (including the opposition) could be held accountable for
their actions, the country could achieve wonders. While neighbouring India
was earning millions of dollars in foreign exchange through call centers and
innovative software and hardware, Bangladesh was moving backward through
debilitating strikes and plundering of the nation’s assets by the

Will decades of the national nightmare be soon over, and will a new and
responsible government usher in an era of enlightened democracy, of
accountability, of law and order, of economic and educational opportunity
for all? Let’s hope that the groundwork is now being laid for such an
outcome, so that future generations can look to this interim government as
one that, after fits and starts, found its calling and made good on its