Saturday, February 18, 2012

Living between the two worlds - part 3

Winter is very dry in Bangladesh, and as such, can be quite dusty in the towns and cities with all the construction works going on round the clock. Although for an expatriate like me who has spent more time in North America than in Bangladesh, December weather in Chittagong should feel more like that of an early autumn in the north-east corner of the USA. However, what I heard from various sectors of the population is that Bangladesh is getting colder during the winter, as it is getting hotter during the summer months. So, there must be some truth to the global climatic changes taking place!

Soon after my arrival in Chittagong, I picked up a bad cold, which persisted until late January – almost a month after my return to Philadelphia. It was, I guess, the combination of dust in the air and the cold, which made me suffer. Like many concerned families, my siblings and parents bought hundreds of blanket for distribution amongst the poor and the needy people. ORCA, an alumni organization to which I belong, did a wonderful job distributing blankets to remote parts of the country.

There was a time in Bangladesh when the general public expected the government to take care of their problems – natural or man-made. But not any more! There are now hundreds of NGOs and many philanthropists doing such noble jobs coming to the aid of suffering masses. As a matter of fact whatever good that has happened in Bangladesh in the post-liberation period owes big time to its private sector and the NGOs. While the government sector is becoming ever more corrupt, this in spite of favorable report from the Transparency International (TI) in the last few years, it is the market savvy and risk-taking entrepreneurs and the hard work of employees in the private sector that is truly responsible for Bangladesh’s financial boom. They tell me that if the government institutions were free of corruption and less bureaucratic without red-tapes, Bangladesh’s economy could easily grow by double digits every year.

The sad story is: corruption is rampant and pervasive in all government sectors. So, the TI rating does not tell the whole story. Corruption is increasing every year, but other countries in Africa (that were once less corrupt) are now superseding Bangladesh in this competition to grab the spotlight. For any permit or government approval, the citizens must pay huge bribes, which are shared at every level of the bureaucracy, and sometimes with elected officials. That is the tragedy of being a Bangladeshi or doing business in Bangladesh!

The greedy officials have sold their soul to the devil long time ago and have no scruples or moral qualms about what is right and what is wrong. For every permission, which they need to make, whether it is about providing connections for the utility lines, building permits or business licenses, they demand a percentage of the net worth of the task. So, e.g., if a land developer were to get an approval for a building design at the government agency that is responsible for issuing such permits, it may have to pay a bribe of 1-2% of the cost of construction. The worse thing is with the change in government, something that was previously approved may be overturned later, which can lead to demolition of constructed structures. And there are many such landmark examples to show the dirty, ugly and rotten side of government institutions!

When asked why government officials are so corrupt, a frequently heard answer is that their salaries are not enough to cope with market prices; so they must take bribe to support their families. Mindful of such complaints, the current government in Bangladesh has increased salary of all government employees significantly. But as anyone would tell you such good-hearted measures have not put a dent in curbing corruption. As a matter of fact, the rates have gone up for bribes, so have the consumer prices for almost everything. The taxes also go up. The worst sufferers are, naturally, the honest individuals in the private sector (esp. the retirees) with limited incomes who must now pay more taxes and larger amounts of bribes for any government service!

There are government appraisers to assess property taxes. Often times, they would assess incomes on properties that are at least 2 to 4 times the earned income on those properties. To them, all the rental receipts and deeds of an honest landlord simply don’t have any validity. It is their way or highway – either you settle with them by paying bribes or pay an enormous amount to the government that is simply unrealistic and unbearable! As such, most citizens that depend on rental income on built properties have no alternative but to compromise by (unwillingly) paying hefty bribes to these income tax officials. Although both bribe-giving and bribe-taking are haram or forbidden in Islam, the practice is so common there is hardly anyone in Bangladesh who has not been either a taker or giver of bribe!

I know of a landowner who some years ago was earning Taka 120,000 (~2,000 USD) per month on rental income. That was the only source of his income. However, for security measures alone to ensure that his real estate properties are not grabbed by criminals, often linked with powerful government officials and elected representatives, he was spending in excess of Taka 70,000 per month. So, his net taxable income was less than Tk. 40,000 per month (considering other expenses for upkeep of the estate), or Tk. 480,000 (~8,000 USD) per year. As an honest taxpayer, he was paying a tax of approximately Tk. 100,000 (of which, I am told by his accountant, nearly half the money went to the government coffer and the remainder pocketed by the tax collection officers). In recent years, with some newly developed apartments that he owns, his rental income has gone up to Tk. 350,000 (~5,000 USD) per month. His security expenses have increased to Tk. 140,000 per month. With other incidental expenses on the real estate, his net yearly income is now well below Tk. 2,400,000. He paid a tax of approx. Tk. 500,000 last year (of which, more than half was pocketed by corrupt tax officers).

Just a few years ago when the military-backed Care Taker Government was in power and incomes of some of the top lawyers were published with their taxes, I could not believe what I was reading! I personally knew some of these lawyers because two of my own maternal uncles (now dead) were famous barristers under whom some of these lawyers had served as juniors during the pre-liberation period. These lawyers charge six to eight figure fees per case, and their net income on any given day is more than Tk. 100,000. Instead, some of these top lawyers had shown that their yearly income was only few hundred thousand Taka (a small fraction of the income of the aforementioned landowner) and not even a million Taka! It was a joke!

It is well-known that only a small fraction of the population pay income taxes in Bangladesh. Tax collectors are, therefore, more active in cities and commercial districts than in rural Bangladesh. With the filthy rich finding their ways to dodge the process by evading paying their due taxes, the onus of the tax collector seems to harass the honest tax payers! A major portion of the collected revenues and taxes goes into paying government employees’ salaries and retirement benefits. It is no wonder that with a paltry collection of taxes and revenues, municipal and other services are wanting, almost nil in most parts.

There is an adage in the West which says that there cannot be any representation without taxation. Obviously, Bangladesh is no Saudi Arabia. Here, the government institutions are there to collect taxes and revenues. However, as we have seen above, the system is failing. The system is used to harass honest taxpayers who must pay more than their due share of the taxes, while the tax collectors abuse the system to enrich themselves at the expense of the government treasury. One wonders if the collected money at the government treasury ends up paying for the salaries of the government employees, is there truly a need for all these government agencies that provide no service to the people! If not, how about ensuring that such agencies are more efficient and free of corruption? The question there is: who will bell the cat?

Judiciary is the last bastion of a country. If it is corrupt, then there is little hope for moving forward and defeating crime and corruption. The perception is that most magistrates and judges in the lower courts are extremely corrupt. Worse yet, many suspect that even in the higher courts, the cancer has spread! They can be bought and sold for a price! During my visit to Bangladesh, I was simply amazed to learn from some developers how many apartment building and commercial properties that were recently acquired by some of these judges. Given the fact that even the Chief Justice at the apex court of the country does not make more than a thousand USD per month (they are, of course, provided with free furnished bungalows and other privileges) it would have taken these corrupt judges thousands of years to earn such kind of money allowing them to become owners of these assets. This is simply unnerving given the fact that crime and corruption always go hand in hand. It is the criminals who victimize others, and then buy their way out by bribing the judges so that they don’t have to serve their time behind the bars. Such a vicious process is infectious and highly demoralizing and leads an entire nation into the downward spiral of a failed state.

A personal experience of mine is worth sharing here. In early April of 2005, my family properties in Khulshi, Chittagong were grabbed by a land-grabbing criminal syndicate, with the support from a greedy and murderous politician (SQC) from the then ruling BNP government (who is now facing war crimes tribunal in Bangladesh). Aided by their thugs, and using the land-grabbing syndicate as a face to their crime, this politician and his western-educated criminal son evicted 16 tenant families from our properties, cut down hundreds of expensive trees and then demolished ten buildings. Few days before the tragedy happened, when we came to realize the conspiracy, we tried to stop the incursion through the Judges’ Court in Chittagong through an injunction order, but failed being deliberately delayed by the court officials from hearing our plea because they were in collusion with the crime syndicate. Through the aid of the minister, the land-grabbing syndicate was able to even post Ansar, the government para-military security force, into our properties. It was a hopeless case for my family and elderly parents to fight such an organized crime syndicate. However, miracles do happen when you least expect it!

Based on my letters to several ministers and the US Ambassador, an honest police officer by the name of Abdullahel Baki, who was then DC-North Chittagong, investigated the matter and recommended that our genuine ownership rights on the properties be restored by the government. A subsequent raid by the metro police into our properties in mid-June evicted the criminal syndicate and restored our possession. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Baki was transferred to another town – Mymensingh and a case was lodged against him by the land-grabbing syndicate to harass him. With the long arms of the criminals everything is possible in Bangladesh!

We had to fight our case in the lower District Court and got a judgment in our favor which found Jaker H. Chowdhury and eight of his accomplices, who have worked as front men for the land-grab for the minister and his son Fayyaz (FQC), guilty. Regrettably, being threatened and advised, our lawyers did not bring charges against the minister and his son. The crime syndicate members were to serve a term of six years and a half behind the bar, pay a penalty of less than 100 USD. I was simply shocked to learn the paltry financial penalty issued by the court given the fact that our losses to properties were enormous, at least 100,000 USD. Worse yet, seven of the criminals found guilty simply fled from the court floor rather than being handcuffed by the court police and brought to the jail to serve their time (as if these criminals had already bribed the police beforehand so let them get away). Jaker and another accomplice were caught and taken to the prison. However, within a few days, his syndicate appealed for his bail in the High Court, of which we were unaware, and came out of the prison after serving only a month. Within the next three years, Jaker was imprisoned two more times on miscellaneous charges, but always was able to come out with bails being approved by the High Court (since unaware of his strategy as to where and when his lawyers were applying for bail we could not contest him).

Jaker and his land-grabbing syndicate are well-known for their evil criminality targeting vulnerable elders, doctoring land-deeds and issuing forged stamps, etc. But with a powerful syndicate behind him, and greedy politicians and corrupt government officials at the Land Deeds department and the judiciary, they seem to have an upper hand in victimizing their targets and dodging the judicial system. Like the Mafia Dons of America, they have become the new ‘untouchables’ in Bangladesh.

There is a strong perception that the entire judicial system is becoming a farce where victims of a crime are not getting their due share of justice to redress their sufferings and grievances. The victims have to have enough resources to fight against these powerful land-grabbing syndicates, who always find some greedy politicians and corrupt government officials to collude with. It is a hopeless case for most victims. And we have been learning this sad saga for the past 7 years.

Just imagine where Bangladesh would be if there were no corruption, or it was less pervasive!

To be continued>>>

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