Friday, October 25, 2013

Thoughts on Bangladesh - 3

A Bengali writer once famously wrote – Raate mosha, deene maachi, ei niye Kolkatay aachi (meaning: With mosquitoes at night and flies at daytimes, I reside in Kolkata). Kolkata, of course, these days in the post-partition of India period, is no longer part of Bangladesh, but is the capital city of nearby West Bengal state of India, where Bengali is the lingua franca. I don’t know how bad is the mosquito and fly problem today in Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal, but the above verse aptly applies today for any city of Bangladesh. It is really a sad commentary for a country that had seen better days since 1947 and 1971.
When (late) Mohammad Hanif was the Mayor of Dhaka, his city corporation had a very aggressive program to fight against the mosquitoes. And now although too few people die of malaria and dengue fevers, thanks to the effective drugs to treat those life threatening diseases, mosquito-bites can be felt during both daytimes and nighttimes. It is impossible to not feel the stings of biting mosquitoes staying at home or anywhere, unless one has taken enough precautions to avoid mosquito bites. It is really alarming!
The major reason for ever increasing infestation problem with mosquitoes and flies is open sewage and poor garbage collection system everywhere which helps to breed them. To make things worse, the municipal authorities no longer use chemicals to kill flies and mosquitoes. Most drains carrying city sewage are open and are not cleaned periodically.
The towns and cities of Bangladesh can well rank amongst the dirtiest places on earth. It is really depressing! But it does not have to be that way. Simple, cheap, prudent and effective solutions are well known and can be copied from places like Singapore and Japan. While the tax collection system is very flawed with too few paying real taxes, most dodging the system in cahoots with corrupt municipal and government officials, it is worth pointing out here that municipal and income taxes are not cheap in Bangladesh. So one is forced to ponder: where does the money get spent? 
In a democracy, taxes are supposedly collected for the good of the tax payers. In the USA, there is a well-known saying – no taxation, no representation. I wish I could say the same thing for Bangladesh! People are simply deprived of the benefits of their paid taxes. It is difficult to motivate people to pay their taxes when they don’t see benefits. I am reminded here that only about a percent of the population pays taxes, the rest do not. If this be true, it does not take an Einstein to see the flaw with the entire taxation system. Good tax payers like my father – who was honored for being one of the top taxpayers for the longest period of time inside Bangladesh last year, are being abused paying more than their due share of taxes and must now share the ever-shrinking benefits that are trickled down to them with tax-dodgers and others that either don’t pay or pay far less than their genuine share. It is not a sustainable solution for Bangladesh and must be reformed to maximize the benefits for greater good of all.
As I have noted elsewhere corruption is very rampant inside Bangladesh. In spite of meager gains made in recent years, the yearly reports from the Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) show that the government is failing miserably to cut it down to a respectable level. An anti-corruption bureau was formed, reporting directly to President of the Republic, more than a decade ago, but it has been kept as a toothless tiger, as famously complained by its erstwhile chairman, Mr. Golam Rahman. The budget of the Bureau is not sufficient to fight corruption, and worse still, some high ranking officials appointed by the government are alleged to be corrupt themselves. The government also does not want any of its sitting ministers tried on corruption charges, who could only be tried when they are out of the office. Such an attitude sends wrong message about government’s sincerity to fight corruption. Take for instance, the well-known Rail-Gate case involving Minister Suranjit Sengupta when his personal assistant was caught red-handed in Dhaka – not too far from the Kamalapur Rail Station - with 7 million taka (nearly 100,000 USD), which was allegedly collected as bribe. And yet he couldn’t be tried for his alleged corruption. He was retained as a minister, albeit without a portfolio, in the Hasina government. This action by the prime minister has been very unwise and widely criticized by her well-wishers, let alone the opposition.
While the corrupt individuals often have tons of money to dodge the law and buy a corrupt system, without adequate funding from and sincerity of the government, Bangladesh’s war against corruption seems half-hearted at best, if not doomed for failure.
But not everything is lost in Bangladesh! There are still plenty of honest, good officers in every sector who could be the role models for the society. Let me share here a personal story.
In 2005 my family witnessed the ugly side of crime and corruption when a local MP (who was prime minister’s parliament affairs advisor then – holding a ministerial rank and operating from the Prime Minister’s Office) and his eldest son were directly involved in attempted land-grabbing of our family properties in Khulshi, Chittagong. Sadly, all my pleas to the ministers, including the prime minister’s younger brother (now deceased) and a favorite technocrat minister (now imprisoned on sedition charges) – both of whom were my classmates – met deaf ears. They did not do anything to stop the crime against one of their own who was widely feared as a Mafia Don kind of character.
Eventually, I sought the help of my embassy after showing family documentations on deeds and other relevant records. That probably did the wonder! A police investigation, led by Mr. Abdullahel Baki who was then DC (North), showed that we were wrongfully victimized. A subsequent police raid removed the criminal trespassers from our premises. For his impeccable honesty and dedication to police code of conduct, which torpedoed the MP’s land-grabbing crime, however, Mr. Baki was relocated away from Chittagong. The MP has recently been sentenced to death for war crimes of the 1971 Liberation War.
The MP’s criminal thugs wrongfully demolished 8 brick bungalows (where some 16 tenant families used to reside – many college teachers) amongst other constructions in our family premises during that sad period of 2005. We were warned not to sue the MP and his eldest son for their crimes. Thus, we ended up filing criminal cases against Jaker Hosain Chowdhury – a notorious land-grabbing criminal and fraud – who acted as the front-man for the MP and his son. Jaker and nine of his accomplices – some of whom, interestingly, were attached with two major political parties – were found guilty of land-grabbing crime and sentenced to 6.5 years of prison term. They were also fined only 6000 taka (equivalent to 100 USD then). After serving only a month in prison, Jaker and his accomplices were all let go free on bail. They have been threatening our family members ever since.
I was simply shocked to learn how easy it was to obtain bail in the courts of Bangladesh. More shocking was the meager fine imposed by the court for demolition of all those homes – which if we were to reconstruct today would cost us at least 200,000 USD! So, why the judge fined the land-grabbing syndicate only 100 USD remains a mystery to my family! I don’t know the legal codes in Bangladesh and can’t say whether they were upheld or we were shortchanged in a broken or faulty system that has failed to keep up with time. God knows!
Crime and corruption always go hand in hand. One feeds the other. A recent report from the TIB suggests that judiciary remains a grave concern in the area of corruption. I am told that many magistrates and even judges can be bought for the right price. There is wide perception that many of these individuals lack the qualities for those vital positions. Just about five years ago, an arrest warrant was issued by a corrupt magistrate against my father who is currently 87 years old based on a false and ludicrous claim that that he had tried to kill the land-grabbing criminal Jaker by grabbing his crotch. The corrupt magistrate did not bother to get an inquiry or police report to verify the accusation before issuing such a warrant. Just the tens of thousands of Taka he received from the criminal syndicate were enough for him to issue the warrant! And what a suffering that my family had to endure for such a false case, let alone the millions of taka spent to fight such falsity!
And, how about the lawyers? At least half the cases would not be there in the courts today had they been all honest, and not making up false cases. Many of them are immoral all the way up to their ears and prey on victims to enrich them beyond any measure. A case which could be closed in a single hearing is often prolonged so that it can be dragged for months and years while in many cases by the time a judgment is reached the plaintiff is financially broke, if not already dead.
Most of the successful lawyers in the High Court and Supreme Court of Bangladesh charge hefty sums of money – at least six figure fees for a simple case (thousands of USD), and have yearly incomes of tens of millions of taka, which are many times the yearly income of some of the successful lawyers in the USA.
Some years ago, the taxes paid by some of the top lawyers in the country was published in a national daily in Bangladesh. I could not believe what I was reading for I knew firsthand that some of the lawyers’ reported yearly income was less than what they nominally charge for a single case. This again shows the chronic problem with the tax collection system of the national revenue and tax collection agency. So, under a broken system, as one would expect, honest people are pushed to pay more than their genuine share of the taxes, while the dishonest ones dodge the system!
How can one fight crime when judges and magistrates are perceived to be corrupt, greedy and dishonest? A recent report in the Prothom Alo, a national daily with wide circulation, revealed that it takes years to get a verdict in a criminal case in Bangladesh, and for a civil case it can take generations. It is no surprise that the number of cases in any court is simply increasing exponentially. And no genuine plaintiff and unfortunate defendant can win in this broken judicial system except those involved with the court system – from peons to judges!  That is the health of judiciary in this sad place!
More problematic is the fact that when after years some of the criminals are put behind the prisons where they truly belong, they are sometimes released through some political manipulation. In one week alone, in the last month, some 550 terrorists were released from Chittagong. In one day alone, 200 such terrorist were released from the prisons. Such releases and bails issued to convicted terrorists are sure to demoralize the police and panic the citizens. But no one important seems to care for making such a travesty of the judicial process!
Most of the terrorists have political affiliations. It is a win-win formula for the sponsoring politicians and their criminal cadre while the general law-abiding public suffers miserably from this ugly union.  Many of the terrorists like lucrative land-grabbing criminals have learned the trade very well and switch allegiance to or tie their knots with those in power. Thus, e.g., there was no problem for Jaker and his criminal land-grabbing syndicate to find new political sponsors in the last five years while a new government has been in office in the last five years. That tells a lot about the long arm of such criminal syndicates in Bangladesh. Governments may come and go, but they are there to stay and victimize their victims!

To be continued >>>

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