Saturday, February 8, 2014

Will Bangladesh be Ever Able to Weed Out Corruption?

Corruption is quite pervasive in South Asia. A study conducted by Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) in year 2005 found that more than 62% of Indians had firsthand experience of paying bribes or influence peddling to get jobs done in public offices successfully. In 2013 India has ranked 94th out of 177 countries in TI's Corruption Perceptions Index scoring only 36 points. Sri Lanka, Nepal and Pakistan are ranked 91, 116 and 127, respectively. Forty-seven per cent of 1,070 lawmakers elected to Pakistan’s national and provincial assemblies did not pay income tax in 2013 and 12 per cent do not even have a National Tax Number. Just imagine!

Bangladesh is worst of the bunch (outside Burma, which belongs to South-East Asia). According to TI, Bangladesh was the "most corrupt country" in 2005. In 2012, the country was ranked 144th among 176 countries in the graft watchdog's index, scoring only 26 out of 100. In 2013, Bangladesh slightly improved, ranking 136th among 177 countries, scoring 27 points. It is a very troubling image for a nation that tries to attract foreign investment!

Gone are the days when communist leaders would be considered incorruptible and clean. It was such charges of corruption which had led to the downfall of the decades-long communist – CPI (M) - rule in the State of West Bengal in India. The ballot box became non-issue there and so was corruption, which was institutionalized. The bulk of the nearly 90,000-strong police force was unionized. No promotion, transfer or dismissal could take place without its nod.  

The situation has not improved an iota under Mamata Banerjee. Her Trinamool Congress government recently transferred a senior IPS officer - Siliguri police commissioner K Jayaraman - who had arrested a serving IAS officer - Malda District Magistrate Godala Kiran Kumar - for allegedly embezzling government money sanctioned for civil projects to the tune of Rs 100 crore (approx. 20MM USD).

Let me now discuss high-level corruption inside Bangladesh. Mr. Dilip Barua was the Industries Minister in Bangladesh in the last cabinet of Sheikh Hasina. He is from the Samyabadi Dal (Communist Party – Marxist-Leninist) and a Buddhist by faith. Allegations of corruption have surfaced against him for last few years.

He was a technocrat minister who did not (and surely could not) win any seat in the parliament. In his own constituency - in Haitkandi village, near Nizampur Government College, in the Mirsaria thana - north of Sitakund - he is almost unknown except that his neighboring villagers knew that he came from the nearby Magh (Buddhist) Para whose vast majority of the dwellers had been fishermen supplying fish into the local market.

So, when one of their very own, a Buddhist and communist, with a university degree in Physics from Dhaka University, was chosen as a powerful minister in the past cabinet there was a lot of expectations within the locals that he would do something good for their region. One such major desire included repair of the village road that goes in front of Dilip Barua's village from the nearby bazar. He did not do anything about it, and hardly visited the region. When inquired, he flatly said that since he was not an elected representative from the area he had no obligation for the area.

Barua was totally inept and incompetent for the ministerial job in the industries sector. His selection as a minister in the previous cabinet surprised many who could not find any rational ground as to why the prime minister had chosen him. His communist party had no support within the country to mobilize public opinion in favor of the government led by Sheikh Hasina. Even if all such shortcomings are ignored, what is inexcusable is corruption of which he has been seriously accused of in the media.

The communists are generally perceived to be caring, socially conscious and honest. But facts are quite different. Here a personal story may help my readers to understand my view.

During the War of Liberation of Bangladesh in 1971 my father, an Awami League leader from Chittagong city (who was a junior friend of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman – the future leader of Bangladesh – since his college days when he had the opportunity of living in the same hostel room at the Baker Hostel before the partition of British India), was in hiding helping the freedom fighters. As a teenager and eldest son of the family, I stayed behind in our home - Prantik - which is near the Lion's Eye Clinic on Zakir Hossain Road.

I had been an avid reader all my life and had befriended many folks from all walks of life, including some communists who were close to my parents' age. One such communist was a contractor named Abdul Quddus. He was a supporter of the Hoq-Toha Communist Party, a radical pro-Peking Marxist group, which was opposed to freedom of Bangladesh, and had been accused of ambushing freedom fighters.

[It is worth noting here that most of those communist parties in the then East Pakistan had splintered off from the Bhashani NAP (a major political party in those days), which was pro-Peking. Those parties opposed the division of Pakistan. Siraj Sikdar was another such communist leader, later founder of the Sarbahara Party, who had allegedly killed many freedom fighters - during and after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Amongst those pro-Peking groups, only Rashed Khan Menon's (now a minister in the latest cabinet of Sheikh Hasina) group had pro-liberation stance. The pro-Moscow NAP and communist parties (e.g., the party led by Moni Singh) participated in the war of liberation. It should be pointed out that because of the geo-politics of the time (1971) the USSR, which was a strong ally of India, supported the liberation struggle inside Bangladesh while China and the USA opposed it vehemently because of their close ties with Pakistan.]

But Abdul Quddus, now deceased, was different than those hard-core communists and hated violence. He was more interested in living an honest, peaceful life through hard work. He would supply me with scores of books on communism, which I would read voraciously and return to him upon completion. As a teenager, such books attracted me and made more sense to an idealist within me in those days. And I made every effort to buy or borrow such books to expand my knowledge. An older cousin of mine, Sheikh Fariduddin was a leftist student leader at Dhaka University, Iqbal Hall, during the 1969 Student Movement that brought down Pakistani President Ayyub Khan. His parents' house in Mughaltooly (near Agrabad) used to be frequented by his communist-minded friends - particularly Ajoy-da, a sports journalist these days. He had collections of hard-core communism, including those from Rahul Sankritayan – a Marxist ideologist. In my spare time, I read all those books during the liberation war, some probably without even understanding fully the delicate philosophy. It would be no exaggeration to say that there was hardly a book (including those of the Naxalite leader Charu Majumdar) on socialism and communism outside Des Kapital that was written or translated into Bangla (Bengali) and available in print form inside the country that I had not read then. I became communist at heart, or so it felt!

Soon after the Liberation War, I visited Dhaka and accompanied by a cadet college friend Mostaqul Hoq, grandson of legendary Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Huq, stopped by the Head Office of Moni Singh's Communist Party in Purana Paltan with the intent of joining the party. As soon as we entered the front office, we saw that it was air-conditioned, a huge luxury in those days in a newly independent war-ravaged country. To the attending front-desk clerks and attendants, I almost screamed asking: what kind of communist party was that one which lived in luxury when millions go unfed? The party members were caught unprepared and perplexed, and before they could answer I stormed out of the office. That was my short honey-moon with communism! Over the years, I found that there were not too many of Charu Majumdar's ideal cadre, and many were extremely greedy, if not outright extortionists.

From the published news reports, Dilip Barua obviously fits in that notorious category. Rumors about his corruption had surfaced for some years since he was a minister. Before he was a minister, he was a man with meagre income, but in the last five years he and his family members had become filthy rich. It is rumored that he had funneled away huge sums of money to his children who live overseas. Initially when I heard such rumors I did not want to believe giving him the benefit of the doubt. However, the more I inquired, especially those working within chemical sector - BCIC, the more I am convinced of the truth to those accusations against Barua.

During a visit of a fertilizer factory in Chittagong a couple of years ago where a former BUET classmate of mine was the MD, I was told that Barua had been using corporation’s cars. Such abuses of government resources were quite common amongst ministers. Barua would demand that X number of best cars be sent at his disposal right away wherever he visited so that he and his entourage could make use of those for their personal and business use. In 2011, he was known to have gotten a Mitsubishi Pajero car (worth nearly a crore taka or 130,000 USD) as a kickback from a fertilizer company.

The popular Bangla Daily - Manab Zamin has recently accused Barua of committing massive corruption. The newspaper reported how Barua and his inner circle, which included his front-man - Saimum Haque Abdar, had amassed huge sums of money. Abdar, working for Barua, used to collect crores of Taka every month (millions of USD) from 10 of the 13 fertilizer producing companies. Even the importers, dealers, distributors and contractors that had any business with the Industries Ministry were not spared from such payment. Barua would dictate who got government tenders and who did not. That black money would then be funneled out to Barua, his family members and others involved in that scheme. What is intriguing: even though Barua is no longer a minister, according to the newspaper account, he and his men continue to harass his former clients – businessmen, owners and MDs of various industries – demanding payment of monthly allowances to keep up with the lifestyle that he had lately gotten used to.

The Anti-corruption Commission (ACC) of Bangladesh surely need to investigate these charges against Dilip Barua, and take appropriate actions, if found genuine.

As I have noted earlier corruption is quite endemic in Bangladesh. Days before the controversial 2014 election, popular Bangla daily Samakal and several other newspapers reported that the ruling party requested the Election Commission not to disclose the wealth statements of their candidates. According to the wealth statements, State Minister for Water Resources Mahbubur Rahman had wealth worth Taka 41.88 lakh five years ago while the amount now stood at Taka 7.61 crore while he also stated that he now owned 2,865 acres of land compared to 20 acres he had in 2008. Awami League lawmaker Abdur Rahman Badi had to bear his election expenditures taking loans from close relatives in 2008 but now his income has increased by 315 times, according to the statement. State Minister for Housing Abdul Mannan had property worth Taka 10 lakh five years ago while he now owned the property worth Taka 11 crore, a surge of over hundred times since he was elected to the ninth parliament in 2008 elections. Awami League lawmaker Nur-e-Alam Chowdhury Liton and his wife have increased their property by 66.49 times in last five years of grand alliance rule. According to an affidavit submitted before the ninth parliamentary election in 2008, the value of their moveable and immovable property was Tk 62.63 lakh. However, the amount has shot up to Tk 41.64 crore in last five years, according to a wealth statement recently submitted to the Election Commission.

In its editorial, the no-nonsense English newspaper - the New Age – bemoaned the fact that politics is increasingly viewed as a tool to make wealth. It asked the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to find out "how this wealth came to be in the possession of the candidates".

They are surely not the only ones multiplying their asset several fold while they served as lawmakers. Two years ago, I discussed the rail-gate corruption of Suranjit Sengupta.

Recently, the ACC has appointed officers to look into the allegations of amassing illegal and abnormal wealth, against seven former ministers, state ministers, and lawmakers belonging to the ruling Awami League and the opposition Jatiya Party. The politicians to be probed are former health minister AFM Ruhal Haque, former state minister for housing and public works, Abdul Mannan Khan, former state minister for water sources, Mahbubur Rahman, and AL lawmakers—Aslamul Haque of Dhaka-14 constituency, Engr Enamul Haque of Rajshahi-4, Abdur Rahman Bodi of Awami League, and former Jatiya Party lawmaker MA Jabbar.

The commission has also received allegations of undisclosed wealth of 48 former ministers, state ministers, and lawmakers. All of them were elected MPs in the 10th parliamentary polls. The commission primarily approved those inquiries and that the process would continue one after another. That is good news! But will ACC succeed with its inquiry?

Lest we forget, the ACC filed a case on December 17, 2012 against seven people for their alleged involvement in the Padma Bridge project graft dropping the names of key suspects former Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain and former State Minister for Foreign Affairs Abul Hasan Chowdhury. The ACC, meanwhile, completed the much-sought investigation into the graft case on Bangladesh side last year, but it is still waiting to see the completion of trial of the Canadian court and receive evidence, including Ramesh Shah’s diary, from the Canadian authorities to initiate the investigation on Canadian side. Shah, a Bangladeshi origin Canadian national and one of the key graft suspects, reportedly mentioned in his diary that four percent will be given to former Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain in hiring consultant for the Padma Bridge project.

It goes without saying that corruption is very harmful for any society where it thrives. It corrupts everyone and serious crimes result from that evil nexus. The Government of Bangladesh owes it to its people that the corrupt ministers and government officials are punished severely so that this vicious curse can be wiped out. That would, of course, require genuine intention and sincerity from the Hasina government and everyone involved.

Lamentably, her government’s efforts in recent years to laming its corruption fighting agency (ACC) have only created more doubts about that sincerity! Her government cannot afford to claim a clean image when bills are passed and made into laws that limit ACC’s power by requiring the latter to seek approval from the government to investigate allegations against government officials and employees, let alone paying a blind eye to well-publicized corruption cases involving powerful ministers and MPs like Suranjit Sengupta, Dilip Barua and the two Abuls – mentioned above.

Sheikh Hasina’s dream of Sonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) cannot and will not materialize without winning the battle against corruption. In this regard, she may like to look to the experience of Hong Kong and its Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which was established in 1974 at a time when corruption was especially rife. The ICAC adopted a three-pronged approach to fighting corruption: deterrence, prevention (both through law enforcement), and community education. The agency is empowered to investigate all crimes connected with corruption in both the public and private sectors. The ICAC devotes a significant amount of resources to its Operations Department, since "any successful fight against corruption must start with effective enforcement on major targets, so as to demonstrate to the public the government's determination to fight corruption at all costs, as well as to demonstrate the effectiveness of the anti-corruption agencies."

If the government of Sheikh Hasina is genuinely serious, she must strengthen the ACC and not weaken it. It must be allowed to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption by politicians and civil servants with sufficient funding and resources.

 

 

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