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     Volume 11 |Issue 27| July 07, 2012 |


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A $2.9 Billion Question!

Shakhawat Liton

The situation was completely different in 1997. Sheikh Hasina was prime minister for the first time in her political career and Awami League had returned to state power under her leadership after 21years since the August 15, 1975 bloody changeover. In the then Hasina government, AL leader Syed Abul Hossain was state minister for LGRD. Abul, also a businessman, had made the mistake of using an ordinary passport instead of his diplomatic one, for a visit to Singapore.

Sheikh Hasina, Photo: Star File

The dubious visit triggered enormous controversy in the political arena. The then Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the sensible path and did not waste time to keep her cabinet free from controversy. She forced Abul to resign on August 10, 1997 as the state minister. This time history has not repeated itself. Abul is now a very fortunate man. He was made a cabinet minister this time and was given the portfolio of the communications ministry. His previous bad luck did not hurt him, as this time the prime minister has been kinder and more tolerant.

Allegation of corruption against him by World Bank in the Padma bridge project has already jeopardised the image of Hasina's government as well as the image of Bangladesh abroad. The World Bank asked the Bangladesh government to drop Abul from the cabinet to clear the way for funding in the Padma project. But Hasina did no such thing. Rather, for the last one year, the premier on many occasions criticised the World Bank for its allegations against her cabinet minister.

Even on October 19 last year at a public rally in Lalmonirhat, Hasina pointed to corruption by the last BNP-led government as the reason behind the suspension of World Bank funds for the Padma Bridge project. “I received two documents from the World Bank and both of them are on the corruption of the communications minister of the last BNP-led government,” claimed Hasina.

Her claim contradicted public knowledge that on grounds of alleged irregularities on the part of the then Communications Minister Syed Abdul Hossain, the World Bank had suspended funding. Public perception, it seemed, was of no consequence. In any civilised and practicing democratic country, negative public perception is enough to force a minister to step down. In Bangladesh, it is rare for a minister to resign on ethical grounds. But dozens of ministers in UK, Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Sweden resigned in 2011 and 2012 on moral and ethical grounds.

They did not hesitate to admit responsibility for their "errors." Negative public perception has sometimes forced ministers to step down in those countries. After the resignation of Nick Smith, climate change, environment and local government minister in New Zealand, in March, 2012, Prime Minister John Key in a statement said: "Dr Smith has been a hard-working and diligent minister, but perceptions do matter and he knows he has let himself down."

Dr Smith resigned over two letters to help a female friend's accident compensation claim. Before Smith, several ministers in the same cabinet lost their portfolios over allegations of misconduct. In Bangladesh, this is beyond imagination. Former railway minister Suranjit Sengupta's APS was caught at midnight in April this year with a sack full of money and public perception was that the staff was taking the money to the minister's home. Suranjit is still in Hasina's cabinet. In face of severe criticism and reported pressure from the World Bank, Hasina did one thing – in December last year, Obaidul Quader was given the charge of the communications ministry. But she did not drop Abul from her cabinet. Rather, she formed a new ministry—Information Technology for Abul which he has been running from December last year.

AMA Muhith, Photo: Star File

The government has been dilly dallying about taking action against Abul and some other high officials for their alleged involvement in corruption in the Padma bridge project. And finally, the WB on June 29 cancelled its funding for the project, saying it had “credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy among the Bangladeshi government officials, SNC-Lavalin executives and private individuals in connection with the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project.” In the WB's 68-year-old history, it has never cancelled such a large amount of loan for a single project. The event, predictably, received a lot of international attention. Over a hundred newspapers, news agencies and television channels ran the news.

Once again Bangladesh was branded as corrupt country worldwide for the government's whimsical stance to continuously defend officials allegedly involved with the Padma bridge scam. The WB was supposed to provide $1.2 billion in the $2.9 billion project and ADB, IDB and JICA were supposed to provide the rest of the funds. Following the WB's decision, funding by the others has also become uncertain as they supported the WB's decision.

Even after WB's cancellation of the fund, the government ministers, particularly Finance Minister AMA Muhith has been refuting the WB's allegation of corruption. If Muhith is right, then the Canadian government and court are proved wrong. If there was no corruption, then why is the Canadian court trying two employees of SNC-Lavalin for the offence of giving bribes to Bangladeshi officials?

Finance Minister Muhith in his statement in Parliament on July 2 rightly said the statement of WB cancelling the fund has humiliated the whole nation. But what he did not explain was who would take responsibility for such humiliation, although he left no stone unturned to prove his government innocent by putting the blame on WB. Some people showing sympathy to the government are speaking about irregularities and corruption in the WB. But it will in no way prove the current government's innocence by minimising the negative public perception about the present regime. People's confidence in the current government has been eroding fast due to its non-action against the corrupt and unlawful behaviour of ruling party MPs and men. The role of the Anti-Corruption Commission has also been questioned during the controversy. The anti-graft body has miserably failed to perform independently to investigate the allegations of corruption against Abul and some other government officials.

The WB's cancellation of credit will have an adverse impact on Bangladesh's economy for years to come. Then why is the prime minister so vehemently defending Abul Hossain – is a $2.9 billion question! The Padma bridge project scam has also exposed how the current regime has failed to deliver on its electoral pledges to curb corruption. In the run up to the December 29 of 2008 parliamentary polls, the AL had promised to take multi pronged measures to fight corruption. In his first budget speech in June 2009, the finance minister also stated: "Corruption is one of the major impediments to development. We can never ensure good governance without rooting out corruption. Our government has announced zero-tolerance for corruption."

After three and a half years of the current government regime, the reality looks bleak. The gap between the promise and actions has been increasing fast, diminishing the prospect for good governance. It is usual that the government will deny reality. But denial will in no way improve the fast-deteriorating situation.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.


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