Finance Minister AMA Muhith said in parliament yesterday he believed former World Bank president Robert Zoellick had never taken into cognisance any of Bangladesh's proposals to end the stalemate over the Padma bridge project
Bangladesh had continuously held discussions on the issue in Dhaka, Washington and other places between December last year and April this year, he said.
“I believe that the World Bank president never took any of our proposals into cognisance,” the finance minister told the Jatiya Sangsad in a written statement.
“Probably, in an attempt to settle the issue in haste during his term, the outgoing World Bank president Robert Zoellick took this imprudent decision which has shattered Bangladesh's image.
“In April, a government representative [prime minister's international affairs adviser Gowher Rizvi] went to Washington to discuss the matter. He could not meet Zoellick because the World Bank president was preoccupied with other schedules. But he continued talks with other World Bank high-ups.”
After Muhith gave his statement, Speaker Abdul Hamid said he hoped the crisis over the Padma bridge funding would now be resolved.
"I want to state in clear terms that there has been no misuse, corruption or irregularities in the Padma bridge project," the finance minister affirmed, this time not reading from the written statement.
Terming the WB's decision improper, Muhith said in the written statement, “The World Bank cannot malign a country or dishonour its people on the basis of an unconfirmed or incomplete allegation.”
The WB cancelled its $1.2 billion credit for the project on Saturday, saying it has proof of corruption conspiracy involving Bangladeshi officials, executives of a Canadian firm and individuals.
“I consider that the World Bank statement has humiliated the whole country and the allegation labelled against us is not well founded,” said Muhith.
The finance minister once again urged the bank to review its decision, and said, “I hope we will have talks with the bank's top leadership any moment.”
He was confident that the government would be able to start the project's work this fiscal year.
Muhith urged other financiers to take prudent decisions. “I also think other development partners will carry out their responsibilities in this project by analysing the World Bank's decision and statement.”
The minister told the House that in order to clarify the government's position before the nation he had released a set of letters that the government had sent to the WB. But he did not make available the WB's letters to the government for the sake of the ongoing probe and out of respect to the global lender.
The finance minister provided a detailed background of the project and sequence of events.
He said the bank's claim that the Bangladesh government did not act properly on corruption allegations was not correct. The government went beyond its routine procedures and was accommodative about all of the bank's recommendations, said Muhith.
“The World Bank wanted to sign a memorandum of understanding with us on corruption. I consider it highly disgraceful. Instead, I informed them that this should also apply to the understanding that we reach with the development partners through formal correspondence.”
Muhith said the bank informed the government on April 9 that the probe in Canada was at a final stage and that the Canadian authorities had arrested two SNC-Lavalin officials. One of the officials told them that “he, through some distinguished individuals [whose identity was not disclosed], offered to give commission to some influential Bangladeshis if their firm was selected for the job.”
The Canadian authorities confiscated the official's diary and found a list, said Muhith.
“I preferred not to make the list public as it would have ruined the reputation of those individuals. This list includes the names of politicians and bureaucrats as well as other individuals.
“Any writing in the diary would be credible evidence only when more proof is found in support of the writing. In my opinion, the whole matter is based on the possibility of corruption which the World Bank has called the conspiracy of corruption.”
“We wanted to blacklist SNC-Lavalin when such allegations were raised and thus it is unfair to complain that we tried to protect any corrupt individual.”
In early June, a WB delegation came to Dhaka on the government's invitation and the team had discussions with the government on corruption allegations and the project's implementation, Muhith said.
After this discussion the WB sent a letter asking the government to take some steps that included sending on leave the officers allegedly involved in the corruption and keeping a WB-designated panel informed about the progress in the probe and taking their advice.
“The problem with these proposals was that we were forced to admit the corruption allegations before they were substantiated. Therefore, we did not accede to their proposal and resorted to other means to dispel their concerns.”
Muhith said the WB's proposal to form a separate inquiry cell was not necessary at all, as the ACC had already formed one, while the bank's advice regarding giving a foreign panel full access to the findings was not in conformity with ACC laws.
The government floated tenders for the main bridge in April 2010 with permission from all the partners. Later, a re-tender was floated on the advice of the WB following a change in the bridge's design, he said.
The minister added the WB thrice advised the government to accept the Chinese company CRCC for qualifying in the prequalification. "But the evaluation committee comprising experts did not accept the advice."
The bridge department following an inquiry informed that the CRCC never applied for reconsideration, and the company's Bangladesh agent, Ventura International Ltd, resorted to corrupt practices in this regard.
"The World Bank went on to repeatedly recommend the CRCC …. As a result, the project implementation was delayed by three months. We don't know whether the World Bank has taken any action against those who were connected in this scam," said the minister.
Later, the CRCC informed the government that it was not interested in the project. At the same time, it cut off relations with its Bangladesh agent.
Muhith said two officials from the integrity department of the WB visited Bangladesh in April to probe the allegations of corruption in the project. They also met a group of business and spread "indecent rumours about a respectable person," the minister added without naming who the "respectable person" was.
"At this meeting, an official named Howard Dean lodged a complaint of corruption against a respectable person. One of the members present in that gathering protested firmly and requested him to refrain from spreading this kind of story. He also challenged him and asked him to show evidence in support of this allegation. In the end, the World Bank official withdrew his comments and apologised," he said.
Muhith said a representative of the government went to Washington and held talks with senior WB officials on how to eliminate possibilities of corruption in the project.
"Taking the secret and informal proposal into cognizance, the prime minister took steps to bring in new leadership in the bridge division," he said, adding that the services of the project director were terminated and the secretary and the then communications minister were transferred.
Following this, the top management of the bank said it would inform Dhaka about its stance after discussions with the WB president.
"Later, they [WB officials] told us that our proposal and other steps could not satisfy the bank. They suggested the work of the bridge remain suspended until the Canadian probe is completed. They also suggested that the inquiry by the Anti-Corruption Commission should continue," Muhith said.
Any unauthorized use or reproduction of The Daily Star content for commercial purposes is strictly prohibited and constitutes copyright infringement liable to legal action.