12:00 AM, November 11, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, November 11, 2012

Bitter Truth

Vices eating into the vitals

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Md. Asadullah Khan

Most governments use their honeymoon time, the first 100 days in power, to either set the agenda or ram through unpopular decisions. The Al government, during the last four years, dissipated its energies and frittered away its goodwill in fighting BNP and Jamaat-e-Islami.
After waiting four years and hoping their days of suffering, woes, and deprivation would come to an end, people are experiencing a rise in corruption and terrorism. The Al-led alliance has been feeling the pinch of public restiveness over its apparent inactivity, especially in containing terrorism and corruption. Corruption, like democracy is so spectacular, so accommodative, so elastic. Its ways and means these days boggle the mind.
Bangladesh has one of the most corrupt and oversized bureaucracies in the whole Asian region. The argument that it is the underpaid public servant who falls to criminal temptation is not valid. The most shameful cases are from the top echelons, like the Hall-Mark loan scam involving Sonali Bank. Tk.3606 crore could be swindled out of the bank only because the top management of the bank were allegedly beneficiaries in the deal. This happened due to absence of direct control by the Bangladesh Bank.
Financial analysts opine that lack of supervision by Bangladesh Bank, finance ministry's weak control over the state-run banks, and political appointment of directors are responsible for such a big pilferage of public money. The Hall-Mark fraud, dirty deals, money laundering and cheating stemmed from lack of proper vigilance and failure in booking the guilty persons or shutting down the business at the outset.
A report published in a leading English newspaper on November 6 about the seizure of 10,000 bottles of phensidyl from a covered van using a sticker that said "Directot General of Food" raised eyebrows. It points to a close nexus among the smugglers, officials of the concerned department, and law enforcement agencies. How come the officials of the concerned ministry or department evade responsibility in such flagrant violation of the laws?
The education sector, that was once deemed to be sacrosanct and much above any malaise and controversy now appears to be steeped in corruption. A report published in a newspaper indicated that school and madrassah authorities in Lalmonirhat are charging much higher examination fees from the SSC and Dakhil candidates than the fixed fees. What is worrying is that the school and madrassah authorities continue to indulge in this malpractice ignoring the directive of the district education officer! Shockingly, teachers who are supposed to be adherents of morality and a code of conduct that their students could inculcate are indulging in clandestine activities that shame all sensible people.
Everything, it is said, from power to gas to water connection, passport application or police verification, and business licence to loan application in a bank, and even school and college admission, can be had only in exchange of money! Public outrage has put the battle against graft at the top of the agenda and the press has been working relentlessly to expose the crimes and misdemeanour or harassment by the officials, but to no avail.
The corruption in Bangladesh Biman has not only turned it into a losing concern, it has also put the lives of passengers in peril. Disagreeing with what the acting managing director of Biman said on the issue, that such incidents occurred only once or twice and were being probed, experts opine that such corrupt practices must be stopped by sacking the employees or officials involved. They further assert that corruption is inevitable in a system that disallows sacking of officials or booking the culprits with an iron hand.
Effective management of public finances is the biggest challenge facing all levels of government in the country. In recent years the challenge has become more daunting in view of the economic divide in the society. Some recent happenings will illustrate the case.
Infrastructure development in primary education through increased budgetary allocation and donor fund should have created a climate of hope and sound economic base for the country because education is the key to all development efforts in the society. Graft, misappropriation of funds and poor quality of work have made the whole move a futile exercise. A report published in a Bangla Daily on November 3 indicated that the government allocated Tk.7,500 crore for infrastructure development, like building new schools, extension of class rooms, sinking arsenic-free tube wells and hygienic toilets in the school premises, along with supply of teaching aids like computer and laptop. But much to our shock and disappointment, most of the work done through LGED has gone down the drain because of poor quality of materials supplied, which resulted from lack of monitoring and supervision. The inspection report carried by IMED after completion of the work in 2011 points to abysmal quality of work -- roofs are leaky, cracks have developed in the wall, plaster has broken down -- and says that money has been devoured without supplying the equipment. Even the education minister has admitted the poor quality of work and pilferage of money in the project.
Corruption has corroded not just our system of governance but also the very soul of Bangladesh. So the problem is not small. If somebody with sufficient political will does not attempt dramatic changes soon not only will we be counted among the most corrupt countries in the world, but the state will also increasingly be seen by our own people as their main enemy. Much to our dismay, successive democratic governments have not done anything to change things, not even in the area of judicial reform. As long as it takes an average of 10 to 15 years for a case to come to court, we can be sure corruption will continue to flourish.
The crux of the problem is that over the years we have developed a system so callous that it has become governance for the sake of government and not for the suffering people. One of the current buzzwords in government circles is "transparency," which is distinctly missing in government functioning despite what the government preaches all the time.
We need a systemic change that would make it compulsory for ministers to provide information to the public at least once a year. It may sound like a radical change but without such steps there is absolutely no likelihood that the wrongs of 40 years of mis-governance will be corrected.

The writer is a columnist of The Daily Star.
E-mail: aukhandk@gamil.com

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