Halfway through an interview at the Planning Commission, Planning Minister MA Mannan is asked about the logic behind the inordinate number of projects that are in implementation at any given moment.
He pauses, momentarily: “We are a nation in a hurry. We have lost a lot of time. We were colonised. We had nothing of our own -- we started at almost zero. We have 160 million people howling for a better life.”
But, he acknowledged that doing things in haste can lead to higher expenditure.
“When you are in a hurry, you waste a lot. You spend more than what you would have had you done it coolly. But I would much rather do it in a hurry.”
Because, he considers procrastination more damaging.
“A day lost can never be recovered. A taka lost today can be recovered by working double shifts later on, but the time lost is gone forever.”
This, encapsulates Mannan as a planning minister: philosophical and yet pragmatic.
He is aware of the sub-par implementation of development projects and is somewhat resigned to the reasons behind it.
“Implementation has been a longstanding problem. We are not as devoted to work as a nation as the others. Our people are work shy -- they are reluctant to report back to work on time from their leaves,” he told The Daily Star in a freewheeling chat.
Even in case of daily attendance they are slacking: they do not maintain the universal 9-5 work schedule. They come at 11am and leave by 3pm. They come up with various excuses to not work, he told The Daily Star in an interview earlier this month.
“We as a nation do not take work as seriously, as responsibly as the Japanese, as the Germans, as the Western nations. It is a matter of culture.”
Besides, the country’s equipment is dated, so thanks to depreciation their productivity has come down. “We never had the foresight to upgrade our equipment like the Western nations and Japan -- it was always an afterthought for us.”
Then there is the matter of funds, said Mannan, who previously served as the state minister for finance.
“We never get funding as per our planning. We start projects with great optimism that we would get the funds but more often than not our hopes are dashed. I can plan all I want but the reality is different.”
When his attention was brought to the fact that Bangladesh’s projects end up costing more than other countries’, he instantaneously blamed it on the cost of land.
Bangladesh’s land costs way more than in India and China, he said, adding that one-third of the project cost goes towards land.
“Another reason is our habit. When the project is under way we come to realise that the plan has to be modified. We revise it mid-way, so the costs go up.”
Corruption and wastefulness are also to blame.
“There is corruption everywhere in the world, more or less. Corruption in our country was at a moderate level before, but our values have changed over the years.”
Before, people used to feel embarrassed about stealing.
“But now they do not -- they think it is something normal,” he said, adding that the Awami League government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has a zero-tolerance policy towards corruption.
He went to cite the formation of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which was previously a bureau, and the Police Bureau of Investigation and amendment of various laws as examples.
“Still, there is corruption. Taking risks have become people’s habit. Seeing that only 2-3 are penalised out of 100, they think they will get away too, so they take risks.”
In absolute terms, corruption is less in comparison to the size of the economy, he thinks. But the number of incidents has risen.
When asked about some of the gratuitous expenditure that takes place in the name of project implementation, he seemed to have resigned himself to public officials’ lifelong habit.
The format for development project proposal, which was prepared with inputs from foreign experts, is well laid out and stipulates a detailed breakdown of all costs.
“I do get a breakdown, but when I start scrutinising the form they become impatient. They don’t give me the time. And, I also don’t have the patience to go through them all, so they get passed. Later, we read in the newspaper that a pillow was bought for Tk 10,000.”
But these are classic problems and they happen everywhere.
“In England, MPs put pressure. In the US, there is an expression called pork barrel. Congressmen lobby the federal government to get grants to their constituencies.”
He, however, is all for foreign travel in the name of knowledge gathering for engineers, doctors, microbiologists, economists as Bangladesh does not have the level of research of, say, Germany. The problem is when the training is for an engineer but an accountant goes.
“It is not possible for me to keep tabs on hundreds of officials spread across the country. We cannot keep tab on everything.”
But for 70-80 per cent of the cases the choice is right; the rest is favour.
“We are all human beings here -- friends do that for one another. These are human failures -- we cannot stop these.”
He also has a philosophy on waste, too.
“What is my waste maybe it is your gain. I am a citizen of Bangladesh and you are a citizen of Bangladesh too. When our outputs are added it becomes part of Bangladesh’s GDP. If I lose a taka here, you gain a taka there.”
The net balance is the same.
“I am not justifying wrongdoing. Arithmetically, the two is the same.”
He also is not willing to lay the blame on the Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Division, which has been tasked with overseeing project matters.
“It is not well-equipped. The number of personnel is too low -- and it is absurd for them to do both supervising and monitoring.”
And they are not trained for the work they are assigned for. So, they go to project sites as a team, leaving one official at the office in Dhaka, and look at the work on a surface level.
“They can’t go deep,” he said, adding that empowering the IMED is one of his two missions as the planning minister.
He plans to set up IMED offices in 8 divisions within this year and already has the PM’s approval in principle.
“If I survive here, or if the government gets time, I’d like that we go to the district level and sit and work there.”
He went on to let rip at the project directors for their lackadaisical attitude, which is why the implementation is always slow.
“They are the weakest link in the chain. They have the highest responsibility and they have the least commitment in most cases. They are the project’s father and they delegate the work to their number 2 or 3 and call in on the project site every now and then.”
But, all mega projects are on time save for the Padma bridge, he said. Mannan’s other mission as the planning minister would be to strengthen the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.
“I am working on raising its credibility,” he said, adding that he plans to set up an institute on training and research on statistics.
The plan will be taken to the PM for her approval in principle.
“People should be able to trust it. It’s essential as we do planning based on this. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund use our statistics now, which they did not before.”
He also said that funding is not a problem for Bangladesh at this stage.
“People come every day to my office offering me easy loans as they have nowhere to spend. And they don’t get any returns on deposits. In England, you don’t get interest. Rather, they subtract money for service charge.”
But, it is always good to spend one’s own money, he said.
“I would rather spend my own money than accept so-called aid. They have many conditionalities, which end up being expensive for us. So, 4 percent interest is better than 1 percent if I have the freedom to spend the amount as I wish.”
As the planning minister, Mannan hopes to improve the implementation level and quality, reduce waste and fight corruption, all of which will improve Bangladesh’s inhospitable business climate.
“But most importantly, the projects that go through my machine would be directly beneficial to the rural masses, to the poorer section of our people.”