Graft-ridden Wasa sees union change its colour
Ruling party backed trade unions within Dhaka's Water and Sewerage Authority (Wasa) have over the last two decades been at the centre of a network of corruption involving crores of taka being siphoned off from the organisation every year by its revenue inspectors, commonly known as 'meter readers'.
A number of Wasa's senior officials privately admitted to The Daily Star that the corruption by meter readers now causes the organisation to lose over Tk 8 crore every month. Wasa Chairman Gholam Mostafa acknowledged to The Daily Star that the agency is 'corruption ridden'.
The main union in power during these years has been Dhaka Wasa Sromik Union (DWSU). It started its life in 1986 with the support of Gen Ershad's Jatiya Party --becoming Wasa workers' collective bargaining agent (CBA) in 1988. However, in 1991, with the election of BNP, the CBA leaders changed their spots and were able to gain BNP's support. In 1996, with Sheikh Hasina being elected as the prime minister for the first time, the union made an even more extraordinary about-turn and affiliated itself with Awami League.
During these fifteen years of power between 1986 and 2001, the union leaders became rich.
Hafiz Uddin, who has been the union president since the beginning, purchased a series of properties in his home district Gazipur. Three were named after his daughter -- four-storey Humaira Poulty Farm, Humaira Fisheries built on two acres of land, and Humaira Brick Field. In addition, he built a large complex. The land is held in his name and of his brother.
Jaber Hossain, who was the union's organising secretary, and is now its acting general secretary, also purchased a six-storey property in Banasree Residential Area in the capital. A tiled mural of Jaber and his father is on the outside of the building. On visiting the plot, the building guard told The Daily Star that Jaber is the 'most senior officer in Wasa'. Jaber has now put the property in the name of his close family members.
During the period these properties were purchased, both men were on salaries of less than Tk 7,000 a month.
However, with BNP's election to the country's seat of power again in 2001, DWSU lost its preeminent position, and was replaced by a BNP affiliated union. In January 2002 a group of workers sent a written complaint to the now defunct Anti-corruption Bureau, alleging that both Hafiz Uddin and Jaber Hossain, had wealth beyond their means and were involved in selling hundreds of jobs. No action was taken against Hafiz Uddin, while Jaber Hossain was suspended 'with basic pay'. He however managed to get a High Court order staying the suspension.
Between 2001 and 2006, BNP affiliated Dhaka Wasa Jatiyabadi Employees Union, took control -- backed by the then state minister for LGRD Ziaul Haque Zia. Similar allegations of amassing property beyond his recognised income were made against the union's general secretary also Wasa revenue inspector, Miah M Mizanur Rahman. Newspapers reported at the time that he had constructed a large building in Kalabagan area of the capital. It was also reported that the BNP backed union vandalised the room of the managing director demanding appointment of revenue inspectors.
With last year's election of Awami League back to the government, the leaders of the ruling party-backed DWSU are back in a position to influence permanent jobs, job transfers, leave, and overtime. It is by securing positions and advantages for Wasa workers, the unions are able to access crores of illegal money.
Three months ago, one of Wasa's executive engineers was sitting in his office in Fakirapul in Wasa's zone 6. In Wasa, revenue inspectors and other employees jostle to be transferred to zones considered particularly lucrative, and zone 6 is such a zone.
As the engineer was working that day, 50 people under the leadership of Jaber Hossain barged into his room. Jaber demanded that the engineer give permission for some of 'his people', who had suffered during the BNP period, to be given 'good transfers'. The engineer refused and ordered Jaber and his men out of the room. That evening, the engineer was ordered over the phone by the then managing director, Md Shahjahan Ali Mullah, also a joint secretary to the Local Government and Rural Development Ministry at the time -- to come to his office. When he arrived, the engineer was surprised to find that Hafiz Uddin, the union president, was also present.
The next day the executive engineer received a call from the managing director. "I am transferring you," he said adding, "You have failed in your post." One month later the executive engineer was transferred to another office. And since then most of the workers on Jaber Hossain's list have got their desired transfers.
It is not just this executive engineer who has been transferred. The managing director is alleged to have transferred 11 engineers for refusing to comply with DWSU demands for favourable transfers.
A number of Wasa engineers explained to The Daily Star a common system used by revenue inspectors to make money. Each revenue officer is now responsible for around 500 different billing locations -- which they then divide into those with small monthly bills (houses), and those with larger bills (like apartment complexes or factories).
The inspectors then personally employ a number of 'assistants' to collect the bills from the smaller properties. Many assistants are not even employed by Wasa, others are 'pump operators' who work as bill collectors after their office hours to make extra money.
The revenue inspectors themselves focus on the factories and apartment blocks. "They know approximately what should be the bill for a particular property. If the monthly bill for an apartment building would normally come to about Tk 1 lakh, the revenue inspector will come to an agreement with the building manager to give a bill for Tk 25,000, as long as he himself is given a similar amount," a senior engineer said. The Inspector will then go back to his office and print out a bill for the agreed figure.
From this one monthly transaction, Wasa will lose Tk 50,000 and the inspector will gain Tk 25,000. If this were happening with 50 properties, each revenue inspector could be earning lakhs of taka per month.
Since none is checking the meters, the revenue inspectors can easily get away with this scam. If someone does notice that the bills do not match the meter reading, the inspectors say the meter must have stopped working and they will replace it with a new one.
Much of this money, however, does not stay with the revenue inspectors. The system can only continue with the nod of managers within Wasa. The revenue inspectors give much of their money to the union in power which, it is alleged, is the conduit for paying the more senior managers.
This is not the only way revenue inspectors make money. There are thousands of illegal domestic and business water lines -- and the inspectors earn money from the owners in exchange for turning a blind eye. Arranging jobs for employment seekers is also a good business. Recently, Dhaka Wasa had 339 temporary jobs. The Daily Star learnt that Awami League backed DWSU was making it known to some temporary workers that it would help make the jobs permanent if the workers provided the union between Tk 3 lakh to Tk 5 Lakh.
In the last financial year, Wasa's revenue was 30 crore a month. Wasa's own website admits that the total 'system loss' -- which is meant to comprise leakage in pipe lines, illegal connections, and siphoning off by revenue inspectors -- is 36 percent. If this money was collected, it would add an additional 12 crore taka a month to the revenue. Engineers in Wasa's operation and maintenance department told The Daily Star that an estimated 8 of that 12 crore is taken by the revenue inspectors.
In June of this year, Wasa had 2,70,000 official consumer accounts -- which is 70,000 higher than the number six years earlier. In addition, they are estimated to have about 50,000 illegal connections.
The Daily Star spoke to the two Awami League affiliated DWSU leaders. Hafiz Uddin admitted that he did jointly own the land in Gazipur but said it was bought with family money, and the trade licenses are in the names of his brother and son. He denied being involved in job transfers and said, "My enemies are making baseless allegations to malign my political career." He said, "Dhaka Wasa Sromik Union is the only union that is working for the rights of Wasa employees."
Jaber Hossain denied that he brought his properties using illegal money -- stating that he in fact took out a bank loan and sold other properties. He also denied that the union took a share of money from the revenue inspectors, or was involved in taking money from workers who wanted to regularise their jobs. "We put pressure on the authorities only when we find that the workers are being deprived," he said.
Shahjahan Ali Mullah, the managing director until two months ago, said he had heard that revenue inspectors are taking money from the public, but that to him 'the inspectors and the public are equally corrupt'. He said Wasa has a cell which investigates any allegations of this kind. "If we get any complaint against inspectors, we will take action," he said denying that he was put under pressure by DWSU to issue transfer orders. "I don't have any information that Dhaka Wasa Sromik Union is involved in corruption," he added.