Corrupt unionism starts to creep up
Unruly trade unionism that systematically drained out thousands of crore taka in the past few decades and protected plunderers of national resources is creeping back into Titas Gas Transmission and Distribution Company Ltd (TGTDCL) as the new government took office last month.
Awami League lawmaker Israfil Alam, who once used to be a meter reader, is allegedly patronising a group of 30-40 people who are staging showdowns at Titas Bhaban in Karwan Bazar every day since last month, sending a wave of chill among TGTDCL officials and employees.
Intriguingly, this "pro-AL" group is being backed by one of the three pro-BNP trade unions in Titas. Sources say the group identifying themselves as the leaders of 'Titas Gas Sramik League', which is a convener committee of Jatiya Sramik League, is gathering at Titas premises to show off strength though it doesn't belong to any Titas trade unions.
This convener committee was formed on June 23, 2005.
This group is trying to establish supremacy over Titas management so that it can resume illegal activities including transfer and posting of the employees it could not do in the last two years, sources say.
The group is serving the purpose of the pro-BNP Titas Gas Jatiyatabadi Sramik Karmachari Union that does not want any election to Collective Bargaining Agent (CBA) in fear of possible defeat. The election has been stalled for 20 years.
This trade union is allegedly the main protector of corrupt meter readers and other staffs. The leaders of this group would help out a corrupt meter reader or staff even if he belongs to some AL banner and thus protect their personal interests.
"The situation is taking a worrying turn day by day as the group claiming themselves as Awami League supporters are becoming desperate to establish authority in the organisation," says a TGTDCL official wishing not to be identified.
It is learned that they have submitted a list of people to the authorities for transfer, he said, adding, "We are very concerned that anything dangerous may happen anytime if such trends continue."
Activities of unionists came to a halt during the last caretaker government's rule as the army-led Task Force against Serious Crimes and Corruption launched massive drives against the TGTDCL staffs involved in illegal activities including meter tampering and other irregularities.
Many of the supervisors, meter readers and other staffs were transferred to different districts following discovery of astonishing level of corruption.
Some of them have eaten away the Titas revenue and become millionaires through illegal connection, tampering with bills, and depriving the government of crores of taka in revenue income. Their stories of becoming millionaire were also appeared on different newspapers.
Talking to The Daily Star, many officials said they did not face interruption in their work in the last two years.
System loss in the state-run organisation, which has its franchise area in greater Dhaka, greater Mymensingh and Brahmanbaria, decreased significantly during the caretaker rule. It earned Tk 4,410 crore revenue by selling 12,239 million cubic metres gas in 2007-08 fiscal year, according to the annual report of 2007-2008. The revenue in 2006-07 was Tk 3,840 crore and Tk 3,408 crore in 2005-06.
The corrupt nexus of some Titas unionists and officials, meter readers and industrialists annually stole gas worth around Tk 200 crore for many years. Such pilferage made many petty meter readers and staffs overnight millionaires and some of them even became industrialists themselves.
With the new government coming to power, the group that took advantages during the BNP-led alliance government started returning to office and giving the impression they belong to ruling AL and had always belonged to it, the sources point out.
Though the corrupt trade union's base is small in number and has no support among the employees and workers, it is trying to establish authority at TGTDCL to protect its illegal mechanism of plundering, they continue.
"A CBA election has become urgent to end such corrupt trade union practices in Titas. If the CBA is elected properly, healthy trade unionism will return," says an official.
Lawmaker Israfil Alam, who won from Naogaon-6, joined Titas as a junior meter reader in 1987 and became assistant general secretary of Titas Gas Karmachari Union, an affiliate of the AL's labour front Jatiya Sramik League. Later, he was expelled from the union due to his alleged link to corrupt activities, the sources add.
But Israfil managed to convince a section of employees and some leaders of Sramik League to form the convener committee in which he was made the adviser.
There are four registered trade unions in TGTDCL. Of them, the oldest Titas Gas Karmachari Union is backed by AL, while the rest -- Titas Gas Sramik O Karmachari Union, Titas Gas Employees Union and Titas Gas Jatiyatabadi Sramik O Karmachari Union -- are backed by BNP.
The sources add had the CBA election taken place, the pro-AL trade union would have sweepingly won as it has the biggest popularity base. But the election could not take place even during the past AL rule due to a pending case and other complications.
Contacted, Abdul Motaleb Hawlader, convener of 'Titas Gas Sramik League', dismissed the allegation of staging showdown saying some leaders in connivance with BNP-backed unions are doing it.
"Jatiya Sramik League approved us with a view to restoring democracy in Titas as the AL-backed unionists were faced with different conspiracies during the BNP rule. We just follow the directives of Sramik League," he added.
Asked whether he belongs to any trade union, he said he belongs to Titas Gas Employees Union, which is backed by BNP.
On allegation of the Naogaon lawmaker's patronisation, he said this is not true and Israfil does not belong to the committee any more since he is an MP.
Talking to The Daily Star, lawmaker Israfil claimed none of the all allegations are true. "I have little interest in the organisation as most of people working there are bad in nature," he said.
He also claimed he worked in TGTDCL for a short period of time and left the organisation soon after being released from jail on bail in connection with a case filed for murder of a TGTDCL employee named Bellal Hossain Bepari in 1992.
According to official documents, he resigned from his job as a supervisor in 2001 for taking part in the eighth parliamentary elections.
"None came to me for any kind of cooperation and even I don't have any scope to cooperate anyone since I left the job long ago. I have got no business there," he added.
On the convener committee, he said Jatiya Sramik League formed the committee to fill the vacuum of party activities, as there were no party activities at that time. "I was made an adviser of the committee, but the post was nothing effective."
Though Israfil denies the allegation of meddling with Titas affairs, after he became an MP he made several phone calls to the Titas high officials saying if anyone creates any problem, he would like to help, sending them the message that he has influence and something to do with Titas.
Israfil was given protection by some pro-BNP unionists during the last BNP rule and now they want a return from him to make Titas their stronghold once again, the sources add.