Toll money gobbled up | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 20, 2013 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:27 AM, April 20, 2013

Bangabandhu Bridge

Toll money gobbled up

Overloaded trucks cross Jamuna in exchange for bribes

Overloaded trucks crossing the Bangabandhu Multipurpose Bridge after giving bribes to a section of toll plaza staff [not seen in the photo]. The photo was taken recently. Photo: Star Overloaded trucks crossing the Bangabandhu Multipurpose Bridge allegedly after giving bribes to a section of toll plaza staff [not seen in the photo]. The photo was taken recently. Photo: StarThe Bangabandhu Multipurpose Bridge, which plays a vital role in the country's economy, commerce and communications, has become a hub of corruption and making quick bucks.
The toll plazas and weighing machines of the 4.8-kilometre-long bridge are the two main sources of illegal income for some officials and employees concerned.
Built over the Jamuna river in 1998, the bridge established rail road, gas and power connections between the country's northwestern region and the capital.
Investigation says siphoning off toll money has become an open secret, while taking bribes from overloaded truckers to let them cross the bridge takes place at night. Weight machines installed on either side of the bridge also remain inoperative many times to facilitate passage of overloaded vehicles.
A serious lax in monitoring the bridge's operations and maintenance, and inaction of the Bangladesh Bridge Authority (BBA) against the perpetrators are responsible for the situation.
Embezzlement of toll money has been taking place since the opening of the bridge in 1998. But there was hardly any talk about the corruption until The Daily Star and other media exposed stories of the embezzlement of Tk 11.93 lakh in three months early last year.
The BBA officials through random scrutiny of toll records of January, February 2012 and December 2011 found the money missing. The money was siphoned off by hiding real data on the computers and duplication of money receipts.
It was, however, just a tip of the iceberg.
As the authorities finally started monitoring the toll collection procedure following detection of last year's anomalies, they were surprised to see a sudden leap in the number of vehicles.
The latest data show an additional Tk 10-12 lakh is being collected from the bridge as toll every month. The actual amount would be more if a round-the-clock monitoring can be installed, BBA sources say.
“We are now scrutinising toll data and video footage twice and thrice a week,” Kabir Ahmed, chief engineer of the BBA, told The Daily Star recently.
On an average, Tk 95 lakh toll is collected every day.
A similar picture was detected through Buet's inspection after the bridge was opened.
“Buet was assigned to monitor traffic and toll collection for the first five years. The graph of toll collection had increased sharply during the visit of Buet team and audit of statistics,” recalled Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury.
The average daily toll collection was Tk 16 lakh in 1999.
A recent visit to the Bangabandhu Bridge revealed that the BBA's monitoring of toll collection had failed to stop the embezzlement. Evidence of it was found when a toll collector was caught for stealing money. However, it could not be known how much money he had embezzled.
Kabir Ahmed said automation of the entire system and proper monitoring are needed to fully stop the malpractices.
Although the BBA has been able to reduce toll money embezzlement, it has failed to stop malpractices at the weighing machines. Every night operators allow overloaded trucks to cross the bridge by taking bribes from drivers.
A strong warning in this regard by Communications Minister Obaidul Quader yielded no result as it has been a good source of income.
Finding no other way, the BBA decided to form a vigilance team a few months ago but the committee is yet to be formed.
“We came to know from various sources that taking bribes and allowing overloaded trucks to operate still go on. A chaotic situation also rules the two weighing machines at night. The team's task will be to bring discipline there,” said a BBA official.
Prof Jamilur Reza Choudhury said the weighing machines installed to check overloading have become an eyewash. He suggested monitoring by an independent body to stop all malpractices.
Two parking zones have been established adjacent to two weighing bridges where all the overloaded trucks are forced to go. Every truck has to pay Tk 50 in the name of maintenance of the parking zones.
An intelligence agency official posted at the bridge said Tk 3-5 lakh is realised from the zones every month. The money goes into the pockets of bridge operators and BBA officials.
Dozens of illegal shops and structures have been set up on BBA land, which is also a good source of income.
The BBA officials at the bridge denied the allegations.
While visiting the bridge recently, Communications Minister Obaidul Quader pledged to get rid of the irregularities.
The BBA's action against the corrupt is very disappointing. It has so far filed corruption cases against 12 toll collectors for siphoning off Tk 11.93 lakh. But it could not go for any action against the companies responsible.
Two local companies -- Shamim Enterprise Ltd (SEL) and UDC -- are operating and maintaining the bridge under a Tk 60 crore contract. None of them had previous experience but got the job by using joint venture with two Chinese firms -- Goangxi Scientific Institute of Communications (GSIC), and Meteorological Construction Company (MCC).
Asked why the BBA had failed to take action despite so much evidence of corruption against the companies, the Bridge Division chief engineer said there were some powerful persons behind the companies.
He, however, said the BBA was putting pressure on the companies to stop all kinds of irregularities and operate and maintain the bridge properly.
Many BBA officials believe the corruption continues mainly because of inaction against the companies. As per contracts, the government can cancel the agreements with the companies.
Investigations note that there has always been a race among influential quarters for the bridge's toll collection and maintenance job. The reason was to make money both legally and illegally.
As part of this row, SEL and UDC quoted Tk 60 crore to do the job for five years. The amount was lower than estimated.
“They were desperate to get the job by showing the lowest cost. Their intention was not to do the task properly and to make money through various illicit means,” said a senior BBA official seeking anonymity.
First a British-South African-Bangladeshi company was assigned for operation and maintenance job followed by an Indonesia-Bangladeshi joint venture.
The army also did the job for two years in 2008-09. SEL and UDC got the job in 2010 for five years.
There were influential people behind every local company, with financial interests involved. Corruption went on unabated as they provided strong backing to the companies.

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