As the old joke has it, there is no lid in the mouth of hell where the Bengalis are kept. After all, we are the proverbial crabs who are quite efficient in dragging each other down and have no intention of seeing one of our fellow species making it to the top. For the doubters, just ponder over the fact that our national game is kabadi, which is all about either poking others while holding your breath or pulling others back when they are out of breath.
Now wonder how a driver of health ministry can acquire property over 100 crores of taka without being pulled back? Where are the Zafars (add Mir if you want) to become suspicious of the Aladdin like towers he built in the middle of nowhere? Wasn't there anyone to report the growth of this man into a superman? Or did he get caught because he ran out of breath and became a burden for his team?
Engaged in illegal recruitments, manipulation of transfers and promotions, and fake-currency trade, Abdul Malek alias Badal reportedly amassed millions, according to RAB who nabbed him on Monday. Malek joined as a driver of Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) in 1982. He used his position to get scores of his relatives recruited to the public service, become a union leader, negotiate transfer deals, start his own cattle business using office resources, construct two seven-storied buildings with 24 apartments for his two wives and the list goes on. Malek just had to attend eight-years in school (unless his certificate is fake) to literally ride gari-ghora as per one of the maxims that we learned in our nursery primers. However, unlike the clever ones who can launder their money abroad, Malek was hiding the proof of his corruption in plain sight. His anomalous growth in wealth probably remained undetected because corruption has now become an integral part of our social fabric; we can no longer distinguish one pattern from the other.
Malek was one of the many employees who were being investigated by the anti-corruption commission. Malek is a mullet compared to the big fish who are having a whale of a time in the health ministry among others. For instance, the rampant corruption and graft cases in the DGHS were flagged by an ACC report in January 2019. The report warned the DGHS about the irregularities during the purchase of medicines, surgical equipment and other machines due to the absence of proper monitoring by the government. It added that, "An alleged nexus of contractors and officials from different organisations under the ministry buys many inessential machines and equipment to misappropriate money".
The report was brushed under the carpet and had a dusty return once Covid-19 exposed the sickness of our health sector. The sector is currently undergoing a homoeopathic treatment of "like cures like" now that the physical disease has begun to counter its embedded immoral disease. The arrests of a hospital owner Shahed and JKG Healthcare executives Ariful Chowdhury and his wife Dr Sabrina Arif Chowdhury are news that is sweet, albeit mild, like homoeopathic pills. Malek is the most recent dose. The cancerous growth of corruption will, however, require much more aggressive and strategic interventions.
In Sociology of Corruption (1968), the internationally renowned Malaysian social scientist, late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas defined corruption as, "the subordination of public interests to private aims involving a violation of norms and duty, accompanied by secrecy, betrayal, deception and callous disregard for any consequence suffered by the public". He mentioned three stages of corruption: restricted, rampant, and self-destructive.
Although we have managed to keep the Transparency International's champion's wreath of shame for some years now, it does not take a sociologist to understand that the condition of corruption in our country is critical and verging on being self-destructive. According to gainintegrity.com, an investment and risk compliance portal, Bangladesh is red-flagged in the judicial system, police, public service, land administration, tax and customs administration and public procurement. It adds that the legislature and civil society are not free to address the situation. In other words, all our public officials are susceptible to corruption, and there is a culture of impunity and indifference.
The government has revised the salary and incentives of public officials, strengthened legislative measures, yet the public interest, as Alatas puts it, is constantly being subordinated by the government officials and politicians with complete disregard for the general public. The carrots and sticks have little effect on the bureaucratic beast. The time has come to rethink our attitudes towards those who deviate from norms for personal gains.
While researching for this piece, I came across a very insightful article by two professors from MIT and Harvard. In Annual Review of Economics, Benjamin Olken and Rohini Pande (2012) assessed the prevalence, cost and factors of corruption in developing countries. The report does not include Bangladesh, but it offers scenarios involving bribery and thievery of public officials that are common to our country. For instance, it examines the link between wages and corruption among public officials. Let me quote the authors,
"Suppose that the bureaucrat receives a wage w from the government and, if fired, can receive an outside option v. The bureaucrat can decide to be corrupt or honest. If corrupt, he is detected with probability p, is fired, and receives outside option v. If he is undetected, he receives his wage w plus the bribe b, less a dishonesty cost d. In equilibrium, he will be corrupt if and only if "w-v ( (1-p)/p x (b-d)".
This framework suggests several avenues for reducing corruption. One could increase the returns to staying on the job (w), or, equivalently in this context, one could decrease the outside option (v) by increasing punishments. One could also increase the probability of detection (p)."
The article also gives examples of the magnitudes of corruption in certain countries. For instance, it reports that in 2005 Pakistan lost 0.3-1.9 percent of its GDP due to politically connected loans. I know a similar analysis of the culture of corruption that is corroding our society will be derring-do in our context. But if we want to become a middle-income country under an inspirational leadership, we need to have the right information to make the necessary informed structural adjustments in the public system. The more transparent the government can become in its dealings, the more aware the citizens will be of their rights. Having an informed public with access to technology will increase the probability of detection of corrupt individuals. People like Malek could have been detected much earlier if we had an informed opinion against corruption in place. Such detection will deter others from becoming another Malek (pun added). Now we need someone who has enough steam inside to foray into the court of corrupts and hit the opponents. We need someone to chant kabadi kabadi… and reinvest in our national game. But this time it will be a game against corruption.
Shamsad Mortuza is a professor of English at the University of Dhaka (now on leave). Currently, he is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of ULAB.