Can BTCL just hold off paying its dues randomly?
Like all offices run by the state or carrying its seal in some form, the Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL) is not exactly a paragon of good governance. The company, whose main offering of landline service has fallen out of favour since the advent of mobile phone, has been trying to stay afloat by providing a host of related services licensed under the telecom regulator. Yet, to dodge due payments like the way it did over successive fiscal years, as recently revealed by an audit report, is a fresh reminder of how financial mismanagement has been plaguing the public sector.
This tendency to skip payments has been witnessed, albeit at irregular intervals, since the BTCL was turned into a public limited company in 2008.
According to the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which analysed its books for FY 2017-18, the state coffer stands at least Tk 2,258.76 crore short thanks to the BTCL's failure to share a portion of its revenues from different services. As per its licensing terms, it is obligated to deposit the money with the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), which then deposits it with the exchequer. This tendency to skip payments has been witnessed, albeit at irregular intervals, since it was turned into a public limited company in 2008. For example, it skipped payments of Tk 628.40 crore earned from handling local phone calls, and of Tk 944.56 crore earned from handling incoming and outgoing international phone calls, from October 2008 to June 2014. It continued to skip payments later – notably in landline and international internet gateway services – despite repeated requests from the BTRC.
Clearly, the BTCL doesn't feel as bound to its regulator, or by relevant rules, as any institution handling public money should. The CAG audit team also found that the BTCL's internal control system was weak, with no responsible officer or cell for monitoring payment of dues. There was no trace of an internal audit system either. All this explains why, despite huge investment made over the years, this once-profitable company has been racking up losses since FY 2009-10. All the modernisation projects taken up since, as well as ongoing projects, seem to have had little effect on its outdated (read: questionable) modus operandi.
Unfortunately, the BTCL is only the latest in a growing list of state agencies and departments to have been embroiled in accounting scandals. Over the past three weeks, we have had similarly damning CAG reports on the Directorate General of Food, the Directorate General of Health Services, public hospitals, the ministries of agriculture and fisheries and livestock, Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation, etc. What was common in all of them was how such irregularities and corruption were allowed to persist year after year without any effective oversight. What's equally problematic is the lack of official response to this Auditgate scandal.
We urge the government to take these audit objections seriously and impose strict discipline on the relevant authorities, including of BTCL, to make them accountable. This situation cannot continue anymore.