Besides the PK Halder saga
Food prices have been keeping us awake at night, making some of us seriously rethink our diets. Confronted with the news that there was a severe soybean oil crisis reflected by the ludicrous price hike in this essential item, people were toying with the idea of switching to mustard oil, using less oil in cooking or just "going boiled," which would have been a healthy decision for those who have an irrepressible weakness for greasy samosas and morog mussalam, plus can afford such "delicacies." We have to admit, as Bangladeshis we do consume an extraordinary amount of oil—and onions—hence the panic during sudden shortages in supply of these items. Of course, later we found that it was much ado about nothing, since there were gallons and gallons of it stashed away by mischievous traders in their storage areas, merely so that they could create an artificial crisis and make some money off the oil-less public. While we heaved a sigh of relief at being able to go back to our oil-soaked begun bhaja and greasy Mughlai porota, other food scares continued.
There was the wheat scare and the rice scare, both of which seem to have been tackled by the authorities for the time being. Now it's the dollar scare, which brings us back to the food scare. It's a vicious cycle.
All this negativity makes one's head spin. Thankfully, there were some positive developments to distract us from the mildly important issue of how to deal with the escalating food prices. There was the much-publicised capture of PK Halder, the great con artist, and the fascinating plots and subplots of how he, as the top official of a bank, managed to embezzle thousands of crores of taka as loans and launder them to various countries, buying luxurious mansions in Canada, Europe and India, and finally his dramatic capture in India. One has to give credit to this Einstein of a man for being able to distract people from the shrinking food basket. Now there's a candidate for a Bangladeshi remake of "Catch Me if You Can" (Dhorte Parle Dhor). Move aside, DiCaprio.
Another piece of good and breaking news is that the government has decided to abandon the ambitious "palm tree project" launched in 2017 to trap lightning, which killed at least 336 people last year. It seems someone had an epiphany that palm trees take time to grow and a natural phenomenon like lightning will not wait around for these natural buffers to become adults. Genius.
So, now we have a brand new, Tk-950-crore project to build shelter homes and very cool, techy lightning arresters in the lightning-prone areas of 15 districts. Now now, don't raise your eyebrows, please—Tk 950 crore is peanuts compared to the thousands of crores "redirected" by PK Halder and Co from Bangladesh to foreign lands. In fact, if we can recover at least some of the PK stash, it would go a long way in funding the extra cost of numerous delayed projects. It could be called the PK Halder Redemption Fund, with many more such funds to follow as more and more of such innovative artistes of deception are unveiled.
Talking about projects, the goals of which are a little fuzzy, let's take the four ongoing projects to address the perennial waterlogging in Chattogram, worth Tk 11,000 crore, and how some of them were initiated without some minor homework—trivia such as having project proposals, feasibility studies, seeing whether the designs were correct or if they complied with the city master plans. According to a news report, one such project, for instance, was worth Tk 5,617 crore in 2017 and supposed to have been finished by 2020, but then was extended to 2022. But by April 2022, only 65 percent of the work had been completed, pushing the project deadline to 2023 with an increase in total cost of either Tk 9,526 crore or Tk 10,420 crore, depending on which government body's estimate is taken. It's no big deal—around a Tk 1,000 crore difference, give or take.
Delays in projects are a rule rather than an exception, which is why even a three-kilometre canal could not be built in the last seven years because of complications with acquiring the land. This is the city, one will remember, where mayors have gleefully said during elections that they would solve all the waterlogging problems of Chattogram (even during the time when it was called Chittagong). While these megaprojects are being delayed, Chittagonians, or rather Chattogramians, have the pleasure of getting floods in areas where there was no waterlogging before, thanks to temporary dams in the canals as part of the project to mitigate waterlogging! For those who enjoy living a bit dangerously, Chattogram has also become a city where, at any given time, one may literally disappear into an open drain or canal.
But seriously, we must applaud our government for restricting all "unnecessary" foreign trips of the employees in government or semi-government institutions in a bid to save some taxpayers' money during these hard times created by the pandemic, the Ukraine war, taka devaluation and because of the general apprehension that things will get worse before they get better. Hopefully, this will mean a curb on trips (complimentary of Biman) with a battalion of officials and their family members to Toronto to celebrate Independence Day.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is joint editor at The Daily Star.