It is no secret that people in general share a common perception that corruption in the country has gone off the rails to the point of becoming nearly unbearable. While high corruption, mainly facilitated by some members of the ruling party of the day, has been a plague now for decades, the political reality of the last 10 years—with the Awami League dominating the political arena—that has elevated the power and influence of a few current ruling-party members, seems to have pushed corruption up to new extremes.
The correlation between the two should not come as a surprise—as history shows. Hence, the saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is so commonly known. This is what makes the prime minister’s recent comments, which most likely initiated the removal or arrest of individuals in high positions of the AL’s various student wings, not only bold, but also commendable.
During a meeting on September 9, the PM expressed her dissatisfaction over the controversial activities of then Chhatra League President Rezwanul Haque Chowdhury Shovon and General Secretary Golam Rabbani. On September 14, the two were removed from their posts. Citing AL sources, this newspaper reported on September 15 that the PM became furious when she was informed by Jahangirnagar University VC that the two demanded “four to six percent” cut from a Tk 1,445 crore project at the university—which one of the two admitted they wanted for their “Eid expenditure”. As outrageous as this sounds, this attempted extortion was not a one-off event.
Before their appointments, Shovon and Rabbani lived in Dhaka University dormitories. Afterwards, the two reportedly started living in flats that cost Tk 70,000 and Tk 40,000 in rent, even though the BCL charter did not allow them to have any job or be involved in any business. Then how could they afford such high rents? And how did they afford owning their own separate Toyota Noahs? One likely answer: “through extortion”, as even several BCL leaders of DU alleged Shovon’s followers had set fire to equipment during a concert to celebrate Pahela Baishakh because Shovon was not given his cut of the sponsor’s money.
The removal of the two top leaders of BCL immediately seemed to have sent a message. On September 16, this newspaper reported that Jubo League was going to hold a meeting in a bid to “rid itself of errant elements”, where two key leaders of its Dhaka city unit were “summoned”. The report said that this move was triggered by the PM expressing her anger over various allegations against some Jubo League leaders.
And lo and behold, on September 18, Jubo League Dhaka South Organising Secretary Khalid Mahmud Bhuiyan was arrested by Rab for running a casino at a football club in Fakirerpool. After raiding the casino, they detained and sentenced 142 people and seized Tk 24 lakh, bottles of liquor, drugs, etc. According to Rab officials, crores of taka were being gambled in the casino every day.
Later, they raided another casino at Wanderers Club and recovered huge quantities of gambling materials, drugs and counterfeit currencies. Rab officials said two leaders of the ruling party affiliated organisations ran that casino as well.
What is interesting is that Fakirerpool Young Men’s Club and Dhaka Wanderers Club, where the casinos had been running, are both located just behind the Motijheel Police Station, separated only by the walls of a police barracks. Then why wasn’t any action taken before? It seems highly unlikely that it was because law enforcers didn’t know.
According to one official of the Bangladesh Football Federation, the “police were silent” as “they were beneficiaries too”, and because the “police don’t have the power to catch them without the permission of the highest authorities”. The only explanation why that could be is that those running the casinos, or the casino business itself, were being protected by even more powerful and influential quarters or individuals.
Responding to this suspicion, AL General Secretary Obaidul Quader said, “action will be taken if it is found that the ‘casino business’ was being operated with support from any political leader or anyone from the administration.” And the PM herself gave similar hints when she said, “I have taken action against Chhatra League and Jubo League. I won’t spare anyone”.
Given the recent aforementioned events, these statements are indeed encouraging. However, the question still remains why actions against corrupt elements were not taken until the PM spoke out.
Aside from the fact that these corrupt individuals had garnered enormous power, or were being protected by others that are influential, the fact that they continued to commit crimes until now shows: i) That corruption has become so embedded in society and across various government hierarchies that it has become institutionalised; and ii) That our public institutions, as they currently stand, are failing as a result—since this kind of corruption is supposed to be rooted out through existing mechanisms, and not have to wait for the PM’s intervention.
However, when corruption does become this institutionalised, the only way out of its vicious cycle is through courageous interventions—as made by the PM in recent cases.
That corruption has become rampant is visible also from another angle. Around the same time that all this happened, this newspaper reported that Tk 57 lakh crore out of a Tk 1,500 crore project titled, “Sustainable Forests and Livelihood”, had been spent with project officials failing to select even the project site. It was discovered that officials had attended multiple trainings abroad, bought five cars for Tk 2.5 crore, etc., but had made zero progress in the project that aims to improve the lives of 40,000 people—meaning all that money spent just went down the drain.
In another case, it was found that out of 600 buses that the government bought earlier in the year from Indian companies—with loans from the Indian government—for Tk 475 crore, many were faulty. And as the Minister of Road Transport and Bridges Obaidul Quader explained, “there must have been experts among those involved in bringing buses”—which rules out incompetence being the cause that led to such wastage, and points to corruption instead.
All this paints an extremely grim picture. As while, on the one hand, there are a few incidences to celebrate in the fight against corruption, on the other, we see countless more popping up, left, right and centre.
This is why we hope the PM would follow up on her words that no one will be spared when it comes to corruption. The only way to effectively battle corruption at this stage is to extend the net that has been thrown on corrupt BCL and Jubo League members, across the ruling party and all organisations affiliated to it. And also across different government organisations and ministries.
It is only when action is taken against criminals in all these different organisations that the environment of impunity that has been established over the years, can be brought down. Once that begins to happen, public organisations may finally function in a way where corruption gets addressed through their own mechanisms, as they should—instead of government officials and law enforcers turning a blind eye to corruption, or actively helping to cover it up.
Realistically, only then should we expect there to be a real turn in the tide in the crusade against corruption.
Eresh Omar Jamal is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. His Twitter handle is: @EreshOmarJamal.