The Local Government Engineering Department or LGED is a wonderful place for corruption, irregularity and abuse of power.
Take Atiar Rahman. He is an assistant engineer there and is only entitled to transport between his home and office. But he has taken two cars from two projects. And guess what! One of them is being used by his wife and the other by his ex-wife, whom Atiar divorced five years ago.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Examples of how the LGED is misusing project cars abound. But it is also a place of give and take.
Rehana Yasmin, for instance, does not even work there. A deputy secretary at the LGRD ministry, she has got hold of a project car and is using it even when she is on a two-month leave, sources have said.
Over the years, the LGED has adopted an innovative way of buying favours of big shots in the government. Its officials give out their project cars for personal use of a section of ministers, secretaries, prime minister's advisers and other PMO officials. In return, the LGED gets its projects approved by various ministries and also gets undue favours during audits, among other paybacks.
The department also pays for fuel and maintenance cost and overtime salaries of the drivers, actually hired for the projects. The LGED has to count about Tk 2 lakh for all this every day or about Tk 7.3 crore a year, the sources added.
Project cars are bought with government and foreign funds for specific projects implemented by the LGED, which is under the LGRD ministry. Each of these vehicles usually costs between Tk 50 lakh and 3.5 crore and are meant solely for project officials.
THE LIST IS LONG
At present, at least 70 project cars are being used by, among other big fishes, five ministers, four secretaries, two advisers of the PM and seven top PMO officials, according to the car distribution list obtained by The Daily Star.
This newspaper could not contact all these 70 men and women owing to logistics and time constraints. But over the past two weeks, these correspondents spoke to at least 15 drivers who confirmed that these vehicles are now being used by those on the list. Another 10 cars and their current "owners" were identified through visiting their homes and the secretariat.
In 2012, the LGED also bought three luxury vehicles (SUVs) for approximately Tk 11 crore with funds from the Primary Education Development Programme (PEDP), although car purchases with the PEDP fund are illegal. The Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating the purchase.
LGRD Minister Syed Ashraful Islam, State Minister Moshiur Rahman Ranga and prime minister's Political Adviser HT Imam are using these three luxury vehicles -- Dhaka Metro Gha 13-6110, Dhaka Metro Gha 13-6114 and Dhaka Metro Gha 13-6113, the list and the sources confirm.
The PEDP is tasked with improving school infrastructures by constructing or upgrading class rooms and labs, teachers and students' hostels, water and sanitation facilities and playground to facilitate admission of more students. At the moment, the highest number of vehicles being illegally used were bought under this project.
Ashraf is using a second SUV (Dhaka Metro Gha 11-3779) from another LGED project.
In addition, he has got a car from the government's transport pool in his capacity as a minister, which is also the case for many of those on the list.
The vehicle HT Imam is using was previously used by ABM Tajul Islam, former state minister for Liberation War Affairs Ministry.
During the last AL government tenure, Tajul took two project cars but he returned those. He is now using another project car (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-7469).
The SUV that Ranga has now taken hold of was previously used by his predecessor Jahangir Kabir Nanak.
GIVE AND TAKE?
A section of LGED officials provide this privilege to ministers and top government officials to get their "blessings" in getting development projects approved, often at inflated cost, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Those who always get project cars as "gifts" are the LGRD minister, its state minister, secretary, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on this ministry, primary and mass education secretary, chairman of the House committee on this ministry and top bosses of the planning commission.
The LGED "serves" them because they are vital in planning, initiating and awarding development projects.
Not that the LGED always gives the project cars willingly. There is the pressure factor as well.
When, for example, a minister or a secretary or a top PMO official needs a car for personal use, he takes his pick from among the flashy SUVs. And when people with power make a demand, it has to be met, the sources said.
A wing of the local government and rural development ministry, the LGED plans and implements rural and urban development projects. On average, it implements about 90 projects worth about Tk 5,000 crore a year.
Allegations of misuse of taxpayers' money by the department officials are rife.
In July last year, a study by the Transparency International, Bangladesh found contractors have to pay up to 30 percent in commission to lawmakers, politicians and government officials to secure an LGED project.
It also said political influence, interference by ministries and lack of proper monitoring, evaluation, audit and transparency are the main reasons behind irregularities and corruption in the LGED.
According to the study, since the establishment of the LGED in 1992, as many as 1,772 audit objections involving Tk 1,369 crore remained unresolved till fiscal 2011-2012.
On institutional corruption, it says the chief engineer abuses power to control promotion, postings, transfer and other activities. Besides, LGED officials use official cars for private purposes, and even take money by showing fake bills for vehicle repairs.
Former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumder said it was outright illegal that ministers and other influential persons were using project cars.
"All the ministers and high officials get cars [from the government]. If they use projects cars in addition to their official cars, it is undoubtedly corruption," he said.
Asked why this practice has been going on for so long, he said, "There is a sense of impunity everywhere and no one is held accountable for wrongdoing. This encourages people to indulge in corruption."
TIB Chairperson Sultana Kamal agrees.
"There should be a policy for using government vehicles," she said, adding that abuse of power is also corruption.
Contacted, LGED Assistant Engineer Atiar Rahman denied that he took two project cars. He also dismissed the allegation that he gave one project car to his ex-wife.
"I'm using one car," he told this newspaper on Monday.
But on the same day The Daily Star spoke with multiple LGED sources who confirmed that Atiar took two cars (Dhaka Metro Ga 21-1429 and SAS 65-4456) for personal use.
Asked if using project cars was illegal, Moshiur Rahman Ranga, state minister for the LGRD ministry, advised this newspaper to speak to LGRD Minister Syed Ashraful Islam, who looks after the LGED.
On why he is himself using a project car, he said, "I don't know if my car is a project vehicle, I got it from the ministry."
Asked about his government-provided vehicle, Ranga said, "I can't say at this moment whether I got any government vehicle. I have to talk to my personal secretary in this regard."
This newspaper called the LGRD minister several times yesterday, but he did not pick up the phone. Neither did he respond to a text message requesting his comment.
Wahidur Rahman, chief engineer of the LGED who is responsible for all the projects, also did not pick up calls or respond to SMS.
POST IS POWER
A comparison of the current car distribution list with the one before the January 5 election shows that those who failed to retain a position in the cabinet or the posts that the LGED always "honours" have also failed to retain the project cars. They had to return the project cars, which are now being used by those who replaced them.
Former LGRD secretary Abu Alam Shahid Khan lost his SUV (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-2884) after the January 5 election. It is now in the possession of the current Secretary, Monzur Hossain.
Abul Hasnat Abdullah, chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on the LGRD ministry, has also taken a project car (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-2883) for personal use.
House Deputy Leader Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury is using the car (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-1850) previously used by Rahmat Ali, former chairman of the standing committee on the LGRD ministry.
Officials of the Prime Minister's Office are using seven project vehicles. They include PM's special assistants Abdus Sobhan Golap, Mahbubul Hoque Shakil, Ferdous Ahmed Khan, PM's Assistant Personal Secretary Saifuzzaman Shikhor and PM's Senior Medical Officer Dr Syeda Suraiya Akbar.
Ambassador-at-large Mohammad Ziauddin, who has been appointed Bangladesh's ambassador to the US, is also using a project car (Dhaka Metro Gha 11-8045).
Also on this list are PM's Economic Affairs Adviser Moshiur Rahman (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-1861), Expatriates' Welfare Minister Khandker Mosharraf Hossain (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-0295), Law Minister Anisul Haq (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-7750) and State Minister for Public Administration Ismat Ara Sadeq (Dhaka Metro Gha 13-6252).
Former commerce minister Faruk Khan, former primary and mass education minister Afsarul Ameen, former state minister Mannujan Sufian, former whip Mirza Azam, former press secretary to the PM Abul Kalam Azad and AL Joint General Secretary Mahabubul Alam Hanif returned the project cars immediately before and after the January 5 election.