Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Politics of Corruption in Bangladesh


Neha Mehta 
(Research Assistant, VIF)

Corruption is rampant in Bangladesh in almost every sphere of life. However, a series of high profile corruption scandals, such as in the Padma Bridge project, the Railway Scandal, the Hall Mark Group scam, Destiny Group and last year’s share market scam under the current Sheikh Hasina government, that involved high ranking ministers and officials has brought the credibility of the government under the scanner. In a situation of continuous political strife and with elections fast approaching, a series of corruption scams of such magnitude has led the general public to question the motives of the government that came to power on the pretext of taking firm action against corruption. Adding to this, the dismissive and defensive stance of the government has only worsened its position.

In Bangladesh, with politics getting intertwined with corruption, the cycle of blame game starts with the tenure of each party forming the government alternatively, to take political advantage, in their pursuit for power. The continuous political bickering over corruption issues in Bangladesh has been a constant over the years, with each party in power probing scandals that involved party leaders of the opposition and in turn getting rid of their own cases that were being pursued by the last government.

Institutionally the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was established in 2004 to have a neutral, independent institution to enact preventative and retributive policies to fight corruption in a variety of entities, both governmental and non-governmental. 1 However in the latest report on Bangladesh brought out by the International Crisis Group2, the ACC was termed as a “toothless tiger” by the chairman of ACC Ghulam Rahman, who said that it is now required to obtain the governments permission before investigating officers, which in turn increases the chances of the corrupt suspects to put pressure on its subordinates to not give information or cooperating with ACC. In addition, the old cases against senior party leaders have been wiped out by finding loop holes in the judicial process with the help of the National Committee on Withdrawl of Politically-Motivated Cases that recommended the dismissal of 315 corruption cases through Feb 2012.3

However, there is no mistaking the fact that Awami League government has had credible success on many fronts like in destroying terrorist networks functioning in the country, jailing extremists and stopping foreign funding of terrorist organistaions operating from its soil. From the verge of being declared as a state sponsor of terrorism during the last BNP led government, it has come a long way. In the domain of foreign policy, it has taken constructive strides, especially in improving relations with India, mainly by addressing its security concerns and making efforts to find solutions to long standing issues between the two countries. Additionally, the economy has grown at an impressive rate of around 6 percent4 as well as strides made in education, healthcare and women upliftment under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership has been much appreciated. However, inspite of all the positive steps taken by the government, there is a rising discontentment and disillusionment against a government that is considered the secular face of Bangladeshi politics and which came to power with a thumping majority in the elections of 2008. A series of corruption allegations involving government functionaries among others has tainted its image.

Corruption allegations in various domains especially in the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project led multilateral lending agency like World Bank cancelling the pledged $1.2 billion credit for the $2.9 billion Padma bridge project on June 29 2012, stating that it found 'credible evidence' of corruption in the project. This in turn, gave a huge setback to the image of Bangladesh abroad and embarrassed the Awami League government. A country that is highly dependent on development aid from external agencies, it becomes all the more crucial to keep a clean image. World Bank is an important credit provider for development projects in Bangladesh and it pulling back due to the issue of corruption, in turn brought the Padma Bridge project to a standstill, as the other donors (Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and Islamic Development Bank (IDB) could not move forward without it. The Padma Bridge Project which was conceptualized with the aim to overhaul the transportation infrastructure that intended to connect the South-Western region of the country, “in order to stimulate economic growth by facilitating inter-regional, cross-river transport of passengers and freight, and transmission of natural gas, telecommunication and electricity in a cost effective manner”5, is particularly crucial to Awami League as it formed part of its election manifesto. Therefore, fulfilling its promises becomes imperative as it would definitely have a bearing on the elections due next year.

Initially, the stance of the Bangladeshi government to the corruption allegations in the Padma Bridge Project was defensive and defiant, maintaining that a lack of evidence in the case was the reason behind their inaction. However, the need to get the project started, along with the dire need to get the finances, they had to albeit reluctantly comply to the conditionality that was put forth by the World Bank officials with a promise to have a credible investigation and transparent implementation of Padma bridge project.

Further, allegations against the Railway Minister of the Sheikh Hasina government, Suranjit Sengupta over the issue of taking cash bribes from applicants seeking jobs in the state run railway led to his resignation and brought a barrage of criticism against the government. Although, he denied taking money from the applicants and subsequently even resigned, but was made a minister without portfolio after he submitted his resignation, which caused great disappointment to the public who expected stern action against the accused.

In addition, cases of corruption in the financial sector like the illegal disbursement of a loan of Tk 3,547 crore to Hallmark Group and five other companies between 2010 and May this year6 by Sonali Bank, in which the alleged involvement of the Prime Minister's Health and Family Welfare advisor, Syed Modasser Ali in the scam, brings into focus the connection of a high level government functionary in the scandal. Besides, the off-hand remark of the Finance Minister AMA Muhith's on this issue that “Tk 4,000 crore loan scandal out of the Tk 40,000 crore loan in the country’s banking sector is not a big deal”, showed the casual manner in which such a issue was being addressed. In addition, the share market scam in which about Tk 20,000 crore were swindled and the Destiny group scam, have all affected the popularity of the government severely especially for people who viewed their coming to power as a welcome change as against the corrupt and radical policies of the last BNP led government.

Transparency International’s latest report on “Positive and Negative Roles of the Members of the 9thParliament: A Review” that put forth its findings, raked up a political storm with strong reactions from the Awami League. The report stated that around 97 percent of the MPs are involved in “negative activities and 70 percent were involved in criminal activities 7. Ministers from the Awami League, however, questioned the motive as well as the timing of the report saying it is ‘ill motivated” and considered it as a conspiracy to bring non-elected people to power as well as to damage the image of the elected MPs. The issue was extensively politicized and they even contemplated action against the international watchdog, which shows little tolerance for criticism, rather it should make efforts to improve its image than to take action against independent agencies.

Criticism against Sheikh Hasina has mounted over the months domestically as well as internationally, especially by various international agencies that have been critical in their assessment of her policies. The scrapping of the provision of a caretaker government to oversee elections by adopting the fifteenth amendment to the constitution, has led to a political stalemate over the issue. In addition, actions against the Grameen bank and other issues have been viewed negatively. Adding to it, the cases of corruption against the government has deteriorated its standing.

However, Bangladesh is not new to corruption rather it has struggled to keep a clean image. The state of governance and corruption during the BNP led government had reached at its lowest ebb. Bangladesh was at the bottom for five years (2001-2005) in the annual corruption perception index (CPI) by the Transparency International (TI) during the tenure of the BNP led government.8 However in the following six years it improved slightly. From 2006-2011, it ranked third, seventh, tenth, thirteenth, twelfth and thirteenth respectively.9
The need for a progressive Bangladesh demands secular credentials and a corruption free image. A series of scandals of such magnitude and frequency has gone against the incumbent government, that came to power as an alternative to a government, that was viewed as being radical, corrupt and extreme in its approach. The opposition parties especially the BNP, on the other hand are trying to use the discontentment of the people to their advantage, by projecting themselves as the alternative proposing radical policies. The need of the hour, however, is stern action against the accused and less politics over the issue to turn around the battered image of the Awami League. The future of Bangladesh would suffer due to the mistake of a few corrupt people which might result in bringing a radical government to power, governed by Islamists that would only take the country backward and would not benefit anyone.

Endnotes
  1. Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, “ Anti-Corruption Commission Bangladesh”, [Online: web] Accessed: 2 Nov 2012: URL: http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/resources/organizations/anti-corruption-commission-bangladesh
  2. International Crisis Group (13 June 2012) “Bangladesh Back to the Future: Asia Report No. 226” [Online: web] Accessed: 2 Nov 2012: URL: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-asia/bangladesh/226-bangladesh-back-to-the-future.pdf
  3. Ibid
  4. Central Intelligence Agency, “World Fact Book” [Online: web] Accessed: 14 Nov 2012:URL:https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/2003.html
  5. World Bank (2012) Bangladesh Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project [Online: web]Accessed 2 Nov 2012 URL:http://www.worldbank.org/projects/P111017/bangladesh-padma-multipurpose-bridge-project?lang=en
  6. The Daily Star (2 Sept 2012), “Hallmark MD 'ready to return money'”, [Online: web]
    Accessed 2 Nov 2012: URL: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/latest_news.php?nid=40480
  7. The Daily Star (20 Nov 2012), “Study on MPs: TIB flayed at Sangsad” , [Online: web]
    Accessed 20 Nov 2012: URL: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=258186
  8. The Daily Star (2 Dec 2011), “TI's Graft Index Bangladesh betters a bit”, [Online: web]
    Accessed 12 Nov 2012: URL: http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=212570
  9. Ibid

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