There is a nondescript building on Tejgaon road that you may have hardly noticed. Perhaps, in a fleeting moment, you have noticed the signboard with the words “Bangladesh Government Press” and wondered what this is all about.
Some of you may know about this little-known, but important, government office but have surely never bothered to visit its website. Yet, if you did, you will notice something remarkable.
I’ll come to that in a moment.
But, first, what does the BG Press do?
Every week, the government issues gazette notifications. New laws, regulations and decrees, or amendments to these, need to be gazetted in order to become effective. Gazettes cover many other things, such as budgets, appointments and transfers of government officials, changes in customs duties and formation of cabinets. It is in the Bangladesh Government Press that the gazettes are printed and then made available to the public for a small price.
Several years ago, when I was working for an international development organisation in Dhaka, the government decided to put new gazettes online and instructed the Bangladesh Government Press to implement this through its website. The gazettes were already being prepared electronically using word processing software. Hence, it was a logical next step to put the documents on the internet.
At this stage, we got involved in a discussion with the government on what to do with past gazette notices. We were working on how to create a conducive investment climate in Bangladesh and, as part of this, we wanted to see if government documents that are relevant for businesses could be made easily available to them. Gazettes fall in this category because these contain information on laws, regulations, decrees, tax rates, etc that businesses needed easy access to.
We came to know that about 10,000 gazettes have been issued since independence and most of these were in bound volumes in the archive of the Bangladesh Government Press. Later, several additional copies of gazettes were found in a government warehouse. There were also copies of some in the Ministry of Law. Altogether, almost 95% of all gazettes issued since independence was traced.
A few small scanning machines were provided to the BG Press, along with a small team who painstakingly unbound the bound journals, took each individual gazette document, and scanned them. The journals were diligently rebound so that BG Press’s archival collection was not tampered with in any way. Another team catalogued the gazette notices.
One reason why government officials harass businesses and treat them in a discretionary fashion is their monopoly on information. A government website that regularly updates information dilutes that discretionary power
The process took about a year, but was not that expensive. The end result is something that is not short of a national asset -- a digitised collection of most gazettes issued since independence. These gazettes have been preserved on the website of the Bangladesh Government Press at http://www.dpp.gov.bd/bgpress/index.php/document/gazettes/140.
Digitising the stock of gazettes issued since independence is a remarkable act. But that is not the end of the story. Ever since the practice started almost a decade ago, the BG Press has diligently published each week’s gazette notices on its website without fail.
Not only the stock, but the flow is being archived. Given that government websites are notorious for lack of updating, this consistency on the part of a small office within the government is all the more praiseworthy.
This rich treasure trove of information is useful for many reasons. Take the case of businesses that need to be aware of policy changes and be in compliance with government rules and regulations. Easily available information makes life easier for businesses and more predictable.
One reason why government officials harass businesses and treat them in a discretionary fashion is their monopoly on information. A government website that regularly updates information dilutes that discretionary power, although it does not completely eliminate it.
Of course, not all policy and regulatory information is gazetted and covered by the BG Press. Thus, it is important to replicate BG Press’s good practices to other parts of the government.
The BG Press website does not contain the famous district gazetteers. These invaluable documents, the production of which was a regular feature during the British era, contain precious information of interest to historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and students of government. These cover a wide range of topics related to a district -- geography, economy, and demography -- and bring out many aspects of the society and culture of those times, some of which remain valid even decades later.
These documents can be a fascinating reading for ordinary citizens as well for those who seek to chart the future of the country in the light of history. Many of these gazetteers are still available. One just needs to take the trouble of scanning and cataloging these, and putting them on the internet.
As the experience with the digitisation of gazettes showed, such exercises do not require huge resources. What is needed is an appreciation of the value of archives and the power of information. And the patience and diligence of a few people.
Next time you pass through Tejgaon, take a moment to notice the offices of the BG Press. For, inside the walls of these unassuming buildings, lie important ingredients of our historical legacy. And, by being a vanguard in the digitisation and online dissemination of government documents, the Bangladesh Government Press has shown that it is as much an institution of the future as a guardian of the past.
It’s most likely that you will not have time to stop and visit the BG Press office. But its unique website is just a click away.
Akhtar Mahmood works for an international development agency.