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OP-ED: Cheating as a way of life

  • Published at 08:52 pm July 16th, 2020
corruption
Photo: BIGSTOCK

There is a perception that only those willing to join the corruption bandwagon can progress in life

Saifuddin Saif’s news item in The Business Standard on July 11, 2020 entitled “Zoom meetings with zooming expenses” highlights the corruption in government ministries and departments that has been prevalent for many, many years. Very sad to say, it is endemic.

Only a few days after this news appeared, there was a report in TBS that, at a recent meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC), Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has asked officials concerned to be economical in spending public money on development projects in order to be able to address the financial crisis caused by the adverse impacts of Covid-19. 

At the same meeting, it was reported that Planning Minister MA Mannan said that, as the government was organizing major meetings “virtually,” entertainment costs have been reduced. 

However, Saifuddin Saif’s report of July 11 details allegations that enormous corruption has taken place with many officials of the Planning Ministry’s Implementing Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) benefitting in cash, allegedly, as reported, as much as Tk1.38 crores, in lieu of expenditure which would normally be used for running meetings, ie, stationery, entertainment, and other expenses. 

To illustrate that this kind of corruption has been going on for years, I am detailing my own experiences from working inside a government development project from October 2000 to October 2006. 

This was Adarsha Gram Project-II (AGP-II) of the Ministry of Land, which was co-financed by the European Commission, and I held the position of European co-director and TA team leader.

The main objective of the project was to establish villages on government khas land and settle homeless and landless families. I list below a number of examples of corruption that occurred during the implementation of the project:

1. At the beginning of AGP-II in 2000, an Inception Workplan had to be submitted to the Ministry of Land and the European Commission for approval to cover the first six months of the project. 

The European Commission approved the Inception Workplan within one month but the Ministry of Land refused to approve it until study tours had been added which were to be funded by the European Commission. To enable the project to officially start, the European Commission eventually agreed to the study tours. The project start had been delayed by six months.

2. Subsequently, successive Annual Workplans included “study tours,” funded by the European Commission, which were led either by the project’s National Project Director or an officer of the Ministry of Land. 

Members of these tours included officers from the Ministries of Planning, Finance, and Land as well as officers from the project’s Project Management Unit (PMU). These study tours visited countries such as China, Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand but, in reality, they were glorified shopping trips. 

3. On one occasion, I was scrutinizing the accounts of one of the study tours which had been led by a joint secretary of the Ministry of Land. The hotel bills from a hotel in Penang, Malaysia, caught my attention as Penang had not been in the original itinerary and the invoices looked as if they might not be genuine. 

I, therefore, faxed the hotel and asked if the members of the study tour group had occupied rooms in their hotel on these particular dates and I listed the names of the persons and the room numbers. The reply came back that these people had not occupied their hotel and rooms with those numbers do not exist in their hotel. 

When I tried to initiate some remedial action, I discovered that the joint secretary had already gone on LPR, “leave prior to retirement.”

4. The establishment of the Adarsha Gram villages on khas land came under the jurisdiction of the concerned Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) and it was stipulated that not more than four AG villages should be established in any one financial year in an upazila.

This was to ensure that the upazila administration would not be overloaded with administrative and supervisory work. Sites proposed for AG villages by the UNOs through their respective deputy commissioners would be assessed by our own project civil engineers before coming to a site selection committee which included officers from the Ministry of Land, including IMED officers who had a “cell” in the Ministry of Land. 

One IMED staff had proposed a large number of sites in Char Fasson upazila of Bhola District, but so many had not agreed. That year, when I had gone overseas on leave, the IMED officer managed to convince the Ministry of Land secretary to have another site selection committee at the ministry and over 40 sites were selected in Char Fasson upazila alone. 

Because Food for Work was used for earth raising/plinth raising, the IMED staff were, allegedly, able to be financially benefitted by members of the respective Union Parishads.

5. When I worked with the Adarsha Gram Project, the Ministry of Land would hold monthly coordination meetings which would be attended by officers of all projects currently being implemented and those officials in the Ministry of Land who were supervising those projects. 

Everyone was attending a meeting related to their routine work and yet, except for the foreign advisors, all received “brown envelopes” at each meeting, the amount inside being higher for the secretary or minister. This was an example of corruption out in the open.

6. One particular IMED officer was notorious. Whenever he planned to visit our project’s office in Nilkhet, he would phone the project staff to ensure that he would be served a good lunch and that Benson & Hedges cigarettes would be available. The same person, while on a study tour in the Philippines, was accused of sexual harassment by the female members of the tour company that was helping the study tour with transport and other logistics. 

He managed to escape punishment as a relative of his was working at the Bangladesh Embassy in Manila.

7. Another incident of corruption comes to mind. I remember going on a khas land site visit somewhere in Barisal. I was accompanied by the project’s civil engineer. We visited one proposed site and it was obvious that, because it was very low-lying, the amount of food for work needed to raise the land would deem it not to be cost-effective. 

The Union Parishad chairman provided us a sumptuous lunch and he was of the opinion that all will be well and he would be able to financially benefit in some way from the project. On our return to Dhaka, the project engineer and I submitted our recommendations and the project’s negative decision was informed to the respective deputy commissioner and UNO. 

A few days later, there was a commotion in our Nilkhet office. The brother of the UP chairman was shouting loudly that they had been promised approval and, as he said: “We have already paid Mr Hafiz Tk50,000.” Mr Hafiz was a member of the project’s head office staff. 

Later on, during the caretaker government period, he was arrested, and it was found that by manipulation of land records, etc he “owned” property worth many crores. 

These examples are a few of my personal experiences. From the recent allegations against IMED and the allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Health and DGHS, particularly as they relate to Covid-19 tests and supply of PPE, it would appear that corruption is a way of life and widespread and you can only progress in life if you join the corruption bandwagon. 

There was corruption going on in 1972 when Bangabandhu had to remind government employees that “they are not masters but servants of the people.” And now in Mujib Borsho, it is a very bad sign that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is forced to regularly warn people about corruption. This is, indeed, very sad. 

I hope that the members of the media and the public stand up strongly to expose all those who are corrupt, no matter who they are, and vigorously follow up all cases until the perpetrators are punished.

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh Citizenship.

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