Bangladesh Bank has not lived up to public expectations
There ought to be no hasty response to the TIB report on Bangladesh Bank.
There is not much of a way in which one can deny that Bangladesh Bank has not quite lived up to public expectations. With all these scams of a financial nature coming to light over a long period of time, with banks collapsing under the weight of defaulted loans, with fraudsters making their way out of the country with purloined state resources, it makes sense to argue that there has been a massive degree of failure on the part of the central bank to step in and reverse the decline.
There will be a whole lot of people who will take issue with the TIB report. Indeed, a senior official of the central bank has already come forth with the protestation that the bank is under no political influence. That is his opinion, of course. But the problems cited in the TIB analysis call for deeper reflections rather than knee-jerk reactions.
In broad measure, it is the responsibility of the central bank in any country to streamline finance and by extension the national economy. But when so many loan defaulters are there all around in this country, with little in terms of moves to have them brought to justice, there is reason for worry. One cannot quite be dismissive of the feeling that not just Bangladesh Bank but other institutions as well need to free themselves of political influence or pressure if governance is to be made accountable and therefore to the benefit of the nation.
There is a wide swath of territory where reforms have become an imperative if indeed we mean to develop in Bangladesh a liberal society based on the concept of public welfare. And public welfare is an impossibility to ensure with the methodology on which private banks, in fact institutions, have been operating in the country.
There is much validity in the argument that private banks will need to be family-free organizations if promoting the economy is their objective. That objective has rarely been seen or implemented in the past so many years. The huge chunks of loans taken out by people to whom accountability has not mattered and who have hardly been proceeded against by the law are a stain on national reputation. It undermines our self-respect before the world.
So what do we do? Modern administration demands the highest form of professionalism in every sphere of statecraft. That being a given, one could begin with Bangladesh Bank. In the first place, it should be the policy for this and future governments to have economists at the head of the central bank. Bureaucracy in banking institutions is always a bottleneck to their dynamism.
In the second place, in the manner of so many central banks around the globe, Bangladesh Bank needs to be free of all forms of government control and to be transformed into an independent institution. That will free it of the fetters which bind it to the kinds of inactivity that inhibit its performance.
The paramount requirement for a modern nation-state is a building and nurturing of institutions. But that does not happen when the administrative machinery of the state prevents citizens from filing cases against civil servants without authorization for such cases to be filed. Corruption or alleged corruption is best left for the system of justice to handle. Rule of law, the extent to which it operates in a state, is indicative of the future trajectory the state can or will journey through.
Hence, the argument that cases against government officials cannot be filed without administrative authorization militates against the concept of public service which underpins the workings of a state. Observe the contradiction: Cases against citizens across the board can be filed and they can be proceeded against but civil servants can easily protect themselves because unless the administration gives the go-ahead, they remain free even when clear charges of misdemeanor or corruption are laid at their door. The arc of the law gets bent. Democratic pluralism is then on shaky ground.
Reforms are not a requirement only in the banking sector. There is an enormous need to streamline administration through downsizing government. Perhaps the time is here for thoughts to be given to reducing the number of ministries and directorates in the country, for they have turned into a leviathan. When the state is weighed down by an excess of bureaucracy, sloth will be the result.
There is too the matter of transfers of government officials. It should be mandatory for secretaries and other senior government officials to remain attached to their ministries for at least three years in order to oversee their work and the projects undertaken by them. In these past many years, rapid transfers of officials across the ministries have been grave impediments to the work of the civil administration. The practice should draw to an end.
Institutions are the key to the healthy working of the state. At this point in time, it is the Election Commission which needs to play a more assertive role in organizing elections, supervising them, inspiring voters to cast their ballots without fear, and dealing with vote fraud and similar lapses decisively. An overarching electoral body, one that all political parties will fear and respect, is the need today.
And there is a similar need for the Anti-Corruption Commission to convince the nation that in its hands and through its firmness of purpose, corruption will have a tough time and those who play truant with the law, no matter what their political loyalties are, will have nowhere to hide.
That takes us back to the TIB report. Its demand that Bangladesh Bank bring into the public domain the names of loan defaulters who repeatedly reschedule and restructure the loans they have taken out from banks resonates with citizens. When black money is promoted to white, year after year, it is the nation which gets red in the face before the global community.
It is the business of the state to hold aloft the principle of citizens’ welfare. When the state is taken hostage by the unscrupulous and the corrupt and the mountebanks, it becomes the constitutional and moral responsibility of government to step in, firmly and purposefully, and restore the self-esteem of citizens and their confidence that they matter, each and every one of them, in the formulation and implementation of policies in the republic every livelong day.
Governance in our times rests on the principle of transparency and accountability. Society is poorly served when an administration is too thin-skinned to acknowledge ground realities dispassionately and with equanimity.
One should not make light of TIB’s reflections on the nature of corruption burrowing its way ever deeper in our collective life.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.