It seems that the practice of greasing palms is woven into our very system
Celebrating Eid-ul-Azha is supposed to encourage everyone to think about the needs of the poorest in society. This year, after nearly 18 months of dealing with and facing the Covid-19 pandemic, there are many people in Bangladesh who have lost their jobs, closed their businesses; there are many people who have less.
Unfortunately, however, we learn of successive examples whereby workers are exploited and mistreated so that business owners can get rich quickly. There are many allegations that the government officials whose responsibility it is to oversee these businesses, are persuaded with bribes to ignore the health and safety aspects of the businesses.
Over the years, many workers have lost their lives in fires in factories because the exit gates were locked, there were no emergency exits, and there was inadequate fire-fighting equipment. No factory is supposed to be authorized for business until its building plan has been approved and health, fire, and safety provisions have also been approved.
I wonder how the families of those workers affected by the tragedy at Hashem Foods factory at Narayanganj have passed the days of Eid-ul-Azha? Over the years, there have been many similar tragedies, some bigger than others, such as Rana Plaza, which claimed the lives of 1,134 people. Owners of the factories and of the businesses are rightly arrested, but what about the government officials who have allowed the businesses to run?
Nothing happens without speed money
Sadly, corruption seems to be accepted as a way of life, and nothing happens without “speed money” or “ghoosh.” I was here, in Dhaka, in January 1972, when Bangabandhu spoke out strongly about corruption and he 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 feels the necessity 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. Having said that, there are many members of the public, including me, who are most concerned that when members of the media or the public make allegations of corruption against government personnel, the complainants are arrested for criticizing the government and the government personnel are protected.
A few examples
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:
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.
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 and in reality they were glorified shopping trips.
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 on those dates 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.
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 been 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.
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 advisers, 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.
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 relation of his was working at the Bangladesh Embassy in Manila.
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 would 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, now deceased, 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 fairly recent allegations against IMED and the ongoing allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Health and DGHS, particularly as they relate to Covid-19 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.
It is shameful that as far as Rana Plaza is concerned, as of 2021, eight years after the tragedy, both the murder trial and the violation of the building code trial are still pending. Only Sohel Rana is in custody, the other 37 accused are on bail, on the run, or already dead.
The legal aspects of the Rana Plaza case should have been “fast-tracked” a long time ago. It would seem that the poor garment workers were not regarded as being worthy of getting justice quickly. They deserve much better in Mujib Borsho.
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. Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.