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Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: The twin viruses of Bangladesh: Corona and corruption

To stop this other epidemic, bureaucracy and law enforcement must be depoliticized

Update : 16 Jul 2020, 08:42 PM

No one can envy the plight of Bangladesh, which is battling two viruses at the same time. On one side is the pandemic of Covid-19, and on the other is the epidemic of corruption. This is a double whammy. No government leader would like to wear these shoes. Yet, we go on as though these will go away like a Trumpian wish. 

When Covid-19 is ascending rampantly and a fragile health system is unable to provide minimal relief, we hear words of assurance from our heath minister and other top government leaders that everything is under control, and we will declare victory over it very soon. 

When thieves with high political contacts siphoned off hundreds of crores from sporting clubs operating illegal casinos we had heard from our leaders their stout denial of any knowledge of such operation, least of all the people who were accused of running these joints. 

We never heard of any strong move from the government to stop such people from fleeing the country. When we heard of a legislator turning hundreds of crores from illegal manpower trade in Kuwait, there were few mumbles from high places, until the man was actually nabbed by Kuwaiti government and put in jail. 

And now, with another charlatan who has gathered his wealth through his connections with highly-placed political leaders and even established hospitals, we are hearing even less from our government about how and why this man could defraud the government for so many years and no one could stop him. 

In fact, it is an irony that it is because of the other virus that his fraudulence was detected. Had it not been for his scam operation of false Covid-19 tests and certifications, we may not have known about this swindler. He would have merrily gone on with his other fraudulent operations in cahoots with his political benefactors, or we might say, his enablers.  

Perhaps he would never have been arrested. The same way we would never have known about the shenanigans of that legislator from Laxmipur and the corruption that he had spread in a foreign land, had he not been detained by Kuwait government.

Battling this pandemic has baffled even the richest countries of the world, a pandemic the likes of which the world had witnessed only two or three times over the last 400 years and has challenged medical know-how and the resources of countries globally. 

We do not expect resource-poor Bangladesh to succeed in restraining this virus miraculously. But we can demand and expect a pragmatic response strategy, and a dependable testing and treatment plan that people can trust. What we do not need is rhetoric of virus containment like what we have been hearing for years about the other epidemic -- corruption. 

The pandemic will go away sooner or later, because there is a global fight against it. There will be a vaccine like the others that were invented to combat other viruses before. 

The sad truth is our other epidemic -- corruption -- will not go away with any vaccine. Nor it will go away with setting up of anti-corruption bodies or setting law enforcement agencies against it. Time and again, we have seen how these agencies have either failed to prevent corruption or have looked the other way.

Corruption happens even in the most advanced countries of the world. It is perhaps as old as the oldest profession of the world. But the difference between corruption in other civilized countries and Bangladesh is that in other countries the law enforcement is strict, by the book, and it spares no one when accused of theft or fraud. No one is above the law. But not in Bangladesh. 

We do not have to travel far back in time to see instances of thievery and fraud where the perpetrators have escaped the vigilance of our law enforcement agencies, or simply gotten out with their crimes for their high political nexus. 

In fact, in many recent cases, the perpetrators were themselves holders of political party leadership, albeit at lower levels. These positions allowed them to hold off police action or seek protection from their leaders. 

We know how the casino operators worked and about their political connections. We also know how that legislator from Laxmipur worked his way through the manipulation of his own political connections to build wealth. 

We are now learning how that impostor from a low middle-class background from the backwaters worked his way to building enormous wealth including hospitals, simply by association with people in power. 

Can anyone rid us of this endemic any time soon? Or for that matter, any time at all? I know this sounds like a desperate call for help. But if we believe in the future of our country, if we want to leave a legacy of a good country to our next generation, the work has to start now. 

This has to be done not through just legislation, but also by changing our political culture of using money to buy power. 

This has to start with each political party vowing to stop recruiting goons and muscle men to intimidate and establish control in localities. 

This has to start with establishing true democracy within the parties at the grassroot level. This has to start with our political leaders at the top who must stop patronizing criminals by denouncing them and cleaning the party of such frauds. 

This has to start with establishing true rule of law and transparency in governance. 

This has also to start with depoliticizing bureaucracy, and most importantly, the law enforcement agencies. 

Please stop using them for political gains. Give these agencies freedom to act and prosecute any criminal act, be it by a common criminal or a political office holder. 

We may not see an immediate end to corruption, but we will witness a noticeable reduction if we do these things.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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