Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The vanishing acts of our public life

As I See It Column
The Independent
7th April, 2012

There must be some weird connection with the strong statements that the Prime Minister makes in public and what happens afterwards. As soon as she takes a stand on an issue, for some unexplained reasons, something goes wrong. In recent weeks, she has been making strong claims about the success of her government in bringing a very large amount of electricity to the national grid. In fact, her claim is since coming to power, the Government has added 3000 MW of electricity to the national grid. 

Lo and behold ever since her claim, the load shedding has suddenly become the worst for a very long time. In fact, in the city’s Gulshan area, load shedding has been taking place every alternate hour. The authorities have also done something that was not done before; they have stopped providing electricity to the industries from sunset to sunrise! The CNG stations are also being forced to close down for longer period every day.               

The government came under severe criticism for the quick power rentals through which a lot of the 3000 MG of electricity has been added to the national grid. These quick rentals were established by cutting corners because the government argued that the matter was urgent and hence the normal procedures of government expenditures could not be applied to the power sector. In Pakistan that also went for quick rentals for the same reasons as we have, the Court has recently passed a judgment to shut down the quick rentals for a variety of reasons including corruption.  Nevertheless, the perception in the knowledgeable circle in Bangladesh is that the business benefits of these quick power rentals have gone to people with high political contacts who have already pocketed huge sums most of which they have taken out of the country at the expense of the public. 

The equipments for these quick rental power plants were  procured from abroad at huge foreign exchange. In fact, the sudden dip of the Taka against the US$ a few months ago has been due to the sudden need of foreign exchange to establish the quick rental power plants. The public, curious and concerned that corners have been cut, nevertheless reasoned that all was done for a good cause. For an energy starved country, few were serious enough to hold the government responsible for the corners cut. 

The sudden and dramatic increase in load shedding now has many questioning about what is happening in the power sector. The question that everybody is asking is where has the 3000 MW of electricity vanished? It simply could not have withered away as seems to be the case. Since the Prime Minister has herself gone public over it, her government now owes it to the public to come out with the answer. The longer the authorities take to explain about the sudden shortage of electricity the more will there be questions and suspicions in the public mind. The Prime Minister’s explanation that demand has gone up in recent times does not explain the dramatic and unbearable load shedding of recent weeks. Some of her sarcastic remarks on such a serious issue have upset the people instead of clearing the suspicion surrounding the vanishing electricity. 

Some of the questions that people are raising are not very good for the ruling party as it enters the final stretch for the next general elections. One public perception is that a good number of the quick power rentals have already broken down due to the poor quality of their equipments. Others are saying that the government has already piled up huge amount in unpaid bills to these private rental companies and they have stopped supplying electricity to the national grid for nonpayment of bills. A third perception is the rising price of furnace oil in the international market that the government is contract bound  to pay to the quick rental companies  has rendered the government further  incapable owing to its very weak financial predicament and that the power situation is only going o worsen in the coming summer.

There is another perception that as there is no mechanism to check how much electricity these rental companies are adding to the grid, they are ending up supplying much less but billing the government for the amount contracted nevertheless. Of course, these perceptions may be  wrong but it would also not be fair to blame the public for it because the whole process of the quick rentals has been intransparent that is now breeding these stories.  In fact, what the people are saying makes more sense than the explanations coming from the Government some of which are palpably weak and misleading. 

It is not that this government is the first one to be caught in this vanishing game and cannot come out with acceptable answers. During the caretaker government, then Army Chief General Moin U Ahmed had publicly concluded that the government would be able to recover thousands or crores of Takas that they had claimed had been siphoned off by corrupt politicians/bureaucrats/businessmen. The General had then boasted that the government would recover those thousands of crores of Takas and with it build roads/hospitals and a host of other public welfare projects. Those thousands of crores of Takas were no doubt collected, more by threat of life and honour then on genuine issues of corruption but only a fraction of that money has found its way to the public exchequer. The overwhelming majority of the huge amount realized also simply vanished! 

The same vanishing game was evident again during the share market scam of not too long ago. This time, the investigation to the scam was conducted by a committee appointed by the Government. The committee’s report stated that ordinary investors were made victims of scam run by a few well known investors who were also responsible for s similar scam when the AL was in power the last time. The Report became controversial for a variety of reasons. In the process, the issue of thousand of crores of Taka allegedly skimmed by a few individuals, although well established in the Report, was not pursued or recovered. Not even a small part of the money found its way to the banks or the market. The huge sum of money was taken out of the market through the vanishing game that our politics has mastered.  

Then there is the vanishing act by the murderers of the journalist couple. The Home Minister’s 48 hours’ time frame to catch the murderers has turned in to a cruel joke. The powerful lobby of journalists who came together on a bipartisan basis to put pressure on the authorities has so far failed. This is just one more example of how things just vanish in our public life, things that include electricity, money, murderers and what not? The cliché that facts are stranger than fiction only would be able to describe these vanishing acts in our public life. Unfortunately, people are losing their faith in government as a consequence of these vanishing acts. Sarcastic remarks and blaming past governments and the opposition will not help the ruling party gain the credibility it needs to win the next elections. 

The writer is a retired career diplomat and a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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