Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The driver returns from the cold and rekindles “Railwaygate”

"As I See It" column
The Independent, October 13, 2012
M. Serajul Islam

It was a great relief to see Ali Azam Khan, the driver of the former Assistant Private Secretary to the former Minister of Communications Suranjit Sen Gupta, alive and talking. His emergence from the cold however is not good news for the Minister or the government. For whatever it is worth, the driver has spilled some serious beans. He said quite a few things that would need serious investigation to clear the good name of the Minister and credibility of the government. 

Azam Khan was very clear where the car with the bagful of money was going that night; Taka 74 lakhs in total, all counted by the Border Guard. It was going to the Minister’s house. The driver also said that it was not the first time that such a bagful of money was off loaded at the Minister’s residence. He also said that there was a nexus working between the Minister and Yusuf Ali Mridha, the General Manager over collection of money from selling jobs in the railways. These are very serious accusations that just cannot be pushed under the table. The Minister projects himself as a strict moralist always critical and sarcastic about corruption in the BNP leadership. He therefore cannot afford even a rumour about his good name let alone the type of accusations made by Azam Khan. The accusations are so serious that  simply saying that there is a “national and an international conspiracy” against him will not give him back the moral authority for his favourite role that “Railwaygate” and now Azam Khan have dented; he will need to prove that accusations of Azam Khan are wrong and do so convincingly.  

The AL led government has some serious cases of corruption confronting it to which Azam Khan’s whistle blowing has added another. The AL had made corruption against the last BNP government as the main issue to reach the voters and succeeded by promising zero tolerance on corruption, if elected. The corruption issue is back again but it is the AL at the receiving end and the corruption charges against it are massive. The allegations of corruption in the share marked ripped off poor people of thousands of crores of Taka. A government sponsored investigation traced individuals close to the government who ripped these poor people of their investments. The Hall Mark scam has siphoned off close to Taka 4000 crores from the nationalized Sonali Bank which could have paid for 2 bridges over the Padma.  

The Destiny Group where a former Army Chief is a Director has also been involved in scams worth thousands of crores of Taka. That former Army Chief, before the allegation, used to be in the media regularly flagging the corruption in the last BNP government and the need of bringing those he thought perpetuated that corruption, to face the law. The Padma Bridge and allegations of corruption have involved the good name of the government not just in the country but also abroad. In fact, the World Bank has agreed to refinance the Padma Bridge only after the Government removed a Minister, send an Adviser and a Secretary on leave and cancelled the contractual appointment of another senior bureaucrat, on allegations of corruption. 

In fact, it is the first time that the World Bank has dared to demand a sovereign country to make such changes for a loan. This has humiliated Bangladesh. To make matters worse, the government has agreed to allow WB representatives to be a part of the ACC team to investigate the Bank’s allegations of corruption to revive the loan agreement. The government has also agreed that an international panel of experts will examine the ACC/WB report and the WB and its co-financiers will release fund for the construction of the PB only after they are satisfied by the report of the expert panel. The revised agreement with the WB has not just  cast a dark shadow on the image of Bangladesh; it has taken with it a little of its sovereignty as well. 

The allegations by the WB against the Bangladesh government on the PB and by Azam Khan against Suranjit Sen Gupta are accusations that have not been proven yet.  No one can accept these accusations and pass a final judgment either on this government or on the Minister. The government has challenged the WB on the charges and the Minister has forcefully dismissed all that Azam Khan has said.  Nevertheless, the accusations of corruption in the share market and the humungous scams involving the Hall Mark and Destiny Group are more than allegations. The money involved has been siphoned off for real and the amount is in thousands of crores of Takas making allegations that the AL had brought against the last BNP government appear insignificant. The whistle blowing by Ali Azam is also serious and cannot be dismissed without proper investigation. 

Corruption in Bangladesh is a serious problem and has always been that way. It has never been party specific; nor has it been related to which type of government the country has or had.  There has been corruption in Bangladesh under elected governments as much as under military governments. All political parties that have formed the government have tolerated corruption. The reasons are as much as in the character of those who run the government as in existing conditions in the country that encourage and sustain corruption. Public servants, both elected and career are paid meagerly. In fact, Bangladesh is one of the rare countries where there is no rational relationship between the pay public servants receive and the price line in the market. Hence they easily fall prey to the lures of money and become corrupt before they realize it. This is why Bangladesh figures poorly in the Corruption Perceptions Index. 

Nevertheless, the present AL government has stated it is different from the past BNP government because of its zero tolerance for corruption. Its pursuit of the BNP on corruption bordering on paranoia and its emphasis on zero tolerance are now turning into a political liability as Hall Mark and Destiny Scams, share market scam, PB loan debacle and now the re-emergence of Railwaygate combine to show the present government to be more corruption friendly than the past BNP regime, in fact compared to all past governments. Meanwhile the WB has formed the 3 member international panel for investigating alleged corruption in the PB loan headed by former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo. Thus though the government is in a state of denial over the massive corruption cases that are taunting it, it does not seem like the WB and its partners are going to let it push aside their concerns over corruption that easily.   

It is therefore time for the AL led government to stop talking on corruption of the past governments and start acting on the huge corruption cases facing it. It could do itself some good taking up the whistle blowing efforts of Azam Khan to carry out some serious investigations. In doing so, it should keep in mind that while Obaidul Qader was in charge of the Railways Ministry, he too had spoken of the type of corruption in the Ministry that Azam Khan made after returning from the cold.

The writer is a  former career Ambassador.




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