Vol. 5 Num 1046 Sat. May 12, 2007  

Straight Line
The awesome fight against corruption

A reputed academic cum activist of Bangladesh has very aptly remarked that fighting corruption is not a faint-hearted liberal's job and the same also is not a 'nine to five' assignment. Nothing could be closer to the ground reality of Bangladesh. While emphasising on the urgent need of instituting criminal cases against the potential suspects including the high and mighty with a view to cleaning the electoral politics generally and to ensure a level playing field, we are increasingly oblivious of the factors that actually impeded actions against the corruption menace.

There is no denying that there was hardly any political will and determination to counter corruption as many politicians continued to hold the belief that political power was the means to become rich. In such an environment it was only natural that the offices of erstwhile bureau of anti-corruption at different places would suffer from inactivity and inertia. The ACC chief's dissatisfaction and disappointment at the performance of some field level staff does not come as a surprise. Irregularities and indiscretions do not cause the raising of eyebrows in a milieu where corruption for many has become a way of life.

Bangladesh is facing a financial crunch. Revenues have fallen. Expenditure, specially the non-productive one is increasing. Foreign assistance is not all that steady. Everyone is talking about self-reliance and sustainable development. No stigma is now attached to black money in our society. Tax incentives have been given to black marketers, tax evaders, drug barons, gun runners, smugglers etc. The corrupt have their promoters, supporters and partners everywhere in business, trade, industry, and agriculture and even in media.

Under circumstances as above, where does one start? One option would be to hit at the politically and administratively mighty. The intent is all right but to ensure culpability there must be incontrovertible proof. To prove criminal breach of trust and criminal misappropriation by a public servant, the prosecution has to prove misappropriation. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to establish that the accused being entrusted with the property has dishonestly misappropriated or converted to his own use that property.

Nobody would dispute that when an offence of criminal breach of trust is committed by a responsible official in public office, he should be adequately punished and in such a case the sentence passed on him should be deterrent. In addition, there should be a substantive term of rigorous imprisonment. But how do you collect evidence against a defaulting public official without spontaneous cooperation and assistance from persons who until recently were his colleagues or may even have been accomplices?

Enlisting cooperation from taxation officials to prove criminal cases pertaining to ill-gotten wealth is a time-consuming labourious process. Similarly, incidents of custom duty and sales tax evasion thereby depriving the public exchequer of its rightful dues are difficult to establish without a proactive approach from the customs department. It is only recently that the military backed caretaker government has been able for the first time to energise the national board of revenue in tracking down ill-gotten wealth and unearned income. Such manifest action is not part of the ordinary course of business. This has to be noted while commenting on the speed of graft enquiry.

The magnitude and dimension of corruption is so all-pervasive and all-encompassing that fixing one target sector might expose the concerned authority to a charge of wilful discrimination. Indeed such accusations are being heard now. A preferred option may be to book those individuals whose malafide actions have caused huge financial loss and human misery. Seen in such context, the power, communication and food sector should prove to be the primary focus of the anti-corruption drive.

The above comments are not meant to exonerate, by any means, the unprecedented fraud and criminal misappropriation in education, public works, law and order, land revenue and so on. The extent of corruption and related difficulties of countering the same are highlighted to impress upon the unfortunate development concerning near total absence of departmental vigilance and corrective action.

Somehow there is a belief that irregularities of all sorts may go on regardless until the malfeasance has attracted the attention of the regulatory authority including the anti-corruption department. The situation is ludicrously akin to one in which all the erring and negligent headmasters are virtually motionless waiting for the school inspector to pull them up. It amounts to a multiple crooks and the lone ranger scenario. No wonder, therefore, we are witnessing a huge backlog of financial, legal and administrative irregularities and deviations in all areas of national activity. Preparing a work plan and deciding on the bare reducible minimum is an extremely difficult task in such an unsettling scenario.

It appears that in deliberating on the fate of trial of corruption-related cases many otherwise responsible people have not taken any serious note of the irregularities that have crept in the judiciary including substantial part of the apex outfit. It has been reported that 41 judges of the High Court are clear political appointees and the chief justice entertains doubt about the integrity of the process of appointment. Already many distinguished lawyers are making disparaging comments about the competence and honesty of such superior judges.

In a situation as above, there can be apprehension that many judges may not act in a truly judicious manner while trying and disposing appeal in cases that involve the fate of their benefactors of the recent past. In deciding criminal cases the element of presumption of the presiding judge is considered an important factor in adjudging the guilt or otherwise. The human dimension, therefore, cannot be brushed aside.

The bottleneck of inexperience in investigating criminal cases relating to corruption has already been highlighted with the observation that training courses would be organised to ward off the shortfall. One can hope for the best but there is ground for concern when one finds that our supreme graft fighting body is not adequately prepared to properly investigate delicate cases of financial crime. The worrying part is that the accused would be entitled to all the benefits of doubts and the defence will have the services of the best and expensive lawyers. Such forethoughts are definitely relevant and one can expect that the government will be generous to use its financial resources in the fight against corruption. The adversary is too strong to be taken lightly.

The expected lifting of the ban on indoor politics in the not-too-distant future will no doubt have an impact on the momentum and tenacity of the graft enquiry and investigation. The inescapable irony is that the absence of democratic activities has time and again facilitated the process of anti-corruption drive. Once political governments have taken charge the drive has inevitably slackened and has bared its teeth only when the accused happened to be the political opponent. Events of yesteryears are a credible testimony to this sorry state of affairs.

We now have a classic catch-22 situation. The popular demand for tough measures against corrupt elements may not be adequately realised on account of relaxation of embargo on political activities which again fits well with the expectations of a democratic polity. There would be fence-sitters in the establishment who would like to move cautiously.

We are in a mess because institutions have not been allowed to flower. The myopia of our politicians has to take a large part of the blame. Corruption has not been condemned in a forthright manner and as such we do not see meaningful resistance to the malaise from within the society. Cultural internalisation of the good and the evil has not been manifest. The doughty ACC chief has rightly underscored the problem. However, it is time to deliver and not dither.

Muhammad Nurul Huda is a DS colummist.