|Volume 6 | Issue 07 | July 2012 ||
Immersed in corruption
Two months ago, some young contractors of ruling Awami League went to Communications Minister Obaidul Quader with a different type of complaint: They could not access a website of roads and highways department and thus was failing to bid for a tender. They told the minister that a group of contractors in connivance with some officials of the department denied their access to grab the tender of repairing a road.
Anurup Kanti Das
An angry minister called the concerned officer and shouted at him for the malpractice. He asked him to open the website for all. The website was opened accordingly but only for a few minutes. This incident was enough to prove how the digital tender initiative of the government has been made farcical and how tenders are being manipulated by contractors and officials of the roads and higways department, which is the largest division of the communications ministry. The ruling Awami League introduced digital tendering system in a bid to check rampant tender manipulation and corruption, and protect misappropriation of fund allocated for various development activities.
The recent shootout at the department was nothing but a continuation of long-running practice of grabbing projects and making money. A large group equipped with firearms attacked their opponents in a bid to oust their rival group and establish authority at the department. The Communications Ministry is one of the most graft-ridden ministries. It deals with as many as 22,000 kilometres of roads and highways across the country. In addition, there are hundreds of bridges and culverts under its jurisdiction. Every year, it spends thousands of crores in repairing the roads and bridges. New projects like upgrading Dhaka-Chittagong and Dhaka-Mymensingh highways, construction of metro rail, elevated expressway and a couple of flyovers in the capital also involve millions of taka.
Although a huge amount of money is spent every year to improve the communications sector, the country's roads, highways and bridges are left in a bad state. The reason is simple: the major part of the allocated fund for the sector is gobbled up systematically. A senior official of the communications ministry has told this correspondent that less than half of the allocated money of any tasks or projects can be utilised, which is the main reason behind the poor condition of many roads, highways and bridges. He further revealed that keeping 10 percent of the fund for the concerned officers of the roads and highways department and the project director has been a ritual but initially one has to spend another 10 percent to manage the project through manipulation. Then he cannot carry out the project without paying local politicians or influential parties. And lastly, the contractor has to make profit out of his work.
A contractor of roads and highways department admitted to this correspondent that 30 to 40 percent of the fund can be utilised in the end, which has become a common practice and that none can maintain the standard of work if he has to pay bribes at various steps. The racket of contractors, politicians and the officials has become so strong that a new system has been developed wherein dubious projects are created. Every year, dozens of small projects are created, which only remain on papers and a section of engineers and contractors pocket a large amount of these funds.
Donor agencies, including the World Bank, are refusing to finance any project or work with the department's officials, thanks to their involvement in corruption. In 2009, the WB withdrew itself from a project under which the Dhaka-Mymensingh, Sylhet-Sunamganj and Comilla-Brahmanbaria roads were supposed to be repaired. The three highways are now in their worst conditions. The Dhaka-Mymensingh upgrading project has been allegedly stalled due to irregularities in selecting firms. The finance ministry is also reluctant to release fund for the roads and highways department fearing misappropriation.
Donors now have serious reservation to work with the department, as many of its self-proclaimed corrupt officials are holding many top positions. Immediate past Chief Engineer Shahab Uddin was one of them. He was among 44 officers of roads and highways department who confessed to their corruption before the now-defunct Truth and Accountability Commission (Tac) and got clemency by depositing a portion of their ill-gotten money during the last caretaker regime. Many of them later got promotions, and have now resumed their works through corruption and irregularities. Many have pointed fingers at the former communications minister for the promotion. Although Shahab Uddin stepped down in the face of media reports against his misappropriation of fund, corrupt practices continue to haunt the RHD.
Bridges Division is equally an important division of the communications ministry as it is responsible for construction of bridges, flyovers, expressways, but its failure to construct the long-cherished Padma multi-purpose Bridge has posed a big question. Donors cancelled their promised $2.35 billion last September accusing former Communications Minister Syed Abul Hossain, his family company and some others of corruption. Fate of the 6.12 kilometre-bridge which will connect the country's southeast districts with the capital is now in doubt.
Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) and Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC), the two organs of the communications ministry are pronged with widespread irregularities and corruptions. From getting driving license to fitness certificates, one has to pay at every step. One of the major reasons of frequent road accidents in the country is issuance of fake driving license by BRTA. Checking fitness of vehicles is nothing but eyewash. Plying of large number of unfit vehicles in Dhaka and elsewhere is the proof of that.
Irregularities of BRTC are, however, little noticed. This organ of the communications ministry purchases buses, trucks and spare parts for the vehicles. It is widely alleged that all type of purchases here is manipulated so that influential BRTC officials can make money. Many got commission when buses or trucks were imported. Buying low-price parts with high rate is also rampant in BRTC, which is a major reason of vehicles going out of order soon.
A failed Ministry
When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appointed Syed Abul Hossain as communications minister, many questioned his ability to do the job on the ground of his being more of a businessman than a politician. Their fears came true when the communications ministry emerged as a failed ministry of the Awami League-led grand alliance government. The communications ministry under Syed Abul Hossain undertook 167 projects at an estimated cost of Tk 60,000 crore but demonstrated abysmal performance in implementing the projects. The ministry's negligence left half the country's 21,000km roads and highways in appalling conditions. A few of the projects did indeed kick off, but their progress has been frustrating. At the same time, major projects like Metro Rail and the elevated expressway are yet to get underway and in all probability their implementation seems a distant reality.
Experts believe that the poor performance of the communications ministry means that the country's communications system will deteriorate further, which in turn will greatly hamper the transportation of people and goods and disrupt development activities. The biggest failure of the communications ministry has been in repairing and maintaining roads and highways, which placed the government in an embarrassing situation ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr last September. Road communications on some major routes nearly collapsed. The then communications minister came under heavy criticism from inside and outside the ruling party over his perceived lapses in leadership.
Against this backdrop, the government had little choice but to remove Syed Abul Hossain from the communications ministry and separate the railway sector to form the railway ministry. Newly appointed communications minister Obaidul Quader said he would focus on short-term measures and try to implement some of the projects before the expiry of this government's tenure. People are watching how he holds onto his promises.
M Abul Kalam Azad is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.
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