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        Volume 11 |Issue 28| July 13, 2012 |


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Current Affairs

Division Bell Rings

Shakhawat Liton

Independent MP Fazlul Azim, the lone member sitting in the opposition bench during the premier's question hour in Parliament on July 4, wanted to know whether Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina would drop the minister from her cabinet for whose alleged corruption-- according to Azim--the World Bank had cancelled the loan agreement to fund the Padma Bridge Project.

In response, the prime minister summarily rejected the allegation and blasted the bank for cancelling the agreement. She however said that her government had wanted a fair and transparent probe into the corruption allegation. "If the minister's involvement is proved, he has to be fired from the cabinet," she stated.

Sheikh Hasina Photo: Star File

She also announced that her government would build the bridge even if it had to be with its own money. At one point in her long statement, Hasina urged people to make a call or send a text to her mobile phones or email her if anybody used the name of her family members to take any undue advantage. She disclosed her two mobile phone numbers and an email address. Four days later, on July 8, when she was speaking in the Parliament, Hasina said she had received a huge response and most of the callers supported her stance on the World Bank (WB) issue.

The premier however did not disclose if she received any phone call or text or email about alleged corruption against any of her ministers or party MPs or party members, or government officials. It could be that the callers were either supporters of her government or that of her party. Or it might be that the callers did not dare to raise an issue which the premier was in no mood to hear. The callers and the premier know the real situation better than the others. Therefore, we have no other alternative but try our best to keep confidence in what the premier had said in the parliament. However, the prime minister's claim about people's huge response does not erode the negative public perception about her government's performance.

The issue of alleged corruption in the appointment of a firm in the Padma Bridge Project will be gradually buried. And the minister and some senior government officials who were accused by the WB of conspiracy of corruption to appoint Canadian company SNC-Lavalin as consultant firm don't have anything to fear as the government itself threw its weight to defend them by getting engaged in a battle with the WB.

People will remain in the dark until the government discloses the letters that the WB had sent it following the corruption allegation. And time will say whether the government's "offence is the best defence" policy will benefit it or not in the long run.

Overwhelmed by the people's response, Hasina on July 8 however announced that her government would build the Padma Bridge with its own fund and the construction work of the bridge will begin in the current fiscal year. She said the mega project, estimated to cost Tk 22,554 crore, would be completed within the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Her announcement could not forge national unity. Rather, the country's people are still divided. Awami League-led ruling alliance has been wholeheartedly supporting the government decision to build the Padma bridge with its own money while the BNP-led opposition has vehemently opposing the move. Civil society, economists and infrastructure experts are also divided.

The government's position is also confusing and contradictory to some extent. The Cabinet at a meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the chair in the noon of July 9 decided that the government would not request the WB to reconsider its cancellation of the Padma bridge loan.

But in the afternoon, Finance Minister AMA Muhith at a meeting with representatives of different donor agencies demanded a review of the WB's decision, saying they (WB and ADB) should be with the government for the construction of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge.

Even, one may find division among the donors who were under a framework to fund $2.9 billion to the Padma bridge project. Following the WB's decision, the framework has become redundant and it is almost certain that the other donors under the said framework— ADB, IDB and JICA — would not come forward to fund the Padma bridge project. They have yet to stop funding the bridge. So, one can assume that ADB, IDB and JICA are still interested in financing the Padma bridge project. If that is the case, it will require a new framework. How long will it take to develop a new framework? Will WB remain in the new framework to fund to the Padma project if the allegation raised by it remains unresolved?

What will happen in the end? Can the government begin the construction of Padma bridge in the current fiscal with its own money? It was reported that the government wants to begin the construction work in next February, 2013. The year 2013 is the last year of the current government's tenure because after the latest changes in the constitution the next parliamentary polls will be held any time in between October 24 of 2013 to January 24 of 2014. What will be the country's political situation in the last year of the government?

All the prevailing signs suggest that the political situation is set to take a volatile turn in the run up to the next parliamentary polls as the BNP-led opposition is preparing to gear up street agitations to realise their demand for a non-partisan government to oversee the election. It is certain that the opposition parties will not join the next parliamentary polls with the AL-led government in office. If the AL-led alliance moves to hold the elections without the opposition parties, the situation will turn even more volatile and the credibility of the election, if it is held, will be questioned.

If the present government finally agrees to install a non-partisan government to oversee the polls, the political situation may take a different turn. And in that case if the ruling AL fails to return to power what will be the fate of the construction work if the current government begins with its own money?

To many, it is also an important to find out which one of the two issues is more important--construction of Padma bridge or resolving the growing political crisis and people's other sufferings? We will also stand divided on that too.

The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.


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