Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Combating corruption: People are watching


Forty years of our glorious independence have witnessed numerous successes that make us proud. There are valid reasons to be disappointed for our failure to fully achieve the dreams of independence. Nevertheless, our progress towards democratic institutionalization in many ways outshines that of most other countries in similar situations.

We have made commendable progress in terms of several social and economic indicators. Our economic growth has been steady at 5-6 % since 1990s. Even against the backdrop of the global financial crisis when most countries struggled to maintain positive growth, Bangladesh GDP grew by nearly 6 percent. The country's Human Development Index rating has increased from 0.365 in 1980 to 0.543 in 2009; in terms of the Multidimensional Poverty Indicator (MPI), Bangladesh was ranked in 2010 ahead of India and Nepal.

Many more indicators could be cited. Be that as it may, it can be hardly disputed that Bangladesh's performance could have been much better if not for the persistent deficit in governance and controlling corruption.

Corruption, understood as abuse of power for private gain, is not unique about Bangladesh. There is no country in the world where corruption does not exist. Nor is it anything new. We inherited corruption as a pre-independence legacy and it has been recognized as a national challenge ever since. The Father of the Nation declared that “corruption must be eliminated from the soil of Bangladesh”. Our Constitution in Article 20(2) committed that conditions will be created in which no one shall be able to enjoy unearned income.

In recent years a national consensus has emerged about the need to combat it with greatest urgency and priority. Corruption has indeed become a key issue of public discourse primarily because of widespread reporting on corruption, more robust anti-corruption campaign and greater engagement of citizens in raising voice against this menace. In a recent survey conducted by Transparency International Bangladesh more than 90 percent of the respondents expressed the view that people's voice matter in fighting corruption, and even a higher proportion expressed the preparedness to stand up against it. On the other hand, more than 60 percent of the people expressed the trust in the Government as having the capacity to fight corruption. The people are ready, they are waiting to see their Government to deliver.

There are no time series data on estimates of corruption in Bangladesh. The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International ranked Bangladesh for five years in a row from 2001-5 at the bottom of list. Thereafter the ranking started to improve, as Bangladesh occupied the 3rd, 7th, 10th, 13th and 12th position respectively in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. In a scale of 0-10 of the index Bangladesh has been gaining steadily moving up from 0.4 in 2001 to 2.4 in 2009 and 2010. This is significant, though our score still remains below 3 which is the level where corruption is considered a matter of great concern.

Photo: Amirul Rajiv

While in terms of the perceptions index which measures the perceived prevalence of corruption at the political and administrative level, we have made a fairly steady positive change over the years, the same is not necessarily true in terms of impact of corruption upon the daily lives of the people. The National Household Survey 2010 on Corruption in Service Sectors conducted by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) showed that 84.2 percent of the surveyed households were victims of one or other form of corruption, marking a rise from 66.7 percent in 2007. Nearly 72 percent were forced to pay bribe, which translated into an estimated loss of over Taka 9,591 crore. Consider that this is petty corruption and does not include loss incurred due to grand corruption.

Fighting corruption has always been, more so in recent years, an important concern of the Government and political leaders. It occupied a central position in the campaign for the national election of December 2008 when it became the conceptual basis of the election manifesto of the alliance that was eventually voted to power, particularly the Bangladesh Awami League (AL).

Not only the ruling alliance, but all the political parties represented in the 9th Parliament, including the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) took strong stance against corruption when they sought to be elected.

The ruling party made at least 14 specific commitments that are related to building the capacity of the state and society to effectively control corruption. These are: 1) making the parliament effective so that the government can be held accountable; 2) annual disclosure of wealth statement and source of income of the Prime Minister, members of the cabinet, Parliament members and their family members; 3) ensuring genuine independence and impartiality of the judiciary and the rule of law; 4) effectiveness and independence of the Anti-corruption Commission; 5) administrative reform to make it pro-people and free from politicization; 6) efficiency and merit to be established as the basis of appointment and promotion in public service, and curtailing the discretionary powers of officials; 7) introduction of right to information; 8) e-governance; 9) police and other law enforcing agencies to be kept above political influence; 10) competitive market system in commerce and industry to be established by eliminating bribery and administrative difficulties and breaking the state or private monopoly; 11) strong measures against those having unearned and black money, loan defaulters, tender manipulators, and users of muscle power in every stage of state and society; 12) effective Human Rights Commission; 13) appointment of Ombudsman; and 14) introduction of Citizens Charter in every department and widespread computerization.

Many of these well-conceived commitments have been repeated in public statements since the election at various levels. Some notable progress has been made too. The Parliament started off very well, in many ways with unprecedented positive indicators including formation of the committees in the very first session. Committees have also been active in many cases, though conflict of interest of committee members remains a predicament against effectiveness. On the other hand expectations of the effectiveness of the Parliament have been shattered as a result of its boycott by the opposition from the same session.

Among many important laws adopted in the Parliament was the Right to Information Act which can go a long distance in controlling corruption. To complement the Right to Information Act a new law on whistleblower protection is awaiting adoption. The Government has to be credited for setting up the Information Commission which has an unenviable task of steering a process of transition from the culture of secrecy to that of openness. Equally mounting challenge lies in the hands of the Human Rights Commission, expectations raised by the reconstitution of which has not been matched by the necessary resource endowment.

As a State Party to the UN Convention against corruption the Government has adopted an implementation strategy of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and has agreed to peer review which will be due soon. On the other hand, while the Government has made a commitment to the people as well as to the UNCAC to strengthen the institutional capacity to control corruption, in many ways it has also been moving in just the opposite direction.

There has been a series of deliberate efforts to curtail the independence and effectiveness of the Anti-corruption Commission, the key institution upon which depends the government's delivery in terms of controlling corruption. At the core of the proposed amendments to the ACC act is the discriminatory provision in favour of government officials, which will practically take the public sector corruption out of the jurisdiction of the ACC.

It is disappointing for the people of the country. 96 percent of respondents to a survey conducted by TIB in July 2010 wanted an effective and independent ACC. 73 percent do not support the provision for prior government approval. On the other hand it will be self-defeating for the Government which seems to be outmaneuvered to a move that will erode people's trust upon it. This is also against the Constitutional right of all to equality in the eyes of the law.

The Government and the ruling party have clearly reneged on the commitment about annual disclosure of wealth statement and source of income of the Prime Minister, members of the cabinet, Parliament members and their family members. Nothing has happened except a solitary disclosure by the Finance Minister.

The Government's firmness to push ahead with the implementation of the Detailed Area Plan (DAP) of greater Dhaka was encouraging. But this has been outshined by the reported upsurge of tender-related violence, forcible grabbing of land, water bodies, forest and khas land by the leaders, agents and activists of the ruling party at various levels.

It was also equally disappointing that the Government amended the procurement rules to introduce the provision that no expertise or experience would be needed for bidding for contracts upto a certain threshold. This opened up opportunities for politically biased favours in public contracting. Equally damaging for the prospect of controlling corruption will be acts like providing immunity to any decision taken to ensure speedy power supply and the telecommunication act 2010 that curtailed the authority of the BTRC to the advantage of the Ministry. The Government has done nothing towards keeping the commitment to establish the Ombudsman's office. On the contrary it closed down the only Tax Ombudsman on the ground that it was ineffective as if chopping off the head cures the headache.

Contrary to electoral commitment, in a race to undermine the authority of the local government the Government has not only established undue authority of the Members of Parliament and local administration upon the upazila parishad, but also closed down the Local Government Commission. This is also against the spirit of the Constitution.

Among other self-defeating steps is the provision in successive budgets to legalize the black money which for all practical purposes encourages corruption and serves as a disincentive against transparent and honest transactions and businesses.

As far as administrative reforms are concerned, the review of salaries and benefits of employees in the public sector has been a step in the right direction which was long overdue. But there is still much to be desired in terms of strategic efforts to make salary and benefits in the public sector truly and sustainably consistent with the cost of living. There seems to be no takers of the idea that this has to viewed as investment for the future rather than costs.

The Government has taken a few positive initiatives like anti-corruption training of employees in institutions funded by public money. Citizen's Charter is being widely encouraged. But nothing has been practically done to mainstream anti-corruption in the public service by ensuring a combination of positive and negative incentives built into a set of code of conduct to promote zero tolerance against corruption.

But equally, if not more important is the failure to free public service from the partisan political influence. If appointments, promotions, rewards and punishments are determined on the basis of anything other than merit, efficiency, performance and other professional qualities the possibility of integrity in public service will remain a far cry.

The most formidable task is to effectively challenge impunity by enforcing the rule of law. Whether it is with respect to the cases of corruption already under the jurisdiction of the courts or for any number of other allegations of corruption, the law must be allowed to take its own course without any political or other forms of influence or intervention. Much remains to be achieved in terms of the capacity and integrity of the justice system, but any effort to influence the judicial process by political or other means shall be counterproductive.

We remain hopeful inspite of the contrasting picture depicted above. Trapped in a politics of zero-sum game, we often meet failures in the practice of democracy, but our optimism is drawn from the Bangladeshi penchant for democratic rights. People do raise voice here from a space that often shrinks because of a self-defeating policy to shoot the messenger. Equally, we do know that our people have never failed to take the correct decision. All our leaders need to do in order to be able to deliver in terms of effective control of corruption is to read their election manifesto at least once a month.

The writer is Executive Director, TIB.