Cancellation of Padma Bridge fund: a cursory reactionby Omar Khasru
THE utterly predictable and wholly anticipated, you may even call it the inevitable, has just happened. The World Bank has declared that due to credible charges of corruption, citing corroboration ‘by a variety of sources’, and ‘in light of the inadequate response by the Government of Bangladesh, the World Bank has decided to cancel its $1.2 billion IDA credit in support of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge project...’
The World Bank in this statement, released on June 29, added that it took the stern and severe action because it has convincing evidence ‘which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials, SNC Lavalin executives and private individuals in connection with the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project’ and the reluctance of the local administration to take any extenuating and punitive measures against the alleged perpetrators.
Two officials of the Canadian consultancy firm SNC Lavalin have been indicted and arrested and are being prosecuted in Canada. Despite repeated appeals, urging and persuasion by the World Bank no meaningful action has been taken against the accused big shots in Bangladesh, let alone arrest or prosecution.
What the World Bank termed ‘credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources’, the government treated it with benign neglect, total denial, obfuscation and equivocation. Several ministers and others affiliated with the regime, including the Anti-Corruption Commission, seemed more interested in refutation, rejection and rebuff, followed by defiance and denunciation of grave WB concerns and trepidations than to meticulously investigate the matter and unearth and reveal the truth.
The main tangible and perceptible action that the government has taken so far was to change the portfolio of the accused minister to a less prominent and less visible ministry. The minister, Syed Abul Hossain, blamed as the ringleader in the alleged scandal, was made the information and communication technology minister and was replaced by Obaidul Quader as the communications minister last December.
The government felt that this action was sufficient to placate the World Bank and other aid giving agencies. It deemed that the Padma Bridge project could now be launched without delay. But it failed to satisfy the World Bank as it did not buy this puny and symbolic act. It insisted on substantial, exemplary and concrete actions which the government was unwilling to take. Therein rests the discord, barrier and the bone of contention between the government and the World Bank.
The June 29 statement continued: ‘The World Bank provided evidence from two investigations to the Prime Minister, as well as the Minister of Finance and the Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Commission of Bangladesh (ACC) in September 2011 and April 2012. We urged the authorities… to investigate this matter fully and, where justified, prosecute those responsible for corruption.’
The World Bank, according to the press release, wanted that the government to ‘(i) place all public officials suspected of involvement in the corruption scheme on leave… until the investigation is completed; (ii) appoint a special inquiry team within the ACC to handle the investigation, and (iii) agree to provide full… access to all investigative information to a panel… comprised of internationally recognized experts so that the panel can give guidance to the lenders on the progress, adequacy, and fairness of the investigation.’
This sounds eminently sensible, even-handed and rational but the government vacillated and dragged its feet. The statement asserts, ‘In an effort to go the extra mile, we sent a high-level team to Dhaka to fully explain the Bank’s position and receive the Government’s response. The response has been unsatisfactory.’
The government did not pay much heed and continued in its merry way of denial, apathy and renunciation, periodically stating that ample mitigating actions have already been taken and the World Bank should not punish the whole nation for the purported blunder, blooper, alleged corruption and mishandling by a few. There was also the bluster and tall talk with other possible options and alternative financing, mainly the offer from a Malaysian consortium.
The repeated government assertion that since the money had not yet been actually received there cannot be any corruption does not hold water. This is a rather lame reasoning at best. For a proposed mega project with huge monetary allotment, there can always be real, premeditated or intended corruption before, after and during the project.
The Malaysian offer is more of a commercial deal and a profit-making venture by businessmen with the backing of their government. Even if it comes to fruition, it would likely take longer and cost a lot more while the inertest paid by Bangladesh would be prohibitively higher than the World Bank loan. It will turn out to be an immensely expensive venture with myriad unfavourable conditions. To top it all, it still remains totally uncertain.
It appeared from several pronouncements from the finance minister and the current communications minister that they were still hoping for World Bank loan and expected that everything will fall into place for the current government to start the much-touted and much-desired Padma Bridge project in the not too distant future. It now seems that possibility has come to a screeching halt.
The official responses have been predictable. The communications minister ruefully lamented that it has been a bolt from the blue and both unexpected and unwarranted. The finance minister termed it as unacceptable and he suggested that it is an intensely personal opinion of the outgoing World Bank president rather than collective opinion of the World Bank. That would seem improbable and a difference without a distinction.
The very valid question is as to why Bangladesh did not cooperate with the World Bank to investigate the plausible corruption allegations and uncover the whole truth. It is more of a rhetorical question and the answer is known to most people here. One might even get the objective impression that there is a concerted and collective attempt to push the whole sordid affair under the rug.
When the position and status of powerful and influential people, belonging to the government, becomes more important, garnering higher priority and greater significance, than the greater good, the country suffers and the people have to endure the adverse impact and harsh outcome due to no fault of their own. Such is the inevitability and the inexorableness in a country like ours.
The recent official trip by a Canadian police contingent to submit a report and inform and update the government here about their investigation was given a proverbial cold shoulder. Officials here, including the Anti-Corruption Commission, treated them with indifference and resentment. The Canadian police report, like the World Bank report, has not been made public.
At the conclusion the WB statement stated that it ‘cannot, should not, and will not turn a blind eye to evidence of corruption. We have both an ethical obligation and a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders and IDA donor countries. It is our responsibility to make sure IDA resources are used for their intended purposes and that we only finance a project when we have adequate assurances that we can do so in a clean and transparent way.’
This multilateral organisation, persistently and justifiably criticised for its inability to undertake meaningful steps to reduce poverty in less developed countries and, along with the International Monetary Fund, putting severe, arbitrary and gratuitous conditions for dispensing aid to countries like ours, has now taken the high road in the Padma Bridge financial assistance deal.
This is due to intransigence, insolence and utter non-cooperation on the part of our government. This is unfortunate, appalling and arduous for the helpless and overstrained common people who badly want and need the Padma Bridge. And sooner the better.
The Anti-Corruption Commission, in the meantime, is in the process of investigating the charges over consultancy appointment and has questioned a few well-known individuals. It may give clean bill of health to the accused, if the past is any precedent. Syed Abul Hossain faced ACC investigations over Padma Bridge earlier and was conferred the non-corruption certificate.
Syed Abul Hossain, in the past, has sanctimoniously and repeatedly claimed that he has been accused falsely for an alleged crime he did not commit and is not culpable for. He would now be quizzed over recruitment of consultants for the first time, sources said (Banglanews24.com, June 18).
The Anti-Corruption Commission, according to many, excels in issuing certificates of honesty and integrity to government party bigwigs and administration top officials. So that the commission does not have to face curious, inquisitive, prying and snooping journalists on this pressing matter, or anything else, it has now imposed severe restriction to reporters’ entry into its office premises with a newfangled credo, ‘don’t call us, we will call you.’
The Padma Bridge construction was a prominent part of the Awami League election pledge. Other important pledges such as control of prices of essential items, increase the supply of electricity on a fast track basis and provide energy and electricity at affordable prices and reduce corruption and shun party influence on the administration have fallen by the wayside. It now seems that the Padma Bridge pledge is about to incur the same fate.
Out of sheer obstinacy and stubborn obduracy, even if the government undertakes the all important Padma Bridge project through Malaysian high cost, high interest rate and stringent condition proposition, the country will lose out financially and otherwise. The people will have to endure the excess burden of extra cost for years to come, perhaps even for succeeding generations which they absolutely do not deserve.
The public reaction to the ill-fated news has been that of outrage, frustration, discontent and shame. I was reading the feedback from many of the respondents in the online edition of a Bangla daily. They seemed uniformly dismayed, disgruntled and distraught.
An erudite acquaintance commented on e-mail: ‘To the best of knowledge, this might be the first instance where the World Bank has cancelled financing a mega infrastructure project in a major recipient country because of the government’s adamant position that it’s right to corruption is not negotiable.’
The overwhelming consensus is that it is a result of government inaction, ineptitude and inflexibility in addition to corruption by a powerful few. Many also consider it a national shame. Most people had nothing to do with bringing about the stigma to the whole country and most people have absolutely no say in vital national decisions. Yet they have to suffer the untoward consequences.
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