“I bow my head and apologize for causing concern to the people with these incidents “, South Korea’s President Myung- Bak said in a brief televised apology to the nation for the corruption cases allegedly involving his elder brother and close aides. “It breaks my heart that such regrettable things have happened among people close to me”, he added solemnly. His predecessor Roh Moo Hyun went up the hill and shot himself when allegations of graft were brought against him. Before committing suicide he left a note which read: “Too many people suffered because of me and I cannot imagine the suffering they will go through in future”.
No one ever apologizes in this country “for causing concern to the people”. Regrettable things happening among people close to the rulers never break their hearts. People in authority consider themselves to be the masters of the voting public. Power and its pursuit is their only aim and they are there to wield it using the coercive power of the state and manipulating public affairs.
About a year ago, large potholes in the roads and highways and cracks in the bridges rendered the country’s road communication network almost intractable. Outraged people took to the streets demanding resignation of the communication minister whom his parliamentary colleagues censored for corruption and inefficiency. Almost coincidentally the World Bank put him on the dock for his involvement in the alleged corruption conspiracy in the bidding process of the construction of the Padma bridge . For long nine months the agency kept on pressing the government to take the remedial measures which included removal of the minister as a precondition to the disbursement of the soft term credit repayable in 40 years with 10 year moratorium. Ultimately the obstinacy of the minister and foolhardiness of the government resulted in scraping the credit agreement, bringing ‘disgrace’, ‘humiliation’, and ‘insult’ to the entire nation.
The government, instead of apologizing to the people for its ineptness and vulnerability which caused the national disgrace, humiliation and insult reacted in the most intemperate manner hurling counter accusations and abuses at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (WB) which having reconstructed the war ravaged western Europe and Japan dedicated itself to the task of creating a poverty free world. The outgoing president of the world organization became the singular target of attack and the US – the world’s only superpower – was dragged into the controversy as a country which , according to the PM and some cabinet ministers, was never a friend of Bangladesh. A cabinet meeting was called in indecent haste where it was decided that the government would make no further request to the World Bank resolving conclusively that the bridge would be built with the country’s own resources. Two bank accounts were opened to collect the funds. Ministers donated a day’s pay and kids in the primary schools agreed to donate their Tiffin money.
One economist came up with the device by which an astronomical amount of 90,000 cr taka can be collected and with that not one but five bridges can be built. The chairman of the National Board of Revenue (NBR) said in a press conference on July 25 that the revenue authority was actively considering imposition of a new surcharge to raise funds for the project. “We are working on implementing the cabinet decision”, he said and added “The NBR may consider a 10 percent tax rebate on donations to the two bank accounts.”
The nation was shocked when a student of Rajshahi university was killed in a scuffle over the sharing of the toll collected in the name of the bridge. Earlier the Deputy Leader of the House authorized the student front of the ruling party to collect the tolls. Thereupon the students activists of the party went on a rampage and the situation came to such a pass that the Finance Minister had to issue a statement asking the public to beat up the toll collectors. Things went beyond control and the Education Minister Promptly issued a handout warning stern action if any institution, person or teacher collected money in the name of the bridge. A show cause notice was also served on Monipur school and college in the capital city for collecting tolls for the construction of the $3.0 billion bridge over the mighty river Padma.
All these incidents and the government’s mishandling of the entire matter caused huge public uproar and the defiant minister who has a track record of passport forgery which is a criminal offence, finally surrendered to the national and international pressure and on 24 July resigned in utter disgrace. The country suffered loss of face before the international community and no apology was offered to the people by anyone in government for having caused so much concern and indignity. The Prime Minister, on the other hand, praised the minister as a patriot, stepping up her stinging attacks on the World Bank and told her party men in London that it is possible to build the bridge without foreign assistance.
Funnily, her Finance Minister has been tracking in a totally different terrain. On 24 July he came out with four options on the bridge funding. Under the first option, he said, the government would look to revive the deal on the $2.9 billion credit offered by four development partners, namely the WB, ADB, JICA and IDB. The second option would be to form new consortium comprising ADB, JICA and IDB. The third option would be the Malaysian offer. “Building the bridge with our own financing is our fourth and last option, which will be undertaken only after failure of the first three options”, he told the reporters.
“The JICA president is now in Washington to have a meeting with the World Bank President”, he said adding that he had requested the JICA chief to discuss the Padma bridge issue with the World Bank president. The incumbent communication minister surprised all when, on July 27 he said, “It is now more important than the construction of the Padma bridge to make the roads fit for a smooth journey”.
In the situation, it is clear that people with diverse temperament have been placed in positions of responsibility where they can indulge every whim. Some pundits close to the ivory tower have suggested issuing bonds to raise money. It means nothing but simply borrowing money to be repaid from future tax revenues. These bonds are indeed an unmanageable debt which will be crushing as the total national income remains static over time .
The ruling class has been behaving like a reckless driver who has lost control of his wheels in traffic jam and the country is approaching a crash landing. Inability to govern the country and loss of popular support have created a stress factor verging on recklessness leading to insanity . They are now prone to give a free play to their prejudices devoid of any sense of reality .
This country has certain unique traits which must be perceived in the light of reality before going for wild goose chase. Eighty percent of the people here live in the village and thirty percent live below poverty level. The government lives beyond means spending money without regard to accountability.
Expenditure in the revised budget is fatter and the development budget thinner. Subsidy represents 18 percent of the total outlay in the budget. In the current fiscal year there is a 14.5 percent jump in subsidy. The reason is soaring price of petroleum and increased fuel consumption by rental power plant. More than three-fourth of the tax revenue comes from indirect tax which include the tax collected at source. Budget allocation for Annual Development Program is 550 billion taka. By the same coin, the budget shows an estimated deficit of 521 billion taka. Tax-payer provided subsidies for goods and services are said to be justified because otherwise the poor would be unable to obtain those. But such subsidies are used to finance things seldom used by the poor.
Not everyone is equally efficient in building 6.2 kilometre bridges over a mighty river and not everyone’s circumstances offer equal opportunity to achieve lower costs. Padma bridge must be built but it must be cost effective providing proper service. At this stage empirical questions must be asked, if we are really interested in the well-being of our people rather than an excitement, perhaps the most important distinction is between what sounds good and works. The former may be sufficient for the purposes of politics but not for economic advancement of the people.
BY : Abu Hena.