Thursday, August 9, 2012

PADMA BRIDGE : Country approaching crash landing

“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.