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A culture of corruption

  • Published at 12:03 am October 18th, 2019

Bribery is seen as a normal practice in Bangladesh

Although corruption exists all over the world, it is very sophisticated in many countries, while really “in your face” in others. In other words, a way of life, something that is “normal.” That is how it is in India and Bangladesh, where I have lived and worked for most of the last 50 years.

Some people think that corruption is a relatively new activity, but it has been around forever. A distant ancestor of mine, when he was district superintendent of police in Bihar, India in the 1860s, drafted The Police Constable’s Manual. Having learned Hindi on the long voyage round the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), he translated it into Hindi himself, and with the help of some local clerks, into Bengali and Urdu as well.

The manual, which received official approval in Kolkata, was written in the form of questions and answers. 

For example: What is the first duty of a constable? Implicit obedience to his superiors.

What should he always remember? To keep his ears and eyes open and his mouth shut.

What is the greatest fault a constable can commit? The taking directly or indirectly of a bribe or any article of value (money or money’s worth) from anyone for the purpose of being induced to perform or to refrain from performing the strict letter of his duty.

Regarding bribery, I admit that I have been guilty of bribery, but for, in my opinion, good reasons. When I was living in Bihar 50 years ago, my cook/bearer stole some of my personal possessions including a wrist-watch and money, and though I did not immediately suspect him, the police found the stolen items in his possession in his quarters.

Later on, when I heard that he had been severely beaten while in police lock-up, I bribed the police to quash the case and release him, though he did not work for me again.

Another time in Kolkata in 1971, I moved Oxfam’s refugee relief office from a hotel to a location at Park Circus. While in the hotel, we had the luxury of the hotel’s three phone lines but we found that to obtain one line in our new office, “speed money” of Rs500 was needed, which I duly authorized. 

The Oxfam Finance Department in Oxford HQ was not impressed.

More recently from 2000 to 2006, I was team leader and co-director of a European Union funded Ministry of Land project, Adarsha Gram. This was a jointly-funded project to build new villages on government “khas” land to rehabilitate families who had lost their homes and land to river erosion. 

Sadly, the project was riddled with corrupt practices. It is very sad to say that bribery is usually necessary at every level in the land administration -- tehsildar, A/C land, UNO. In the process of approving sites for new villages, we needed to visit the “khas” land locations to see how much earth raising was required to bring the plinth levels of the houses above the highest-known flood level.

On one occasion, along with our civil engineers, I visited a site in Barisal. 

We saw that the site was very low-lying and the amount of cash for work and/or food for work required for earth raising would not be cost-effective.

After we returned to the project’s head office in Dhaka and informed the concerned Barisal UNO and Union Parishad officials that the site had not been approved, we had a visit to the project head office by the brother of the Union Parishad Chairman, who said that they had been promised approval of the site and, in any case, “we have paid advance of Tk50,000 to one Mr Hafiz.” 

Mr Hafiz (now deceased) was a member of our head office staff, and later, during the period of the caretaker government, was found to have managed to obtain the possession of property worth lakhs, if not crores.

Another type of corruption found in different ministries is connected with “study tours.” In the Adarsha Gram project, the Inception Work Plan had to be submitted within the first six months of the project which started in the year 2000. When the project’s Project Management Unit (PMU) submitted the Inception Work Plan for approval, the European Commission approved it within one month, but the Ministry of Land approved it after six months only after foreign study tours had been inserted in the budget. 

One study tour, with a Ministry of Land Joint Secretary as team leader, visited China and Malaysia after which the team leader submitted fake hotel invoices, and when those hotels were contacted they confirmed that (a) no persons of the listed names had stayed at the hotels and (b) the room numbers mentioned did not exist in the concerned hotels. 

These “study tours” act, in fact, as sight-seeing and shopping tours. No criminal or disciplinary action, to my knowledge, has ever been taken which could prevent this kind of corruption.

Another kind of corruption also took place when the Adarsha Gram project issued tender notices. As the project’s office was near to the Dhaka University area, the student body of the ruling party at the time would violently control who would be able to drop tender documents at the project’s office.

These examples, then, are some of my experiences of bribery and corruption which, sadly, has become endemic in most strata of society. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the Government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971 and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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