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OP-ED: Where does corruption come from?

  • Published at 07:54 pm July 30th, 2020
doctor medicine ethics

All those involved in corruption in the fields of health or relief deserve severe punishment

A recent headline was that, following all the alleged corruption scams, 28 officials of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) had been transferred. It is difficult to understand why these officials have not been suspended or even arrested. 

Why only transferred? Probably, which is normally the case, when the news of any scandal has died down, everyone will be in some way reinstated or rehabilitated somewhere, probably facilitated through the transfer of further strategic bribes. As many observers have observed, corruption is endemic and is vitally necessary to keep the wheels of progress moving.

What is so very shocking, in respect of all the allegations against the Ministry of Health and DGHS, is that the alleged criminal actions affect the health, sometimes life or death, of citizens of this country. 

I remember a similar situation, 10 years ago, while working with a foreign poverty alleviation project, where the extreme poor received cattle for income-generating purposes, that some of my colleagues and some staff of the collaborating NGOs set up a fake factory to supply vitamins and vaccines for the dairy and beef cattle. 

In this case, we were able to take action and many young educated men lost their jobs. In 2020, the health-related corruption affects the lives of people; 10 years ago, the livelihoods of extreme poor families were affected.

As has already been written by many commentators, corruption has been here for a long time. It is, however, a positive sign that more instances are coming to light and being publicized in the media and the government is seen to be taking necessary action. 

However, the media and citizen bodies must continuously follow up to ensure that action is being taken. It is, indeed, sobering to note that, in July 1972, it was reported in the Bangladesh media at that time that already “over 7,000 cases of corruption, malpractice, and abuse of power by officials and men in responsible positions are now lying in different stages in Bangladesh.” 

A lot of the corruption of 1972 was related to relief supplies at a time when people were dying from hunger.

In 1971, I was the coordinator of Oxfam’s refugee relief program covering about 600,000 Bangladeshi women, men, and children in refugee camps in all the Indian states which border Bangladesh. In preparation for the winter months in India, people in the UK had donated many thousands of blankets through a “take a blanket off your bed” fundraising campaign, and these blankets were airlifted to Kolkata. 

To avoid wasting time, we arranged that the bales of blankets be transported by road directly from Kolkata Airport to the different refugee camps. We therefore contracted a company with the largest number of trucks. This truck company, Champa Agency, was owned by one Asutosh Ghose, a former member of the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. 

The different refugee camps were informed how many bales of woolen blankets would be arriving. However, we soon received information that the contents of the bales being received did not contain foreign woolen blankets but, instead, torn old Indian made blankets, sacks, and old clothes, etc. On behalf of Oxfam, I started a police case and refused to pay any transport invoices. 

Champa Agency started a civil case against Oxfam and me for non-payment of invoices. Eventually, the police case involved 18 co-accused and 64 prosecution witnesses. 

When an arrest warrant was issued in the name of Asutosh Ghose, he obtained a doctor’s certificate for a heart attack and was admitted to the prestigious Woodland’s Nursing Home. He only left the hospital when his aged mother, Champa, passed away and he had to perform the funeral rites. 

At that time, he was arrested. Asutosh Ghose and his associates had in a very short time packed the imported blankets in plastic and they were on sale at very high prices in places like New Market in Kolkata. The police announced that any trader or shop-keeper in possession of these stolen blankets could deposit them at certain police stations and no police action would be taken. 

As a result, huge numbers of blankets also stolen from other organizations were surrendered, and I remember going to police lock-ups to identify the blankets which were being stored in the cells. 

Eventually, Champa Agency withdrew the civil case against Oxfam and me and also paid Oxfam some compensation, and in 1973, a British-Bangladeshi visited Oxfam head office in the UK on behalf of some “important” Bangladeshis in Bangladesh offering to fully compensate Oxfam at that time about Rs800,000. 

This offer was made because Asutosh Ghose had helped the Bangladeshis in 1971. Obviously, Oxfam could not guarantee that the police would drop the case, but in case it died a natural death. Sadly, “Oxfam blankets” became famous for the wrong reasons, even in Dhaka, because some had found their way to the local markets. 

I hope that now, in 2020, all those found guilty of corruption in the field of health and relief distribution are severely punished and that their punishment is widely publicized.

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.