Anti-corruption and people's engagement: The Bangabandhu way?
On December 9, 2003, the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) was opened for signature by member states of the UN. To commemorate this occasion, and to create greater awareness, participation and commitment of governments and peoples to combat corruption around the world, December 9 was declared as International Anti-Corruption Day (IACD).
The Convention subsequently came into force in 2005, with 164 states including Bangladesh as parties to it. IACD has been observed by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) from 2004 when demand for Bangladesh's ratification of the Convention was first raised. Bangladesh acceded to UNCAC in 2007.
Soon after coming to power the present government adopted an implementation plan of the Convention. In 2011 Bangladesh also underwent a review of implementation for which the government also cooperated with peer countries (Iran and Paraguay) and TIB for a parallel review.
These can be viewed as examples of the realisation by the government that corruption is a key national challenge, and that to confront it institutional and policy environment must be created consistent with UNCAC commitments. This also reflects the expectations of everyone who shares a vision of Bangladesh in which government, politics, business, civil society and daily lives of the people would be free of corruption.
As we observe IACD this year I am reminded of a statement by the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In what was reportedly his last public statement made on the Independence Day of 1975, he said: "I had called upon you (on March 7, 1971) to build fortresses in every house … the number one priority is to root out corruption from the Bangla soil. I need your help … I will enforce law, I will not spare anybody … there has to be a people's movement … It has to be a movement to socially boycott the bribe-taker and the corrupt. … Who can do it? My student-brothers can do it, the youth can, intellectuals can, the people can… you have to convert each house into a fortresses … this time fortresses against corruption, so that we can alleviate the sufferings of the toiling masses of Bangladesh" (translated from http://www.somewhereinblog.net/blog/mushfic1975/29658812)
A close look at this statement shows how much it is consistent with the spirit of UNCAC. He talks about punishing the corrupt, which needs adequate laws and effective institutions; he emphasises on challenging impunity without fear or favour and sparing none. As the firmest ever believer in people's power he calls for a people's movement in the way he inspired and led our glorious independence movement. Tragically, Bangabandhu was not allowed to survive long enough to fulfill his vision of a corruption-free Bangladesh.
As much as it is a sheer coincidence that the IACD is observed in the month of our victory, it also gives us reasons to recall that the spirit of our independence is absolutely antithetical to anything to do with corruption -- abuse of power for private gain. Perhaps also by a coincidence, the 2008 election manifesto of the party he left behind, led by his daughter Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in many ways captured the same spirit when it identified anti-corruption as a top priority and made over a dozen specific pledges that could strengthen the capacity of the government to control corruption effectively.
Some notable steps were taken too. The Parliament started off well -- in an unprecedented initiative, all parliamentary committees were formed in the very first session, some of which have been active, though conflict of interest remained a key predicament against delivery. Expectations of an effective Parliament were shattered from the first session as a result of boycott by the opposition, who have by now abstained from 80% of working hours of the House.
Among many important laws enacted is the Right to Information Act, followed by the Whistleblower Protection Act, which, If effectively enforced, can go a long way in corruption control. The Information Commission was set up and the Human Rights Commission was reconstituted, raising expectations. The government has taken a few other positive initiatives like anti-corruption training of officials in institutions funded by public money. The second generation Citizen's Charter is being widely encouraged. Local level IT-supported information centres coupled with initiatives consistent with the vision of digital Bangladesh such as introduction of e-governance and e-procurement, limited though, have opened opportunities for improvement in the corruption situation in service delivery in relevant sectors.
At the macro level the National Integrity Strategy is awaiting adoption soon. However, numerous steps were also taken that weakened the national integrity system. There has been a series of efforts to curtail the independence and effectiveness of the Anti-Corruption Commission, upon which depends a lot in terms of delivery of corruption control. Although the government reportedly moved away from the restrictive provisions and a revised law is under consideration that may be more conducive, the revised version has not been made public, nor has it been formally introduced in the parliament.
In the meantime, not only were thousands of criminal and corruption cases withdrawn under political consideration, initiative was also taken to provide legal authority of such withdrawal in the hands of the government, which could have a crippling effect on the ACC and undermine the judicial process. Institutional capacity to control corruption and promote accountable governance has been undermined by deepening of politicisation of administration and law enforcement.
No progress has been made in terms of the commitment to annual disclosure of income and wealth statement of parliament members, ministers and respective families. Abuse of power related to public contracts, illegal grabbing of land, water bodies, forest and khas land by the leaders, agents and activists of political leaders have continued unabated.
Public procurement rules were amended to provide that no expertise or experience would be needed for bidding for contracts up to a certain threshold. Equally damaging for the prospect of controlling corruption was the immunity granted to decisions in the power sector. The same is true for the Telecommunication Act 2010 that curtailed the authority of the BTRC to the advantage of the ministry. Nothing was done to keep the commitment to establish the Ombudsman's office.
Contrary to electoral commitment and spirit of the Constitution additional powers were granted to the members of Parliament at the expense of the authority of the local government. Another step defying the Constitutional provision and electoral commitment is the provision in successive budgets to legalise the black money which, for all practical, purposes encourages corruption and serves as a disincentive against honest living. These are indications of possible policy capture by forces who benefit from corruption rather than those who would like it to be controlled.
To cap it all, there has been a procession of high profile corruption allegations like Padma Bridge, Railway scam, Stock Market, Hall-Mark and Destiny. As Padma bridge case has amply demonstrated, a section of the government, appearing to be hostage to a denial syndrome, has too often failed to demonstrate the commitment and capacity to allow investigations in the due process without favour or fear.
Nevertheless, as we observe IACD, we remain optimistic today, a few days before the Victory Day, that Bangladesh can achieve much more in corruption control if we remain respectful to the spirit of our independence and draw inspiration and commitment from Bangabandhu's call, especially from the way he articulated the anti-corruption strategy.
The writer is Executive Director, TIB.
This article has been published in on 9 December, 2012