Padma Bridge: Between denial and dadagiri?
Much has been talked about and written on the Padma Bridge project since it became clear that the government of Bangladesh succeeded in negotiating the $2.9 billion loan agreement with 4 donors led by the World Bank (WB). Where the fate of the project stands today is anybody's guess.
The WB is expected to soon come up with another statement with one of three possibilities on the basis of their assessment of the stance taken by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) regarding the alleged conspiracy of corruption in connection with the appointment of a consultant for the project. One possibility could be that they would be satisfied with the "progress" made by ACC as a result of which seven people are being investigated while two remain listed as "suspects." Hence, they could come back happily. Such a scenario, quite unlikely though, could be a cause to celebrate.
The second possibility is that WB may find key suspects in their understanding off the hook. Judging by the strong stance they took directly against the former communication minister, in this instance they would be short of patience, and hence no more Padma talks. A third possibility is a combination of the two while they may not accept or reject the ACC stance, and for that matter that of the government, they may decide to observe how the investigation proceeds, and hence they could indicate that doors are not closed yet. That would practically drag the process beyond the tenure of the present government. In the best possible version of this scenario, however, depending partly on the government's negotiating skills, they may agree to resume talks for reopening the loan processing under another set of conditions added to that of full and fair investigation.
It is useless to bet on one or the other among these possible scenarios, and indeed, one shouldn't be surprised if what eventually turns out is anything but these three. Instead, it is worthwhile to raise some questions, by way of assessing if and how opportunities have been lost in the whole game around the project caught between a denial syndrome in a section of the government and dadagiri (highhandedness) on the part of WB. It is also for us to try drawing lessons for the future.
What would have happened if, in response to media reports parallel with concerns raised by WB of possible corruption conspiracy (this term conspiracy was used more recently though), the government had shunned the ostrich-like denial syndrome, and taken the allegations seriously and ensured proper investigation early on? What if the then communication minister had decided to voluntarily and honourably step down on moral ground and waited to be garlanded if he was to be found not guilty, as he claims, in the due process?
What would have happened if the government, in the wake of WB's cancellation of the loan agreement on June 29, embarrassed as it was, took the case as an acid test and instituted a highly credible, fully independent and sufficiently empowered judicial probe into the allegations of corruption? What if the government position that ACC has been tasked to investigate was not
every time almost instantly followed by claims that no corruption has taken place? Could the challenge then be converted into opportunity?
When in September WB reopened the prospect of conditional come back, what would have happened if the assessment of the former minister's patriotism could wait and didn't come on the heels of his removal from office? What would have happened if the ACC, agreeably the most unenviable institution of Bangladesh, could have avoided being the mirror image of the government? What if the government's interpretation of the WB condition of sending their experts to observe the Commission's investigation process as intrusion into sovereignty was not instantly echoed by the ACC claiming that the law didn't permit such a role, especially when it had to quickly take a u-turn following the government's change of mind though no legal reform had by then taken place?
What if the ACC didn't take recourse to such flimsy ground as "the minister was not sufficiently attentive" in his work for which he could not be investigated? What if they were mindful enough that perhaps the minister could have actually been particularly attentive and crafty so as to appear innocent when his secretary changed the composition of the evaluation team for the high profile procurement as many as four times?
What if the ACC didn't wish people to buy the idea that a secretary of the government could be so powerful or naïve as to take such vital decision on his own, especially when the minister was being met by the supply side of the conspiracy Canadian company SNC Lavalin and its lobbyists? Would the inclusion of the former ministers in the list of those to be investigated by itself mean that they were actually guilty?
What would have happened if the ACC could avoid appearing to be short of courage and determination to follow the example of its own enquiry team and take a more professional decision without fear or favour? Couldn't that have given the ACC a golden opportunity to gain some credibility in the eyes of the people nationally and internationally? Wouldn't that have also given the government a higher moral authority to ask the WB to start the process of disbursement so the construction of the bridge could have gone parallel with the investigation process?
On the other side of the game, what would have happened if the timing didn't coincide with a stage of transition in WB itself prompted by demands within and outside to take more responsibility than in the past for corruption in projects funded by its loans in developing countries globally? What if the WB, as a newcomer therefore to the world of openness and corruption control, was a bit more strategic to avoid the overenthusiastic course of chopping off the head for headache?
What would have happened if instead of cancelling the agreement the Bank had chosen to engage with the government and ACC to assist the investigation process, and kept the loan open? In that case, wouldn't it be more sensible to keep on reminding the government and ACC of the parallel investigation which is going on in Canada? Did WB exhaust all constructive leverages at its disposal in ensuring transparency and accountability in various stages of the project from the beginning as the lead donor?
As the WB gropes for an option to serve its interest as a stakeholder in the Padma Bridge project, the likes of which are its lifeline, shouldn't it be asking itself whether what it is likely to gain today from the way it has played its card is hardly any different from what it could achieve by continuing to engage as indicated above?
We have said it before, and we say it today, neither the government with its denial syndrome often joined by ACC as the former's mirror image on the one hand, nor the World Bank with its dadagiri on the other, has been given any right to deprive the people of Bangladesh the benefit of Padma Bridge for alleged corruption of a powerful few. Isn't there still time for both sides to have a more sensible approach?
The writer is Executive Director, TIB.
This article has been published in on 25 December, 2012