Straight Talk

Modern-day Arabian Nights

Abdul Mannan

25 January, 2020 12:00 AM printer

Modern-day Arabian Nights

Abdul Mannan

Corruption in all sectors of our national life has become endemic since the day one of the liberation of Bangladesh. Now it has became cancerous and is eating up a big part of the common people’s wealth and potentials of national development in this country. On last Wednesday the Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal made public in the national parliament that ‘some 8,238 companies are loan defaulters…as per the Credit Information Bureau data base till November 2019, the total loan default stood at Tk. 969,860.38 million. Of the total loan default as of September last year, directors of various banks took loans amounting to Taka 173,230.89 crore from their own as well as other banks, said the finance minister in the parliament. Bangladesh as an independent country began its journey with an annual budget of Taka 786 crore (78.6 million) in 1972. In 1972 the country virtually did not have any development budget and whatever small amount of money was allocated for development, it was for the rebuilding of the war damaged infrastructure and both recurring and the small development budget was virtually aid dependent. On January 12, just one day after his return from Pakistani prison Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formed his cabinet entrusting the portfolio of the Finance Minister to the wartime Prime Minister Tajuddin Ahmed. Immediately after forming the cabinet Bangabandhu emphasized some key issues that needed immediate attention that included (a) eradicating corruption from every sector of Bangladesh; (b) development of agriculture; (c) development of human resources; (d) and on top of everything the rehabilitation of more than ten million people displaced by the nine months’ Liberation War.

Mujib ruled Bangladesh for only three and half year before he fell to the bullets of the assassins on the fateful night of 15 August 1975. During this three and half years whenever he spoke in public, whether in the national parliament or in public rallies, he would always focus on corruption of the people in the government and he would often tell the Pakistan occupation forces destroyed everything in this country but left behind a bunch of thugs who expertise in stealing public money and wealth.

In the early years of Bangladesh the size of the economy of Bangladesh was tiny compared to the current economy of the country and so was the size of corruption. As the current size of the economy is quite large and so many mega projects are in the pipeline, and so much of public money involved, the size of the corruption from the available data seems limitless. Bangabandhu would also say that the common people do not indulge in corruption; those who do are the upper five percent of the society whom we term ‘educated’. Nothing has changed since then.

My generation grew up reading story books and playing outdoor games as we did not have any other option to spend our time outside the four walls of the class rooms. Today’s generation has decided to confine their lives within a tiny gadget called Smart Phone and games are no longer played outdoors but on computers and Smart Phones. Life was more exciting and young minds were more creative. Amongst the many story books the children of my generation loved to read was the ‘Arabian Nights,’ (Alif Lailah wa Laila), a story book containing one thousand and one stories. Each story had unique content and any child who read any of the stories would never forget the characters of the story. One such story was that of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’. The forty thieves of Baghdad plundered immense amount of wealth from the prince and nobles of Baghdad and the booty was kept hidden in a secret cave in the mountains. To open the door of the cave one had to use a password which was only known to the Chief of the thieves (Sardar). On day a woodcutter, Ali Baba while cutting wood in the forest secretly saw the forty thieves and the Chief uttering the password ‘Open Sesame’ and cave doors opened and the robbers go in to store their loot.

Once the robbers left Ali Baba tried to open the cave door with the secret password and he was successful. From then onward he began to regularly steal the wealth from the caves of the forty thieves. This may have been tale from the Arabian Nights but today the country abounds with successors of those forty thieves, who not only defaults payment of their loans taken from the public banks but also freely and openly siphon out huge amount of public money which may be anywhere from millions to billions outside the country, mainly to countries like Canada, USA, UK, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Dubai and even in neighbouring India. Besides taking out this money from the country and investing in business and real estate in these countries, huge amount of money is stashed away in Swiss Banks or in banks in Cayman Island or Bahamas. Some of these plunderers are our law makers and some are currently running for public office. The ‘Begum Para’ of Canada and the ‘Second Home’ in Malaysia are the places where the families of these money launderers can be found. 

The free style plundering of public money from banks, both public and private as well as from non-banking financial institutions have made the entire financial sector sick and the banks in most cases have lost their credibility, shaking the very foundation of the country’s banking sector. Those involved in the plundering of many in some forms or the others include businessman, civil-military bureaucrats, government officials,  bank owners,  senior bank professionals, members of some of the private university Board of Directors,  personal staff of some ministers, few former student leaders, professionals from different fields and these  according to the Bangabandhu are the ‘educated’ people of the country.

There is no denying the fact that the manufacturing and the service sectors of Bangladesh play a very vital role in the country’s economy. These two sectors are very vital for the country’s economy.  But this is one side of the story. The other side of the story is most of the money taken out of the country are by the people belonging to these sectors. The so called ‘Begum Para’ of Toronto in Canada where the families of a certain class of businessmen of Bangladesh and of people who worked for the government in different sectors and a sizeable number  from the garment sector alone is growing in size and shape. The families of most Ready Made Garment business owners reside outside Bangladesh, especially in Begum Para or in other countries is no secret. When asked why they feel so comfortable in sending their families away, the typical answer would be ‘for children’s education and their security.’

No excuse could be more preposterous than these. Our education system may not be good as in these countries but there are good schools too in Bangladesh. So far no Begum Para created any successful professionals. Bangladesh’s security may not be as good as those in these countries but still our security is much better than some of the countries in the west. Once a business man gave me his visiting card where his evening time meeting place was mentioned to be in the lobby of a star rated hotel in Dhaka. I was surprised and when I asked him about this strange meeting place his simple answer was his entire family resides in Begum Para and he is all alone in Dhaka. He spends his time in the hotel and informed me that the bar of this particular hotel is also good! 

There is nothing secret about the people who regularly siphon away huge amount of public money from the country. One Prasanta Kumar Haldar, owner of four non-banking financial institutions of Bangladesh single handedly siphoned away from Bangladesh thirty five billion taka and left the country. According to the published reports, Halder acted in connivance with  the government monitoring agencies. In 2015 UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) calculated and disclosed that a staggering amount of 50 thousand six hundred and forty crore taka were illegally smuggled out of the country  which was estimated equivalent to 36 percent of the total amount of generated   internal revenue.  A more realistic estimate was made by the New York based Global Financial Integrity (GIF). They estimated that a total of 75 thousand crore taka was siphoned out of Bangladesh illegally by unscrupulous people.

The actual figure is much higher than what becomes public. To stop this unbridled corruption that bleeds the country continuously is the job of regulatory bodies like Bangladesh Bank, Anti-Corruption Commission, National Board of Revenue and few others. But unfortunately all of these bodies have failed collectively to stop the rot. Most of them have become just paper tigers by any definition.

On Thursday Berlin based Transparency International (TI) disclosed that the global corruption has multiplied worldwide over the years. During Begum Zia’s rule of 2001-2006 Bangladesh topped the list of being the most corrupt country in the world. Though the situation have improved to a certain extent, it still Bangladesh ranks 146th out of 180 countries. This surely does not make the common citizens of the country proud.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina often says in public that if the corruption could be stemmed, the country’s development could be accelerated and the country could reach its goal to become a middle income country much earlier than expected. But it seems that she is fighting a lone battle as did her father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib. Going back to the early years of Bangladesh the Father of the Nation had a team around him most of whom had a clean image. None could raise a finger towards anyone of them for corruption, leave aside money laundering. The country did not have money to launder. Sheikh Hasina, unlike her father, is not that lucky. Today the country has enough money and resource and those who want to rob the nation’s wealth, the sky is the limit. We know of one Prasanta Kumar Halder but the society is full of such Halders. They work for the government in all sectors and of course a sizeable number of them belong to the business community. They can easily swindle and rob banks and public money, invest in other countries, stash money in foreign banks or buy properties in places like New York, Toronto or Malaysia. If things do not improve for the better, the plight of the common people and the economy of the country will never reach the destination it is capable of. The country will not have forty thieves of Ali Baba but may soon have forty thousand or more of them. With their corruption, a new version of Arabian Nights may be written, right here in Bangladesh.


The writer is an analyst and a commentator