Minister, family buy land in advance to make money

Proposed location to set up a factory of Essential Drugs Company Limited in Manikganj. Type of the land has been changed before acquiring by the governmentProthom Alo

Health minister Zahid Maleque’s daughter Cynthia Maleque bought 11.14 acres of land out of the 31.5-acre that is proposed as the land for constructing a government pharmaceutical factory in Manikganj. She filled the purchased land to convert it into homestead category from waterbody category. After around seven months of this the project for the pharmaceutical factory was approved. Cynthia donated the land to her husband Akmal Hossain by showing its price twice of its purchase price just 20 days before the approval. Now, the government has to acquire the land by paying three times its last price. That means the health minister’s daughter or her husband will get Tk 400 million if the government acquires the lands that she bought for Tk 70 million.

At the proposed location, 6.39 acres land was purchased in the name of BD Sun Limited, a company owned by Health Minister Zahid Maleque. Besides, 3.12 acres land was bought in the name of Rahat Real Estate, owned by minister’s son Rahat Maleque. That is, out of 31.5 acres of land, 20.65 acres have been bought by the minister, his son and daughter. After that the category of the land was changed to raise their price (mouza rate) by five times. Then all three donated or sold their land to their near ones at the inflated price (than the mouza rate). Apart from this, the minister’s cousin Shamim Mia bought 5.54 acres land.

Such a manipulation process regarding the land was revealed during a review of the District Land Management Committee at the initial stage of the land acquisition process after the project had gotten approval. In such a situation, if the project is to be implemented on this land, the government will have to spend on land acquisition about Tk 1 billion more than the market price. The government will save this money if the project is implemented in any of the adjacent land, say a letter Manikganj district commissioner wrote to the Ministry of Health.

Following the issuance of this letter, the local leaders and activists of the ruling party started a movement demanding removal of the district commissioner, alleging various irregularities. This movement was led by the minister’s cousin Md. Israfil Hossain, chairman of Manikganj Sadar Upazila Parishad and president of Upazila unit of ruling Awami League.

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The project is to set up a factory of Essential Drugs Company Limited (EDCL), a government owned drug manufacturing company in Manikganj. Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) gave an approval to the project on 5 April, 2022. The total cost is estimated at Tk 1.90 billion. Out of this, the expenditure for land acquisition is estimated at Tk 1.15 billion. The Ministry of Health will implement this project with government funding. The implementation period is estimated from April 2021 to March 2027. A total of 31.5 acres land in the Meghshimul area of Jagir Union of Manikganj Sadar Upazila is proposed for the project.

Sources say the relevant ministry proposes the land area at the time of project approval. Therefore, changing the category of the land in that area by purchasing them and then handing them over to other people to increase the price before the project approval is seen by the experts as an act of abusing power.

As per rules, when land is acquired for a government project, the landowner gets three times the mouza rate as compensation. Allegations have been made that manipulation was committed to extract Tk 1 billion extra from the government treasury for the acquisition. The district commissioner of Manikganj, Muhammad Abdul Latif, wrote a letter to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in February citing the matter.

The DC told Prothom Alo that if the land is acquired at the proposed location, the government will lose Tk 1 billion. After the land management committee verified the feasibility of the proposed land in Meghshimul mouza, a letter was sent informing the health ministry and the government about the matter. He said, “I have mentioned in the letter whatever I wanted to say. I have no comment beyond that.”

How the matter was revealed

In the letter sent from the Manikganj district administration to the Ministry of Health, it is said that a proposal has been received to acquire 31.5 acres of land in Meghshimul mouza of Manikganj for setting up a government pharmaceutical factory. The feasibility study for land acquisition was carried out last December. Although the proposed land is classified as Nal (agricultural) but recently it was sand filled and re-classified as homestead. At the same time, in a memorandum of the inspector general of registration and a memorandum of the Manikganj district registrar, the price of homestead category per decimal land has been increased to Tk 120,000 from existing Tk 25,000 in a planned way. That is, the value of homestead category of land has been increased by almost five times. However, the price of land in any of the surrounding mouzas has not been increased.

A senior official of the Manikganj district administration told Prothom Alo on condition of not to be named that the health minister gave a DO letter (semi-official recommendation letter) to the law ministry seeking to increase the government price of homestead category of land in Meghshimul mouza. Then suddenly in December 2021, the price of the homestead class of that mouza was increased five times, which is unusual.

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The letter of the deputy commissioner of Manikganj, written to the ministry, states that this “appears to have been done on purpose”. It is also said in the letter that while the price of homestead class land in Meghshimul mouza has been set at Tk 120,000 the price of land of the same class in four other mouzas is Tk 16,000- Tk 35,000. That is, the price of homestead category land in Meghshimul mouza is four to eight times higher than that of the surrounding mouza.

To avert the financial loss of government the district administration has recommended implementing the project in a surrounding mouza. The price of non-agricultural homestead category land in Dhakuli north of Meghshimul mouza is Tk 18,000. That is, if the project is implemented on the homestead class land of this mouza, the government will have to spend a meagre Tk 165 million in acquiring the land. This will save the government about Tk 1 billion. Similarly, if the project is implemented in Kukuria to the south of Meghshimul mouza, Dharichora to the west and Jagir mouza to the east, the government will save Tk 610 million to 1 billion.

Manikganj district commissioner Muhammad Abdul Latif told Prothom Alo, “A huge amount of money will be wasted from the government treasury. The letter informed this matter.”

However, Health Minister Zahid Maleque claimed to Prothom Alo that although the official price of land in Meghshimul mouza and surrounding areas is low, the actual price is much higher. The government will have to spend more money if the project is done in any nearby mouza instead of Meghshimul mouza.

This correspondent spoke about the matter with the health minister at his residence in Baridhara, Dhaka on 5 June. At that time, the minister said he has a gap with the current deputy commissioner of Manikganj. The district commissioner is intentionally not cooperating in the implementation of the project of EDCL and deliberately delaying the implementation of the project. He is trying to stop the project by sending a letter without starting the land acquisition process.

The health minister said due to inflation a loss of Tk 2 billion has already been incurred. In other words, the implementation of the project will require an extra sum of Tk 2 billion.

Minister family’s land purchase and handover

According to the latest land purchase documents of the proposed site, between 2017 and 2019, health minister Zahid Maleque bought 6.39 acres land in the name of BD Sun Power Limited he owns. According to the document, he bought the land at the rate of Tk 55,000 to 66,619 per decimal. He sold that land in March 2021 at the rate of 120,000 per decimal.

In January 2021, before the sale of land, the price of homestead class land in Meghshimul mouza was increased five times. Two months later, the health minister handed over 4.78 acres decimal land in the name of NDE Steel Structures Limited.

The remaining 1.61 acres land purchased by the minister has been sold to a person named Afsar Uddin Sarkar. It has been found that Afsar is an inhabitant of the minister’s village and known as his close aide. He is the chairman of Garpara Union Parishad and general secretary of Manikganj Sadar Upazila Awami League.

In the name of Rahat Real Estate, owned by the minister’s son, 3.12 acres land was purchased between February, 2019 to February, 2020. The land purchased at Tk 67,000 to 68,000 per decimal was sold to NDE Steel Structures Limited in March 2021. The selling price is shown as TK 120,000 per decimal.

Health minister Zahid Maleque told Prothom Alo he and his son’s company bought the land long ago. There was nothing about the government project at that time. They have sold these lands. In this mouza (Meghshimul) there was a disparity between the value of low land and filled land. For that he wrote to the law ministry to resolve the matter. They adjusted it and increased the price. There is no land in the name of his daughter in the proposed location. But there is land in the name of her husband.

Prothom Alo’s investigation revealed that two months after homestead class price was increased by five times, the minister and his son sold 9.5 acres of land at a high price and at the same time minister’s daughter Cynthia Maleque started buying ‘Nal’ category land there. A review of land purchase records revealed that Cynthia purchased 11.14 acres land between 29 March and 25 August, 2021. Then she converted the land into homestead category by filling it with sand. After that she donated the land to her husband Ajmal Akmal through Heba deed 20 days (16 March 2022) before the EDCL project was approved by ECNEC. The value of each decimal of land is shown in the deed as Tk 120,000.

An official of Manikganj district administration told Prothom Alo that the purchase of land by the minister’s family members and transfer to others before the project is approved is part of the strategy. Because, questions may be raised at the time of acquisition if the entire land is found to be in the name of the health minister and his family members. For this reason, after increasing the price of mouza, these lands were transferred to close people.

Buyer doesn’t know about purchasing the land

The purchase deed of the land from the minister and his son bears the signature of Rizwan Mustafiz, vice chairman of NDE Steel Structures Limited, as the buyer or assignee.

When the reporter went to Rizwan Mustafiz’s office in Dhaka’s Gulshan on Tuesday, he told Prothom Alo he had no knowledge about him purchasing any land in Manikganj.

After showing the copy of the document signed by him, Rizwan Mustafiz said, “It is my name written in English in capital letters. I never sign in capital letters.” He further said, “I don’t know anything about this, my elder brother Imran Mustafiz can talk about it.”

Upon arriving at the office of Imran Mustafiz, managing director of NDE Steel in Banani, his personal officer came and checked the identity card of this correspondent. Then he asked this correspondent to wait by saying, “Sir is busy now, sit a little, he will meet you”. He kept the correspondent waiting for an hour but did not meet.

7.5 acres of land in possession of close ones

Health minister’s cousin Shamim Mia has bought 5 acres of land at the proposed site of the project. According to the document, the purchase price is Tk 34.2 million. If this land is acquired, he will get a compensation of Tk 195.8 million.

Shamim Mia is the president of Jagir Union Awami League and brother of the upazila chairman. Shamim Mia claimed to Prothom Alo that he did not buy the land thinking that the land would be acquired. There is no manipulation here.

After reviewing the documents, it was found that apart from Shamim Mia, two other Awami League leaders close to the minister have more than two acres of land in the proposed location. One of them is Garapara Union chairman Afsar Uddin Khan, who owns 1.61 acre land and the other one is Krishnapur UP chairman Biplab Hossain, who bought 60 decimal land. Apart from this, a person close to the minister named Shahzada Rahman bought about an acre of land there.

Allegations of grabbing more money at the time of acquisition by buying land in potential areas of government projects by increasing the deed price through manipulation have been raised before. Before acquiring the land for the establishment of Science and Technology University in Chandpur, a group registered the price of 62 acres of land 20 times than the mouza price rate. The names of the persons who came up in that manipulation of grabbing additional Tk 3.59 billion from the government were also close relatives of a minister. A report on this was published in Prothom Alo on 27 January last year. Almost a similar strategy is seen in Manikganj.

Abuse of power

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) executive director Iftekharuzzaman told Prothom Alo that from the beginning of the idea of the project the health minister and his family members saw it as a means to develop their own resources. Here the scope for massive wastage of state money has been created by abuse of power.

He further said that the district administration has identified this fraud. The government should provide protection to the district administration so that they do not face any adverse situations.

Iftekharuzzaman advised the government to implement the project by rationally reviewing and selecting the place to prevent wastage of money and corruption.

* The report was originally published in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Syed Faiz Ahmed