A wave of memories swept over me when, sitting in New Jersey, I read in Prothom Alo and other online dailies about an honest government officer being punished for his integrity!
The news item was that in face of demonstrating C&F (clearing and forwarding) staff, the National Board of Revenue (NBR) transferred an assistant commissioner of Chittagong customs to the training academy in just a matter of a week. The C&F protestors demonstrated in the restricted area of Chitagong port, in front of the office of assistant commissioner Abu Hanif Mohammed Abdul Ahad. They even tore his nameplate off the wall.
The general secretary of the C&F staff union Zakir Hossain told Prothom Alo, “Assistant commissioner Ahad never asked for a single taka in bribes and never took a bribe.” Certain customs officials, on condition of anonymity, said when Abu Hanif Mohammed Abdul Ahad was with the customs unstuffing department, he uncovered innumerable instances of tariff evasion and revealed Tk 430 million taka evasion in 132 consignments. The importers were fined accordingly. That is why the protest was launched against him.
The incident brought back a flood of memories. Back in 1979, as a cadre officer I was appointed as assistant collector (now commissioner) at the Chittagong customs house. I was the assistant collector (Jetty-2). My responsibilities included physical inspection of goods at the jetty and supervising the auction of goods that had long been lying in the godowns.
Imported goods are normally taxed and cleared in two ways. After the bill of entry is issued following the first appraisement and tariff is fixed based on the relevant documents, the consignment is cleared after a portion of the goods is inspected. Or, the importer may even ask for a second appraisement. The physical inspection of goods is particularly important in the second appraisement method. The appraiser and principal appraiser are in charge of this. The assistant commissioner counter signs this.
After I joined my job, I was curious about the inspection of goods. Two of the principal appraisers discouraged me saying the shed was really hot and there was no place to sit. It would be a long wait. They said they would do the inspection and bring me the papers to counter sign. But I insisted on going. On that very first day I found discrepancies in the declaration and the inspection. At the end of the day my two principal appraisers and two preventive superintendants called upon me, carrying two envelopes. They unabashedly told me this was my share of the ‘collection’ done for inspections and auctions. The amount would vary from day to day. The collections were even higher when it came to palm oil, cement, secondhand clothing, sugar and such.
I handed back the envelopes to them, unopened, not succumbing to temptation. They were not too pleased and I went about inspecting the goods. The next afternoon a group of C&F called upon me saying they were displeased with me going to the jetty to inspect the goods. This was delaying the clearing of the goods and they feared a strike by the jetty handlers. I tried to reassure them that my inspection would not delay the release of their goods and they wouldn’t have to pay anything extra for this. Even so, they complained against me to the Chittagong customs house collector.
Anyway, there weren’t problems at the jetty. The problems cropped up at the auctions. I was astounded at the auction price of each fridge. It was the year 1980. The prices of each fridge went up to Tk 23,000. Yet I had seen the same fridge in the shopping centre a few days before that, selling for just Tk 6,000.
I was returning to office after lunch and saw an auctioned fridge being delivered. I stopped the truck and insisted on inspecting the fridge. I had it unlocked and found it loaded with spare auto parts. It was clear why the fridges had sold at such high prices. In response to my ‘misbehaviour’, the auction buyers boycotted the next three auctions. I was fortunate that the collector Shah M Abul Hossain (later a BNP MP from Mehediganj and state minister for finance) stood by me. The boycott failed. The next collector SM Akram (later an Awami League MP from Narayanganj) also provided me with similar support. As a result, I wasn’t forcefully transferred from the Chittagong customs house.
There was an exception too. A certain collector, upset at my failure to ‘cooperate’, not only had me transferred, but also brought about corruption charges against me. However, the charges were proven false and the collector was admonished. My pending application to go abroad for higher studies was approved by the finance minister at the time, M Syeduzzaman.
Times have changed. Collectors, secretaries and ministers do not often stand by honest government officers. Assistant commissioner Abu Hanif Mohammed Abdul Ahad’s transfer orders amount to allegations against him. I was even more shocked by the finance minister’s remarks in an oblique reference to bribes. He said, “I do not consider anything unlawful if it speeds up work. If anyone is given a gift for getting a job done speedily, that is considered unlawful. I do not think it is unlawful if anyone gives someone a gift for getting the work done fast.”
It used to be said in our times that if an officer is not paid enough to maintain a minimum standard of living, why won’t he turn to corruption? Salaries were poor at the time. I had imagined that with the increase in salaries and other facilities the custom department’s corruption would decrease somewhat.
In our time too there were hardly any customs officials who did not take bribes. From media reports it seems that while the number of the officials has increased manifold, the number of honest ones remains static. It is with a heavy heart I ask myself, what can be done to change this? What is the point then of such an increase in salaries, of all these reforms?
One of the main reasons behind the increase in corruption in Bangladesh is that we do not value or protect the officers who work in public interest. On the contrary, they are harassed and punished. Yet there is provision to protect government officials under the prevailing laws. The Customs Act 1969 Article 156 (85) and 98 maintains that if a person obstructs a customs officer in dispensing his duties, he will be fined Tk 50,000 and sentenced to two years imprisonment. If the law was implemented, then the hones government officers would not have to suffer.
Then there was a picture in The Daily Star of the nameplate of Abu Hanif Mohammed Abdul Ahad lying in the dust. The assailants in essence have flung our government and society into the dust.
We demand immediate withdrawal of the transfer orders of Abu Hanif Mohammed Abdul Ahad and the punishment of the culprits.
Assistant commissioner Abu Hanif Mohammed Abdul Ahad, I never had the privilege of knowing you personally. But I do realise the work environment now has deteriorated much since our times. But as a powerless elderly citizen, there is not much more I can do than applaud you and demand that the culprits be punished.
M Fouzul Kabir Khan is a former secretary and professor and he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
* This article originally published in Prothom Alo Bangla print edition is rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.