Ensure zero tolerance against corruption in power sector

Mainul Islam | Update:

Prothom Alo IllustrationDuring a roundtable dialogue at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) on 10 March, experts urged for projects to be taken up on the basis of the public procurement rules (PPR), rather than the special act for prompt power and energy supply. This special act has led to rampant corruption in power and energy projects. Presiding over the dialogue, economist Rehman Sohban said that the tender process, generation, supply and pricing in the power and energy sector should be transparent and accountable. The prime minister has declared zero tolerance against corruption in the sector. By calling for the special act to be withdrawn, the experts at the dialogue urged for an end to the impunity clause in the power sector.

In 2009, the mahajote or ‘grand alliance’ government took up many rental and quick rental power plant projects through the private sector to overcome the crisis in the power and energy sector. However, there were accusations of nepotism and corruption in the selection of the companies. The costs of setting up these plants were abnormally high, causing objections from the very outset. Power production cost per unit of these plants, fired by furnace oil and diesel, was 14 to 16 taka. Due to the urgency of the power demands, the normal tender process was not followed and an impunity clause was used to ensure no case could be filed against the procedures. Why should that clause still exist, 10 years on?

The corruption prevails. Even though production costs are double that of the selling price, the government continues to purchase power from many of the rental and quick rental power plants despite the purchase term having been completed. It had been agreed upon that these power plants would not be used for more than five years. During that period, the mid-term power plants were to have started production. But the owners of almost all the rental and quick rental power plants have been lobbying hard to ensure that the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) continues to purchase power from them. Corruption in this lobbying process has often been revealed in the media. Government sector power plants have been kept shut down and the public is having to pay. Power prices are hiked after every few days. While the mahajote government has to be thanked for saving the people from a power crisis, it also must be kept in mind that this success is linked to crass corruption.

The 2001-06 BNP-Jamaat government displayed failure in the power sector. There was no increase in power generation during that five-year term of government, other than the 80 MW peaking plant at Tongi. The 4400 MW power production of 2001 dwindled to 3200 MW in 2009 when the mahajote government took over. Many redundant power plants had closed down with no new power projects being taken up. Power outage created huge public suffering and economic woes. It was a matter of relief when the caretaker government and the present mahajote government took up power projects on an urgent basis and implemented these, overcoming the power crisis in the last 12 years. Power generation capacity in the country has now exceeded 20,000 MW.

However, each and every project taken up by the mahajote government has been criticised for exorbitant expenditure, costliest projects in the world. Dhaka’s Mayor Hanif flyover was constructed under private-public partnership (PPP) and the final costs exceeded the initially estimate many times over. Bangladesh’s road and flyover constructions costs per kilometer are the highest in the world. The increased costs of construction also pushed up toll charges at the Mayor Hanif flyover and the public is having to bear the burden. Corruption has driven up the construction costs of each and every flyover in Dhaka and Chittagong.

The Awami League government must ensure good governance for the sake of the public and must take up a firm stand against corruption. There have been many economic improvements over the past 10 years, but there is no evidence that the government has shifted away from corruption. All the governments have had the propensity toward nepotism.

In its manifesto for the 30 December 2018 election, Awami League had declared zero tolerance against corruption. They must materialise this zero tolerance by cancelling the impunity clause in the power sector.

* Mainul Islam is a retired professor of Chittagong University and an economist. This piece appeared in Prothom Alo print version in Bangla and has been rewritten here in English by Ayesha Kabir

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