Executive director of the anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), Iftekharuzzaman, talks to Prothom Alo in an exclusive interview on various issues including corruption and the country's prevailing political situation.
Full text of the interview:
Prothom Alo: You have done a lot to ensure transparency, but some simply turn away from this.
Iftekharuzzaman: Of the two decades that we have been working for so far, we have worked most actively in the last one decade. There has been some negative reaction. The organisations on which reports were done, were unwilling to talk. However, they have changed their mindset. We have a schedule to talk to the local government minister. People follow the recommendations too. After the formation of the new cabinet, our recommendations were sent to several ministries. We expect positive response from all of them.
Prothom Alo: After the report on BGMEA, there was then an outcry over the recent report on WASA. Did you talk to WASA authorities?
Iftekharuzzaman: We involved WASA at the very outset of this study. We did the same when preparing the report on BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association). They provided information despite negative attitudes in some cases. After preparing the primary report, we met with them. We held a number of meetings with the managing director of WASA and his team. In the beginning, they advised us about the design of research. We couldn't follow this process properly with BGMEA, due to their elections and the demolition of the BGMEA building. They took the draft report saying they would provide us with written comments. We didn’t get any response from them as yet. We discuss the draft with the organisations on which we prepare reports and send the report to them on the day of the launching.
Prothom Alo: Why did WASA reject the report despite their participation in entire process?
Iftekharuzzaman: We are surprised. We discussed the study with them in detail. The managing director joined in more than one discussion and provided information and advice. And yet the WASA MD at a press conference claimed that we did not engage them. That is not correct. We did. In fact, his reactions have taken a political shape.
Prothom Alo: Did the WASA MD Taksim A Khan know you are carrying out the study based on information provided by WASA?
Iftekharuzzaman: Of course he was aware. He and his two directors joined in the discussions ahead of launching the report.
Prothom Alo: In the past you had talked about the corruption of a section of police force. Can WASA be accused in the same way? What about the others? Are they standing up against corruption?
Iftekharuzzaman: I am sure some put up an effort against corruption, but don't succeed. The power is entirely centralised in WASA. Certain quarters are misusing power. Many of the others came up with documents before and after the publication of the report. They provided information abuts the irregularities taking place, but they cannot talk about this publicly.
Prothom Alo: You explained to the media about the real wages of readymade garment workers. Do their actually wages decrease instead of increase?
Iftekharuzzaman: As per the act of 2013, wages increase five per cent automatically. It is not a matter of negotiation. The claim of the new wage increase was based on the increase over the past five years. So the claim of 26 per cent wage increase is not true. The wages, which are increased automatically and as per law, have been publicised as a fixation of new wages.
Prothom Alo: Bangladesh has slipped down four steps in the corruption index. What does this signify? The ACC chairman claims TIB is biased. Have you taken any steps to explain this?
Iftekharuzzaman: We are waiting to directly discuss the matter with ACC (Anti-Corruption Commission). We have some sort of love-hate relationship with ACC. In one sense, the ACC was born out of our efforts. We provide various technical support as per our capacity as we want to see an effective ACC. As it is our responsibility to identify their deficiencies, they sometimes are displeased with us. Despite that, a MoU signed with them has been renewed for the second time. We hope that it will be signed for the third time too.
Prothom Alo: The ACC chairman joined with a commitment to make ACC more effective and do something good. How has he fared?
Iftekharuzzaman: I agree that he generated expectations. A quarter within the government thinks ACC has been created by the government, so it is an organisation of the government. It is not supposed to be like that. ACC is the apex body to ensure accountability of the government. A quarter of the government does not want to admit this and so they create pressure on the ACC. In more than one research we have seen, the legal and organisational structure of ACC is enough to work effectively.
Prothom Alo: Following a recent enactment of law, you said there are no words enough for condemnation.
Iftekharuzzaman: When the civil service act reinstates the provision that it would require prior permission to sue government officials, this would certainly curb the independence of ACC. We were stunned when ACC said this would not affect their activities. That was not true. Now we are getting the proof of this. The ACC is trying to bring lower and mid level officials under accountability, but the senior level. They are working on some organisations and advising them. That is more the work of any NGO. The function of ACC is to find out who are involved in corruption and file cases against them. Methods of corruption are being modernised continuously, but ACC cannot keep up. It hasn't increased its capacity to identify these new methods of corruption and take action accordingly. A large number of officials of the erstwhile Anti Corruption Bureau simply continue in the culture of the Bureau. Although ACC is an independent organisation, many high officials including its directors general, who are appointed on deputation, are loyal to the government. They are lax because they do not want to embarrass the government. This is reflected in the performance of the ACC.
Prothom Alo: It is not ACC alone who is to fight against corruption. What are the other organisations including the judiciary, CAG, NBR, Human Rights Commission doing? Are they becoming weak?
Iftekharuzzaman: That is an important matter. All these institutions are part of the structure to establish the rule of law. These institutions are under the purview of this integrity strategy. The government allowed TIB to participate in the process and approved the National Integrity Strategy 2012. The rule of law is supposed to be established and corruption to be tackled on the basis of it. We conducted a study on these organisations. These institutions are highly politicised. The law enforcement and the administration sometimes act like a party platform. Senior officials sometimes talk like politicians.
Rendering these institutions weak is a risk for the future of democracy in Bangladesh. These institutions have been turned dysfunctional. It is very urgent to turn around. But unfortunately it does not seem really possible. Those who are to do it, are benefited from the deficiency in the rule of law and the lack of justice. This situation has been created through mixture of politicisation and institutional erosion. I am worried about when and how changes will take place, to resolve these problems. The government made a commitment to fulfill the SDG for these institutions to be effective and strengthened.
Prothom Alo: How will these institutions be changed if the political parties are not changed? Who will build the structure of integrity of political institutions?
Iftekharuzzaman: That is an important question. The political parties are under the national integrity strategy. Some indicators have been identified for that. I can say many inside the government are worried about this. One of them recently said to me, “You tell me, where and how do we start?” I said, “If you want to bring about change in the party, Bangladesh Awami League has to be turned into a real political party.”
The party has lost the character of political party. It is being used as a tool to abuse power. It is suicidal. If we cannot bring changes here, whatever we say about the reform, the desired reform will never come. Not only in Awami League, reforms have to be brought about in both the major political parties.
Prothom Alo: A noted economist recently told us that he sent letters to two leaders of two major political parties. In the letter, he said negotiations were necessary between the two major political parties to bring about basic changes in the structure of the state. That letter has become irrelevant now as BNP has become weak. So the government has no need for politics of patronisation. The government can bring qualitative reforms if it wants.
Iftekharuzzaman: With due respect, this is the economist’s expectation. As there is no opposition, the government has no apprehensions. The concept is in fact a prescription of benevolent authoritarianism. This has been built up through a long process in our country. But how far good intentions have been created is another matter. A few within the party may have that good streak, but it is quite another matter when it comes to the overall party. Until a democratic culture is established within the political parties, an accountable democratic system cannot be established.
Prothom Alo: Before the 30 December election, you said a good election is possible under a party government despite limitations. Massive irregularities have been found in a TIB study in 50 constituencies. Will you change your position now? Will you support elections in future under a party in power?
Iftekharuzzaman: I still firmly believe that a fair election is possible under a government in power if certain conditions are fulfilled. Politics parties come first among election-related organisations. The ruling party has to have the will for a fair election. It cannot be said they had that will in the last election. The election was not fair as the ruling party did not want it to be so. The administration, especially the law enforcement, played a role against a neutral election. They were not supposed to do so.
Prothom Alo: Ballots were stamped in 33 constituencies out of 50 on the night before the election. Does this report represent 300 constituencies? Why do you want the judicial committee? Why don’t you file cases with the tribunal?
Iftekharuzzaman: Our observation represents 300 constituencies. We have no mandate to file cases.
Prothom Alo: Will things continue in such a manner?
Iftekharuzzaman: It is unfortunate that a minister in a programme said that the highest priority has to be given to development and stability. And then if possible, he said, they would try to lessen disparity. The development will not be sustainable if fundamental rights are ignored.
Prothom Alo: Rashed Khan Menon said that under the current trend of development, the rich are becoming richer and the poor are becoming poorer.
Iftekharuzzaman: Yes. The risk will increase if it is not tackled at once. The government’s claim is true that growth is increasing. There are very few countries in the world where seven to eight per cent growth takes place. The income of people is rising. But this is not reaching all levels of the society. There is the risk of loan burden. The matter will come to the fore in a few years. We are implementing mega projects with the burden of loan. The people have to bear the burden. The projects are being implemented under funds almost all from China and a small amount from India. We notice different syndromes of development dependent on China.
Prothom Alo: The state minister for foreign affairs recently told South China Morning Post that Bangladesh will never take loans from China.
Iftekharuzzaman: We know on what conditions China provides loan. No country in the world implements big projects of another country out of charity. The donor has national and political interests. What are those interests that the people do not know about?
Prothom Alo: After taking relations with India to a height, we are now taking relations with China to another height. Do you suggest applying Article 145 (A) of the constitution?
Iftekharuzzaman: Of course. The governments in the past did not publish the agreements with foreign countries. Let the agreements with China be discloses in the parliament. People have right to know.
Prothom Alo: China has almost bought many countries in Africa...
Iftekharuzzaman: Nobody expects that to be relevant in case of Bangladesh. I won't say there is no risk but the risk is not to that level. Sri Lanka in South Asia has set an example of compensation for conditions of development by foreign countries. They have leased Hambantota Island to China for 99 years. Maldives has such experience too. China is not an example of a country which is democratic and accountable. It is one of the corrupt countries. We have to think.
Prothom Alo: You were a chief of a strategy think tank in Sri Lanka for long (1999-2005). Why do a section of Muslims engage in suicidal terrorist attacks? Are they homegrown?
Iftekharuzzaman: This was unexpected. It occurred while efforts are on for reconciliation with Tamils. There were no indications that Muslims have any connection with extremism in Sri Lanka. Muslims had no conflict with Christian communities. As a result, the analysts in Sri Lanka are stunned. It is a warning for us. Extremist and fanatic groups grow in an environment where there is no freedom of expression, no scope of political debate or resistance. The risk of violence rise there.
Prothom Alo: Editors and journalists demand an amendment of the digital security act, but that has not been met. Do you see any indication that the media will weaken and lose its ability to speak out?
Iftekharuzzaman: It is heading towards becoming weak. Editors were united against the negative sections of Digital Security Act.
Now it is clear that the government will not compromise. The government is not worried about criticism. The opposition parties are inactive. Those sections are necessary to silence the press media and the civil society. They will do their job, but we will try to follow our constructional rights. That is reality.
Prothom Alo: TIB has done nothing about the irregularities and mismanagement of the press media. How do you view this?
Iftekharuzzaman: First of all, I concede this criticism. We undertook a task over good governance in the mass media two years ago. We were compelled to abandon the task due to lack of adequate and reliable information. Media is the source of information, but we didn't get information. Some media outlets, however, provided information liberally.
Prothom Alo: Which tasks are you giving priority now?
Iftekharuzzaman: We are working on indigenous people, Dalits and tea garden workers. We are working with physically challenged people. We are at the last stage to see how the integrity strategy in the public administration is working. People suffer most due to lack of good governance and corruption in education, health and land sectors. We have a plan to work on mega projects. We are also looking into the role of the central bank in establishing rule of law in the banking sector.
Prothom Alo: How was Tk 4000 billion laundered? There is no progress in the investigation of the Panama papers.
Iftekharuzzaman: The government denies it, but the information of those who carried out the study in Washington, is accepted globally. Businessmen are mostly involved in money laundering. They do it through under-invoicing. There is high possibility of involvement of a section of influential politicians. As a result, ACC thinks if they touch it, their hands will be burnt. NBR, Bangladesh Bank, the attorney general, CAG are supposed to work in coordination to bring back laundered money. But there is no environment to do so. It depends on the will to do so. There is an instance (of bringing back money of Koko from Singapore). If it is possible in one case, why not in other cases?
Prothom Alo: Many say sustainable welfare is not possible with foreign funds. How is TIB more effective? How much money does it require to run?
Iftekharuzzaman: Many more organisations are functional. The renewal of TIB accreditation is reexamined by the international board every three years. We cannot accept and spend any money without approval of the government of Bangladesh. We make a plan of action for five years. The total budget for 45 offices including Dhaka is Tk 2.20 billion for five years. Annual expenditure is Tk 400 million to 450 million. The donors are DFID of UK, SISA of Sweden, DANIDA of Denmark and Swiss SDC.
Prothom Alo: When people call for freedom of expression, many of them come under tax scrutiny. What about you?
Iftekharuzzaman: Perhaps there is no exception. We welcome any initiative to ensure our accountability.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
*The interview, appeared in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam