In 2004, the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) was formed, replacing the ineffective Anti Corruption Bureau. For the first two years, ACC was more or less inactive, but then was activated in full swing with the advent of the ‘1/11’ military-backed caretaker government.
When an elected government came to power, ACC fell into a slumber once again in 2009. Then three years ago it was revived to an extent. However, it is yet to meet the people’s expectations. It’s ‘barometer’ goes up and down. It has failed to prove itself above political influence, though there are laws in place that empower it to be so.
Of course, despite such laws, many of our legally established constitutional institutions remain politicised. It is difficult to comprehend either they have the will or the scope to exert their independence.
Corruption is a pervasive illness in our society. It is generally felt that if this could be kept in check, our economic growth would be further expedited. This is not solely the responsibility of ACC. Alongside mobilising public awareness about the harmful impact of corruption, its main responsibility is to bring corrupt persons under the law and ensure punitive action against them. Exemplary punishment will enhance public awareness in this regard. Any such programme must be above political bias and only then will it be credible.
ACC is armed with considerable authority to carry out its responsibilities, but it is time to assess whether its powers are adequate. It also must be assessed whether its powers are being misused. Taking all this into consideration, its power structure can undergo a change.
ACC has called for certain changes. They wanted their own police force, but this was not granted. Members of the police force have been attached to ACC. That is a psychological aspect. ACC carries out all sorts of anti-corruption activities. This requires security for their officials. Under the ACC act, the commission’s officials have police authority when it comes to investigating allegations, carrying out inquiries and issuing charge sheets. They need security during such operations or when arresting accused persons. They could have had a small police force or any other such relevant force, just as there are forest guards, prison guards, etc. Changing the existing structure of such a huge single police force can be given due consideration.
ACC wants to be able to file cases within its own premises rather than go to the police station. It will send the cases and charge sheets directly to the court. The accused will be kept in ACC’s own detention until handed over to the court. If the institution has the required infrastructure, there can be no harm in this. This won’t require huge expenditure to construction new facilities. However, it will need guards, food and water supply and such facilities. So if in certain cases the accused are kept at the police station that would be understandable too. There can also be nothing wrong in the charge sheets being drawn up and submitted from the ACC office. The cases and charge sheets are being sent by the ACC officials now, but from the police stations.
Certain quarters basically object to two of the demands for change being made by ACC. That is only natural. ACC wants the authority to summon income tax returns and bank accounts. They feel this is necessary for effectively combating corruption. On the other hand, the commerce and industry federation are against giving ACC such direct powers. They feel this will increase apprehensions.
An association of income tax officers feels that such a measure would have a negative impact on tax payments and revenue collection. Some feel that this will increase capital flight and the banking sector will suffer.
A recent investigative report of Prothom Alo revealed that 350 million taka had been stashed away in the account of a certain private banks’ managing director. This did not tally with his income. Would it not be justified for ACC to ask for information in this regard? There are hundreds of such cases. An income tax commissioner can call for details of anyone’s bank account and this is justified. Given the extent of corruption nowadays, it would not be unjustified for ACC to have such authority. After all, it need not be an all-encompassing authority.
The National Board of Revenue (NBR) says that only one per cent of the people pay their income taxes in this country. They have not been able to implement the relevant law, but there has been a degree of improvement. ACC does not have any such power and this has not served to stem the outflow of capital from the country or mitigate the crisis in the banking sector. So why is there such apprehension about the proposed empowerment of ACC?
This institution must be gradually rendered active and effective. There can be no reason to fear if they are given the power to call for the details of bank accounts or income tax returns. After all, the ACC officers won’t be empowered to exploit anyone’s personal information. The stronger the laws, the more protected the accused will be.
Then again, it is not as if everyone in the ACC are honest and everyone outside are corrupt. ACC’s internal discipline is still shaky. Still, it is the only legally empowered institution with an anti-corruption mandate. It is only justified to give due consideration to any amendments in the law that can enable the institution to carry out its duties effectively.
* Ali Imam Majumder is a former cabinet secretary and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir