Terminating the termites of corruption

Anisul Hoque | Update:

A Prothom Alo IllustrationPrime minister Sheikh Hasina quite rightly compared corruption to termites. These termites destroy development. They reduce everything to mere dust. A house may look sturdy and strong from the outside, though hollowed out by termites within. It will collapse at the slightest breeze.

The prime minister also accurately identified the four foes of development, progress, peace and advancement. These are militancy, terrorism, drugs and corruption. She said that operations would be launched against all this.

But this war against the four foes can’t be waged by the government or the head of government alone. People from all walks of life must take part in this war, must support the fight, must shake off the flaws within.

Take drugs, for example. Drugs are a serious problem, with around seven million drug addicts in the country. Around Tk 60,000 crore is is spent on narcotics, according to a survey. A lion’s share of this drug money goes overseas. After all, phensidyl and yaba aren’t manufactured here. Criminal rings control the drug racket. Guns are used, gangs are formed. The drug addict himself gets involved in petty crime to fund his habit, and invariably goes on to bigger crime.

The government cannot fight the war against drugs alone. What the government can do is shut the entry points of the drug influx, nab the drug dons, destroy their criminal rings. But every citizen must take a stance as individuals, struggle against the self. They must be determined – I will not take drugs, I will not let my friend take drugs.

As we are submerged in a sea of corruption, we often forget that we are not only victims of corruption but have also become complacent. Transparency International has categorised corruption as grand corruption, petty corruption and administrative corruption.

Big corruption occurs in big government projects. In our everyday lives we are used to petty corruption. And when government or state policies are changed for vested interests, that constitutes administrative corruption.

A teacher may not teach well at school, but does a good job when he tutors privately. That is petty corruption. And if that teacher then goes on to favour the students he teaches privately by supplying them with the question papers or giving them higher grades, that is a more serious instance of petty corruption.

Big or small, corruption gnaws away at the country’s development and progress like a termite. But grand corruption leads to grand scale damage.

According to Bangladesh Bank’s latest update, default loans in the country amount to Tk. 110,000 crore. These default loans have reduced our economy to a sieve. If this money had been properly invested, production would have increased, growth would have gone up, employment would have been generated.

Unfortunately, we apprehend, the default money is spent on a luxury lifestyle. Most of the money is siphoned off abroad. In 2015 there was a capital flight of Tk 50,000 crore from Bangladesh. This termite of corruption has weakened our backbone.

Then there is corruption in construction, development work. There have even been examples of bamboo being used in place of steel in some construction projects. Roads are constructed, but later it is seen that that under the top layer of tar, there is nothing below – no bricks, cement or asphalt.

Expenditure records were broken by the cost of a pillow and the costs to carry the pillow upstairs, in the Rooppur nuclear power plant project.

Bangladesh has the highest road construction costs per mile.

Added to the corruption is inefficiency and incompetence. Only after the construction of a flyover did we discover it had been designed on American lines, where cars are driven on the right hand side of the roads. So it was another ruckus of redoing the job.

The damages caused by corruption on construction and projects, are staggering. Our roads should have been smooth and strong, but one monsoon is enough to wash them away. The people suffer.

Then there is tax evasion tendencies. Actually, evading tax in imports and exports is nothing but smuggling. Importing or exporting contraband goods is also smuggling.

Those who adulterate food, medicines, shampoos, soaps and so on, are not just corruption, they are killers. They are committing genocide. It is shameful that on 28 September 2019, the Washington Post reported that the turmeric imported by the US from India and Bangladesh had lead content. This lead had been used to deepen the yellow colour of the the turmeric.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) often publishes reports on corruption in our service sector. It points out how the public are victims of corruption carried out by the police, hospitals, land offices and more.

Let’s look at an example of how corruption destroys our development efforts like termites. I may have a dilapidated bus, hardly fit to ply the streets. I pay a bribe to get a fitness certificate for the vehicle. Next I need a driver. The driver does not have the required training, so he pays a bribe and acquires a driving licence. Now when he takes to the streets in this bus, he creates chaos on the roads, endangering lives.

Just an hour’s rain inundates Dhaka and Chittagong cities. This is simply because of incompetence, faulty planning, corruption, lack of coordination and bad public habits.

If all corruption is to be uprooted, big and small, this must start from the top. If grand corruption is prevented, development projects will progress and the people will benefit. When a hospital is to be established, if the planning is done properly, if there is no corruption in the construction, if the physicians, nurses and staff are appointed according to the rules, if adequate drugs, equipment and instruments are procured without corruption, the people will praise the hospital for its services. But if one link of this chain is severed, then the entire endeavour will become an ineffective termite-ridden meaningless project.

If a police officer is free of corruption, he can affectively fight against crime. If not, crime will mount and public life will become insufferable.

Let an all-out war against corruption begin in Bangladesh. This will accelerate our development. It will generate hope amongst the people. If growth goes up, if per capita income increases and we become a mid-income country, there will be good governance too. Capital will ensure good governance in its own interests. Our non-resident professionals and entrepreneurs will be encouraged to return and invest at home. If the vicious cycle of corruption can be broken, it will become a cycle of development.

I may seem to be day dreaming, but Bangladesh can really become Golden Bengal if effective, and tangible action is taken against corruption.

But there is a rule about terminating termites. Every single termite in the home must be destroyed. If one single termite-infested book or garment remains, the entire home will be affected once again. The fight is tough, but if it is an effective and sustained one, the people will pitch in with their support. That gives hope.

  • Anisul Huq is associate editor of Prothom Alo and a writer. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten by Ayesha Kabir

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