Why is the government not nabbing those who are looting billions?

When there is a dearth of people who tell the truth, someone or the other must screw up the courage to stand up and speak the truth. In recent times economist and member of Bangladesh's first planning commission Professor Rehman Sobhan has being voicing the hard truth at various meetings and seminars, giving our dozing consciences a stern wake-up call.

He has been speaking the mind of the people. The man who stirred up a sensation with his two-economy theory during Pakistan times, can well call out at these critical times of history, "You are losing your way!"

And it was his student too, former governor of Bangladesh Bank Farashuddin, who also highlighted some unpleasant truths last Thursday during a solo lecture at the Economic Reporters Forum (ERF).

At a juncture when government policymakers every day spew out rhetoric that all is well, there are no problems anywhere, Farashuddin, who was the governor of Bangladesh Bank during the term of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's first government, laid bare the problems of the banking sector in layman's language. He deserves kudos for explaining things with such clarity.

Farashuddin, who was involved in progressive student politics back in the sixties, studied economics at Dhaka University and taught there for two years too. Later he joined the Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP). After independence of Bangladesh, he became personal secretary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

So Farashuddin can't be categorised as either extreme left or extreme right. He has always been middle-of-the-road. And being a former bureaucrat for former governor of Bangladesh Bank is not his only identity.

He has served in several countries as a resident representative of UNDP. Returning to the country, in 1996 we established East West University and was its first vice chancellor. As he had been the governor of Bangladesh Bank during the Awami League government, he faced considerable harassment during BNP rule.

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Despite being out of the sphere of power for the past 15 years, Farashuddin has given the Awami League government much sound advice. His role as head of the public pay and services commission was much praised. He believed the corruption of government officials and employees could be curtailed with appropriate salaries and benefits. Accordingly, the salaries and benefits of civil servants was increased, but corruption in the public service sector did not decrease.

When bureaucrats see politicians indulging in corruption, they see this as 'justified'. When businessmen see politicians exploiting them to make money, they refuse to lag behind. Businessmen would make "contributions" to the politicians in the past, not they simply become politicians themselves.

Farashuddin made no comments about businessmen joining politics. But about bureaucrats he said, "I do not think any bureaucrat should join politics. The country wasn't rendered independent for the sake of any particular coterie. Some people are hardly enjoying the benefits of independence, why others are enjoying huge benefits."

Bangladesh's economy has advanced a long way over the past 53 years. This country which once faced acute shortage of food, today dreams of food autarky. People's average income and life expectancy has increased. But the benchmark for development remains hazy.

Sleeping people can be woken. But when the government is sleeping with its eyes wide open, it is hard to awaken them. That message echoed on the lecture delivered that day by Mohammed Farashuddin at the Economic Reporters Forum event.

The aim of our liberation war was to establish democracy in all spheres and to bring an end to inequality. The declaration of independence also called for equality, human dignity and social justice. But does that justice exist? The government's economic policy now seems to be to reward the haves and cheat the have-nots. Many are looting millions of taka from the banks in the name of loans, but the government cannot touch a hair on their heads. But there is no relenting for the poor. No one will listen to any excuse from them.

Mohammed Farashuddin said, "When loan defaults grow too big, then some go to jail for defaulting on a thousand taka agricultural loan, while the one defaulting on 10 thousand crore taka sits by the side of the goverment.... We will send a man to jail for defaulting on a 10 thousand taka agricultural loan, but will bow to the man who defaults on a 10 thousand taka default loan. This cannot be. Action must be taken against them and the loans must be recovered."

Referring to BASIC Bank, he said, "BASIC Bank at one time was the only government bank that showed profit. The objective of setting up this bank was to create entrepreneurs. The bank was gradually destroyed. No matter what merger BASIC Bank is pushed into, it will never recover. I hear the man responsible for the predicament of the bank is in the country. His name was one thing before, later he added a 'Sheikh' to it. I do not know who is sheltering him. Even if I did, I would not be able to reveal the name. Even at this age, I still want to live a little longer!"

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His words ring with anger, pain and even a sense of helplessness. Why can't the government nab the man who has destroyed a bank, the man through whom millions of taka has been siphoned off overseas? ACC can be so active against others, but totally inert when it comes to the former chairman of BASIC Bank. What explanation is there for this?

The former Bangladesh Bank governor also deliberated on bank mergers, the taka and dollar exchange rate, income disparity, inflation, money laundering, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of the central bank.

He feels that the forceful merging of banks will not have good consequences. This is not the only way to revive a sick bank. There are alternative ways and means. Four of the banks which are now being called good, once were tended and supervised by Bangladesh Bank to be brought to this good stage. And that was during Farashuddin's tenure.

Other than default loans, Farashuddin also laid emphasis on bringing a halt to money laundering and lowering inflation. Alongside IMF, he also criticised the government's silence on capital flight.

About inflation, he questioned why we failed to reduce inflation while other countries were able to halve their inflation to 5 per cent over the past 15 months. Among other reasons, he also pointed to the monopoly business of a handful of importers. Meanwhile, rather than taking any measures to prevent money laundering or lessen inflation, the government merely used the Russia-Ukraine war and the Middle East crisis as a scapegoat.

Sleeping people can be woken. But when the government is sleeping with its eyes wide open, it is hard to awaken them. That message echoed on the lecture delivered that day by Mohammed Farashuddin at the Economic Reporters Forum event.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He may be contacted at [email protected]  

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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