In a state which has no effective opposition, do our ministers suffer from some sort of fear of an invisible foe? It is hard to tell. Two examples can be cited here to explain why this question has arisen. A businessman by profession for the last 40 years, commerce minister Tipu Munshi recently said in self defence, "It is my misfortune. When a lawyer or a physician becomes a member of parliament, no one questions why a lawyer or a physician has become a member of parliament. But my crime is that I am a businessman."
If RAB is a brand name for justice, then what is the role of the courts and the judiciary?
Tipu Munshi uttered these words when facing a volley of questions about the abnormal spiral in prices, failure to rein in overly profit-mongering traders and the inordinately long lines behind the TCB trucks. Given this country's history of political movement spurred on by inflated prices of essentials, it must be said that he certainly is no criminal. Quite to the contrary, he is lucky that he has not seen even a hint of such reactions. But he should not forget that, given the stories heard over the past few years about how businessmen dominate the parliament and wield their power in their own interests, it will not be easy to change public perception. Also, in the case of physicians or lawyers, there is hardly any scope or instance of them using their power for business interests. More importantly, until the people's representatives do not resolve the question of conflict of interests, it would be wrong to expect anyone to be given a clean chit, even if they do not personally take any special benefits.
The second example is rather significant and involves Bangladesh's reputation abroad. The US government every year publishes a review of the state of human rights in around 190 countries of the world. The Bangladesh government has rejected the evaluation of Bangladesh made in this report. Explaining the government's stance, state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam said, "If you go to the villages, you will see that RAB is a brand name. It is a brand name for justice." If RAB is a brand name for justice, then what is the role of the courts and the judiciary? So is he admitting the truth by equating justice with the allegations of extrajudicial killing and enforced disappearance? How has he portrayed the country's judiciary to the outside world? Has this enhanced the country's image?
The prime minister recently bemoaned the absence of a strong opposition in the country, according to news reports. So are the ministers being frightened by shadows? There is still a long way off for the election. But it is someone outside of politics -- a civil servant -- who has provoked further astonishment. There is no end to allegations about abnormal hikes in the cost and the rampant corruption in various projects. No one expects the chosen opposition in parliament to make this an effective forum for accountability. The only hope that people have lies in a handful of newspapers, the civil society and non-government organisations. And it is against two such organisations -- Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) and the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) -- that the prime minister's principal secretary Ahmad Kaikaus that vented his anger.
It is normally politicians who are to respond to allegations brought about against the political government, not anyone else. But there are exceptions to the rule, no doubt. However, in the case of Ahmad Kaikaus, the astonishment is over his choice of words. Addressing TIB, he said, "What nonsense, why will you just call Bangladesh a thief? The Australian company BHP provides the most funds to TIB. That company is repeatedly fined for polluting the environment. Why are you taking money from them? You just call us thieves all the time, what do you think of yourselves?"
Reacting to TIB questioning the transparency in the purchase of vaccines, Ahmad Kaikaus said, "They claimed that on average 69 taka was paid in bribes per vaccine. I was involved in the bargaining and negotiations of vaccine procurement. They claim we were involved in corruption! But we bought the vaccines through ADB and the World Bank."
TIB replied to Ahmad Kaikaus, pointing out that they hadn't spoken of bribes in connection to the procurement of vaccines. The matter of bribes came up in their survey on those who had taken the vaccine, from those who had to pay bribes to be vaccinated. And they also highlighted the questions that loomed large over the government expenditure on vaccines, saying that there have been discrepancies of around Tk 23,000 crore in the records and so these records should be made public.
TIB and its parent organisation Transparency International regularly publish the source of their funds on their separate websites. There is no mention of the Australian company BHP. We would be enlightened if Ahmad Kaikaus revealed the source of his information.
The discrepancy in the accounts concerning the vaccine procurement is no small amount. Last March the health minister said that the government had spent about Tk 40,000 crore on purchasing the corona vaccine and the vaccine drive. And according to the health secretary, Tk 20,000 crore was spent simply on vaccine procurement alone. Analysing facts and figures from various sources, the estimated purchasing cost of the vaccine and the estimated cost of vaccine management amounted to Tk 12,993 crore. At the most it can be Tk 16,721 crore. So why didn't the principal secretary reveal the accounts in response to TIB's audacity? He did say he was part of the negotiations and bargaining.
They say that there is corruption in our mega projects. Tell us, in which project is there corruption? What is this? We are sons of the soil. We are doing our duty. You can't just speak negatively all the time.Ahmad Kaikaus, principal secretary to the prime minister
According to the World Health Organisation, we purchased the vaccine at the highest price among the countries of this region. In Bangladesh currency, it cost Nepal Tk 362 per dose. It cost us four times the amount at Tk 1,559. Actually TIB and the rest of us should have praised the bargaining done on behalf of the country! And the World Bank's papers say that they assisted in the purchase of vaccine of only 12 crore dollars, that is, Tk 1000 crore, and that too from India's Serum Institute and Beximco. And the price of the vaccines from COVAX should be the same for all countries as determined by WHO. Our own purchase has been a bit over 9 crore doses. The average price of those 9 crore doses is the highest among all the neighbouring countries. So now what? Should we tell TIB to praise the government?
Venting his anger about CPD, Ahmad Kaikaus said, "They say that there is corruption in our mega projects. Tell us, in which project is there corruption? What is this? We are sons of the soil. We are doing our duty. You can't just speak negatively all the time."
CPD's website doesn't reveal anyone in their organisation who isn't a son of the soil. The manner in which we are surpassing developed countries in our expenditure on construction of infrastructure like roads and bridges, probably CPD should have congratulated themselves, being a part of this nation!
* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir