Bangladesh's standing as a place of doing business with ease came to be underlined at a webinar, co-hosted by the Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) and the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI) on Monday. The Financial Express carried the news Tuesday presenting a mixed picture compared to the rest of South Asia, let alone the countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The country has been noted for its growth, export earning, and foreign remittance over the years, but it seems doing business with ease remains far from being an ideal one. One baffling figure as presented in the conversation was that it took 19.5 days to start a business in this country, whereas the average for South Asia is 14.5 days. While Bangladesh lay far behind the OECD figures of 9.2 days, one would wonder for falling visibly behind the immediate neighbourhood. Officials from the BIDA lamented that Bangladesh had lagged far behind most countries, a not-so-inspiring position of 168th to be frank. It, however, presented a list of reforms that had been undertaken, as mentioned in the keynote paper for the talks. They explained the steps BIDA had taken to bring down the time taken to start business, such as minimising time for getting a trade license and obtaining electricity connection. As for repatriation of money by a foreign entity, 'bribery' still allegedly existed in the process. A former chairman of the National Board of Revenue, Dr Abdul Mazid, who participated in the webinar, was critical about the discretionary powers of the taxman and called for the reintroduction of the office of the Tax Ombudsman, for easing doing of business.
However, the most distressing statistic to come out of the BIDA-BEI dialogue is that of land registration, which takes an average of 264 days as compared to 108 days elsewhere in South Asia and 24 days in the OECD countries. These palpably high figures bring to the fore the pervasive problem relating to land issues in this country, where a lethargic and sluggish bureaucracy has become the hallmark of the system. The five thousand or so tehsil offices and those of about five hundred assistant commissioners of land need immediate reform, it seems. The story is the same in most offices of the deputy commissioners, where labyrinthine machinery works to delay things, mostly on land acquisition. Land registration offices have not performed better. In the capital city of Dhaka, the RAJUK working under the Ministry of Works, has become proverbial in its delay tactics.
No wonder, Bangladesh would fall behind in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) under these circumstances. This leaves BIDA to tackle the issue of reforms at the earliest. The sudden high figures of FDI in 2018 were largely due to Japanese investment in tobacco and the Chinese buying a quarter of the stock market. It has since dipped. Now the aforementioned reforms remain at the top of the list to be the only course of action for BIDA to perform. Otherwise, business and FDI would get hampered. Let the one-stop services be more effective. A small economy like Georgia's-GDP of US$18 billion compared to Bangladesh's US$ 300 plus billion- now ranks 6th in the world in ease of doing business. The nominal upward movement in the ranking on ease of doing business needs to be built up on. This can be done by retooling the strategy based on best practice methods of the competing countries. It is for an empowered BIDA and other key sections of the bureaucracy to trigger a headway. Time is running out fast; and no foreign investor would wait at the doors to give Bangladesh time.