The Financial Express

Poor state of state transporters

Representational image Representational image

The Bangladesh Railway (BR) spends Tk 6.0 against an earning of Tk 1.0, said the headline of a news item published on the front page of a vernacular daily on Sunday last.

The daily quoted the figures from the financials of the BR for the fiscal year 2020-21. The BR had earned Tk 11.3 billion against its spending of Tk 62.5 billion during that FY. The situation had been no better in the previous years. The BR's deficit has been on the rise unabatedly.

Why blame the BR alone? The situation is not anyway different from other state transporters engaged in road, river and aviation sectors. There has been no letup in the accumulation of their annual losses.

When private operators in all three modes of transportation could expand their fleet with profits earned from their operations, the state-owned operators continue to count losses. However, none reprimands the latter for their poor performance except for the media that occasionally highlight their failures at the cost of taxpayers' money.

The BR is an exception since it enjoys a monopoly. Yet because of poor management and inefficiency, it has always proved itself as a non-performer despite an enormous investment made over the years for its expansion. It has invested a large amount of money to buy locomotives and coaches, but the quality of its services has improved little. The railway tracks in many places are in dilapidated conditions in the absence of regular maintenance and repair. People are interested in using the BR services extensively, but the latter is not prepared for that. Besides, the BR could be an efficient transporter of goods from one place to another at a competitive cost. Businesses are also interested in getting their services. But even after all these years, the BR is not ready. Then again, extensive leakages in financial transactions have been hurting this transport sector leviathan.

The situation with the Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BTRC) is no different. Introduced in the mid-sixties, this state transporter in the road sector is now operating as a rental service, not a passenger bus service.

The BTRC owns a large fleet of buses, mostly imported from India and China, using loans with strings attached. Instead of operating on its own, the corporation has leased most buses under its ownership of the private parties and rented out some to different universities to transport their students and staff members. As a public sector road transporter, the BRTC could have saved the commuters from the highhandedness of the private bus operators. But it has never tried it. A weak and disorganised BRTC has made the private bus operators even bolder in showing an unfriendly attitude towards their passengers.

The Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC), the state agency operating vessels such as steamers, ships and ferries, is yet another loss-incurring entity. The pedal steamers that it once operated between Dhaka and Khulna had earned international fame. With most steamers becoming old and non-pliable, much of that attraction is gone. The corporation has gained several large passenger launches, but those could not withstand tough competition coming from the private launch operators.

Its ferry service has also shrunk in size because of the construction of bridges over most large rivers. However, even during its heydays, it could hardly earn profits because of the financial leakages. The BIWTC is in the death throes. Yet the government is unlikely to close it down. In that event, it will exist only in name.

Biman, the Bangladesh Airlines, is not like other state transport operators since it owns and operates sleek and high-speed planes in the sky. To be honest it belongs to a different class. Yet as far as financial conditions are concerned, it is not different from other state transport entities. Barring one or two years, it has incurred losses, And to keep the Biman afloat, the government has to borrow large amounts from foreign and local sources, from time to time, to purchase modern aircraft. Stories about mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption in the Biman have been plenty. Some have come to light and some have not.

Barring a few, most of the state enterprises have been continuously causing financial haemorrhage to the state coffer. The government often arranges funds from its budget or provides a state guarantee for bank loans in favour of loss-making state corporations or units under their control. The money thus wasted belongs to the taxpayers.

The government has sufficient scope to help the state-owned enterprises improve their performance. What it will have to do first is to install efficient and innovative management teams in those entities and engage them in result-oriented tasks. On top of everything, the corporations concerned need to be made accountable and transparent. The indifference that is usually shown by the relevant authorities to all the irregularities inside the state corporations has made things worse. There has to be an end to it.

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