Coping with the monster of corruption

Masud Ahmed | Published: January 06, 2018 00:10:34

We have been harping on a matter relating to the essence of the book's content since long. That is "there is corruption in every nook and cranny of our society and polity". Accordingly this book titled `Legal and Illegal Corruption' by M S Siddiqui, deals with a long list of corrupt practices in Bangladesh.  These are tax evasion, bribery, solicitation (`tadbir'), black money, shadow economy, `Begumpara', rent seeking, default loan, expatriates, tickets on the black market, ghost transactions, customs, procurement, money laundering and a host of others. Prompted by a patriotic fervour the writer has identified, diagnosed, classified and analysed the backdrop, reasons, working relationships of corruption with a sense of realism. He recommends the measures for coping with the menace, but not eradicating it. In the book, the readers will be offered an in-depth study of the problem in the context of its history, the major, minor and the main and sub-classifications through the employment of a cool, dispassionate and rational synthesising. The objectivity of the writer is unerringly discernible when he says (page-113), "Bangladesh society has the culture of hiding corruption of bureaucrats and being loud about the same of the business people and politicians". Nothing can be truer, although the expression may sound despairing to many. The canvas of corruption and its continuous proliferation lie in this culture or outlook of our society. The reason is deeply rooted in our genesis (page-89. British rule). We came free of the feared `Aryan' clutches in 1947. Why? The objective was to have a life free of economic woes. In the process notions like inclusiveness, equity, fair play and democracy could not take root in the then Pakistan. Many regimes ran for long without election or voting. On the other hand, the `Aryan' culture was one of indifference and suppression. Rule of law, elected government, justice and transparency could have come up with a way out. Unfortunately, it did not happen.

Our big neighbour, accordingly, has long been enjoying a good standing on the perception of corruption. By 1971, our national core values (or lack of them) were already embedded deeply in the minds of the population as well as of the leaders. The pivot of a society can't be anything other than politics. Banking on the same norm the new country with old leaders started its onward journey. As a result, democracy could not but be interrupted. Military rules, sweepingly voted governments, questionable elected administrations and unelected regimes spent 24 years out of 46 years of the country's statehood. They had to depend on bureaucrats. Even when there were real elections, the hangover of questionable governments lurked there. The modus operandi of governments without public base always rests with bureaucracy. So the rulers have to appease them. They have to protect the bureaucrats.

On the other hand, when there is a credible democracy the leaders still have to depend on the voters. Nobody can deny that a nation gets the leader which it deserves. Thus weak leaders cannot bring emancipation for a people. In history they have also been known as depraved, profit-mongering, corrupt, and they crave for riches. Practising corruption leads to an ironic situation both for the ruled and the ruler. It is a firm conviction in the minds of many in the general people that a solvent life is impossible without some kind of corruption. The writer of the book says, "We need a firm law" to fight corruption. But it is a platitude. The writer appears to believe that realism and pessimism carry the same meaning. In elaborating the legal definition of corruption he, using his insight, has identified and dwelt on how soft the expert concered has been in defining certain terminologies. In those places the word 'corruption' has been avoided by what he calls the authorities. The reason, though not made clear but hinted at by the author, is permissiveness. It occurs in many places. For example, one may point out the acceptance of the term 'system loss', instead of corruption (page-87). Coming to a large landscape this is enough as this takes place in the electricity sector, among others, which comprises a huge part in the economy. The writer's introduction, analysis, examples, reading between the lines, references to international literature, cases, societal attitudes, legal and regulatory framework etc concerning the issues in discussion are reasonable. However, the Indian examples (page-257) may not be nationally important to Bangladesh. Those are sporadic and less than representative vis-a-vis this country. In the Indian context, the perception really is one where even the living legend Dilip Kumar is also scared of the law when it is a case of tax evasion. It is generally a credible fact that there is rule of law for all citizens. On page 37 the author has lamented saying, 'Honesty is gradually evaporating from society'. We cannot disagree with him. After appreciating the writer for his sincerity, hard labour, and anxieties which went into the production of this voluminous book, a few more things need to be brought to focus. The best instrument to curb corruption in a civilised society is by giving the message to the people through punishment. That is mostly impossible in this country because we admit the prevalence of "corruption in every nook and cranny". So who punishes who is a problem as almost everyone is a beneficiary when it comes to the practice of corruption. The judiciary has before it 3.2 million law cases lying pending while the number of judges is only 1704. It is humanly impossible to try the cases within a reasonable time-frame.  The social emphasis on murder or women repression cases cannot be the same as with corruption. One might ask: Whose child is corruption? Seems it is an orphan. When Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) accuses certain departments of graft, the authorities dismiss the finding. The contradiction is the same authorities express happiness when in a later year the watchdog mentions that there has been a decline in the corruption graph.

Paradoxically, a party in power pampers this child; but while out and moves in broad daylight, they disown it. During the 2006-2008 periods, all suspect corrupt people, except a lowly employee of a government agency, got away. Why? It was because we are weak in the task of prosecution. The axe of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is on small fry only.

The writer has given a statistical table related to the caretaker government period when billions of taka were recovered and sent to the treasury from tax evaders. But the question is how long people can accept a non-elected government.

The author seems to be correct about his observations on bureaucracy. Many may disagree with him. In all the sub-registrar's offices throughout the country, land is being sold and purchased at the market rate which is at least 5 times as much as the official rate. So the buyers and sellers are underpaying taxes. Besides, the sub-registrar and members of the staff, lawyers, vendors, witnesses, deed writers, and brokers are all enjoying the benefits of corruption. Given this stark reality, the perception that corruption exists in every nook and cranny (`Rondhre Rondhre Durniti') is undeniable.

We have to remember that no law can be enforced against the normal culture, vision and propensity of a people. That is why corruption cannot be fought effectively. In the passage of history we have never exploited anyone, because we were never an imperialist power. So, to speak sarcastically, we must plunder and exploit ourselves. The easy way is to practise corruption.

 Shall we end up being despondent then? No, there are rays of hope flashed through the book by M S Siddiqui, who comes up with a number of steps. These are widening of the tax net, digitisation, enhancing the capacity of auditing, strengthening of law and order measures and punishment, and better resource allocation.

The reviewer is Comptroller & Auditor General- Bangladesh and a fiction writer.

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