WE all could feel what was coming — cancellation of the Padma Bridge loan. But none of us probably sensed it could come in such a damning way with so much of economic and political ramifications.
Bangladesh has never in its lifetime faced such a situation nor has the World Bank since its birth in 1944 cancelled a single infrastructure project of such size because of ‘credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy’.
We are all smarting from the blow.
The bridge was dreamt up long time ago. We have heard of its necessity from the time when General Ershad ruled in the 1980s. Sporadic talk was heard later on as well. But finally the ball started rolling when the Awami League government swept into power. Things went pretty fast and the World Bank agreed to be the lead financier and ADB, JICA and IDB lined up.
The terms were very favourable to us as the soft loan wing of the Bank, International Development Agency (IDA), would provide the fund. The interest rate was really low at 0.85 percent.
It was even thought that some funds would be available from the donors in the outgoing financial year. The construction of the bridge would start sometime around last October, it was figured out.
Then the clouds gathered on the horizon.
The World Bank’s vice-president made a sudden trip to Dhaka and met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to convey the message that the bank had evidence of corruption in appointing a Canadian consulting firm. A month later the bank wrote to the government about corruption in selecting pre-qualified bidders for the bridge construction. Then former communications minister Syed Abul Hossain‘s name came up in the scam.
After some initial defensive statements, the government asked the Anti-corruption Commission (ACC) to probe and the commission, unsurprisingly, gave a clean chit to Abul.
But the Bank kept on insisting that corruption had taken place. In its latest statement it has, however, mentioned ‘high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials’.
The government seems to be hiding behind a smokescreen of definitional difference. The government’s position is that corruption does not happen unless money changes hands, as it says in this case has not happened. But this logic defies the precept of circumstantial evidence. Should a thief be let go if he is caught outside a window preparing to break in just because he did not actually break in?
This is hollow logic.
There was a last ditch attempt to put the project back on track. But for that the Bank attached three important conditions which are worth analyzing here.
First, the Bank asked for an investigation and for that wanted the government to place all public officials suspected of involvement in the corruption scheme “ON LEAVE” from government employment until the investigation is completed.
This is a common procedure everywhere when an official is being investigated. In many countries the officials actually step aside until completion of inquiry on their own volition for the sake of fairness of the probe. This only benefits the person because no question can then be asked about the inquiry process. At the extreme level of it, we have seen the German president stepping aside in recent times when an inquiry was launched against him.
But the government did not want to comply with this demand for no good reasons.
Secondly, the Bank wanted the appointment of a special inquiry team “WITHIN THE ACC” to handle the investigation. There was nothing wrong with this demand considering the enormity and complex nature of the allegation. It should not be handled with a business as usual approach. This special cell would have been all staffed with ACC officials and no Bank interference was to be had. Yet the government did not want to set up the cell.
The third demand was that the government agree to provide “FULL AND ADEQUATE ACCESS’ to all investigative information to a panel appointed by the World Bank comprised of internationally recognized experts so that the panel can give guidance to the lenders on the progress, adequacy and fairness of the investigation.
There was again nothing unusual with the demand as this panel was not to interfere with the probe but to provide the donors with information on how the investigation was being conducted. It was to assure donors that the probe was credible.
If there was no corruption involved, we see no problem in accepting this term. This is the way that the government could have a credible investigation and prove its innocence and claims beyond any doubt to the world. It would have earned the government applause from all sides. Even political diatribes from the opposition could have been effectively stopped by such transparency.
But the government did not agree to this as well because it said this could not be allowed on legal grounds. The Bank however thinks otherwise as it feels this panel could be formed within the ambit of Bangladeshi laws and procedures.
But as the situation stands today, the ramifications of the loan cancellation are many, right from turning the whole project uncertain to paying a high price to make it happen. In our next analysis we can dwell on them. But for now we know that we have lost a winning chance to prove our innocence.
However, we want to believe that the government was right in its claim of innocence. The Bank’s statement has scarred Bangladesh as a nation and we want to clear the air. When the government is so firm that no corruption has taken place, it should seek out all legal avenues to challenge the World Bank in any arbitration. It should prove that everything was in order and lawful. This could now be the only way to restore our pride.
Finance Minister AMA Muhith has also rejected the World Bank’s statement and reiterated that no corruption has taken place. We want to believe the finance minister and for that we want that the government make public all the documents that the World Bank has provided to claim alleged corruption. This is the only way that we can prove beyond any doubt that the Bank had been wrong.
We wait for that action from the government.