The legacy of corruption left behind the politicians is the reason why we are in such a mess today. Corruption is the fundamental evil that we have to eliminate if we want to become a prosperous nation with durable democracy. — I’m sure you’ve heard something similar many times in the recent months. I think sentences like these are dangerously simplistic and quite possibly misleading.
I’m told that it costs about 1,500 taka to move one’s landline to a new address. To most people who can afford a phone, this is not a large sum. However, not many people paid the amount when moving houses. Why? You see, to move your landline to a new address, in addition to the connection fee, you need to provide the original letter of issuance of the line to you.
Think about it for a minute.
You moved into the government quarter in the early 1980s, when you were a young man with a new family. 20 years on, you’re retiring and moving off to your small flat, and you want to take the landline with you. You’re happy to pay the 1,500 taka fee, and you have the receipts for the last 6 months’ bill to prove that you indeed have the legal rights to the line. But no, they want the original letter that was issued when Zia-ur-Rahman was the president and your multinational-employed son was a toddler. The guy at the telephone office says that this can be ‘fixed’ for 2,000 taka. What do you do?
This is how, my dear reader, corruption used to happen at the microeconomic level. This had nothing to do with the family of Mrs Zia or the political stand off that brought us 1/11. And what is the impact of the grand anti-corruption drive of the current regime in this case?
After the January revolution, the small-fry clerk is too afraid to ask for the 2,000 taka bribe. He says, bring in the original letter or nothing doing. Your son tells you to get a new line. That apparently costs 8,000 or so taka. He is doing well, and this is not much money for him. But who knows how long it will take to get the line installed? So you’re without a landline. And without proper VOIP connection, your pregnant daughter who lives in some foreign city cannot talk to her sickly mother.
“What about the rights of the Bangladeshi citizens that were stolen from and kept in terrible poverty? What is happening here is nothing short of a quiet revolution without violence,” said Mainul Hosein, the caretaker government’s key law and justice official. “At least we are trying to establish an honest government.”
The above paragraph is from the recent Washington Post article discussed by Indrani. So, what has the anti-corruption drive done to the much talked about corruption indicator? Nothing apparently, as AsifS notes. Meanwhile, it has become harder to business in Bangladesh according to a much less talked about indicator. This, my dear, is the immediate economic impact of the January revolution. Here’s what a Dhaka-based writer has to say about our medium-term economic prospects in the latest Forum:
Foreign private investment will be more limited as the military-bureaucratic alliance will not make it easy, seeing intrigue and exploitation behind every tree. Taken altogether, Bangladesh will experience much slower growth in private investment resulting in a slower growth of the economy. With luck a new generation of businessmen will emerge with an acceptable alliance with the politicians to permit a resurgence of private investment. But realism should make us recognise that cleansing the society of corruption — the achievement that the new revolution is undertaking — has a cost. This cost is the reduction in the economic growth rate, possibly for several years.
It is economic growth that has brought millions out of poverty in East Asia. It is economic growth that is improving people’s lives in India and China. It is the lack of economic growth that has held Africa and Latin America back. And for all the corruption of the past 16 years, we were growing faster.
So, sentences we started with are simplistic. It is also potentially misleading to argue that corruption brought the nation to the situation that caused 1/11. As great a problem corruption was, and as incompetent and wasteful the government of Mrs Zia was, it wasn’t corruption that was the fundamental flaw with our democracy. As I’ve argued previously, the problem was the winner-takes-all nature of the political system. That system needs reform, sure. Let’s talk about those reforms. Let’s not pretend that those reforms can be achieved through anti-corruption drives. Pretending so, knowing that the issue in January was a peaceful and competitive election, is simply misleading.
And sentences like what this begins are dangerous because their logical conclusion will plunge our nation into a generation-long conflict that we truly cannot afford. As this Progressive Bangladesh piece argues:
Corruption in Bangladesh cannot be eliminated by decapitating the political leadership, and it certainly cannot be done by an unaccountable military-led government. There is no question that individuals in past governments engaged in massive corruption. But what encouraged that is the tyranny of a few within those governments. As long as power in Bangladesh remains concentrated, reducing corruption will be difficult. Rounding up politicians in the name of an “anti-corruption” drive may grab headlines, but the deeper damage caused by the application of draconian laws and the complete disregard for the rule of law will only breed more corruption. Our past gives us every reason and every right to be very suspicious of any government run by a few and accountable to none.
(Crossposted at UV)