The World Bank’s (WB) scrapping of its credit line for the Padma multipurpose bridge — the country’s largest infrastructure project is bad news, though it was not totally unexpected as some people tend to make others believe so. Viewing it as the end of the world is indeed too naïve to cynically undermine the spirit of a sovereign nation accountable to none but itself. The cancellation of the $1.2 billion soft-term loan by the WB, conveyed through a press statement on its website on June 29, 2012, has been followed by reactions at home that almost border on such defeatist perceptions — reflecting a grievous sense of loss, of shame, and in a convoluted way, surprise.
To match his utter shock, the communication minister has coined the rhetoric ‘bolt from the blue’; while the finance minister, defiant as he has always been on the issue, has termed it as ‘totally unacceptable’ attributing it not to the bank itself but to its outgoing president Robert Zoellick — a blast of rage that the minister himself can best explain. After all, the WB, Zoellick (or whoever is in the bank’s command) and the US are but one and the same thing.
Reactions apart, the WB has apparently washed its hands off the mega project on grounds of what it calls ‘high-level corruption conspiracy’. The press statement — indecently worded — mentions that the WB has ‘credible evidence corroborated by a variety of sources which points to a high-level corruption conspiracy among Bangladeshi government officials, SNC-Lavalin executives and private individuals in connection with the Padma Multipurpose Bridge Project.’ The statement goes on to further elucidate that it (WB) ‘cannot, should not, and will not turn a blind eye to evidence of corruption.’ The catchword is obviously ‘evidence of corruption’. Since the past ten months or so, the WB has been harping on alleged corruption conspiracies, and now that it has hurled the last salvo pointing at ‘evidence’, the ball is finally in Bangladesh’s court. So it apparently seems. And hence it’s time for the government to contest as vigorously as it should to prove what it has to prove to its people and to the world at large.
There is indeed the flip side to the matter. Ever since the WB has been raising the issue of alleged corruption, the government did not seem to have taken the matter seriously enough, given that there was no money on sight, and unless money changes hands, charges of stealing do not arise. The government banked rather too strongly on this over-simplistic precept. There were remarks made, at times seething, by the spokespersons of the government whose basic premise was: where on earth is the money to steal? However, at the repeated insistence of the WB, an investigation was initiated by the Anticorruption Commission (ACC) which gave a clean chit to those who were allegedly being implied by the WB. The WB was obviously far from satisfied. It may not be too far fetched to discern conflicting egos at work, not allowing space to either of the parties to give in.
What actually followed in the days prior to the cancellation of the credit line may conveniently be looked as an extension of that unbending ego, this time on the part of the WB. The announcement of cancellation came days after Bangladesh had rejected the three conditions set by the WB to bring in transparency in the probe which in eloquent terms implies its dictates in the conduct of affairs. The conditions included: (i) sending the officials allegedly being involved in the corruption conspiracy on leave until the probe is completed; (ii) appointing a special inquiry team in the ACC to handle the probe; and (iii) providing a WB-appointed panel full access to the proceedings of the investigation. It could be learnt that the government had sat several times with a WB team from Washington on June 25 and 26 before it finally decided to say no to the conditions.
Now there may be no dearth of pseudo-stalwarts inside the country who will find nothing wrong with the WB overtures — not just asking a minister and some officials to be on forced leave on alleged charges (which the government has been denying), but also questioning the functioning of one of the government’s independent probe body, the ACC. What the government has done while turning down the WB conditions is in all fairness to protect its dignity, notwithstanding the merit of what the probe may call for. But this is not the end of the game.
A piece of pertinent query: did the government really look up to the credit line as a probable source of funding the bridge project? If yes, then why has it been drumbeating its negotiations with China and Malaysia? The other day, the communication minister was on record saying that an agreement with Malaysia was fast nearing finalisation. How is it that he is now shocked at the scrapping of the credit line? He shouldn’t be the one to call it a bolt from the blue.
Cancellation of credit line is not totally rare in the history of the World Bank. This has happened in various regions. In Bangladesh too, around a decade back the WB cancelled a credit involving a far smaller communication project on alleged corruption conspiracies.
However, outright cancellation of a confirmed credit line for an infrastructure project — that too of such mammoth scale — is unprecedented in the history of the World Bank. And in attempting to do so, the WB is ostensibly chasing a clean image for itself at whatever expense. There are critics who say that the bank is so obsessed with reputational risk that it reflexively covers up anything that could appear negative, rather than address it. We have no idea if in this case too it was a problem of addressing the issue that led the WB act so sharply with talks not officially declared concluded.
As has been said, the ball now is dead-stop in Bangladesh’s court, and it is in the interest of the government that it should have it rolled. Since the government has taken as stern a step to risk a mega project that would have benefited millions and has firmly stuck to its ground in the name of the nation’s honour and moral propriety, it must now explore all avenues at its disposal to prove that it has the capacity to take care of its problems and the guts to unearth any trace of criminality that might have played foul in the entire exercise. And yes, if the reality is different from what has been perceived so long, the government must be able to call a spade a spade.
At the end of the day, it is the reality behind the smokescreen that must surface.
Wasi Ahmed is a journalist, novelist and a short story writer.