Wasi Ahmed

Padma credit line gone: Not the end of the world

July 4, 2012

1341213973_02jul12-padma.pgThe 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.

401503-world_bank-1341033481-274-640x480There 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.

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Wasi Ahmed is a journalist, novelist and a short story writer.

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13 Responses to “ Padma credit line gone: Not the end of the world ”

  1. Andrew Eagle on July 5, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    An excellent piece about a rather mystical issue. It does seem odd that there can be allegations of graft without any money changing hands. Perhaps I have not read all the media information on the issue but the particularities of the WB’s allegations are not clear and using the word ‘evidence’ does not constitute evidence.

    Perhaps the WB would be better to consider ensuring that any evidence is made available to the people of Bangladesh through the media so that better informed discussion of whether or not there has been any impropriety can occur, and what action if any should follow.

    At present it would appear that the position of the Government of Bangladesh is not unreasonable in that the WB should not be calling for Ministers to be sent on leave, a decision that would properly be made by the Bangladesh government. On the one hand it is a pity to lose a funding source for the Padma bridge project; on the other the Bangladesh government should not be beholden to unreasonable dictates by the WB. Where would that end? And as yet the reasonableness of the WB position would seem to be at best questionable.

    Neither is it unreasonable for the public, under the circumstances, to consider the possibility that the WB is pursuing its own political agenda in cancelling the funding. That too might be called corruption.

    • kalpana on July 6, 2012 at 10:26 pm

      Everything appears to me as “hush hush”.

      No one is speaking the whole truth.

      If there is a ‘credible evidence (?) in the hand of WB, why not show your card in public; why only discuss in meetings with known (?) corrupt officials who are not going to listen to you anyway.

      The people of Bangladesh will take it as an evidence of insulting the poor people of Bangladesh holding the gun on the (?) corrupt government of Bangladesh.

      Is there any possibly of other agenda behind this “hush hush”!!

  2. K Malik on July 5, 2012 at 7:04 am

    Let us accept the fact that with a few exceptions, most of our political and business leaders are corrupt, either financially or morally. This is because the system as a whole is exploitative in nature and based on corruption. Since independence, Bangladesh as a country has made significant progress in different sectors, but there has been tremendous degradation in moral values.
    The tragedy is: those in power has always denied the truth and done nothing to reduce the level of corruption.

  3. Omar Faruk on July 4, 2012 at 11:25 pm

    I myself don’t like BAL. But whatever the truth, I think here is a chance for BAL to gain something. Bold step to construct the bridge with local funding will be the best option…

  4. sajjad on July 4, 2012 at 5:56 pm

    As a senior citizen of Bangladesh, I do not understand this circus of Padma Bridge and WB denial. Padma is not likely to have water (except for rain water) by the time any bridge over it is built. And in the rainy season, boats are the best way to cross the river. The Govt already divided the nation with a clean surgical cut, over the past three years, so if some people do dance over this humiliation of the Govt, no one (unless insane) should be surprised.

    I say, Long Live The Boat!

  5. rahman on July 4, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    I must first congratulate you on your joining a new profession as journalist (freelance, I would assume).

    Thank you so much for helping us look at the Padma Bridge alias World Bank issue from a new perspective.

    I agree with you that indeed the World Bank (with the highest US voting power), the US Administration, and the President of the WB (always nominated by the US from among the Americans) are nothing but the same entity. It is, therefore, no wonder that the new President of WB would toe the same line as his predecessor’s, who effectively made his hurried decision at the instance of the US government. As such, it would be extremely difficult now to reverse the decision of the WB, which obviously lacks wisdom and transparency. Our government should also negotiate the matter with the US government, among others.

    This is not the time to engage in blame game. WB has its own share of problems as eloquently demonstrated by the Forbes report; and this is not going to change anytime soon. We have to play the game under the existing rules. When we need the money at such a concessional rate, we should not have made so many public pronouncements that we did in the last few months, thus shrinking the space of negotiation considerably. Now, as you have rightly pointed out, this has now turned into a war of ego rather than of substance. This is really unfortunate.

    The most unfortunate part of this whole saga, to me, is the disgusting lack of national unity among the people of Bangladesh. It is hard to believe today that we, the same people, fought a Liberation War just forty years ago against a foreign occupation force and comprehensively defeated a regular military with literally bamboo sticks and the likes; just because we were united (except a microscopic minority of collaborators –the kulangars). Now look at the scenario of Bangladesh today. After the indecent press statement was posted on the WB website (they did not have the courtesy to inform their decision through a letter to the government with copy to press), a segment of people in our own country found great pleasure in seeing Bangladesh humiliated in public — at the international level. They came out in celebrations with both hands in the air (udbahu nrittya) and in full smile. They forgot that the Awami League or Mohajote government and Bangladesh are not the same entity. They never considered that the WB decision affected not only the Awami League government but more so Bangladesh in its entirety and particularly the people of southern Bangladesh. We may hope that our future generations would save us from this mean politics — unique in the world. You have lived and worked in our immediate neighbouring country, India. We know how much the Indians are united on the external front despite their relentless domestic political bickering (we may recall the Congress government officially protesting to the US for denying US visa to BJP’s Mr. Modi — an arch-rival of the Congress Party). I wish our politicians could learn some good things from the Indians, particularly in terms of standing united when it comes to the question of national interest and dignity.

    I would hope that the government and the WB would discuss this issue again, and reach a mutually acceptable solution—this project is too important for us to neglect.

    Thanks again for the splendid and thought-provoking article.

    • Tuhin on July 4, 2012 at 9:48 pm

      I think people are united against corruption. What we have to do now is to find out the truth, whichever way that may go. I don’t expect people to be united in protecting false ego over a serious issue like corruption. Patriotism is nothing without integrity. I’ll only stand by the truth, nothing else.

      • rahman on July 5, 2012 at 12:41 am

        I fully agree with you. We ought to know the whole truth–from both sides. But the people dancing in seminars and so on are not interested in truth at all (refer to their track record); they are just interested in humiliating the government, even at the cost of our country–there lies the problem, and it is a disgusting problem that we need to face head on first and foremost if we want to progress at all as a nation. No nation can achieve anything unless they are united against all evils. Thanks.

  6. Fajle Khurshid on July 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    Cancellation of World bank credit for such a mega infrastructural project (Padma Bridge) of our country is too tragic and sure to have far reaching consequences for us as a nation. Now who is creating smoke screen to hinder surfacing of the truth? The Journalist communities should be active and vigilant to find out the villainy and the whole truth behind such incidents.

    Is it WB who considers a country like ours as a matter of game and play to cancel a loan agreement without throwing any light on the whole truth with evidences? Or some Bangladeshi politicians and govt. officials are actually involved in the alleged graft, playing a con game for their greed at the expense of the interest of the common people. The civil society members should be active to raise their strong voices in various forums that WB may punish the perpetrators of the graft but not the people of Bangladesh. People of Bangladesh deserve to know not only the truth but the whole truth.

  7. A A on July 4, 2012 at 11:48 am

    There is another aspect to this sordid affair which we need to take into account. With the downturn in the West, it is quite possible that the World Bank is broke and they do not have the resources to finance this mega project.

  8. MBI Munshi on July 4, 2012 at 7:55 am

    The damage to the country comes not from the cancellation of the credit line by the World Bank but that an allegation of corruption has been levelled against the government. The moral aspect is here of paramount importance and the practical implications of secondary consideration. It should have been abundantly clear that the Western lenders will no longer tolerate corrupt practices so why have our politicians not learnt this important lesson? Is their greed so overpowering that commonsense and restraint soon go out the window?

  9. Golam Arshad on July 4, 2012 at 7:00 am

    Wasi: The same old saying, “If you can’t define yourself, others will…” It is a classic case of “Inaction “… GoB failed in this issue.

    Good job with the article!

    • Khokon on July 4, 2012 at 9:28 pm

      Dear Wasi,

      It is simply an excellent article, I fully agree with your point of view, I was watching the live television of parliament this evening where the Prime Minister proudly and loudly said “We are going to build our Padma Bridge by our own money” and I strongly believe when we could bring our independence by defeating the so called world’s best fighting force we could also build our Padma Bridge by ourselves by defeating any conspiracy. Thank you once again and hope to get more write-upd from your end regularly.

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