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Thursday, 31 January 2008

Punitive financial measures alone not enough

That over Tk 400 crore of wealth earned through corruption is going to be returned to the public exchequer after the national coordination committee on serious crimes and corruption started investigating them is a pragmatic step.

Since October last year, the special task force empowered by the committee has interviewed hundreds of Titas employees in their bid to investigate corruption, and hundreds have submitted their wealth statements to the task force, which has so far identified nearly 1,000 corrupt officials at the state-owned enterprise.

We believe this is a positive effort on the part of the government in that it has recognised that en masse expulsions on charges of corruption, though it might seem just and deserved, cannot be the solution to the problem of corruption.

The fight against corruption is a daily one, and one-time actions, no matter how stringent, typically fail to undo a culture of corruption that has developed through decades. Not only is the ill-gotten wealth of Titas gas officials being seized, this will also create a natural disincentive for future corruption as the culture of impunity will have been destroyed.

The wisdom that the government has shown in this move has alas been missing in much of its actions in other sectors of the economy. Arbitrary arrests and detentions, with the government's spokespersons condemning the accused before the trial process have all contributed towards an environment of fear that is now taking a terrible toll on the economy.

On Tuesday, Capital machinery imports are down, according to Bangladesh Bank, and the bank's department concerned has attributed this sluggishness to the government's anti-corruption drive. In the past year, top businessmen and industrialists have been detained or arrested and accused of shady deals with past governments.

What has resulted is that factories which employ thousands of people, across the industrial spectrum, are now facing ruin with their owners in jail and their futures uncertain. Consequently, investment trends are nose-diving and the country's overall growth is now in peril.

Unless the government can undo the damage that their arbitrary arrests and detentions have caused in the business arena, the prospects for employment growth — the growth engine for labour-intensive economies like Bangladesh — will remain bleak.

It is important to point out, however, that the government's actions, whether they are arrests or acquittals, must not override the rule of law. Just as arbitrary arrests are illegal, so it must be with out-of-court acquittals, as is the case with the Titas gas officials and employees.

They must face punishment in this regard, as the only punishment for theft cannot be punitive financial measures.

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