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Govt officials obligated to submit wealth statements

AK Abdul  Momen

AK Abdul Momen

Sat, 30 Mar 24

In the realm of governance, political leaders play a crucial role as auxiliary forces within governmental institutions. Therefore, it is imperative for government officials to uphold honesty and sincerity in their duties. However, in our country, there is a noticeable lack of integrity and morality among a certain class of government officials. Efforts to enhance the morality of government officials are not being adequately pursued. While there is a legal obligation for government officials to submit asset declarations annually, this requirement is often overlooked.

Recently, there has been an initiative to alleviate the obligation of government officials to submit asset declarations. I believe that implementing such an initiative would be detrimental for us. It would further exacerbate the lack of control over corruption among a certain class of government officials. Granting them impunity could potentially increase their inclination towards corruption.

Regrettably, it is true that a particular class of government officials in our country is most entangled in corruption. They employ various tactics to amass wealth through corrupt means. Even politicians who engage in corruption often do so with the complicity of government officials. If every government official were sincere and genuinely committed to their responsibilities, the country's situation would improve, and corruption would decrease. Economic development would accelerate, and existing wealth disparities would diminish.

Not all government officials are corrupt or unethical. Many among them are extremely honest and dedicated to their duties. However, they often become disheartened and eventually succumb to silence. If government officials refrain from engaging in corruption themselves and do not aid others in corrupt practices, then the tolerance for corruption would decrease.

Those appointed as government officials in various institutions need to have a mandatory obligation to regularly submit asset declarations to the relevant authorities. Even if not annually, at least every three years, these declarations must be submitted. Measures should be taken to ensure accuracy and transparency in these declarations. It should be ensured that any income or benefits received by a government official are accurately stated in their tax declarations. Concealing acquired assets or providing false information should not be tolerated. The salary and benefits received by a government official come from the taxes of ordinary people, giving them the right to know about their financial status.

During the promotion or transfer of a government official, consideration must be given to their acquired assets. Corruption practitioners are "bleeding the country." When government officials acquire wealth through corrupt means, they do not keep that wealth within the country. Due to security reasons, they smuggle illegally acquired assets out of the country. In the past, foreign rulers would plunder wealth from Bangladesh. Now, a certain class of people in our country illegitimately acquire wealth and smuggle it abroad. Wealth that could contribute to the country's economic development is being spent elsewhere.

My friend, an economist, once told me that if government officials accept bribes, it's good because bribes are beneficial for society. They promote social and economic development. At the primary level of economic development in every country, widespread bribery and corruption can be observed. Bribes stimulate government officials to work. He reasoned that maybe I imported goods worth 100 crore taka from abroad, but at the port, it was declared that goods worth 50 crore taka were imported, thus avoiding customs duties. The money saved from taxes would be used in the productive sector of the country. If taxes were paid on goods worth 100 crore taka, the government would receive additional revenue; however, the money received by the government is not utilized properly. This money is wasted in various ways. But if an importer shelters money from taxes on goods worth 50 crore taka, it significantly enhances the production capacity. A businessman who shelters money from taxes will build new factories or expand the production capacity of existing factories. This will create job opportunities for many people. The country's production will increase. Tax evasion will lead to increased spending in the sector concerned with the production of the goods. This will enable local consumers to purchase their necessary goods and services at comparatively lower prices. Internationally, the product can also be supplied at competitive prices. The market will witness an increase in the supply of currency. Thus, the money sheltered from taxes can be effectively utilized. This will create opportunities for individuals to develop financially. My friend's argument warrants consideration.

However, those who accumulate wealth through corrupt means in our country do not keep that money within the country or use it for the country's development. Instead, they smuggle this money abroad. They convert the money earned through corruption into foreign currency, especially converting it into US dollars, and smuggle it abroad. Economists believe that a certain class of people in our country contributes significantly to the crisis in the country's foreign currency reserves due to their involvement in smuggling ill-gotten wealth abroad. Those who engage in corruption in our country are extremely influential. They often evade any punitive measures against them due to their influence within political parties. Moreover, there are questions regarding the efficiency of those responsible for enforcing regulations in institutions established to combat corruption. It is necessary to ensure that regular asset declarations are made by government employees. Those who have acquired illegal wealth through employment in government institutions should be subjected to exemplary punishment. At the same time, those who uphold honesty and integrity in various institutions should be rewarded. Honest and sincere individuals should be ensured protection from harassment by corrupt officials in the workplace.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced a "zero tolerance" policy against corruption. However, due to the actions of some dishonest individuals, the Prime Minister's declaration is often hindered. We have envisioned a corruption-free Bangladesh, leading to the creation of a "Smart Bangladesh." This vision will never materialize if we cannot build a truly corruption-free country. The battle against corruption must begin at every level in the light of the Prime Minister's zero tolerance policy. We aspire to build a truly corruption-free Bangladesh.

If Bangladesh does not become corruption-free, no matter how much economic development is achieved, it will not effectively alleviate economic disparities. It is worth mentioning that one of the fundamental principles upon which Bangladesh was founded was the establishment of a society free from economic disparities. However, we are still far from that state. Elected members of the national parliament are required to submit asset declarations every five years. Through this, a form of accountability is created. Similarly, government employees should also be required to submit regular asset declarations. The submitted asset declarations should be made public to allow for scrutiny and potential action against those involved in corruption.

In Bangladesh, a certain class of people has acquired wealth through corruption and used it to purchase properties and vehicles abroad. During my tenure as Foreign Minister, I directed our consul general in Canada to provide me with a list of Bangladeshis who own homes in Begum Para, as there was considerable discussion at the time about Begum Para in Canada. After receiving the list, I found that out of 28 individuals, 4 were politicians and the remaining 24 were employees of various government institutions. Among them were several secretaries, police officers, and senior officials from various banks. Previously, I had the impression that politicians owned homes in Begum Para, but after receiving the list, I realized that my assumption was incorrect.

Some ministries have requested me for this list, but officials from my ministry have stated that I cannot provide this list to anyone because it is not verified. Providing such a list could create confusion. Requests have been made to the Canadian government for the provision of such lists, but due to the Privacy Act, the Canadian government does not supply such information to individuals or entities. However, if efforts are made, the Bangladesh government may be able to gather some information; however, there is a shortfall in governmental efforts in this regard.

In our country, there is always a tendency to overlook those involved in corruption, and efforts are made to protect them in various ways. Those who are honest and clean do not receive any protection. The Canadian government has recently enacted a law whereby foreign nationals will have their assets frozen if they purchase property without taking loans from Canadian banks. I believe that implementing such laws properly will significantly reduce money laundering.

The budget is approaching, and certain specific steps need to be taken in this budget. For example, any payment exceeding 20,000 Taka should be made via cheque. Both landlords and tenants should provide information related to rent to the relevant departments of the government. Efforts should be made to streamline revenue collection completely. Our revenue system is neither modern nor efficient. Everyone who possesses a national identity card should be required to file a tax return.

As everyone has the convenience of a national identity card, they should be obligated to file an income tax return. The current TIN system can be applied in the corporate sector. Bangladesh's revenue collection is much lower compared to other countries on a per capita basis. Efforts should be made to increase this. Increasing revenue collection from internal sources will make funding development projects relatively easier.

Author: Member of Parliament, Former Foreign Minister, Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh.
Transcribe: M A Khaleque

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