Secretly selling Biman

Joseph

Published in Himal SouthAsian (June 2007)

On 9 May, Bangladesh’s state-owned airline, Biman, announced the slashing of 1400 jobs. Another 1000 positions may be on the block in the near future. All in all, this means a cut of nearly half of the flag-carrier’s current roster. According to the company’s managing director M A Momen, Biman has requested BDT 3 billion (USD 43 million) from the finance ministry to provide severance packages for the 1400 employees.

The BBC carried the news item. But only one Bangladeshi newspaper gave it coverage, and then only on its webpage. Herein lies the problem.

Following 11 January, the interim government took bold and unprecedented measures to ensure transparency and accountability in public institutions, reconstituting the Anti-Corruption Commission, appointing non-partisan individuals to the Election Commission, and separating the judiciary from the executive branch. The increase in censorship, however, makes clear that the interim officials have underestimated, if not downright disregarded, the crucial role of the media in the success of these very agendas. The caretaker government has reacted to criticism with too heavy a hand – particularly in April, during its attempts to exile the two former prime ministers. There now exists dangerous self-censorship on many issues, as can be seen in the lack of coverage of the Biman retrenchment. The national airline, after all, had never before been a taboo subject for the Bangladeshi press.

To silencing the press is to stop a third party from verifying official claims. This may result in misallocation of public resources and abuse of state power and, subsequently, misinformation about both. The vicious cycle thus entered inevitably leads to runaway civil unrest.

Do Bangladeshi taxpayers realise that USD 43 million is being spent retrenching 1400 workers? This works out to around USD 31,000 per worker, a massive sum in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, jute-factory workers from state-owned mills in Khulna remain unpaid, and are unlikely to get anything in terms of severance. At Biman, not only are senior workers who have worked with the airline for more than 25 years being let go – so too are the leaders of at least nine workers’ organisations.

All this secrecy does not augur well for the government’s plans for Biman: following the layoffs, the company is to be floated on the Dhaka and Chittagong stock exchanges. However, it is unclear if these shares will even be made publicly available.

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