Reverse charges

Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Forum (December 2007) 

I am told that it costs about Tk 1,500 to move one’s land-line to a new address in Dhaka. To most people who can afford a phone, this is not a large sum. However, in the pre-1/11 era, not many people used to pay this amount when moving.

Why? Because, to move your land-line to a new address, in addition to the connection fee, one needs to provide the original letter of issuance of the line to them.

Think about it for a minute.
Someone moved into a government quarter in the early 1980s when he was a young man with a new family. 25 years on, he’s retiring and moving off to his small flat, and he wants to take the land-line with him. He is happy to pay the Tk 1,500 fee, and he has the receipts for the last 6 months’ bill to prove that he indeed has the legal rights to the line.

But no, they want the original letter that was issued when Zia-ur-Rahman was the president. The guy at the telephone office says that this can be “fixed” for Tk 2,000. What should the phone-owner do?

This is how, dear reader, corruption used to happen at the micro level. It had nothing to do with the kleptocracy of, and repeated stand-offs between, powerful political dynasties that used to shut down the nation. It had everything to do with systems that encouraged rent-seeking.

And what is the impact of the grand anti-corruption drive of the current regime on this micro-level corruption?

After the January revolution, the small-fry clerk is too afraid to ask for the Tk 2,000 bribe. He says: “Bring in the original letter or nothing doing.” Someone suggests talking to the distant relative who is supposedly influential. Others suggest getting a new line. A new line apparently costs Tk 8,000 or so. This is not much money for the retired gentleman’s son, who is doing well in the private sector. But who knows how long it will take to get the new line installed? So our retired fellow is without a land-line. And without proper VOIP connection, his pregnant daughter who lives in some foreign city cannot talk to her sickly mother. What should our phone-owner do?

Much has been written on the well known corruption perception index of Transparency International. A much-less publicised index, but one with a potentially bigger impact on our macro-economic prospects, is the World Bank’s “Doing Business” indicator. According to its latest release, it has become harder to do business in Bangladesh. Business investment is a major driver of economic growth, and hence when it becomes harder to do business, we all suffer. Here is what Forrest Cookson says in a Forum article published in October.

“Foreign private investment will be more limited as the military-bureaucratic alliance will not make it easy, seeing intrigue and exploitation behind every tree. Taken altogether, Bangladesh will experience much slower growth in private investment resulting in a slower growth of the economy. With luck a new generation of businessmen will emerge with an acceptable alliance with the politicians to permit a resurgence of private investment. But realism should make us recognise that cleansing the society of corruption — the achievement that the new revolution is undertaking — has a cost. This cost is the reduction in the economic growth rate, possibly for several years.”

So the anti-corruption drive has a cost. But corruption is also costly. Which is costlier, the corruption or the anti-corruption drive? Which is worse, the sickness or the cure? Let’s agree that corruption is indeed the greater of two evils, and we are willing to pay the high cost of anti-corruption drive. Will the anti-corruption drive as it is being carried out now yield the desired outcome?

Let’s return to the story that we started with. In addition to the original letter of issuance by the Bangladesh Telephone & Telegraph Board (BTTB), these are the other documents needed to change a landline.

-Two passport size photos duly attested by a Class 1 gazetted officer, including an official seal, address, and telephone number. Normally, Class 1 gazetted officers are out-of-reach of common folks, and are very reluctant to give personal details such as address and phone number.

-A Nationality Certificate issued by the chairman of union/pourashava parishad or a Member of parliament or a Class 1 gazetted officer, again including an official seal, address, and telephone number. What could possibly be the reason for this?

-A “No Liability Certificate” issued by the senior accounts officer of the Telephone Revenue Office of the relevant telephone exchange. What could be the reason for this? When one fails to pay monthly phone bill in time, the phone could be disconnected.

For most people, obtaining and organising these documents is a big hassle. And it doesn’t end there. Once the poor telephone owner submits the application to a BTTB staff in the Telephone Exchange under which the land-line falls, as many as nine officers have to write some notes in respect of the application before the divisional engineer can approve the shifting application.

After this approval, a “Demand Note” for payment of the shifting fee of Tk 1,500 is issued. The “Demand Note” endorses that only a particular bank can receive the payment. Even if everything goes smoothly, the whole process may take weeks. Of course, under-the-table payments or a few phone calls from the “right people” can expedite the process and the lines could move within a day.

The current anti-corruption drive has seen the arrest of several politicians and bureaucrats, including the telecommunication ministers under the previous two governments. However, it has done nothing thus far to address the underlying causes that breed corruption at the micro level in the sector. Without reforming the processes through which BTTB operates, there may be a temporary lull in corruption, but this temporary respite has come with a stop in the provision of services — a cynic might say that: “Durniti’r obhabe Bangladesh ochol (in the absence of corruption, Bangladesh is shut down).”

To really tackle corruption, the red tapes need to be untangled and processes, systems need to be streamlined within the bureaucracy, and most importantly, the decision-making process needs to become transparent. Unless these happen, it’s only a matter of time before the petty corruption returns, regardless of what happens to corrupt politicians.

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1. For details, see here
2. See here

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