Stories of corruption no longer produce the same shock they once did. This is what happens when corruption in a country becomes so widespread and its structures of accountability so weak or broken that even low-level state employees can become a millionaire using loopholes in the system. So when the news of the arrest of driver Abul Malek of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) surfaced on Sunday, it was unsurprising to see more amusement than anger. Here was a man who knew how to make money. Never mind that he was just an “eight-pass” driver. Never mind that he had a nurani chehara (as some pointed out)—deemed incompatible with a life of crime. Never mind that he worked for a division that has a history of throwing up bad apples every now and then.
Some wondered, if a driver could make so much money, how much money would his superiors possibly have?
One cannot be faulted for seeing in Abdul Malek the fulfilment of their rags-to-riches fantasy. According to a report by The Daily Star, Malek’s wealth was valued at more than Tk 100 crore. He owns two seven-storied buildings consisting of 24 flats in the capital’s Dakkhin Kamarpara area. A third building is now under construction in one of his plots in Dhanmondi. He also has a dairy farm on a 15-katha land plot in Dakkhin Kamarpara as well as a vast amount of money in different bank accounts. When he was arrested from his residence on Sunday, he reportedly had with him a firearm and a magazine with five bullets, among other illegal possessions.
We get a gist of his activities from the initial reports by Rab officials. According to them, Malek abused his power to facilitate illegal recruitments, including of seven members of his own family, and manipulate transfers and promotions of other drivers and even higher officials including doctors. Hopefully we will know more about his modus operandi once the investigation is completed. The question is, how could a lowly non-administrative staffer have such influence in the administrative decisions of a division as vital as the DGHS? We’re told that Malek was the president of the Health Directorate Drivers Association, a platform he himself created, which he used to exert his influence. For ten years, he ran a syndicate within the division influencing important decisions.
But his main source of power was somewhere else: his connections with his superiors. According to a report, Malek had an “intimate relationship” with two former directors general (DGs) of the DGHS and Medical Education and Family Welfare Division as he used to drive their government-issued vehicles. It was during the tenure of Shah Munir Hossain, former Director General of Health Services, that Malek emerged as an influential player. He drove his car for four years. According to Rab, there were allegations of corruption and irregularities against Shah Munir Hossain. Abdul Malek was witness to his corrupt activities, and would use his closeness with him to engage in corruption himself. Between 2009 and 2010, Malek was behind the appointment of more than 100 health assistants. He was Shah Munir’s “collector”, according to a top official quoted by Prothom Alo.
Should we take their denial at face value? Even if we do, and wait for more witnesses to blow the whistle or future investigations to exculpate them, the mere fact that they didn’t know what their subordinates were doing right under their noses, using their names no less, makes them either fools or downright incompetent. Even if they’re innocent of direct involvement, they’re unwittingly complicit in the corruption committed under their stewardship. To their advantage, there is no punishment for either foolishness or incompetence in our criminal justice system. From a criminal’s perspective, anyone would like to have such bosses so long as the latter don’t interfere with their misdeeds or object to having their good names besmirched.
Given how widespread corruption is across all sectors in the country, such “fools” must be numerous.
Unfortunately, since high-level corruption is rarely investigated in Bangladesh, we’re left with these apparent fools occupying leadership positions in vital public offices. The health ministry and its offices including DGHS, especially after the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country, seem to have outdone all others in that respect. The ministry has consistently turned a blind eye as corruption festered, despite several top-level reshuffles, and ordinary folks suffered for lack of test, treatment and other containment measures. Despite its cataclysmic failure to contain the virus over the last six months, there hasn’t been a single case in which a high-level officer was shamed, sacked, prosecuted or faced any other punitive action, which would have set an example and brought some much-needed accountability in the system. It’s the low-level employees who always get the short end of the stick, justifiably or not, while their superiors conveniently hide behind their shield of deniability.
As if to confirm our suspicion, newspaper reports covering Malek’s capture have revealed that the Anti-Corruption Commission has been carrying out investigations against 45 officials and staffers of DGHS, including Malek, since 2019. Recently, notices were issued against 12 of them—all first-line or low-level employees and officials. But what of their enablers? Will they be ever captured, too?
The public faces of corruption maybe few but its beneficiaries are not. No corrupt seed grows on its own. People like Malek are not outliers or “isolated incidents”—to quote an oft-repeated excuse—but rather offshoots of an administrative culture in which superiors often tolerate and even empower subordinates willing to do their dirty work. One supports the other, and vice versa, and that’s how a corrupt system works. Unless we dismantle and reform the whole administrative system and hold all corrupt officials to account, regardless of their ranks, corruption will never truly be eradicated.
Badiuzzaman Bay is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org