- BIWTC tests efficacy of fog light in daylight during summer before purchasing 10 fog lights
- Four BIWTC officials go to USA for a week-long visit to conduct the few hours' test
- Out of the four officials, only one had the educational qualification to carry out the inspection
- The fog lights were found absolutely unworkable after the onset of winter with dense fog in December 2015
- The lights were purchased under the influence of the younger brother of the then Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan
- The court instructs government to prepare a guideline for government officials' overseas trip
Testing the efficacy of a fog light is best done on a foggy winter night, but the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation (BIWTC) did the test during a shining summer day, before purchasing fog lights for its ferries.
In order to purchase 10 fog lights at a cost of Tk6 crore, four BIWTC officials conducted the trial for a few hours at New Jersey in the United States in June 2015, to get an idea whether the lights could be used in dense fog on the Padma River at Mawa and Aricha ferry terminals in Bangladesh.
This is a shining example of widespread corruption that took place in the purchase of these fog lights, observed the High Court in a verdict in response to a writ petition filed against the BIWTC.
The Supreme Court recently released the full verdict signed by Justice Zubayer Rahman Chowdhury and Justice Kazi Zinat Hoque. The court had delivered the verdict on 17 December 2020.
The then BIWTC chairman Md Mizanur Rahman, general manager (Marine) engineer Dr Gyan Ranjan Sheel, director (Operation) Captain Shawkat Ali Sardar and deputy secretary Pankaj Debnath took part in the test.
Although the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), in its preliminary investigation, found evidence of corruption in the purchase of the 10 fog lights, no case has been filed so far over the issue.
A BIWTC source told The Business Standard that the fog lights are still inactive, although the lights have been installed on the Bir Shrestha Ruhul Amin, Shah Amanat, Keramot Ali and Shah Paran ferries operated on the Mawa and Aricha routes. As a result, the ferries cannot be operated in dense fog.
Among the four officials, then chairman Mizanur Rahman died a few days ago, engineer Dr Gyan Ranjan Sheel retired after becoming the chairman of the BIWTC in 2017, Captain Shawkat Ali Sardar is in PRL and Deputy Secretary Pankaj Debnath has been promoted to additional secretary and is now in-charge of the shipping ministry.
In the verdict, the High Court observed, "It is on record that the fog lights were tested in the month of June. It is inconceivable as to how the fog lights could be tested during summer when there is absolutely no fog or even mist in the weather. It not only defies common sense and logic, but also demonstrates the utter reckless conduct of the officials of BIWTC. Nevertheless, after carrying out the inspection, the officials certified that the fog lights were 'in working order'. However, with the onset of winter, the fog lights were found to be absolutely unworkable. As a result, the ferry service has been seriously disrupted, not to mention the suffering caused to hundreds of passengers.
"Needless to observe that because of the total incompetence and inefficiency of the concerned officials, the quality and performance of the fog lights could not be verified properly."
The court said, "Although the four BIWTC officials went to the United States for the fog light test, they actually had a fun trip there. They spent only a few hours on the light test."
The High Court said the four-member delegation had traveled to New Jersey, USA and spent six days for the purpose of "inspecting the fog lights and evaluating their performance". The physical inspection of the fog lights was carried out at a place "adjacent to the hotel" with the help of a portable generator. The team also visited the Statue of Liberty, Liberty Island, Ellis Island and the Memorial Museum, and crossed the Hudson River on a tourist vessel. It is, therefore, apparent that out of the six days spent in USA, only a few hours, not even half a day, was spent for the purpose for which the officials had traveled to USA, while the remaining period was spent in visiting places of interest, which had absolutely no relevance with the purpose of the visit."
Conducting technical test with no technical experience
The High Court verdict said, "If positions of responsibility are manned by officials who do not possess basic common sense, not to mention the necessary expertise, it is bound to cause financial loss to the State Exchequer. The concerned officials have not only abused their official position, but they have also demonstrated extreme arbitrariness and utter incompetence in discharging their duties."
"It is on record that the purpose of the trip was to carry out pre-shipment inspection regarding 'performance of the goods, complying with their technical specification'. Out of the four officials, only one had the educational qualification and the technical know-how to carry out the inspection in question. We fail to understand as to how non-technical persons could examine and evaluate the suitability and function of the fog lights."
The blame game
These 10 fog lights were brought to the country in October 2015, and were installed on four ferries. The fog lights were found to be ineffective after the onset of winter with dense fog in December 2015.
The BIWTC then blamed supplier company Jony Corporation for the faulty lights. But the company argued that four BIWTC officials themselves inspected the lights going to the US before the delivery.
The BIWTC later issued a legal notice seeking a cash guarantee of Tk28 lakh from Jony Corporation. In response, Omer Ali, the proprietor of Jony Corporation, then filed a writ petition with the High Court challenging the validity of the notice. Consequently, the High Court stayed the effectiveness of the notice and issued a rule to BIWTC over the bank guarantee money.
Omer Ali's lawyer Bahadur Shah told TBS, "At one stage of the rule hearing, in 2017, the court sought all the files related to the fog light purchase from the BIWTC. After scrutinising the reports submitted by the BIWTC, the High Court discovered the issues of fog light inspection in daylight and technical ignorance of officials."
However, the final verdict against Omer Ali. An appeal has been lodged with the Appellate Division challenging the verdict.
It was searchlight, not fog light
After the fog lights were found ineffective in 2016, the BIWTC tested and found that it was originally a search light for US Navy ships, according to the BIWTC report submitted to the High Court.
Omer Ali told TBS, "Azizur Rahman Khan, younger brother of the then Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan, got the tender and used the firm to buy the lights."
He said the price of each fog light was around Tk53 lakh. The remaining Tk30 lakh was spent on four officers' US visits and other expenses.
Omer Ali said, "Before the test in the United States, the four officials were already informed that those lights were not fog lights. Those were search fog lights, made for use on US Navy ships, which spread light up to half a kilometer. I refused to buy these lights. Even then, the lights were bought."
According to a BIWTC source, the price of these lights is much lower than the price shown. It was basically purchased under the influence of the younger brother of the then Shipping Minister Shahjahan Khan.
TBS tried to contact Azizur Rahman Khan but failed to reach him despite repeated attempts.
Another landmark decision in verdict
In the verdict, the court has raised the issue of the four officials wasting people's tax money in the name of foreign trips. The court instructed the government to prepare a guideline for government officials over foreign trips.
"Accordingly, we propose to lay down certain guidelines for guidance of all the officials undertaking overseas trips. However, the guidelines should be applicable to official visits only, not to any private overseas visit by the government officials."
"For all official trips outside Bangladesh, undertaken by government officials holding the rank of additional secretary and below, prior permission must be obtained not only from the concerned ministry, but also from the finance ministry and the cabinet division. No government official shall be allowed to go on any official visit unless prior permission is obtained from each of the ministries indicated above. In our considered view, this is necessary to prevent fanciful and purposeless foreign trips by government officials and more importantly, to prevent wastage of the taxpayers' money."