Commentary by Mahfuz Anam: Shonar Bangla’s Shona Monirs

Whether we have been able to build our Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal) or not, Mr. Monir Hossain has certainly built his and earned himself the title of "Shona" (Gold) Monir in the process. Not to be left behind, his able assistant, North Dhaka's councillor of the 44th ward, also earned his title of "Shona" Shafiq. Their forte: gold smuggling, money laundering and illegal land transactions in the pricey real estate scene of Dhaka and its outskirts.

Monir rose from being a salesman in the New Market and Gausia area in the early 90s. He saw his bosses sell smuggled goods and came to learn the ropes of the game. He was a fast learner and, from the mid-nineties, started his own small smuggling business transporting contraband goods in his personal luggage on Dhaka-Bangkok-Dhaka flights, bringing in watches, perfumes, gold, etc.

Having earned some money, he opened his gold shop and entered the magic world of Rajuk, the official body that regulates everything related to the city's physical growth, including zoning, planning and land allocation. His luck changed when he found himself a patron in the housing and public works minister of 2000, and his wealth surged between 2001 and 2006 when he was able to lay his hands on a development project in Dhaka's Badda area acquiring, according to media reports, 192 plots in that area alone as well as land in other areas and being owner of two towers—Safa and Zamzam—in Uttara, a suburb of Dhaka, amassing a wealth in excess of Tk 1,000 crores.

Then there was the driver, Abdul Malek, of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), who made his own "Shonar Bangla", making a fortune of Tk 1,000 crores, owning 24 flats, three multi-storied buildings in Dhaka and a dairy farm on its outskirts.

A 4th-grade accountant of DGHS and his wife laundered Tk 284 crores and now own properties in Canada, Australia and Malaysia.

Former Jubo League leader Ismail Hossain Chowdhury Samrat ran a gambling racket and made so much money that he gambled away Tk 219 crores in two casinos in Singapore between 2011 and 2018.

Two brothers from Faridpur, Sajjad Hossain Barkat and Imtiaz Hasan Rubel—patronised by the brother of a former powerful minister—amassed 2,450 bighas of land in seven years, forcing people to sell their land and using the police to intimidate or harass them through false cases when needed.

Enamul Huq Enu, former vice-president of the Ganderia unit of AL, and his brother, joint secretary general of the same unit, have 20 houses, 128 flats, 25 kathas of land, and Tk 19.11 crores in 91 bank accounts, all earned from their illegal casino business.

The above stories are not the results of investigative journalism but official investigations by the police, CID and Rab; some are from the reports of the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). Most of them are in custody.

Returning to our first story of Monir, putting aside his gold and currency smuggling, his biggest achievement—and the way to his megabucks—was the stranglehold he was able to establish over Rajuk in the last 19 years (2001 to 2019). During this period, we had nine ministers and state ministers heading Rajuk, most of them for very short periods, but three—one from BNP and two from AL—had five-year terms each. We know that Monir's wealth soared during the tenure of the BNP minister. The question is, what happened during the rest of the period? Didn't the subsequent two ministers, completing five-year terms each, see the havoc that was being wrought by the likes of Monir?

Recently, a Prado SUV has been gifted to a state minister by Monir. He has two MPs' tax-free luxury SUVs in his possession. One has been sold to Monir for around one crore taka. The sale of an MP's tax-free car is only permitted after five years of use. How could this particular MP sell his tax-free car only after one year and a half?

During this same period, Rajuk had 12 chairmen, varying in tenure from 1 to 3 years. What was the role of the chairmen in reining in people like Monir and councillor Shafi? It has been reported that Monir and Shafi had an office in the Rajuk Bhaban. In an earlier Rajuk investigation, files of 71 land cases were found in this office.

Yet nothing happened. Monir was able to make 9 ministers and 12 chairmen look the other way as he twisted Rajuk's rule and made his fortune.

Hidden within each of the above stories is the failure of the institutions of governance that are supposed to protect public interest.

In the nineties, when he was a small-time smuggler, bringing goods in his luggage, what were our customs officers doing at the airport? Any passenger on that route knew well that not all travellers were what they appeared to be, and their large checked-in luggage and impossible-to-carry cabin bags all looked a bit out of place. Didn't the same thoughts occur to the customs intelligence?

When he started smuggling gold bars, again through our airports, what were our airport security agencies doing? Today, and it has been so for years, inside the Dhaka airport, there are a total of 18 bodies directly or indirectly looking after its security. A special body, "Aviation Security", under the Civil Aviation Authority, exists only for security, assisted by other agencies like DGFI, NSI, SB, immigration police, and of course customs and customs intelligence. And yet, people like Monir not only survive but thrive.

What about the role of the banks in this sordid tale? How could Monir have 25 bank accounts, 19 of which in a single bank, without anybody raising a finger of suspicion? There is no law that bars anyone from opening multiple bank accounts but when someone does so, isn't it the bank's role to start asking questions and probing as to what's going on? Whenever a large deposit is made, the banks are supposed to ask about the source. Did any bank ask Monir, or any of the others mentioned above, where the money was coming from?

When you see what a minister's brother can do for a two-percent cut or what the AL chief of Gandaria unit can earn, then it can easily be imagined what people holding more central and pivotal posts can do for others and, of course, for themselves.

All the above stories point to the rot that has set in the administration that has no effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms. Governmental mechanisms are quite elaborate but they remain unused or are bypassed. Mostly, audits are perfunctory but those that are serious are generally ignored. Politicisation of every institution is exacting a terrible toll in terms of waste of public resources and, more importantly, in public trust in the system.

Bangladesh's stunning economic success is being used to cover up its rotting underbelly of corruption, cronyism and politicisation. Experiences of other countries show that the latter usually destroys the former, causing a dramatic slowdown, sometimes reversal, in the transition from lower-middle-income to upper-middle-income country—the transition in which Bangladesh is now. We must avoid such an eventuality and the surest way of doing so is strengthening the institutions of all aspects of governance, particularly the financial ones. We must destroy Monir and his likes before they destroy us. Unfortunately, they seem to have the upper hand at the moment.

Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.

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