Bureaucracy cannot yield to business

 Published in: The Daily Star on January 18, 2017
Bureaucracy cannot yield to business

Three hundred and sixty nine billion people, who constitute the poorest 50 percent own USD 426 billion. This amount is also what the richest eight people of the world have in their pockets. ‘How is this inequality created?’ is a critical question. Oxfam’s research points to “aggressive wage restraint, tax dodging and the squeezing of producers by companies.” ‘Who allows this inequality’ is the question that needs to be answered next.

If one looks at the richest few even in our country, one knows it is not merely innovation and sheer entrepreneurship that creates wealth. Wealth, in many cases, is created by aligning with policymakers, by having the smoothest connections with the powerful and by creating, owning and robbing banks. This is a truth that many of us seldom dare to write. To put it simply, many truths are said in zest and remain as simple references. Few lurk around the corner and bug a handful. But, the most unconscionable truth stays indoors and suffers oblivion. Most of the time, we whisper and clear our conscience and then pull the carpet over our dust. If only the society dared a deep cleaning, we would, perhaps all, come out in bones, just because many of our flesh are borrowed from the people who have leased their lives to us. We are either grabbing their lands, or paying them less or letting them go hungry. Ironically, the world is all about inclusive growth, yet we reek of inequality.

The world is all about justice, yet the most unjust is sung the most. The world talks about women’s rights, yet there are mothers setting fires on their own daughters in the name of honour killings in Pakistan. The current discourses all have binary opposing views. There’s also no hope of resolution in sight. Most conflicts hang in paper thin edges and remain that way forever. The longer we play on discords, the more we gain by stretching the conflict. So no ceasefire ever works and no peace treaty ever ushers peace.

The recent labour unrest in Ashulia left me not wanting to write about it at all. After all, being a manufacturer, if I side with the manufacturers’ perspective, I stand the risk of being castigated; if I side with the workers, I risk being called a “union” person; if I speak the truth, I stand to lose my business. I cannot, in clear conscience vouch that my workers and I have the same meal (capitalism is not about that); I cannot, in clear conscience, also defend the protests of the workers, as majority of the workers were not even aware of the range of the wage hike; and I cannot, in clear conscience, also defend customers who pay less and get away. Therefore, in most cases, we choose silence and side with none, including our own selves. In most cases, we avoid conflicts so that we can escape unhurt. But, ironically, in the process, most of us subconsciously opt for self-annihilation. I add ‘sub’ and not ‘un’ before ‘conscious’ for a reason. In the strangest twist of destiny, very often, we end up punishing ourselves.

Let’s try a few exercises today. What if we speak the truth? With 2017 sprinting the way it is, one might as well opt out of the ‘hold, duck and crawl’ policy and lay all bare.

Yes, the Narayanganj verdict indeed pleased us all. That the men who protect us can also commit to violence and murder is a dangerous truth to digest. But the news of 25 members of the Rapid Action Battalion being sentenced speaks volumes of the judiciary, which led to many of us having slept in peace night before last. In general, the thought of the powerful, the mighty, the infallible invokes a sense of fear and alters our social behaviour. As a reference, watch any social occasion. The moment someone in power enters any room, any auditorium, any club, any gathering, the entire atmosphere changes. Many flock to take selfies with them (if lucky), many follow them around, and few actually ‘can’ attempt conversation. I write ‘can’ as most of the powerful people have an aura of uniqueness around them. Most of them wear halos of self-proclaimed success, disallowing access to the common, whereas many of their success stories have actually sprung from exploitation. Yet, surprisingly, the society continues to be in awe of them. They are conversation pieces in all our events. Their parties are the most attended with their lists of invitees mostly including the policymakers, senior bureaucrats and their own kin of businessmen who know no better. Tell me, why would a judge or a senior government official ever attend a dinner hosted by a business house, risking to cross the line of conflict of interest? As public servants, can one wine and dine with business houses and then favour them while acting adversely to public interests?

Let’s think about Samsung being prosecuted for having directed funds to the South Korean President Park’s friend, Choi Soon-Sil in exchange of a controversial 2015 merger. Let’s ponder on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau being questioned by Canada’s Ethics Committee for having vacationed on an island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan over the Christmas break. Think about Netanyahu’s exquisite taste for cigars and his wife’s for pink champagne being taken care of by the wealthy businessmen in Israel by currying favours in lieu of the benefits they reaped at the cost of national interest.

Thus, in the eyes of the State, no one is above the law. Hopefully global examples of punishing greed and hedonism of public servants will set the course right for us. In the process, while it requires a lot of courage and transparency for the establishment of an Ethics Committee to oversee and question both public and private individuals, and while it may quite rightfully seem highly improbable for now, we must not lose faith. The journey has already begun. Recent examples of expulsion of lawmakers who break the law is commendable; punishment of rogues within the system in the most recent past, is assuring. The next step is to draw the line between the public and the private. Bureaucracy cannot yield to Business. That is playing foul in the truest sense of the word.