The Hall-Mark harakiri

 Published in: The Daily Star on April 2, 2013
The Hall-Mark harakiri

A unit of Hall-Mark Group looks empty. The garment company is accused of swindling money from Sonali Bank. Photo: Star

Handicapped by shutdowns, strapped by sensitivities, forced into silence by fate, we go on living our regular lives in this country.
While one watches the huge processions and gatherings of a political party, hand fans soothing the crowd in heat, one wonders what it is that affects us the most: religiosity, commerce or simply politics.
Frankly, one does not know at this point. With the strain of the withdrawal of GSP hanging on top of our heads, threats of a negative image being thrust upon us, export trucks being hijacked or burnt, one would like to think the best respite would be in watching a science fiction movie where our earth is restored and finally free from alien aggression.
Amid heated discussions on television and raging columns in all the dailies, the anti-hartal stance has become unanimous. People with affiliations with the opposition are also wondering how to defend this particular form of protest. Think-tanks are devising creative means to discover alternatives to hartals. Various organisations are coming up with reports evaluating the impacts of shutdowns. Ministers are suggesting hartals at night. Businesspeople are shuttling between their position and opposition networking circles, trying to figure out the best possible way to approach them, just in case they understand and empathise with the business viewpoints.
Yes, the city has become blinded by violence, almost similar to what had happened in José Saramago’s novel, ‘Blindness’. No one happens to sense any loss or deviation. All seem to be desensitised. It is almost as if we are getting used to either inertia or a full-fledged rage. However, there are statements that often shake us up and cajole us back to our one-minute-long-comic-relief.
One such moment came while reading the papers a few days back. Truth is, one cannot stop thinking about it and since there is a follow-up story, one cannot stop continuously wondering about the case.
One is probably inspired to ponder on the possibility of borrowing a couple of hundred crores of taka from banks, get tracked by Anti Corruption Commission and then finally be taken to jail, only to be bailed out, return to work as usual, for the sake of the “workers”.
For the issue of Hall-Mark Group, which was traced in May 2012, the $480 million case of a loan disbursement by the largest state-run bank Sonali, has definitely been dealt with in the slowest pace possible. The bank, without adhering to any banking rules, has set an example for other banks to follow; the message is clear: lend without fear, encourage entrepreneurial spirit.
Most business leaders have voiced their dissent and demanded punishment to the owners. No one in the business community was able to take sides with Hall-Mark, either in fear of scorn or of public humiliation or maybe out of genuine concern. Irrespective of what had impacted the general consensus against Hall-Mark, the nation, perhaps, stands undivided in the assessment of this historic case of embezzlement.
Apparently, today the Group that amassed Tk 2,686 crore aided by T & Brothers (who also swindled Tk 610 crore), Paragon Group (Tk 147 crore), Nakshi Knit (Tk 66 crore), DN Sports (Tk 33 crore) and Khan Jahan Ali (Tk 5 crore) is today, seriously in jeopardy. Therefore, a lot of senior government officials are contemplating bailing this Group out by injecting fresh loans and allowing the owners of the infamous Group to run operations.
In September 2012, one heard assuring official voices expecting a recovery of Tk 2,000 crore, where it was also added that had there been no “huge media outcry”, the government would have been able to realise the rest of the amount.
There were also comments stating that Tk 3,000-4,000 crore was not a big loan scandal at all. The official anger seemed to have been targeted towards the culprits of the bank rather than the owners. We also heard accusations hurled against the media, saying journalists were harming the banking sector by publicising it. Cases were made out against the bank’s top management having stayed silent, even though the signs of irregularities had come to light through various internal inspections.
Tanvir Mahmud, the managing director of Hall-Mark, was arrested along with his brother-in-law, a group general manager, in October 2012. As in most cases, most business houses pin the title of chairman on their wives. It possibly means attaching more respect with the least responsibility. The wife, in this case, Jasmin Islam was arrested in November 2012 and then given a 45-day bail in 11 cases after furnishing a Tk 50,000 bond considering her willingness to pay back the loans. In February 2013, a writ petition was filed against her bail as she did not specify when or how she would repay the loans.
But, the strangest surprise of all came mid March. The government seems to have decided to give a second chance to Hall-Mark, considering that all the garment units under the Group were all “income-generating-assets.”
Rumour has it that the arrested owners may even be given bail as the Group needs management to steer the company at this point. However, amid strong debates being raised from all quarters, a government official has made a full U-turn and admitted. “I was wrong!” So much for honesty! As it stands now, the company managing director/chairman will not be given bail, but the company will remain under the discussion of a possible bailout.
The commercial banks of the country provide an aggregate amount of Tk 40,000 crore a year in loans and credit. Sonali Bank that has 1,200 branches all over the country can only lend a maximum of 30 percent of its paid-up capital, as per Bangladesh Bank guidelines.
Yet, instead of the set limit of Tk 337.5 crore, Sonali had given Tk 2,600 crore. The Anti Corruption Commission has described this case as “the biggest banking plunder in the country’s history.”
But there is still one point left. How can Hall-Mark become operational again? A couple of facts need to be put straight. Hall-Mark cannot be run by a pair of corrupt businessmen. The garment sector is a mature one. Therefore, it should not take a corrupt Tanvir or a Jasmin to run operations. If the machines are operational, if the workers are available or can be recruited, there is no reason why an administrator with garments background cannot run operations.
The consideration of giving the owners a chance is preposterous. If this happens, then this will be nothing but an ethical suicide for the administration. The best proposal would be for the government to seek help from the business community to either purchase the Group or run it on a public-private partnership.
This approach will also need to be based on a completely non-political approach. And the government should remember that the workers at Hall-Mark do not need another set of owners who would take over their lives and be unable to run it later.
Since the pressure of debt is high on Hall-Mark, the PPP proposition would be the best as it would ease the burden for any professional group that agrees to take it and at the same time, it will give the workers the benefit of being run under the safe supervision of the government.
But let this be clear once and for all. Likes of Tanvir-Jasmin cannot be allowed to strut around in public. The government cannot allow such audacity. Otherwise, the entire hard working business community should pick a moment and commit suicide.
And when will our public representatives learn not to shoot themselves in the foot by speaking out one minute and retract soon after?

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