In the case of any untoward incident, various government bodies swiftly form inquiry committees to determine the cause of the incident and the people responsible.
For road accidents, the blame is often squarely put on the bus or truck drivers. But what about road conditions, vehicle fitness or bad weather? Are these even taken into consideration? Usually, the officials of the Department of Roads and Highways and Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) become members of the inquiry committee. And it is difficult to figure out what goes behind the scenes of the inquiry as probe reports are rarely published in the public domain.
For instance, on 4 April, a massive fire broke out at the Bangabazar market in Dhaka, burning over 5,000 shops. In the aftermath of the event, the Bangladesh Fire Service and Civil Defence and Dhaka South City Corporation formed two separate inquiry committees to determine the cause of the devastating inferno.
Dhaka South's probe body found that the fire started from an embroidery shop on the third floor of Adarsha Market. Though the city corporation provided the probe report to journalists, it did not publish the report on its website for all to see.
"It is not correct that the probe report has not been published. As there remain some sensitive issues in the probe report, we do not publish the report on the website for all," said Abu Naser, Dhaka South Public Relations Officer.
The fire service's inquiry determined that the cause of the fire was either electrical or from a mosquito coil. The report has also not been made public.
Shahjahan Sikdar, officer-in-charge of the Medica Cell of the Department of Fire Service and Civil Defence, said they cannot publish any probe reports due to "legal issues".
"We cannot publish any probe report on the websites for all. According to our law, if any victim of a fire incident applies to us, with a fee, they can get a copy of the inquiry report," he added.
Similarly, a probe report for the 22 July incident where at least 17 people were killed as a bus fell into a pond along the Khulna-Barishal regional highway, has yet to be made public.
Jhalakati's Deputy Commissioner Farah Gul Nijhum formed a five-member inquiry committee to probe the incident, and they said negligence of the driver could be the main cause of this road crash.
Asked about why the report had not been published on the district administration's website, Nijhum said that they do not share all kinds of documents online.
"We shared the documents we think worthy of sharing on our website," the deputy commissioner said.
A culture of secrecy
Golam Rahman, former Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission said that after the investigation or inquiry, the report becomes public information. He said that there is no barrier to publishing the report on the website given that the inquiry has ended.
"We do not usually see such documents in the public domain like websites. They do not share the report with the public," said Golam Rahman. "As far as we know, whenever journalists ask them questions, they answer some of the questions."
He said the government agency should publish the inquiry report on the website so that the public can know about the investigation as well.
"We are in a culture where they try to hide information. But releasing these kinds of information is a part of good governance," said Rahman, also a retired professor of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at Dhaka University.
Transparency International Bangladesh's Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said, "We rarely see the publication of the probe report for the people, which is unacceptable in any democratic country."
He said that government agencies should publish such inquiry reports so that people can know the real incident and who to blame for the fault. He also said that most of the inquiry is related to public interest, so the government should publish such reports, unless it has criminal elements and needs further investigation.
"As the government does not publish the reports and people have little idea about what is going on in the name of inquiry, people are losing faith in the probe committees," Iftekharuzzaman added. "The wholesale hiding of probe reports is unacceptable."
Former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumder also believes that government agencies should let people access the probe reports.
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua said that if a court ordered an investigation then it will be a public document and anyone can collect a copy of the document for a fee. Different government agencies or the ministry, meanwhile, form inquiry committees. People can ask for these inquiry reports under the Right to Information Act 2005, he said.
"But it is the moral responsibility of the government agencies and ministry to publish the inquiry reports for the sake of transparency," said Barua. "They are not to sit with the inquiry reports."
A repository for researchers
The publication of a probe report also paves the way for knowledge-sharing. Any inquiry report includes some recommendations for preventing the same incident from occurring again. There are many young professionals in the related fields, as well as researchers who can get a picture of an incident.
Professor Shamsul Hoque, director at Accident Research Institute (ARI) of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), said that when the probe reports are made public, then the general public also raise their voices.
If a probe report is published, it ensures transparency. The most important of all is that it ensures the responsibility of the probe committee to conduct the inquiry properly.
"If a probe committee wants to save someone guilty of the incident, this kind of effort can be spotted in the report," said Professor Hoque.
Exceptions that set examples
In 2017, extreme rainfall triggered a devastating flood in March, affecting three-fourths of the north-eastern regions that are dedicated mostly to rice production.
Harvest of 166,612 hectares of land was reportedly inundated and around 300,000 farmers were affected in the recent flash flood, causing them a loss of at least Tk1,700 crore.
The flood forced Bangladesh to import rice, eventually leading to a record rise in rice prices that persisted for months.
The Ministry of Water Resources set an example of publishing the full probe report on its website. The report includes why the flash flood happened and what can be done to avoid such incidents in the future.
Similarly, the Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs published a seven-page Tiandong Inquiry Report on its website on a 2013 attack on ethnic minorities. The inquiry found that some Bangalis had mounted a coordinated attack in the dead of night on the ethnic minority people in five villages of the Tiandong Union of Matiranga Upazila of Khagrachari.
Farhad Hossain, State Minister of Public Administration said that when it comes to an inquiry about a government employee, they do not publish any inquiry report.
"But any person can get a copy of any inquiry report which falls under the provision of the Right to Information Act," he added.
"I think probe reports related to incidents like road accidents and fires should be published on websites so that people can become aware of these types of accidents," said Farhad Hossain.