Public servants or civil service officers are obliged to submit their wealth statements to their respective higher authorities. In addition, they have to fill in the prescribed form, IT 10-B, (Statement of assets and liabilities) to state their lifestyle expenditures along with annual Income Tax Returns as all other taxpayers do.
When someone has vast wealth and if they transfer money or buy assets abroad, it can be checked if those assets were duly mentioned in their tax statements. It is the duty of the national tax authority (National Board of Revenue, NBR) to raise questions if the tax statements do not match with their lifestyle expenses or if they have skipped information of their wealth abroad.
Not just NBR, the Ministries, Divisions (most importantly Cabinet Division), Departments, Sector Corporations, Anti-corruption Commission and the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) under the Bangladesh Bank also have responsibilities here. It is their responsibility to monitor if any government official of rank and file, including lower grade employees like drivers, have amassed wealth unusually higher than what they should have.
So there must be someone in these agencies who knows about all that money being amassed or transferred out of the country illicitly. It is the people who are supposed to be the guardians, who should catch the wrong-doers who are to be blamed because they are not doing their jobs properly. They continue to keep their eyes shut and avoid their mandated duties until someone brings formal allegations.
When a robbery takes place, the law enforcement agencies are not supposed to sit idle and wait for the victims to file a case. Similarly, the concerned government agencies should monitor if money is earned illegally within the system regularly instead of waiting for someone to file a case.
Waiting to see when Panama Papers come out and then start investigating who is laundering money —this strategy does not help.
Take the 'casino episode' for example. Casinos were operating openly, in some cases within yards from the police station or some government agencies' offices. Didn't they notice those immoral activities before? Why did they have to wait for orders from the higher authorities to crack down?
NBR, ACC, BFIU or Cabinet Division should have their own process to monitor areas like recruitment in public offices - where people think corruption is high. One strong action will send a strong message to other offices and alert them towards corruption in recruitment or transfers.
Corruption should be treated like a 'terrorist act' and wiped out in the bud if policymakers mean 'zero-tolerance to corruption' in its real sense of the term. Agencies like NBR and ACC can also utilise their intelligence and follow public perception or newspaper reports to initiate investigations on their own against corruption.
High-rises are being built, luxurious cars are on the road, expensive apartments are sold every day. These agencies should ask questions - who owns these buildings, cars and properties, and where do they get the money.
Prevention is better than cure — this theory applies here too. Corruption cannot be tamed by keeping its sources open. 'Let corruption take place and let someone complain, then we will see' - this sort of attitude of ACC or such organisations will not help. Those who siphoned off money abroad have a bigger reach and they often have the power to influence the investigation.
However, it is not impossible to find out who owns houses in so-called 'Begum Para' in Canada or second homes in Malaysia or Dubai. Agencies concerned are haunting 'special people' and unearthing their secrets successfully. The same can be replicated for others as well.
The Bangladeshis are building second homes in Malaysia which is not a secret anymore. Authorities concerned have the right to ask those Bangladeshis, "Well, you are building homes here. Do you have tax files back in Bangladesh? Did you mention this information in your tax statements?"
Submitting a wealth statement is not an option, it is mandatory. If a person states his/her wealth every year, his/her corruption cannot remain hidden. But for that, the authorities concerned must scrutinise the statements and ask for explanations in case of unusual or sudden jumps in one's wealth.
The problem is nobody is being asked, unless some 'special cases' emerge. Asking a public service officer "Hey, you had only one or two motorcycles before the election. In just a year you now own several cars. How?" is the responsibility of the state machinery.
So when authorities say they know nothing about the people who are taking money out of the country or how, that reminds me of that famous dialogue in Satyajit Ray's satiric movie 'Hirak Rajar Deshe': "Janar kono shesh nai, janar cheshta brritha tai" (Knowing has no limit, so it is vain to try to know).
There are checkpoints in places like customs and banks to see if money is laundered through under or over-invoicing in external trades.
Revenue department files can tell the tales. If people who are responsible do not do their jobs properly, we cannot help but see things like this continue unabated.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Mazid is a former Secretary to the GoB and Chairman of the NBR.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.