Major commissions in Bangladesh fail to protect people’s interest

Most of the major commissions established over the past two decades could not do their duties as per the stipulated expectations, failing to contribute to the overall socio-economic development of the country and justice, said rights activists and civil society campaigners.

The Competition Commission, the National River Conservation Commission, the National Human Rights Commission, the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission, the Law Commission and the Anti-Corruption Commission are such entities, they said.

These commissions, as per their objectives, were expected to play roles of independent watchdogs in ensuring fair practices in business, protecting the environment and rivers from pollution and encroachment and checking violation of human rights among others, according to them.

‘But they are not functioning at all,’ said former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumdar while indicating the performances of the key commissions. 

He noted that the dysfunctional statutory bodies cost the country’s exchequer dearly since allocations were made from annual budgets to run the commissions.

The Bangladesh Competition Commission was established in 2016, four years after the enactment of the Competition Act in 2012, aimed at promoting, ensuring and sustaining a congenial atmosphere for competition in trade and business.

Some Tk 8.74 crore was spent by the BCC on its 61-strong staff in 2021–22, up from Tk 6.36 crore for 53 employees in 2020–21.

Since 2018, the BCC has worked on a dozen cases, according to the ‘Voluntary peer review of competition law and policy: Bangladesh’, released by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in July 2022.

According to Consumer Association of Bangladesh president Ghulam Rahman, the Competition Commission is quite less than active in carrying out its responsibilities.

The commission has come into being with the objective to prevent, control and eliminate collusion, monopoly and oligopoly, and abuse of dominant positions or activities adversely affecting competition.

But its role during the scams by e–commerce companies in 2021 was highly questionable, said the CAB president.

Many e-commerce platforms realised several billions of taka in advance from consumers with promises of providing products at heavily discounted rates. But their failure to deliver the products and refund the advances shattered public trust in e-commerce companies. 

BCC member Salma Akhter Jahan said that they were trying to make the commission more active and more functional under the new chairman appointed in November 2022.

‘Public awareness is an imperative to make the commission more functional,’ added the member.

‘The man behind the plough is very important’, remarked the CAB president in an oblique reference to the dubious performances of the commissions in question.

The key positions in the commissions are mostly held by former bureaucrats.

The National River Conservation Commission was established in 2014, making the green campaigners optimistic in curbing indiscriminate pollution of water bodies and their encroachment throughout the county.

However, their hearts sank soon after they came to learn that the commission was not independent and could not take action against perpetrators.

On January 31, 2019, the High Court observed that the National River Conservation Commission and the National Human Rights Commission seemed to be dummy commissions as they could not take actions against any perpetrators.

The HC bench of Justice Moyeenul Islam Chowdhury and Justice Md Ashraful Kamal made the observation as a petitioner’s lawyer, advocate Manjill Murshid, argued that both the commissions could not function effectively and could not take any action against any person who committed irregularities.

NRCC chairman Dr Manjur A Chowdhury said that the commission was working to amend the National River Protection Commission Act 2013, on which the establishment of the NRCC was based, in line with HC directives.

He hoped that the amendment would be sent to the cabinet next month, noting that the new act might come in force next year since it would have to be passed in the parliament.

Rights activists said that the government could not avoid the responsibility of rendering some of the commissions dysfunctional while referring to the passage of the Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission (Amendment) Bill 2022 in Jatiya Sangsad on January 30, 2023.

The amendment has made the BERC an inactive entity, said CAB energy adviser Shamsul Alam.

The BERC was established in 2003 for fixing reasonable tariffs of power, gas and fuel oils as well as for protecting consumer interests in the energy-starved country.

The BERC’s role in arranging public hearings before adjusting prices of power and gas attracted a lot of interest since the production costs of energy items and the profits made by the marketing companies were often made public in such hearings.

But, following the January 30 amendment, the commission has been reduced to a mere licensing authority, issuing business permits and collecting fees while the Energy Division, by executive orders, has increased the power price thrice since January.

It has been reported that the government has robbed the BERC of its role in fixing energy prices so that it could avail the $4.7 billion loan package from the International Monetary Fund.  The Washington-based multilateral lender, it has been further reported, was insisting on hiking the energy prices as a condition for the loan.

Launched in 2009, the National Human Rights Commission has been facing criticisms for failing to perform its responsibility of upholding the human rights in the country.

According to Ain o Salish Kendra secretary general Nur Khan Liton, the National Human Rights Commission could not do its duty as its officials were busy protecting government interests.

Since December 2021, the US has had sanctions on the Rapid Action Battalion and seven of its current and former officials on charges of violating human rights.

Nur Khan Liton noted that the deterioration of the overall human rights situation was largely blamed for bringing disrepute for the elite law enforcement agency allegedly involved in extrajudicial killings.

Rights activists and civil society campaigners said that the commissions would be effective in doing their duties only when they would not be used as shields by the government to hide its weaknesses and the lack of good governance in the country.

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