Monday, August 21, 2006








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Penny wise, pound foolish government
Shamsul Huq Zahid

          THE incumbent BNP-led alliance government has revived a decision that it had scrapped soon after coming to power on the plea that the national could ill-afford such a 'luxury'--- two weekly holidays.
Now that luxury has become a necessity for it. However, it is quite clear that the decision to declare Fridays and Saturdays as weekly holidays has not gone well with the majority of the population and the businesses in particular.
Not many people, it seems, are ready to buy the government' s claim that the extended weekly holiday schedule would save some billions of taka in the form of unspent fuel and electricity.
Knowledgeable circles rather tend to describe the government as penny-wise and pound-foolish because of its decision to re-introduce two-weekly holidays. They feel that the decision would take a heavy toll on the economy in terms of lost business both at home and abroad.
It is apparent from the statements of the government leaders that they have not done enough homework before going for two-day weekly holidays. That is why the reasons they are citing in support of the new holiday schedule have failed to convince majority of the population.
Are the statements on fuel-saving on account of an extended weekly holiday dependable? For instance, the last Awami League (AL) government for the first time introduced two-day weekly holiday to 'conserve power and fuel'. It, too, had given an estimate on annual savings on account of unspent power, water and fuel by the public sector officials. But nobody knows how much actually was saved from the then austerity measures. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) which was then in opposition made scathing criticism of the decision to introduce two weekly holidays.
The people in general do not have much confidence in the honesty, sincerity and integrity of the government employees. It is believed that the government servants do not spend even a half of their allotted office-time on actual work. Two holidays in a week would rather reduce their output further. None other than the finance minister has publicly admitted the work culture in government offices.
It was autocrat H.M. Ershad who was the root cause of the today's problem. With a view to playing with religious sentiment of the Muslim majority population, he unilaterally shifted weekly holiday from Sundays to Fridays, cutting off Bangladesh from the rest of the world for a day. Even the religious parties did not make such a demand at that time. After the ouster of Ershad in a mass upsurge, the BNP through a democratic election came to power but did not take the risk of changing the weekly holiday fearing backlash among religious groups and religion-based political parties. The AL went a step ahead and extended the weekly holiday by another day. The business circles raised objections but it stuck to its decision.
Now in a repeat performance, the chamber bodies and business association have been making strong demands for making only Sundays or Saturdays Sundays as weekly holiday/s. It is unlikely that the government would back out from its decision.
There is no denying that the decision on weekly holidays has been taken to cut government expenditures. But by doing so, the government has no right to make the trade and businesses suffer. If the government really wants to save money it should first downsize the government and stop corruption and wastage at all levels of the administration. If that could be done, the government would not have to bother much about foreign aid or domestic bank borrowing. The finance minister would not have to face embarrassing situation while negotiating with the bilateral and multilateral donors.
No government has ever ventured in the risky mission of downsizing or 'rightsizing' of the government in accordance with the recommendations of a number of commissions and committees formed from time to time. Even pressures from the multilateral donor agencies could not also budge the government from the path of inaction in this regard. Any government would think twice before issuing a circular that has the potential of stirring dissatisfaction among the government servants. The so-called Janatar Mancha erected in front of the National Press Club during the anti-government agitation launched by the AL in 1996 had sown a sense of defiance among the public servants against the established authority of the government. The move paid the AL the dividends but it caused a serious damage to the discipline in civil administration.
And it is better not to say anything about corruption. This vice that has eaten into the vitals of the country is likely to go deeper in the absence of any effective resistance. The incumbent government after a lot of foot-dragging constituted an Anti-corruption Commission (ACC) in line with its electoral promise. But until now the Commission does exist only in name. Even after about a year since its formation, it is still to overcome its 'teething problems'. It is unlikely that the ACC would show its teeth before the next general elections.
Without taking any actions to reduce inefficiency and corruption at all tiers of the administration, the government has considered it wise to be austere by cutting a day's work in government offices and financial institutions.
The businesses have been making demand for keeping everything open on Fridays. This is necessary to maintain liaison with the global market which is now fiercely competitive. If the government finds it difficult to make that happen, it should at least keep banks, stock markets and other offices essentials for export and import related activities open.
The decision to extend weekly holidays is unlikely to produce any gain. That was very much evident from the developments seen Saturday last. Barring government vehicles, passenger buses and private vehicles were on the streets of the capital in large numbers. With in few more weeks, the presence of vehicles on the streets would rise further and government vehicles used by the high-ups would also start appearing on the streets.
However, the government after the coming Eid-Ul-Fitr should ask all shopping centres, markets and business establishments except for food stalls and drug stores to pull down their shutters by 8 p.m. The directive should be rigorously enforced. Even in most resourceful countries of the world, shopping malls and markets are shuttered soon after the dusk.


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