Network Development Project: ACC opens probe into BTCL graft
The Anti-Corruption Commission has initiated an investigation into allegations of graft in a project of state-run Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Ltd.
In a letter to the BTCL managing director on March 25, the watchdog asked for relevant documents and information to probe irregularities in the project titled "Switching and Transmission Network Development for Strengthening Digital Connectivity".
Receiving no reply by the deadline of April 1, a reminder was sent on April 13.
In this connection, the ACC is investigating Nur-ur-Rahman, former chairman of the board of BTCL; Mohsinul Alam, director general of Department of Telecommunications; Md Moslehuddin, joint chief of the Post and Telecom Division, and Rafiqul Matin, managing director of BTCL.
The anti-graft body has assigned an investigation officer to look into the allegation that they amassed wealth illegally through corruption in the project.
On February 10, 2019, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (Ecnec) approved the project under which BTCL floated a tender for the supply, installation, testing commission and procurement of dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) transmission equipment.
DWDM is an automated optical multiplexing technology to increase bandwidth over existing fibre networks.
A committee formed on June 10 set the estimated cost at Tk 34.13 crore and an international tender was called on December 12, 2019. Five companies took part in the bidding.
Tech Valley offered Tk 27.10 crore, Huawei Technologies Tk 20.73 crore, Uhan Fiberhome Tk 26.26 crore, X-Fer Tk 31.33 crore, and ZTE Corporation Tk 37.40 crore.
BTCL's seven-member tender evaluation committee unanimously found four companies disqualified and X-Fer's offer the only responsive bid with an evaluated price that is 8.716 percent lower than the official estimate.
The committee included three of BTCL's deputy managing directors, one of them being the chairman; the project director as the member secretary, and an official from the telecom ministry.
Prof Dr Kauser Alam and Lt Colonel Rashedul Islam joined as external members, representing Buet and Bangladesh Army respectively.
The tender evaluation report recommended X-Fer and it got signatures by the member secretary and both the external members.
But BTCL's deputy managing directors Md Rafiqul Islam, AKM Habibur Rahman, Khandaker Jubayer Hasan and Deputy Secretary of the Telecom Ministry ABM Badiuzzaman refrained from signing the report.
They rather disagreed with the recommendation and opined for a re-tender.
Their reasoning was that the qualified bidder's price is higher than that of the disqualified ones, despite admitting that there is no scope for comparing the price of the disqualified bidders with that of the winner as per the law.
They made handwritten changes to several page numbers of the printed report and inserted additional two pages containing their dissenting opinion beyond the knowledge of the members who signed it.
The Daily Star learnt all this from ACC documents, tender-related papers of the BTCL project and a complaint filed by a government agency with the anti-graft body.
Concealing the doctored evaluation report, a separate working paper was presented to the BTCL board.
The 11-member board includes five ministry officials besides the posts and telecommunication secretary and the BTCL MD. The remaining four are external members.
In the 176th board meeting, the ministry officials and the BTCL boss supported re-tender, while the external members were against it as it was beyond the ambit of the law.
The external members raised their eyebrows as the tender evaluation report was not made available at the meeting. The board decided to discuss the matter at the next meeting.
Still, without the evaluation report, the 177th board meeting, held virtually, decided to call for a re-tender. Two external members vetoed in writing.
Of the other two external members, the FBCCI representative who participated in the previous meeting was denied access to the Zoom video-conferencing system on the pretext that he was abroad.
The Buet representative was shown, in the meeting minutes, in favour of the re-tender as he did not disagree in writing.
AKM Fazlul Karim, founding director general and now adviser of the Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU) of the government, told the Daily Star, "There is no provision in the Public Procurement Act [PPA] or the Public Procurement Rules [PPR] that allows consideration of the non-responsive bid that failed to meet the qualification criterion or technical specification."
The rules have made it mandatory to evaluate and compare only the responsive bids, he said.
"The evaluation committee has no choice other than to compare the lowest evaluated price with the official estimate. Comparing non-responsive bids with the lowest one is not permitted," he added.
"Opining for re-tender based on disqualified bidder's price means that they deliberately defied the law despite being aware of it."
Replying to queries of this correspondent, he further said there is no provision in PPA or PPR that allows arbitrary cancellation of tender. The authorities may cancel a tender under certain circumstances specified in the law.
The BTCL tender was cancelled on July 23 last year, and X-Fer was notified 24 days later instead of seven days as specified in the law.
The qualified bidder went to the review panel of the CPTU, an agency responsible for managing procurement by government bodies.
BTCL admitted to the review panel that the procurement rules were not taken into consideration while cancelling the tender.
Interestingly, the review panel recommended action against the project director along with officials who prepared the cost estimate, citing the petitioner's complaint, but at the same time rejected the complaint.
According to documents, a committee formed following approval by the MD of BTCL prepared the official cost estimate. The MD approved it and kept it sealed.
The project director neither prepared nor approved any estimate. The petitioner had also no complaint about the estimate.
Recommending punishment to anyone who has no role in estimate preparation or approval is never expected, Fazlul Karim said.
Still, BTCL went for re-tender on September 13, 2020, even before the review panel made its decision on October 8.
X-Fer then filed a writ with the High Court, challenging the decision of the review panel and seeking cancellation of the re-tender and directive to accept their bid.
On October 12, 2020, a High Court bench summarily rejected the writ without issuing any rule.
X-Fer Ltd then moved the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter today.
For the re-tender, a new evaluation committee was formed excluding the external members of Buet and the Army without informing them. New members were chosen from the Bangladesh Tariff Commission and the Power Grid Corporation of Bangladesh.
Under the re-tender, the new committee recommended awarding the work to ZTE Corporation although its price was found to be inconsistent.
The evaluation committee was headed by the project director of BTCL's MOTN project, which is being implemented by a Chinese firm which participated in the bidding, creating a conflict of interest.
The BTCL board, chaired by the new secretary of the post and telecommunication division, did not accept the recommendation and ordered the cancellation of the re-tender.
Again a second re-tender was floated on February 22 this year and it closed on April 7.
Contacted, BTCL Managing Director Rafiqul Matin said, "The tender has been renewed. There were no irregularities in the tender process of the project."
When asked about the inquiry of the ACC, Posts and Telecommunication Minister Mustafa Jabbar said nobody would be spared if any corruption allegation is proven.
Afzal Hossain, the new secretary of the posts and telecom division, refrained from making any comment.
Of the four officials being investigated by the ACC, Nur-ur-Rahman, Mohsinul Alam and Md Moslehuddin could not be reached for comments.