Foreign trip spree amid a pandemic

Bangladesh Railway and railways ministry officials will make four trips to Europe, the USA, and India over the next three months despite the pandemic for what they said would be studied, receiving training, and visiting factories.

The officials are embarking on these trips after the government withheld 50 percent of this fiscal year’s allocation for foreign trips and asked officials to cancel the routine tours.

The money can only be spent during emergencies and unavoidable circumstances said a finance ministry circular on July 1.

Railways Minister Nurul Islam Sujan, who will lead an eight-member delegation on a 13-day trip to four European countries from Tuesday, said the visits were long overdue and would be needed for different purposes.

Expenditure of the minister-led team would be borne by the government exchequer while contractors of two BR projects will pay the expenses of the three others, according to documents.

This newspaper, however, could not learn how much money is expected to be spent on the tours.

Before the pandemic, officials made foreign trips every year to participate in training, meetings, and seminars, spending taxpayer money.

In some cases, project implementing agencies created provisions for foreign tours for officials who had nothing to do with the project.

There have been criticisms over such frequent foreign tours of government officials as many such trips at public expense reportedly yield nothing. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also spoke against such frequent trips abroad.

The pandemic changed the situation to a great deal, saving the country around Tk 2,500 crore since March last year.

Railways officials are resuming the practice of foreign trips as coronavirus restrictions are being lifted across the world.

RAIL MINISTER’S VISIT

The spouses of the railway’s minister and secretary will be accompanying them at their own expenses on the trip to the UK, Germany, Spain, and France between November 23 and December 5, according to a rail ministry circular issued on October 31.

The order did not mention the purpose of their visit to those countries, but the railway’s minister said the team will see developed railway systems there. Besides, they will hold talks with different government agencies and businesses that showed interest in investing in BR.

Ministry Secretary Salim Reza, Additional Secretary Bhubon Chandra Biswas, Deputy Secretary Nazmul Haque, BR additional director generals Quamrul Ahsan and Manjur Ul Alam Choudhury, the minister’s Personal Secretary Mohammad Atiqur Rahman, and Assistant Personal Secretary Rashed Prodhan are accompanying the minister.

After he became the minister in January 2019, Sujan visited India, China, Indonesia, and the USA.

India and China are financing several BR projects. Besides, several Indian and Chinese companies are involved in many BR projects. Chinese contractors are involved in Padma Bridge Rail Link and Chattogram-Cox’s Bazar Rail Link projects.

US-based Progress Rail is the supplier of 40 new Broad Gauge locomotives and Indonesian PT Industri Kereta Api supplied 200 meter-gauge coaches.

But none of these four European countries, the delegation is visiting, have invested in any of the 37 current BR projects.

Companies based in any of these countries are not suppliers of equipment being procured under seven projects, official sources said.

As per the October 31 order, expenses of the rail minister’s visit will be borne from the budget head concerned of the cabinet division.

BR will bear the expenses for the two additional director generals and the railway ministry will bear the expenses of others.

Sujan said European countries have advanced railway networks. Different governments and companies of those countries expressed interest in investing in BR, he told The Daily Star on Saturday.

“We will talk to them about the areas in which we can take their assistance. We will also visit different factories of the companies,” Sujan said.

He did not give a direct answer when asked whether the said purposes can be deemed an emergency.

“We want to develop our railways. It’s a continuous process. One and a half years have gone by due to Covid-19. They [foreign agencies and companies] have expressed their interest in investing here. If we don’t go now, when will we go there?”

The ministry called a press conference today over the minister’s visit to Europe.

Officials said the rail minister will also visit Russia next month.

MORE VISITS

The railway’s ministry on Thursday issued three orders over foreign trips.

Three BR officials and an administrative officer of the railway’s ministry will visit India between December 1 and 7 for the Construction of the Akhaura-Agartala Dual Gauge Railway Link project.

Taxmaco Rail and Engineering Ltd of India will pay the expenses of the visit to DG PSC Sleeper Manufacturing Factory in India.

Between January 24 and 30 next year, another 10-member delegation will visit the US for a “study tour” of a project titled Rolling Stock Operations Improvement Project of BR.

Along with the five ministry officials, two officials from the Planning Commission, two from the finance ministry, and one from the planning ministry will visit the US.

Progress Rail Locomotives Inc, US, supplier of 40 new BG locomotives, will bear the expenses.

Twelve other BR officials will visit the US under the same project from February 7 to April 6 to participate in a training program. The same company will bear the expenses of this tour.

BR Director General Dhirendra Nath Mazumder could not be reached for comments over the phone yesterday.

Since March 2020, when the first cases of coronavirus were detected in Bangladesh, rail officials made two foreign trips, one of which was a routine trip to India, according to records