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Challenges in-waiting for Mustafa Jabbar

Mustafa Jabbar, the newly appointed minister for the Ministry of Posts, Telecommunications and Information Technology, cannot waste much time on receiving bouquets and greetings. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has offloaded this portfolio on him after unceremoniously ejecting her veteran comrade in October 2014.

Since then Hasina had been minding this ministry besides discharging her prime ministerial duties. She depended on two junior ministers – Zunaid Ahmed Palak for Information Technology and Tarana Halim for Posts and Telecommunications – to run the show. It had been a poor show and Jabbar must fix it.

Jabbar’s is the only ministry that had been operated by two state ministers until the cabinet has been reshuffled today. And both the junior ministers were publicly known for being not in talking terms, let alone working together. Their personal rivalry has polarized respective subordinates, which has savagely bifurcated the ministry. Urgently bridging this dangerous gap should be Jabbar’s top-most priority.

He should also improve the unworkable relationship between the ministry and telecoms regulator. Being upset with the ministry’s sluggishness, BTRC Chairman Shahjahan Mahmood, in an unprecedented move, demanded independence to function efficiently. Technocrat minister Mustafa Jabbar shouldn’t have trouble with understanding that bossing over BTRC doesn’t mean micro-managing its day-to-day work. Such interference sprouts corruption and defames the ruling party.

Jabbar should confidently trash the finance ministry’s annual target of revenue for BTRC. Law does not allow the telecoms regulator to make the exchequer rich. National Board of Revenue (NBR) is the only empowered body to deal with the telecoms operators’ taxes. Therefore, BTRC must stop functioning as the proxy of NBR with immediate effect.

Ministerial chair of Mustafa Jabbar is placed over the vent of a financial volcano. Social obligation Fund (SOF) has been created by amending the telecoms law in 2010. Selected telecoms operators contribute 1 per cent of their gross revenue to SOF. By far more than Tk.1250 crore (US$ 150 million) has been accumulated. This ever-growing idle fund has become the vested quarter’s target. The law is, however, explicit about its disbursement. Jabbar must be mindful about the law while spending this money.

Mustafa Jabbar should set the targets of broadband, not internet, penetration. Officially broadband refers to an internet connection with minimum 5 megabits-per-second of speed. Anything bellow that speed is narrowband. Jabbar, who enjoys enormous popularity among the press and the industry, should hold public consultations to remove all barriers from universal access to broadband in Bangladesh.

Otherwise, he will be just another minister wasting taxpayers’ money at this government’s final year.

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