Wildlife corridor: Appointment of consultant called into question

Bangladesh is conducting a feasibility study on a joint wildlife corridor project with India and Myanmar. With the work nearing its completion, questions have now been raised about the appointment of a consultant.

In the proposal, the same expert has been named by the two organisations that competed for the role of consultant, a matter that the parliamentary committee deemed ‘unethical’.

However, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change says the consultancy firm has been appointed in compliance with all government regulations.

In August, the parliamentary standing committee asked the ministry to look into the matter after receiving complaints about "irregularities" in the appointment of consultants.

The ministry submitted a report at a recent parliamentary committee meeting. However, the panel did not accept the investigation report. The ministry was subsequently directed to re-investigate the matter and provide details on the process of appointing consultants.

The parliamentary committee has the power to review the functions and activities as well as any serious allegations of irregularities against the ministry. It may also look into any ongoing or previous work of the ministry.

The environment ministry made a proposal to set up a sanctuary called 'Bangabandhu Conservation Corridor' in the Chattogram Hill Tracts in 2019 for the conservation of elephants and tigers.

The proposal calls for the construction of three connecting routes at the country's border for the movement of Asian elephants. The Forest Department was asked to verify the feasibility of the project.

To that end, the project titled “Feasibility Study of Transboundary Wildlife in the Chittagong Hill Tracts and Cox's Bazar with Myanmar and India” was launched in July last year.

Although the feasibility study was supposed to be completed in June this year, the deadline was later extended by another six months. The project is set to cost an estimated Tk 38.1 million, while the contract with the consulting firm alone is worth Tk 20 million.

When the tenders were floated last year in line with the public procurement rules (PPR), three companies sought to become consultants. Wild Team and IUCN Bangladesh's Country Office made the cut after their proposals fulfilled all the criteria. In terms of technical evaluation, IUCN scored 85.93 out of 100, while Wild Team got 83.20.

With an offer of Tk 15.6 million to complete the work, Wild Team got full marks for their financial proposal, while IUCN scored 81.95 for its quotation of Tk 23.6 million. But IUCN finished with a higher score overall and were given the job of project consultant as per PPR.

According to the documents, Professor Mohammad Abdul Aziz, a zoology teacher at Jahangirnagar University, was named as the 'professional staff' of both IUCN and Wild Team.

But the parliamentary committee addressed the issue in August and said it was "incorrect" and "unethical" for one person to be a researcher for two institutions specialising in the same tender.

The panel asked the ministry to look into the issue but its subsequent report on Sept 19 was termed "unsatisfactory".

According to the report, the consultancy firm had been appointed in compliance with the PPR. But the report did not say anything about the same person been named as a specialist by two organisations.

It said there was a 'consultant commitment letter' from Abdul Aziz in the IUCN proposal but there was no such letter in Wild Team's proposal. That is why the IUCN proposal had been accepted, according to the ministry.

Addressing the matter, Saber Hossain Chowdhury, chairman of the parliamentary committee, said, “We did not give any terms of reference to the ministry during its investigation. They have informed us that everything was above board and done in accordance with the PPR. We expressed our concerns."

But the issue was addressed "very technically" in the investigation report, according to Saber.

"The person who put his signature down for two organisations should be blacklisted. No matter how great an expert he is, it is immoral. One was given a letter of consent, the other was not. What is this? The form he has signed is enough. Letters of consent are not required separately. There was no need for it.”

"They have answered about having one person's name in two places very technically. But that was the only thing we wanted to know. The parliamentary committee has sent back the investigation report and asked the ministry to do it again. We will look into it at the next meeting.”

Referring to the ministry's investigation, bdnews24.com asked IUCN consultant Abdul Aziz how his name was cited by two organizations.

Skirting the question, he said he was not aware of the investigation.

"We are not supposed to look at the administrative side of the project or even know about it. We are working as consultants. I have been appointed as such. We are not supposed to know anything else. As a researcher, I conduct research."

Conservator of Forests Mihir Kumar Doe was the director of the project when it was given the greenlight. He is currently the forest conservator of the Khulna region.

When contacted, Mihir said, “I am no longer the project manager. I have been transferred to Khulna. The ministry was asked to submit an investigation report. I don't know what happened after that. Since I am no longer involved with the project, I don't know the details. ”

The six-month extension for the feasibility study is expected to expire in December this year, said Mollah Rezaul Karim, the project's current director.

"The parliamentary committee will scrutinise the investigation report. There are no problems with the project in this regard. There was no violation of the law in recruiting IUCN. If there is a recommendation of the parliamentary committee, the ministry will look into it.”