Instead of actually helping citizens with their questions or complains, dispatchers of the National Helpline Centre are either redirecting callers to other departments or just telling them information that is easily available online without really addressing the emergency at hand, the Dhaka Tribune has found.
Sadik Evan, a college student was desperately trying to locate a young cousin who went missing six months ago. The first thing he did was call 10921, the number of the National Helpline Centre for Violence against Women and Children division. To his surprise it took them almost half an hour for them to just to answer the phone.
“Once they picked up the phone, they told us to go the nearest police station and file a general diary (GD). The centre is supposed to provide police assistance and not tell us to find it ourselves. What is the point of all this if their advise is just sending us somewhere else?” he asked.
In November 2016, the ICT division brought all emergency helplines under the central toll-free national help desk number 999.
The helpline has two primary functions – to provide information to people regarding regular services and to ensure prompt action is taken when emergency services are required.
But evidence shows that even though dispatchers answer the calls, they are not well trained to provide the services being asked of them.
Last month, Noyon Oronno a videographer working with a private television channel tried in vain to get some information from the NBR helpline about paying his business license VAT.
“I called the National Board of Revenue helpline 16555 to find out where I could pay my business license VAT in Kolabagan but the dispatcher said he had no idea because he was new at the job.”
The emergency services 999 operate 24 hours a day and other helplines work only during office hours.
Journalist Mamunur Rahman Khan said he was passed off from one helpline to another before his complain was taken seriously.
On May 10, WASA cut off an electricity connection near his house for some sewerage maintenance work. When he called the 999, he was transferred to the DESA helpline where his complaint was not even taken seriously. The dispatcher did not even ask him where he was located and promptly hung up the phone.
Later a dispatcher from the National Helpline called him back to ask if his problem was actually solved.
Instances like that are rare, with most dispatchers being ill equipped with the knowledge and nature of their jobs.
“I called the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission at 2872 about some billing problems that the operator had no idea about. I was given zero information and told to just go to their head office,” said Rumpa Biswas.
This problem persists even with the DMP’s helpline. A university student Kamrul Hasnat told the Dhaka Tribune that during an emergency when they tried to call 999, there was no answer.
“A 10-year-old domestic worker at my friend’s house went missing in February. We frantically called 999 to file a missing persons but nobody bothered to answer the phone. We had to run to the nearest police station even though the emergency helpline is supposed to help us in this regard.”
Even the operators at specific government offices are unware of the services they are supposed to provide.
Istiaque Chowdhury tried to get in touch with the Election Commission by calling 16103 about his national ID card. The operator did not know what forms he should be getting and what other supporting documents he is supposed to bring to register for the card.
“The man on the other end said, he just did not know,” he said.
What the helpline operators are saying
According to DMP Telephone Exchange Assistant Sub-Inspector (SI) Md Zakir Hossain, the Bangladesh Metropolitan Police helpline receives almost 5000 calls daily.
The Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) receives calls from all over Bangladesh, that are re- connected to the corresponding police stations. It also provides emergency support for fires, security services, money escort services and others.
“Most of the callers ask for specific police station phone numbers, how to file a general diary and complains about crimes. We try to address all these problems to the best of our ability or refer the caller to a more specific helpline,” SI Zakir said.
Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited (BTCL) official Rasel Haq said: “We get about 250 calls everyday. We work with complaints regarding call drops, prank calls, network issues and sometimes give out billing related information.”