111 public representatives, including union council chairmen and members, were suspended between April 15 and July 15 for irregularities in aid programs
Ala Uddin, an OMS-dealer (open market sales) was arrested after the local administration recovered 103 OMS cards, meant for the vulnerable people, from his residence during a drive in mid-April.
Poor people of Rajshahi’s Godagari upazila, who were supposed to get the aid, did not know that the 3.23 tons of rice allocated against the cards was actually for them.
Under the OMS initiative, five million vulnerable families are supposed to receive coarse rice for five months every year. A card holder gets 30kg rice each month where the price per kg is set at Tk35.
However, such a milestone initiative could not achieve its goal as the real beneficiary group is still deprived of its benefits.
Field-level officials said public representatives and dealers are the ones who usually manage the distribution process but in many cases, they steal the food aid or relief using their political influence.
According to the Local Government Division, 111 public representatives, including union council chairmen and members, were suspended in three months between April 15 and July 15 — at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in Bangladesh — due to mass irregularities.
Like the OMS initiative, the government has 125 different types of social safety net programs across the country which cover some 50 million people of the country.
The government has allocated Tk96,000 crore — 17% of the budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year — for the development of the vulnerable groups.
But so far, there has been widespread mismanagement, crime, and corruption in the process of selecting beneficiary groups for giving food assistance and disbursement of monetary aid.
Also Read - A web of corruption surrounding relief materials
“We should use unique digital tools that can ensure that the real people get the benefit; otherwise, it will be difficult to reduce mismanagement in the food distribution process,” said Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperative Minister Tazul Islam.
What are the shortcomings of the existing process?
The local administration of Godagari was investigated to find out the major problems behind the mismanagement or irregularities in the existing food distribution process under a pilot project.
The investigation report mentioned several key factors that contribute to the corruption process such as the death of a card holder, lost cards, giving cards to other people, issuing more than one card for a family, issuing cards to unlisted or solvent people or relatives, faulty documentation, etc.
According to the report, only 40% of the beneficiaries are receiving government assistance at Godagari upazila. Field-level officials think that the scenario in other upazilas are not much different. It could mean that only around two million people get the benefit despite the government spending money for five million people.
Nazrul Islam, former resident of Subil union under Debidwar upazila in Comilla, was an OMS card holder. Despite him dying in 2016, his card has been used for the last four years.
All concerned are aware of these problems but nobody does anything to solve them due to political pressure.
Requesting anonymity, an upazila nirbahi officer (UNO) said: “We faced political pressure once we started a pilot project to digitalize the food distribution project.”
Digital tools to bring discipline
Struggling to manage the food distribution process due to irregularities, some field-level officials innovated digital tools to bring discipline in the operation.
Najmul Islam Sarker, Rakib Hasan, and Begum Shamim Ara Nipa — UNOs of Chapainawabganj Sadar, Debidwar, and Savar respectively — are the pioneers of the innovation.
Najmul, when he was the UNO of Godagari, had innovated “Odhikar OMS”, a digital process to distribute rice, in mid-April.
Following the system, the beneficiary would get a notification through a text message on his/her mobile phone once the rice is allocated. The beneficiary would also receive an OTP (one-time password) which they must show to the dealer to get the allocated rice. At the same time, the authority concerned would be updated about the distribution progress.
Najmul said: “We conducted a pilot program to install digital tools as we noticed widespread irregularities in the existing process. We developed a software that can ensure that the real beneficiaries get the rice by sending them an OTP code via text message.
“As we identify the real person, corruption is easily minimized.”
Similarly, the UNO of the Debidwar upazila recently developed another software called “Debidwar OMS” for incorporating all information regarding the social safety net services. Biometric information (fingerprints) of the beneficiaries was also inserted into the database to ensure that only the actual beneficiaries receive the rice.
UNO Rakib said: “We have successfully conducted the pilot program to prevent irregularities. If we could use digital tools across the country, it would undoubtedly be helpful.”
Nipa, when she was the UNO of Kalihati in Tangail, used QR codes to identify beneficiaries in order to stop corruption.
Also Read - CPD: 65.6% of aid not getting to the poor
These three UNOs conducted the pilot projects to digitalize the food distribution process on their own accords.
Regarding this, Farhad Hossain, the state minister for public administration, said some field-level officials have innovated digital tools for the relief distribution process which is admirable.
What is the central initiative?
The Food Ministry has taken an initiative to digitalize the whole food aid distribution process.
Officials said the ministry has developed a software with technical support from the ICT Division to bring discipline to food aid distribution programs like OMS.
The software could help manage around 10 million beneficiaries and all dealers across the country.
“Our initiative can bring discipline to the food aid distribution process; it could be launched next March-April,” said Dr Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum, the secretary of the Food Ministry.
Besides, the government plans to widen the mobile banking system for providing monetary aid to the vulnerable groups, which can totally eliminate corruption from the process.
Talking to Dhaka Tribune, the Prime Minister’s Office’s Principal Secretary Dr Ahmad Kaikaus said cash was disbursed to the vulnerable people through mobile banking to help them combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We want to widen the facility to ensure that there is no chance of corruption in the system. People with unverified phone numbers were not allowed to receive cash aid from the government fund through mobile banking,” he added.