CEC, commissioners, secretary pocket Tk 20m to speak

Illustration: Prothom Alo
Illustration: Prothom Alo

The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC), the four commissioners, the Election Commission (EC) secretary, an additional secretary and two joint secretaries, have pocketed over Tk 20 million (Tk 2 crore), allocated for delivering ‘special talks’ at training programmes for the 11th national parliamentary election and the upazila polls which followed.

Additionally, the EC secretary at the time (presently secretary of the local government division) alone drew Tk 4.7 million (Tk 47 lac) as the ‘course consultant’. He even was paid separately as ‘special speaker’’, though the exact remuneration for this is not known.

According to EC sources, the election commission allocated Tk 612.5 million (Tk 61.25 crore) for training during the parliamentary election held on 30 December last year. And another Tk 617.5 million (Tk 61.75 crore) was allocated for training pertaining to the upazila elections.

According to information from the election commission, those who received payment in the name of delivering talks as ‘special speakers’, included chief election commissioner (CEC) KM Nurul Huda, the four election commissioners Mahbub Talukdar, Rafiqul Islam, Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury and Kabita Khanam, secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed, additional secretary Mokhlesur Rahman and two joint secretaries Abul Kasem and Kamrul Hasan.

Another four joint secretaries were added as ‘special speakers’ during the upazila election. And director general of the Election Training Institute (ETI) Mustafa Faruk took around Tk 1.94 million (Tk 19.39 lac) as ‘course director’ for an upazila election training course. In other words, these officials pocketed over Tk 20 million (Tk 2 crore) as ‘special speakers,’ ‘course advisor,’ and ‘course director’.

No statement was given by the CEC or the four commissioners when contacted about taking money in this manner. However, former EC secretary Helaluddin Ahmed did not deny taking the money, though he said no rules had been violated in this regard.

The Election Commission had formed a panel for ‘special speakers’ to provide training during the last parliamentary polls and upazila elections. This included the CEC and 13 senior officials of the commission. The position of ‘course consultant’ was created and given to secretary Helaluddin Ahmed.

An analysis of the EC secretariat records reveals that during the parliamentary elections, 9 ‘special speakers’ delivered talks in 520 places of the country in just a matter of 18 days, from 7 to 24 December 2018. Four ‘special speakers’ were supposed to have been present at each training centre. Mathematically speaking, that would mean each ‘special speaker’ would have had to speak at 14 different places on a single day. That is not possible by any means. It is evident that they withdrew the payments without even being present at the training programmes. Now that criticism has begun to emerge for taking payment despite not being present, some of the top officials have started returning the money.

Illustration: Prothom Alo
Illustration: Prothom Alo

When asked about the senior EC officials taking payments in this manner, former election commissioner M Sakhawat Hossain said, “There has never been such costly training in the history of the election commission. In our time, the CEC, other commissioners and I spoke at training programmes all over the country, but we didn’t take any allowance for this. The secretary too spoke, but took no payment either. That was the norm. What has taken place this time is blatant mismanagement and irregularity. Those involved must take responsibility for their actions.”

Prothom Alo’s investigations show that there was no position of ‘special speaker’ or ‘course consultant’ for training in the previous parliamentary and upazila elections. These posts were created only in the last elections as a mean to make money.

When Prothom Alo sought to know more in this regard through the right to information act, EC provided certain information, but did not specify exactly how much the ‘special speakers’ were paid. When contact, the concerned persons also did not reveal these details.

Newspaper reports

EC records show that these officials, including the CEC delivered talks in 520 places in 18 days. But a look through the dailies, including Prothom Alo, Janakantha, Bangladesh Protidin, Kaler Kantha and Daily Star, shows that the CEC only went out of Dhaka twice between 7 December and 24 December. On 18 December, the CEC visited Chattogram and Rangamati, and on 22 December he went to Mymensingh. He held meetings with senior divisional officials there.

On the  Chattogram trip he was accompanied by commissioner Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury and secretary Helaluddin.

Commissioner Rafiqul Islam took part in two workshops of women’s voting rights, one on 15 December in Mymensingh and the other on 21 December in Rajshahi. Kabita Khan took part in training for polling officers on 22 December in Jashore. Their honorarium per training was Tk 5000 each.

Illustration: Prothom Alo
Illustration: Prothom Alo

Former caretaker government advisor and comptroller and auditor general M Hafiz Uddin Khan told Prothom Alo that this was looting in the name of training. The money taken by the commission and the secretary as ‘special speakers’, was entirely unlawful. If they were to be paid for talks during the training, they definitely would have to be present at the place of training and actually deliver the talks. They would have to sign the attendance register and also sign receipts when taking the payment. Investigations would reveal whether they did this or not. 

EC records show that the training allocation for the presiding officers, assistant presiding officers and polling officers in the 11th parliamentary election was around Tk 483.30 million (Tk 48.33 crore). Of this, Tk 10.40 million (Tk 1.4 crore) was taken by 9 ‘special speakers’. That means, each received Tk 1.15 million (Tk 11.55 lacs). It was shown on the records that four ‘special speakers’ were present in each of the 520 training programmes. An official of the EC said, if the CEC and the other commissioners actually delivered these speeches all over the country, they would not have been able to carry out the vast work at the EC office in Dhaka regarding the election.

Former comptroller and auditor general Ahmed Ataul Hakeem told Prothom Alo that if payment was taken for delivering talks at the training, then the speakers would certainly have to be present at the training centre. They would have to sign a register to prove their attendance and also sign for the receipt of the payment. The matter is more an ethical one, than legal. Such actions cannot be condoned morally.

Sharing the booty

The payment for the special speakers was taken from the field level officials and brought to Dhaka to be shared among the recipients. Records show that as course advisor, Helal Uddin Ahmed was present at 520 places.

He received Tk 5000 per attendance, totally Tk 2.6 million (Tk 26 lac). Yet in this same training, the presiding officers and assistant presiding officers were given just Tk 500 and the polling officers Tk 400, as travel allowance.

EC secretary during the 2007-08 caretaker government, Humayun Kabir, told Prothom Alo there is always field level training during the elections. However, that training was conducted by the district and upazila election officials. The commissioners or secretary would not go from Dhaka. There was no position of course consultant. Training of some of the field level officials takes place in Dhaka. If they went there as trainers, they would be given a certain allowance.

Training of the master trainers who were to train the polling agents, was given at a district level. The special speakers took Tk 5000 each from each of the 64 districts, totally Tk 320,000 (Tk 3.2 lac) each. As course consultant, Helal Uddin Ahmed received Tk 320,000 (Tk 3.20 lac) too.

Same story with the upazila polls

Records concerning election training for the 431 upazilas, listed a total of 620,923 persons including presiding officers, assistant presiding officers and polling officers.

The allocation for the presiding and assistant presiding officers in this training was Tk 500 each and for polling officers, Tk 400 each. Trainers were paid Tk 1200 each. The training in 431 upazilas all over the country was conducted over two days.

Yet special speakers who were absent in the field, took Tk 5000 per upazila for the so-called training, totalling Tk 4.31 million (Tk 43.10 lac) each.

As course consultant, the EC secretary withdrew Tk 5000 per upazila, that is around Tk 2.15 million (Tk 21.55 lac) in total. And as course director, the ETI director general took Tk 4500 per upazila, that is around Tk 1.94 million (nearly Tk 19.40 lac) in total.

Initially 46 upazilas were selected for using electronic voting machine (EVM) to cast votes. A total of around Tk 77.24 million (around Tk 7.72 crore) was spent on training the presiding officers, assisting presiding officers and polling officers on the use of EVM.

Also for this purpose, the special speakers took Tk 5000 each per upazila, but withdrew Tk 460,000 each. The course consultant took Tk 5000 per upazila, totalling Tk 230,000. The course director took Tk 4500 per upazila, totalling Tk 207,000.

However, eventually the EVM was used only in 10 upazilas. The training in the other upazilas came to no use.

The CEC, the four commissioners and the secretary similarly took payment for training in the experimental use of EVM to cast votes in 10 upazilas.

Illustration: Prothom Alo
Illustration: Prothom Alo

A five-day training in vote casting through EVM in 10 upazilas saw an expenditure of around Tk 28.77 million (almost Tk 2.88 crore). From this, the course consultant received Tk 7,500 per upazila, totalling Tk 75,000. This course consultant was commissioner Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury. He was present at some of the training sessions.

The EC secretary took Tk 75,000 as chief coordinator of this training.

A total of around Tk 26.86 million (around Tk 2.68 crore) was spent on training of master trainers to train the polling agents. The special speakers took Tk 5000 each per upazila in this regard, but they took a total of Tk 640,000 each. The course consultant took Tk 5000 per upazila, totalling Tk 320,000. The course director took Tk 288,000.

Per batch, not upazila

Some of the training for the parliamentary polls and the upazila elections took place at the EC office in Dhaka. As there was no scope here to determine payment per upazila, it was determined per batch.

In the parliamentary election, around Tk 4.69 million (Tk 46.92 lac) was spent on EVM training for the EC secretariat and field level officials. This training was held in 24 batches and for each batch two special speakers were paid Tk 10,000 each. They received Tk 240,000 for the 24 batches each. The course consultant received Tk 3000 per batch totally Tk 72,000, without even delivering any talk.

In the same election, Tk 605,100 was spent on training three batches of returning officers. Six special speakers took Tk 30,000 per batch, totalling Tk 90,000 each in honorarium. The course consultant took Tk 7,500 for each batch.

Illustration: Prothom Alo
Illustration: Prothom Alo

Honorarium was also paid to the special speakers, course consultant and course director for the training of the returning and assistant returning officers, judicial magistrates, executive magistrates and electoral inquiry committee members, and for online election management training, training of data entry operators and officer assistants as well as training EC training officers. The special speakers received over Tk 1 million (Tk 10 lac) for this and course consultant over Tk 1 million (Tk 10 lac) too.

What the officials said, and didn’t say

On 22 July, Prothom Alo submitted questions in writing in this regard to CEC KM Nurul Huda. He has not replied so far. He is presently in Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj at government expense.

Appointment was sought several times with commissioner Rafiqul Islam, but this was not granted. Commissioner Mahbub Talukdar and Shahadat Hossain Chowdhury also refused to comment on the issue. Kabita Khanam was not available for comment.

Former EC secretary Helal Uddin Ahmed said, over 1.1 million (11 lac) staff were trained during the election and the budget was big too. The commission approved the budget. He said that he did not think there were any discrepancies involved.

Illustration: Prothom Alo
Illustration: Prothom Alo

When questioned in this regard, ETI director general Mustafa Faruk told Prothom Alo, ETI had submitted a draft budget for the election training. The EC secretariat placed this proposal at the commission meeting for final approval. The commission approved it.

The present EC secretary Md Alamgir said, all this took place when the previous secretary was in office that was why he had no accurate idea about the matter.

When asked about this matter, former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumder said, “The election commission’s duty is to conduct the election. If they go to speak anywhere, that too is a part of their duties. Why will they take payment for this? That is absolutely wrong, unethical.”

* This report, published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir