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Yet another scam has come to light regarding procurement of machinery in the health sector. Furniture and equipment have been purchased at inflated rates in violation of the rules and regulations. Equipment to detect thalassemia has been bought for eight times more than allocated. Anesthesia ventilator has been bought at a price 12 times more than the estimated cost of Tk 481,000 a unit. And unnecessary equipment has been purchased, outside of requirements.

Irregularities and corruption in health sector procurement have made headlines many times during the coronavirus pandemic. Purchasing fake masks at a high price, providing COVID-19 reports without tests and huge wealth being amassed by a health ministry’s driver, are just some of the scandals

The planning commission has been taken aback by the scale of irregularities in a single project. The commission has termed such exorbitant expenditure as a serious financial irregularity and criminal offence. Experts said this has outdone any monstrous fraud.

These irregularities in health sector procurement have taken place in the project to set up Shaheed Tajuddin Ahmad Medical College and Hospital in Gazipur. The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) approved the project involving Tk 9.28 billion (924 crore) in February 2018. The project aimed to expand the 7-storey hospital building to 15-storeys and construct an academic building and a student dormitory.

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The project deadline was June 2021 but only 40 per cent of work has been completed so far. The irregularities in procurement came to notice after a proposal was sent to the Planning Commission on 24 December last year for an extension of the project deadline by 2 years and an increase in its budget to Tk 10.96 billion (Tk 1,096 crore).

Irregularities and corruption in health sector procurement have made headlines many times during the coronavirus pandemic. Purchasing fake masks at a high price, providing COVID-19 reports without tests and huge wealth being amassed by a health ministry’s driver, are just some of the scandals.

Irregularities in procurement

Sources at the Planning Commission said, Tk1.31 (Tk 13.1 lakh) was estimated for the purchase of an haemoglobin electrophoresis machine used to detect the blood-related disease thalassemia. But this machine has been imported from the Netherlands at a cost of Tk 11 million (1.1 crore) - nearly eight times higher than the estimated cost. Bangladesh Thalassemia Foundation has a similar one. The cost of the machine is within Tk 2 million (Tk 20 lakh), said Rakib Hasan, an official of the foundation.

Besides, the cost of an anesthesia ventilator was estimated at Tk 481,000. But these machines costing Tk 5.73 million (57.29 lakh) a unit have been imported from the UK at a price 12 times higher thanthe estimate.

Making money from development projects has become a tradition in our country. A political and administrative nexus is amassing wealth
Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB)

Phacoemulsifier is used for intraocular lens. Its price was estimated at 2 million (20 lakh) a unit but purchased at a cost of Tk9.33 million (93.36 lakh). Price ofan ICU ventilator was estimated at Tk 500,000 but 12 ventilators has been imported from the UK at a cost of Tk 4.3 million (43 lakh) a unit.

Besides, more equipment has been procured, though not included in the project, at a price higher than the market price. This includes a table for gynecological use costing Tk 3.19 million (31.89 lakh), a colour Doppler ultrasonogram machine with 4D, costing 14.2 million (1.42 crore), oximeter desktop, costing Tk 552,000 and ECR lab automation, costing Tk 594,000.

Member of the planning commission (immediate past secretary) Abul Kalam Azad told Prothom Alo, “Without the approval of ECNEC, procurement of furniture and equipment at a price higher than the market price causes direct financial loss to the government. We asked the project director how he got the funds to purchase the equipment at a higher price. The PD responded saying they took it from other areas, but that cannot be done.”

Abul Kamal Azad said nobody can avoid the liability of these irregularities. How the account sections cleared these bills containing irregularities should be scrutinised. The health ministry has been told to find out whoever is involved with the irregularities.

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Abnormal prices

Records of a similar project have been examined to verify how justified was the cost of the machinery which the Planning Commission termed as abnormal. Some health equipment was purchased under the‘COVID-19 Emergency Response and Pandemic Preparedness’ project, with loan from the World Bank this year. Under the project, 300 ICU ventilators were imported with an allocation of Tk 1.2 million (12 lakh) a unit. Besides, Tk 500,000 a unit was allocated to import a total of 370 cardiac monitors while Tk 200,000 for a unit of ECG machine (12 channels) and Tk 15,000 were allocated per unit of height and weight measuring machine.

Speaking of irregularities in procurement, project director and principal Md Asad Hossain told Prothom Alo, “The Detailed Project Plan had many structural flaws and didn’t reflect real prices of equipment.” He said, “It’s true that rules have been violated in purchasing machinery, but with the good intention of ensuring the quality of the equipment.” Asked machinery not included in the main project was purchased, he said, “I’m admitting that rules have been violated. But I tried to bring in good equipment. That’s why prices went up. If I land in jail for this, there is nothing to be done.”

Experts disagree with the project director. Officials at the planning commission’s Central Procurement Technical Unit (CPTU) said, procurement prices can vary a bit but it can’t be such big difference. It the cost exceeds the budget then the commission must be informed. These rules were not followed.”

Need for accountability

Executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Iftekharuzzaman told Prothom Alo, “From what has been learnt about the procurement of this machinery, this has outdone any monstrous fraud. Making money from development projects has become a tradition in our country. A political and administrative nexus is amassing wealth.”

He said, “The allegations of irregularities in procurement involves public funds. As a regulatory body, the health ministry should scrutinise these irregularities. The Anti-Corruption Commission too has the responsibility. Those involved in the irregularities must be held accountable. Exemplary punishment must be ensured otherwise such incidents will continue to occur.”