Huge expense, ‘extreme negligence’

People from lower income group line up to purchase essential commodities from TCB. The picture was taken from Garpara in ManikganjAbdul Momen

Without even completing the list of poor, the Statistics and Informatics Division under the planning ministry is going to finish a related project. The initiative to make a list of the poor was undertaken in 2013. Already, over Tk 6.38 billion has been spent on this project as of June this year. Now, a discussion is ongoing for a new project to complete the list.

The project 'National Household Database (NHD)' was supposed to develop a database based on the information of financial status of each household. This also known as the list of poor and the rich people in the country.

Bypassing the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the Statistics and Informatics Division took up the project, which did not have any experience in conducting such a survey or census. BBS is an organisation under this division.

The duration of the project has been extended four times. The cost of the project has increased by around 122 per cent. People concerned say the project is a big example of extreme negligence. Riti Ibrahim, former secretary to the Statistics division, said, “Those who led this survey did not have even minimum experience in statistics, nor did they have any skill. As a result, they have failed completely.”

Why the list of poor?

When the government has the list of poor, the inclusion of affluent people in social safety net programmes becomes impossible. It blocks the way for one to benefit from several programmes. In addition to that, it helps the government to provide aid to the poor following the list in crisis times.

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The government found that they did not have any such list after taking the decision to provide cash assistance of Tk 2,500 to some 5 million families during the Covid-19 pandemic. Following that, a list was made hurriedly and some 3.6 million families, including many affluent families, were provided with government assistance.

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According to the data of the Planning Commission, the cost of the project was estimated at Tk 3.28 billion when it was undertaken in 2013. The cost has increased to Tk 7.27 billion now, as per the latest revision. Of this, some Tk 6.87 billion has been loaned from the World Bank and the remaining Tk 400 million came from the government treasury.

The statistics division said information of all the households in the country was collected in 2017 under this project. The collected data was supposed to be stored digitally using the Management Information System (MIS) software.

The software, however, has not been developed as yet. The disaster management directorate was given the responsibility of developing the software.

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Speaking to Prothom Alo, Shahnaz Arefin, secretary of the Statistics division, said, “We have completed the collection of data from field level. However, we cannot upload the data in the software. There is no guarantee as to when the disaster management directorate will be able to develop the software. We cannot take the responsibility for them.”

Armenia-based company Synergy International Systems got the contract to develop the software in 2018. According to the disaster management directorate, the work was delayed as the officials of the company left for their own countries after the breakout of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Director general of the directorate Atiqul Haque said, “The Statistics division itself has not completed their own task. The work on developing the software is 90 per cent complete.”

The National Household Database project was supposed to be completed by 2017. A directorate and a division of the government are trying blame each other for the delay while people’s money is being wasted in the process, said concerned officials.

Attempt to complete the project abruptly

The statistics division has been uploading the data of 36 million households collected in 2017 to the computer system. At current pace it might take up to June, 2024 to complete the data entry process, stated a letter to the statistics division from the project office on 16 August.

That means it will take two more years to make this data usable. However, the project's steering committee decided not to extend the project duration any further beyond 31 December in a meeting on 31 August. Earlier, in a meeting of the project implementation committee on 8 August, there was discussion about taking up a new project to complete the remaining works.

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Meanwhile, the statistics division sent a letter to the Economic Relations Division (ERD) asking to return Tk 920 million to the World Bank as it had not been used in the project.

Statistics division secretary Shanaz Arefin said, “We are tarnishing our image by extending the duration of the project repeatedly. We don’t want to extend it anymore.”

Regarding the delay in the data entry process, she said there would not be any major change in the data collected earlier.

However, there are questions regarding the authenticity of data collected earlier. For instance, the disaster management division found errors in the data of 70 per cent of the households in an upazila of Chattogram while trying to provide financial assistance to the destitute following the list.

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In June, a report of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division also mentioned about the flaws in the data collected earlier.

Selim Raihan, a professor of the Department of Economics at Dhaka University, said, “Such old data should not be used at all in works related to policy making. The economic situation of the country is going through a transition due to the pandemic, inflation and the pressure on the economy. If a project doesn’t serve the purpose, then spending money for that is just a waste.”

*This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu