Reaching Those in Need of Help: Govt struggles for lack of enough data
The government faces a challenge in reaching the target population in need of financial assistance amid the Covid pandemic in the absence of a comprehensive database of poor people.
To store basic information of all citizens, a Cabinet Division committee in November last year sent a proposal to the Prime Minister's Office for having a separate authority that will provide services relating to National Identity (NID) cards.
However, the proposal has been lying with the PMO for more than four months.
"We are yet to get any feedback from the Prime Minister's Office…," Cabinet Division Additional Secretary Sultan Ahmed, the chief of the committee, told The Daily Star recently.
Sultan said they made the recommendation so that all vital statistics of the citizens are stored in one platform under a programme titled "Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) of the Cabinet Division".
The move came after the home ministry last year sent a proposal to the PMO, saying all activities regarding NID cards should be handed over to it, said Cabinet Division sources.
In response, the PMO directed the Cabinet Division to submit a report with its views on the matter. And a seven-member committee headed by Sultan was formed.
Now, the NID services are being provided through the "Identification System for Enhancing Access to Services (IDEA)" project under the Election Commission.
Different ministries have developed a number of electronic databases but those have been prepared in formats that are not interoperable.
Cabinet Division officials said they made the proposal, keeping in mind the necessity to have a "combined data hub" to store information on NID cards, birth and death certificates, educational and professional records and other necessary data.
Once completed, this will allow all the officials concerned to collect necessary information from one place.
A number of experts say that had there been such a database, it would have been easier for the government to reach the poor people in need of financial aid amid the pandemic.
For example, the government in May last year decided to provide Tk 2,500 each as cash incentive to 50 lakh poor people who did not receive any support under the existing social safety net programmes.
The target beneficiaries included rickshaw-pullers, day labourers, construction workers, farmers, employees of shops, people employed at small businesses, poultry labourers and transport workers.
But the distribution of money was stopped midway following allegations of anomalies in the list of beneficiaries with names of solvent people also found in it.
The authorities cancelled transfer of money to 15 lakh people on the list as many of them were already getting benefits under social safety net programmes. Besides, information provided by many of them did not match that in their NID cards.
DATABASES WITHOUT INTEROPERABILITY
According to the CRVS website, different ministries and agencies have developed large electronic databases.
The EC has developed the NID database containing information on 100 million citizens aged above 18 while the Local Government Division has registered 120 million people in another electronic database.
Besides, the health and family welfare ministry conducts a periodical health census covering nearly 100 million people. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) has been tasked with developing a poverty database covering 160 million people.
But all these databases have been developed in different formats which are not interoperable, say Cabinet Division officials.
Moreover, there is no way to say who are being included multiple times in those databases, they pointed out.
Many citizens eligible for social safety net schemes are left out of the databases. This means they are being deprived of the benefits of programmes like vulnerability group development, widow allowance and disability allowance, they added.
Seeking anonymity, a finance ministry official said, "A comprehensive database can also be useful in helping the genuine beneficiaries in crunch time."
Sultan said the media on many occasions reported incidents of lack of proper data and misuse of government funds. Some of those are true, some are not, he said.
"If a separate body is formed, these types of problems can be addressed easily."
NEED FOR COMPREHENSIVE DATABASE
Noted economist Binayak Sen, director general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), said that if there is a comprehensive database of citizens, it will be easier to stop misuse of funds.
There have been some issues regarding selection of the beneficiaries of social safety net programmes, and also some problems cropped up when the government wanted to provide financial aid to 50 lakh poor people.
A recent BIDS study titled "Poverty in the Time of Corona: Trends, Drivers, Vulnerability and Policy: Responses in Bangladesh", submitted to the planning ministry, showed that a large part of monetary transfersunder social safety net programmes end up in "non-deserving" non-poor groups.
Binayak also thinks that payment through digital platforms alone is not going to solve the problem of misuse.
A number of fake beneficiaries are already on the list but it's not possible to track and drop them from the list for a lack of data. "So misuse will continue," he said.
The economist suggested that the government introduce something like Aadhaar Card in India to solve the problem and exclude the fake beneficiaries from the list.
This database should have NID-related information as well as data on a person's bank account, mobile number, and whether he or she is beneficiary of any social safety net programmes, he said.
Aadhaar is a one-time identity card issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India free of cost for all residents of India. It contains a 12-digit unique number and is registered by taking a person's biometric details such as fingerprints and demographic data.
The card was initially issued to create a more rationalised and transparent process of allotting certain government benefits and subsidies for Indian citizens. Now, the benefits and usage have evolved as a payment system, tax regulator and much more, making it an essential document for all Indian residents.