Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had announced Tk2,500 "Eid gift" per head to help the poor who had become unemployed suddenly during the countrywide shutdown in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak.
As the country had no list of the poor, the government moved to make one quickly with the help of local public representatives and the field administration, and took an initiative to provide cash assistance to 50 lakh people before Eid-ul-Fitr this year.
The subsequent events were a tragedy of errors. After Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Azha also came and went. Although it was decided to rectify the list by replacing ineligible names with eligible ones, the government could not proceed on the programme, thanks to the field administration's ineptitude.
Finally, the government is now withdrawing from the programme, leaving about 15 lakh poor people deprived of the cash assistance. The finance ministry has already asked the disaster management ministry to return the rest of the funds allocated for the programme.
Analysts blame the lack of a list of poor people as well as the field administration's failure to make one properly for such an important initiative despite sincere efforts by the Prime Minister's Office.
They say a proper compilation of the list was not possible as the local administration relied on public representatives only.
The government had set a target for distributing the cash assistance among the poor through mobile banking. For this purpose, the finance ministry released about Tk1,257 crore.
According to the ministry, about 35 lakh poor people have received Tk880 crore in assistance so far. As the money allocated for the remaining 15 lakh has not been distributed, it is going back to the state treasury.
Actually, the government has decided not to distribute the rest of the fund because two months have already passed after Eid-ul-Azha, and the economy has reopened after the shutdown, according to State Minister for disaster management and relief Md Enamur Rahman.
Sirajun Noor Chowdhury, joint secretary of the Finance Division, said the situation in which the Eid gift programme started no longer exists. "So, we have asked for the return of the unused money."
On May 14 this year when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina inaugurated the programme, the administration could not complete the list, and the one that they prepared also raised questions regarding transparency.
A comparison of the list with 11 national databases showed that it included government employees, pensioners and even those who have investment in savings certificates worth more than Tk5 lakh.
Attempts were also made to embezzle money using the same mobile number against hundreds of people on the list. In addition, the list had unregistered and fake mobile numbers too.
As a result, the government could not help even half of the listed people before Eid-ul-Fitr. Cases were filed against several public representatives for irregularities in list compilation. Many were also arrested.
After Eid-ul-Fitr, the government decided to formulate a new list. The local administration was asked to correct the wrong and unregistered mobile numbers. The government also planned to help those who do not have a mobile banking facility by allowing them to open a Tk10 bank account. But finally, the initiative did not succeed.
A Finance Division official said the government thought the list might be 5-10% politicised. But they could not imagine there would be so many mistakes and irregularities.
He also said the field administration has limitations. Often they have to accept the list provided by public representatives. Otherwise, many officers have to face even physical abuse.
Moreover, many officials did not verify the list at the field level. The government took an initiative in 2009 to create a database of the poor. The anomalies would not have occurred had that been done, he added.
Ahsan H Mansur, the executive director of the Policy Research Institute, said local administrations always embezzle money from such programmes. This time too, they tried but failed due to government vigilance.
He suggested imposing fines on officials involved in the irregularities.
"About 40% of the allocations under the social safety net do not reach actual beneficiaries because there is no real database of the poor. The government should quickly make one and update it regularly," he said.
A World Bank-funded project is underway for making a database of the poor, but the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics is taking time to implement it, he explained.
However, Ali Imam Majumder, a former cabinet secretary, thinks the Eid gift programme has been successful.
"It cannot be said that it has failed," he told The Business Standard, explaining, "Where there is no list of the poor, the local administration has been able to help 35 lakh people in the fastest time. So, they cannot be blamed."
But he echoed Ahsan H Mansur, stressing the need for preparing a list and updating it every year. "Because, some people fall below the poverty line afresh every year while some others rise above it."
Ali Imam said, "The administration asked for everyone's mobile number to provide assistance through mobile financial service. But not all have access to mobile phones. Many of their numbers are not registered with NID too. There are many such problems. So, some errors will take place in this kind of work."
However, they should work as flawlessly as possible, he added.