Ranu Parvin of Dhaka's Kalyanpur slum was a domestic help while her husband had no specific income source. Coronavirus-led restrictions on movement in April exposed the family, which had already been struggling to manage three meals a day, to extreme distress as Ranu lost her job.
Being unable to make ends meet, the woman called 333 for relief. But all the callers to the national hotline are not as in need as Ranu was.
Since the last week of April amid the movement curbs, the national hotline, 333, for providing humanitarian assistance and food received more than 10 lakh phone calls while around half of them were from people curious about the service, according to the disaster management department and local administration.
They said many callers sought cash aid instead of food.
Imran Hossain of Khulna said he had heard that the government would give relief if people stay at home during the lockdown. But he had not seen anyone getting the assistance.
"I do not know how to get it. However, I will make a call to the number seeking money," he told The Business Standard.
Mymensingh's Ishwarganj Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) Zakir Hossain said around 50% of the calls are from curious people as many assumed that the government is providing the poor and jobless with Tk5,000-10,000 each. But the cash seekers do not need food aid.
In this year's movement curbs, Ishwarganj Upazila got 47 calls and supplied food aid to 23 people after scrutiny.
"We even found some aid seekers having pucca houses [buildings]," said Zakir Hossain, adding the "affluents" were then discarded from the relief list.
The UNO said there were only three phone calls after Eid-ul-Fitr.
The disaster management department and the Access to Information (a2i) Programme sources said of the 10 lakh calls since the last week of April, there were more than 1.18 lakh calls on 4 May alone.
Atiqul Haque, director general of the disaster management department, said 28,000 families have been provided with relief so far. "As many as 40% of calls forwarded to us by the a2i did not qualify for aid," he noted.
Many calls to the number just to check out if the government is actually giving food. Even the owner of a three-storied building called us for food," Atiqul Haque said.
He said the department is trying to identify the actual needy people and to reach them out with relief. "Around 300-500 people qualify per day for food relief after scrutiny. But many of the aid seekers are not found at the addresses they gave us. Besides, some do not pick up the phone as we try to contact them."
Now calls to the helpline have started to decline as paddy harvesting in many regions has begun and intra-district bus services have resumed, Atiqul said.
Talking to rural people as to whether they know how to get the relief, TBS found most of them unaware of the helpline while some had distrust over the disbursement process.
Netai Chandra Dey Sarker, deputy director to the disaster management department, said the service is being provided mainly through a2i. So, the department did not do any separate campaign, which could have led to the mistrust and speculation.
How are people being reached out with relief?
Ainul Islam (not the real name), a resident of Ishwarganj upazila of Mymensingh, got relief after calling 333. The barber lost job during the pandemic. He was asked several questions from the helpline.
On the next day, the upazila administration contacted the man, and then delivered rice, pulses, sugar, oil, potatoes, onions, vermicelli and soap to his house.
Shah Muhammad Nasim, additional secretary to the disaster management ministry, said the caller was being asked some questions. If the person can answer those correctly, his or her name will be put on the list.
"After the verification through the local administration, then relief will be provided at the person's doorstep," he added.