Last month on the occasion of the birth centenary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Golden Jubilee of the Independence of Bangladesh, a half-marathon was organised in Akhaura, Brahmanbaria.
Some 491 contestants from nine countries took part in that marathon. The number of participants could have been 492 if Nayeem Reza, a Dhaka-based software engineer and a passionate marathon runner, would have participated in the run.
Reza says that the organisers asked interested participants to apply online and complete online payment through mobile banking. Reza completed the entire process on time and reached Akhaura on 16 April, the day before the final marathon.
But as he reached the premise, all prepared to run 21 kilometers, 'the organisers told me to bring a printed copy of the registration confirmation file and a copy of my NID, otherwise, I wouldn't be allowed to participate', a frustrated Reza says.
For a professional software engineer, this was way too irritating and with a broken heart, Nayeem Reza left Akhaura without participating in the International half-marathon. 'What was the point of all those online registrations if I had to carry a printed paper with me?'
Yes, it is high time we ask that question as 2021 is supposed to be the ultimate year of 'Digital Bangladesh'. Even today, although we have an online or digital service at every govt office, we somehow end up carrying a printed copy of what we had typed on our PC or mobile.
Whether it's the Covid-19 test registration form, booking train tickets, filing a GD with police stations, applying to the land office for a land khatian, or even withdrawing an academic certificate from public universities, you'll be asked to submit a printed copy.
Access to Information (A2i) is the government organisation that works on digitising our country's public sector. Government websites, online registrations, application for NID and passport, online ticket booking for Bangladesh Railway, or even filing a general diary with certain police stations- a2i takes care of all of these.
We wanted to know what the digitisation process entails and how far it has progressed. Shahadat Hossain, a national consultant of a2i says, 'Nothing can be done overnight. We have to work with the limited resources we have. But I would say we have come a long way compared to the situation 10 years back.'
But how much have we progressed? Bangladesh govt started online GD service in 2010. The service allows the citizens to file a general diary online. In the last 10 years, the service was made available in the captal's Kalabagan, Sutrapur police station, and certain police stations in Mymensingh and Chandpur.
You can file a general diary only on lost and found issues. We contacted the capital's Kalabagan thana and they said, 'Why do you want to take the hassle of going online? You can come to the thana and it takes 10 minutes to file a GD.'
The same scenario can be seen in the land offices as well. In 2019, the Bangladesh govt started online service of land plot and khatian information, meaning that one can collect his/her land information and plot blueprints from the respective Upazila land office.
Recently Cox's Bazar-based journalist Sayeed Alamgir had experience of dealing with the land office when he went there to collect a khatian. He says, "The officers are unwilling to deal with online applications and registrations as it would deprive them of prospective bribes". At last Sayeed Alamgir had to bribe a peon to collect his copy.
The University of Dhaka has also started online services for their administration-related works. There is a website where students can create a profile and apply for withdrawal of certificates and grade correction. But students say that this move has added two additional steps, on top of the previous requirements.
Within the process, the administration department is required to update the application based on the information provided on the online profile, but the students must also provide a printed version to confirm that 'yes, we have submitted an online application.'.
We talked to the university's registrar Md Enamujjaman about this. His response was similar to that of Shahadat Hussain's- 'It takes time to upgrade and update a system and you cannot expect an overnight change. That will only hamper the quality of the service.'
The IT team is working on the development of the service and they are hoping to produce a smooth website and ancillary services within this year.
A2i is currently working on an online payment app ekpay that will allow citizens to pay for the govt services they take, say for paying bills, buying railway and bus tickets, application fees, etc.
360-degree online payment service is an excellent initiative. But we still have a lot of facilities that aren't well-maintained. And on top of that, we're taking on more projects; how practical is that?
We talked to Syed Almas Kabir, the president of BASIS (Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services) about this. He said, 'A2i and BASIS worked to create around 24 thousand govt websites in 2010-11. And in the last 10 years, the websites have not been updated properly.'
Then can we call it digitalisation? 'No. Because digitalisation doesn't mean just creating a bunch of websites. If the system doesn't assist the citizens then the true spirit of Digital Bangladesh will be lost.'
And what about the quality and maintenance of the system? Shahadat Hossain also gives an explanation in this regard, 'We have to multitask with limited resources. It's not just about developing a digitalised system, we have to train the officials so that they can help people to get the services.'
Almas Kabir says, 'We have to change the model. Managed Service Model can be an option, where the govt can outsource the project to an ICT company, they will build and manage the entire website or system. We have almost 2,000 ICT companies in the country. The maintenance can be distributed through tender. This will decrease the pressure on a2i, as it is extremely difficult for an organisation to maintain and update so many websites and data pages'.
'The goals of Digital Bangladesh were to ensure transparency, increase efficiency, productivity, and accountability. These are possible if we can transform the system and ensure that the services are available entirely online. The ongoing pandemic has compelled us to adapt with the digital services, work online and we must grab this advantage to improve the digitalisation works,' he concluded.