Inside a local election commission (EC) office in Dhaka, Rezaul Karim was perusing a book containing thousands of names to find his among them. Rezaul has a NID card, but whenever his NID number is used online, for example, while purchasing a SIM card, it shows a random woman's photo instead of Rezaul's.
Unfortunately, his wife faces a similar problem as well when she uses her NID.
When he came to the local election for a solution, he was handed a giant book of voters' identities to find his name. After going through thousands of names, Rezaul couldn't find his information there. When he asked the officials to help him, they asked him to contact the EC head office in Agargaon. Nothing more was said.
It was noon already, and the officials were getting ready for their lunch break.
But suddenly, a hullabaloo ensued at the other corner of the room. A man stormed into the office and began shouting that someone from this office called him and said all his papers were fake. The man who called from this office asked him to come here and contact him.
The election officials fervently denied calling him. However, when the visibly enraged man rang the phone number in front of everyone, it turned out to be from the office we were standing in.
The Business Standard later asked this person what the fuss was all about. Sarwar (not his real name) told us, "I work abroad. My name and date of birth are different on my NID, passport and SSC certificate. When I returned to Bangladesh, I came to the election office to fix these errors. An official said he would correct all the documents if I gave him Tk35,000."
In the recent past, one could renew or make a passport without NID. However, all e-passport applications require NID. Earlier, Sarwar could comfortably bypass the need to use his NID. But recently, he noticed the discrepancies across his official identity cards and embarked on a turbulent mission to rectify the errors.
"As I knew no one would work here without a bribe, I directly contacted the education board where I have a contact and corrected my certificate in less than two weeks. When they [local EC officials] learned that I did it bypassing them, they tried to harass me this way," he added.
Sarwar's contact at the education board assured him his papers were not fake and asked him to find the person at the election officials who told him so. So he had an opportunity to take action against his harassers. When Sarwar warned them he would call 999, the police helpline, and file a complaint, only then did the officials back down.
However, he is still waiting for his corrected NID card, but he is confident that the local election commission office has learned its lesson and will not cause him more grievances.
However, Sarwar is an exceptional case, one of the lucky ones, who could avoid the hassle and pressure of bribery for trivial tasks such as correcting some basic NID information by utilising the 'right connections.'
In most cases, people suffer like Rezaul Karim, running from one office to the other, requesting officials for assistance to correct errors in their documents that were not made by them in the first place.
Especially during the first years of updating and digitising voter information, the errors (such as spelling mistakes, wrong date of birth, etc.) made by the concerned office on NIDs were aplenty.
If you want to correct such errors in your documents, there is no unified solution, as different types of problems require different types of papers and visits to different offices. For example, if it is a spelling mistake in your NID, you will require your birth certificate. If it is age correction, you will need to show your academic certificate, etc.
In the issues of certificate corrections, papers that are required may involve getting an affidavit, publishing advertisements, and applications (now possible online) while the processes in the cases of passports are somewhat similar to that of the NIDs.
The step-by-step process (which includes filing some documents and applying for corrections) does not sound complicated, initially. But once, the process starts, the reality morphs into something else entirely.
"Older NIDs were full of errors. People were not serious about little issues with the ID cards. The officials collecting the information were not careful about the correctness of the information either, " one former EC official told The Business Standard, requesting anonymity.
According to the ex-EC official, "The process may sound simple: you need a birth certificate for name spelling correction. But in reality, you need all sorts of papers and conditions for various types of issues. Many times people don't have the necessary documents with them,".
"For example, if someone without any educational certificates wants to correct their age, there are myriads of hassles on the way. On the flip side, no problem is too big if you pay the officials money. Bribe them, and even if you don't have a certificate, your age will be corrected," he added.
"A simple task that should not take more than two days drags on for months. Did you see how rudely these government officials behaved? They are uncooperative, especially because we are common people, less educated and we do not have powerful relatives," a frustrated Rezaul Karim told us as he prepared to head home, still not knowing how or when his problem would be solved.
These challenges pertaining to document correction or retrieval are not limited only to the EC offices.
Niamul Islam, a young man from Rajbari, was waiting in a long queue at the Rajbari Passport Office. His wait was especially long because he refused to bribe passport officials.
"I once saw a person from Pangsha Upazila ask an official about correcting his name on the passport. He [the official] asked for a whopping Tk300,000," Niamul said, adding, "no one gets out of this office with a pleasant experience or without bribing the officials."
And, in the case of certificate issues, if one wants to get them corrected, it also comes at a huge cost for the general people.
We spoke to a Madrasah teacher recently who lost his Kamil certificate (equivalent to a master's degree certificate). He requested anonymity as he currently works under the Madrasah board. He needed the document for a promotion.
"I went to the [education] board in Dhaka, far from my home district, with all the papers I needed that I came to know through the cleric of my institution. When I went to the board, they said I cannot have it because I needed an application from the principal of the institution where I studied Kamil," he recalled.
"They do not clarify the instructions. But if I paid money in the right place, I actually wouldn't face any hassle in the first place. When we choose the legitimate channel, it becomes difficult," he added.
We reached out to the election commission deputy secretary and PRO Asaduzzaman Arzu to learn if the commission is aware of the incredible predicaments voters face daily in these government offices while correcting information and about the perpetual culture of bribery.
"Who asked for the bribes? Is it our officials or a third-party broker? Our general perception is that the officials asked for bribes in the government offices. But it is not the case with the election commission," Asaduzzaman said. "There can be brokers in front of the election commission office, but if the voters seek help from the commission office, they will help."
When we mentioned in Sarwar's case that an election commission official asked him for a bribe, he said, "this is not believable… it cannot happen."
"He [Sarwar] should complain against him [official]. Actions will be taken against him if proven guilty. We are trying our best so that voters are not harassed, but yes, all officers are not the same," Asaduzzaman replied.
The PRO, however, praised the online system of the EC in correcting voters' information.
At present, there are options to correct your NID online as well. But most people actually don't have access to online options or are unaware of them. Besides, it doesn't help matters when the error that needs to be fixed is a little more complicated than just correcting one's name or age.
"The online process we have now is very easy and fast. When you register the changes it shows what papers you need to show… you can do it at home," Asaduzzaman said. "But in some cases this becomes complicated. For example, someone wants to change his father's or mother's name entirely. It has many stages of an investigation. Every stage has correspondence, but the voters don't follow it."
"We are not living in heaven, and we are not angels. It may not be the case that our officers are 100% honest. Some may have issues. But the entire system is very good, and it is running smoothly," Asaduzzaman added.
We also reached out to Transparency International Bangladesh's Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman about the culture of bribery in these offices that the victims reported to us, and asked him why these offices cannot digitalize these public services entirely.
"As in any other public service delivery sector, bribery and other forms of corruption in services related to NID and passport have been rendered a normality because of lack of accountability of those who are involved in the illegality," Iftekharuzzaman said.
"The failure of the relevant authorities to fully digitalize such services could be partly because of [lack of] necessary skills and resources, but perhaps more because a section of those who are supposed to take the necessary initiatives are also beneficiaries of the corrupt practices," he added.