Over five lakh cards under the Food Friendly Programme have been distributed among people not eligible for the food support meant for the poor, according to a government review.
With the cards, public representatives and government rice dealers stole at least a tenth of the government food aid given every year for five million destitute families across Bangladesh since the Food Friendly Programme was initiated in 2016, the review revealed.
‘We found that about 10 per cent of the programme beneficiaries were not eligible to get it,’ food secretary Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum told New Age.
Giving 30 kilograms of rice per family per month for five months a year, the overall amount of the stolen rice amounted to more than 75,000 tonnes a year while the actual amount is believed to be much higher than that, according to officials.
‘I have been trying to review the list for long. I believe that the actual percentage of fake beneficiaries would be somewhere around 20 per cent,’ said Nazmanara.
The food-aid beneficiaries have long been complaining that they never receive 30 kilograms of rice as union parishad chairmen and members always deduct a portion from their allocation in the name of carrying cost.
The latest finding came after the Directorate General of Food has recently run a quick review of its list of beneficiaries for the Food Friendly Programme supporting five million families with rice supplies in the months livelihood opportunities are scarce i.e. March, April, September, October and November.
The government has recently accused dozens of public representatives of misappropriating government aid and punished dozens of dealers for the same reason.
Directorate General of Food data showed that between March and June they cancelled 5,01,715 FFP ration cards in all eight divisions.
There were areas where the review was not carried out but the DG Food was unwilling to provide information about that aspect saying that the review was to continue.
Under the Food Friendly Program each of the 50 lakh beneficiaries can buy 30 kilograms of rice a month at Tk 10 per kg. The rice is distributed in two phases a year.
Although the list of beneficiaries was supposed to be updated before each of the two distribution phases to include new beneficiaries replacing those who have passed away or graduated from poverty, it was never done.
‘This is the first time we made such a review of the list of beneficiaries,’ said DG Food’s director general Sarwar Mahmud.
A CPD report published in 2017 showed that 2,18,865 FFP ration cards were cancelled immediately after the program was introduced to get rid of ineligible beneficiaries in 2016.
But such initiatives against fake beneficiaries were not seen later.
Analysing the cancelled cards, the CPD report said that ineligible families or ghost beneficiaries were included in the food aid recipient list through nepotism and other illegal means.
The manipulation of the list of FFP beneficiaries seems to have continued with the latest review finding that the number of ghost beneficiaries more than doubled compared to 2016.
Nearly a sixth of the FFP beneficiaries in Mymensingh division were found to be fake with 50,591 ration cards cancelled under the latest review.
A similar portion of fake beneficiaries was identified in Chattogram division with 1,06,464 cards cancelled.
A total of 1,65,265 cards were cancelled in Dhaka division while 66,784 in Rajshahi, 42,398 in Barishal, 28,983 in Rangpur, 21,732 in Khulna and 19,498 in Sylhet division.
‘Public representatives and dealers have never updated the list ever since it was prepared in 2016,’ said Mymensingh’s Trishal upazila nirbahi officer Mostafizur Rahman, who oversees issuance and cancellation of the ration cards at the upazila level.
He said that the job of updating the list of beneficiaries was very simple for local representatives had they wanted to carry it out properly.
‘They are the first ones to know that if someone has died or no longer needs government aid to survive,’ said Mostafiz.
But a large number of the recently-cancelled food friendly ration cards had been used to withdraw rice in the name of people who passed away long ago.
UNOs and food officials in three other upzilas said that heirs to the dead beneficiaries were taking the government aid in full knowledge of public representatives in some cases.
There are also instances that dealers concealed the news of beneficiaries’ death to misappropriate rice allocated against their cards, they said.
A large number of beneficiaries have been selected by nepotism and many of them are enlisted with multiple social safety net programs, though it was prohibited by the law, said DG Food officials.
There were instances of public representatives and government dealers withdrawing rice against beneficiaries completely unaware about their being on the government aid list, said food officials.
Some beneficiaries have migrated to cities but their allocation was regularly withdrawn by dealers who shared proceeds from their irregularities with public representatives.
Although the allegation of the misappropriation of FFP rice was always there, the government has never run a review of the distribution system until the coronavirus crisis emerged pushing the poor into food crisis.
Centre for Policy Dialogue in a study released last month showed that 66 per cent of the beneficiaries of five other safety net programmes were non-poor.
The CPD study also revealed that some genuine beneficiaries had to bribe public representatives and government officials to get enlisted with social safety net programmes.
Beneficiaries attending the programme unveiling the CPD study alleged that they never received full 30 kilograms of rice given as assistance as up to four kgs of rice were deducted from their supplies citing carrying costs.
A government move to help 50 lakh hard-core poor families with Tk 2,500, planned to be sent through their phones, in the wake of the coronavirus crisis was halted halfway through after eight lakh fake phone numbers were found to be added to the list of beneficiaries.
‘Initiatives such as the Food Friendly Programme are helpful for the poor but their objectives are undermined by flaws in the government’s distribution system,’ said CPD research director Khondaker Golam Moazzem.
‘Mistargeting not only causes wastage of food or government resources but also deprives the poor,’ he said.
The Food Friendly Programme is currently going on and the cancelled cards have mostly been replaced.
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