What type of vegetable cutter, locally known as Boti, is available in a forge at Tk10,000?
The question has left Abu Yusuf, a blacksmith in the capital's Karwan Bazar, totally flabbergasted as he has never sold a Boti for more than Tk3,000 in his 40-year career.
The blacksmith said a big-sized sharp tool sells at Tk800-Tk1,000 per kg. A large Boti can weigh a maximum of 3kg, meaning that its price will not cross Tk3,000.
The weight of a Boti that costs Tk10,000 will be between 10kg and 12kg and it is impossible to use such a heavy kitchen tool in chopping vegetables, he added.
However, such a high cost does not appear to be anomalous to the agriculture extension department that wants to procure 36 vegetable cutters at Tk3.6 lakh – each coming to cost Tk10,000 – under one of its projects, indicating a waste of public money amounting to Tk2.5 lakh.
This trend of overpricing in project purchases seems to be a never-ending phenomenon, with scandals hitting the headlines one after another since the Rooppur nuclear power plant housing graft in purchase came to light in 2019.
Not the Boti alone, but other small kitchen utensils as well, such as plates, plastic bowls, spoons and rice drums have also been priced unusually high. The estimated cost for buying furniture items like chairs, tables and sofas is exorbitant too.
Computers, laptops, smart televisions, air conditioners, fridges and other home appliances will also be purchased at almost double the usual prices.
All those inconsistencies in prices have come to light through a project titled "Agricultural Mechanisation through Integrated Management". The Executive Committee of the National Economic Council has already given its go-ahead to the project, which is worth Tk3,020 crore.
Planning Minister MA Mannan expressed his utter surprise when his attention was drawn to the development project proposal. "Is it? If these are true, then the estimated prices of utensils for this project are abnormally high. I am astonished. I'll check the documents when I'll be at office right tomorrow."
In some cases, it may not be possible to get down to the nitty-gritty when a project is approved, the minister said. If excessive pricing is proved in this project, it will be adjusted duly, he added.
On behalf of the Planning Commission, the Agriculture, Water Resources and Rural Institutions Division has performed various duties from the agriculture project's evaluation to its approval.
While asked about overpricing of the project goods, Zakir Hossain Akanda, a member of the division, told The Business Standard that the Planning Commission usually looks into strategic issues of a project. It is not the commission's responsibility to check how much it costs to purchase a product or service under a project.
The project will be implemented in all upazilas of the country. Some 9,000 village mechanics, 15,000 sub-assistant agriculture officers, 1,200 officers of other ranks and one lakh farmers will acquire training on the use of agricultural machinery at 18 agricultural training institutes in the country.
The utensils will be used in the dormitories, kitchens, and dining rooms of the training centres.
The pieces of furniture, laptops, desktop computers, electronics items and others will be purchased for the project director's office and 64 district project offices.
Under the project, the government will also buy 51,300 agricultural machines at an estimated cost of Tk2,575 crore and provide them to farmers at subsidised prices to help them cope with the scarcity of farmworkers.
The machines will save 50 percent of the time and 15 percent of costs in cultivation. Besides, wastage of crops will also be reduced by 10 percent-15 percent.
Experts believe that fixing high purchasing prices for the project goods will pave the way for corruption.
Irregularities are taking place in almost all government projects due to overpricing in public procurement, they added.
Some 90 plastic spice jars – each having capacity to contain a kg – will be bought at Tk1.8 lakh witheach costing Tk2,000, while a good quality container costs a maximum of Tk400 at Karwan Bazar.
Under the project, 90 aluminium spoons will be purchased at a cost of Tk90,000 – each costing Tk1,000. Each medium-sized spoon and a teaspoon will also cost Tk500 and Tk100 respectively.
Teaspoons are sold at a maximum of Tk30 each, medium spoons at Tk150 and large ones at Tk250. There is a possibility of misappropriation of two-thirds to three-fourths of the money allocated for purchasing the spoons.
Some Tk7.2 lakh has been estimated for buying 720 plates meant for the dorms of the training centres. Each plate will cost Tk1,000 and half-sized one Tk500. A good quality ceramic plate now sells at Tk200 and a China bone plate costs Tk480.
A chair costs Tk50,000
There was widespread criticism over buying a chair for the vice-chancellor of Dhaka University at Tk50,000. Under the new agriculture project,some 72 chairs will also be purchased at Tk36 lakh, each costing Tk50,000.
Akhtar Furnishers and Partex Furniture, the country's two largest furniture manufacturers, sell a chair that ranges between Tk25,000 and Tk30,000. As per this calculation, the purchasing price of a chair has doubled.
Five 14-inch laptops with Intel Core i-5 processor will be purchased at Tk1.3 lakh each under the project. However, an HP brand laptop with a similar configuration costs between Tk51,500 and Tk87,000 at Smart Technologies Bangladesh Limited's Multiplan sales centre.
The importer also sells Dell brand laptops at between Tk51,000 and Tk81,000 each. In this way, an additional Tk43,000-Tk78,000 has been proposed for each laptop.
The inconsistency in the purchasing prices of laptops becomes more evident when the price of a relatively powerful laptop with Intel Core i7 processor has been estimated at Tk1 lakh, which is Tk30,000 less than the one with Core i5 processor.
Besides, the price of each printer (black and white) has been fixed at Tk20,000 while its market price should not be more than Tk8,000.
Prices of ten air conditioners of General Electronics Company with 1.5-2 ton capacities have been estimated at Tk20 lakh – each at Tk2 lakh. However, a 1.5-ton air conditioner is now selling for Tk99,000 and a two-ton one for Tk10,8000 of the same brand in the market.
What do people concerned say?
The ministries and departments concerned fix prices for project goods. However, additional costs the project purchase will be adjusted as most products and services are procured through open tenders, Zakir Hossain Akanda explained.
Md Rezaul Karim, joint chief at the agriculture ministry, declined to make any comment in this regard. Dr Md Abdul Muyeed, director general of the agricultural extension department, could not be contacted on the phone.
Planning Commission cannot avoid the blame
Asif-Uz-Zaman, a former secretary and member of the Planning Commission, said the Planning Commission looks into the ins and outs of estimated prices of all project products. And it happens only regarding general purchases. And the commission wants to know in detail about any purchase at the meeting of the Project Evaluation Committee from the implementing organisation and the initiator ministry. In that case, its approval depends on a logical explanation. But the commission does not have skilled manpower to scrutinise technical purchases.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, told The Business Standard that this was yet another example of a section of government officials taking it for granted that publicly funded projects were a licence for their illegitimate income and illicit profiteering on the part of private contractors and suppliers that they collude with to institutionalise collusive corruption.
Those involved appear ignorant and unashamed about the deeply embarrassing recent disclosures of similar reports of corruption like the scandals related to the purchase of pillows or curtains one after another. They are not only procedurally and legally corrupt but also morally and ethically bankrupt, he added.
It is incumbent upon the authorities not only to thoroughly recast the estimates in light of the competitive market price but also to ensure the accountability of those who have produced and processed such a grotesquely unrealistic budget, Dr Iftekhar pointed out.