Ershadul and Golam Mustafa, both hailing from Rangpur's Mithapukur upazila, live in Dhaka along with their families for work. Yet, they were selected for the government's ration cards and they did not even know about it.
Local representatives were enjoying the food aid that was meant for Ershadul and Mustafa.
Later, 148 such ghost recipients and well-off people were weeded out of the list, meant for deserving people in the upazila through an investigation.
When contacted, Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum, secretary of the food ministry, told The Business Standard, "We have so far detected six lakh fake cards, cancelled those and are issuing new cards for the actual beneficiaries."
Mithapukur Upazila Food Controller Md Sohel said, "There were problems with some ration cards and they have been replaced with those meant for the actual recipients."
The sordid story is not confined to Mithapukur alone. By making lists of fake beneficiaries, local representatives all over the country are gobbling up relief intended for 50 lakh poor households hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Around 6 lakh fake beneficiaries have so far been identified in the country through investigations even as the pandemic has been ravaging lives, according to sources.
The rich, dead people, relatives of local representatives and ghost beneficiaries had got into the lists. Again, many ration cards were issued in the names of people without their knowing about it.
Sources at the food ministry and the food directorate have confirmed that the names of the real beneficiaries are now being added to the list by eliminating the fraudulent ones.
Currently, 50 lakh poor people are getting 30kg of rice at Tk10 per kg under the government's ration card facilities for five months – March-April and September-November, according to the food directorate. The food directorate distributes food relief among the beneficiaries.
Alongside food relief, the government also decided to bring 50 lakh poor families – impacted by the Covid-19 crisis – under a cash assistance programme of Tk2,500 each. To this end, a list was prepared, but there were inconsistencies in information relating to 28 lakh people. In such duplicitous ways have public representatives tried to eat up around Tk600 crore earmarked for the poor.
However, when the government began the coronavirus food aid programme to mitigate the sufferings of the poor, there were allegations of relief theft and irregularities over its distribution.
Over 100 local representatives were expelled from the process for allegedly misappropriating and stealing relief materials across the country. The Anti-Corruption Commission sued many as well.
In the face of widespread criticism, the food ministry started to find out the number of fake beneficiaries registered with the government's food relief across the country. The food directorate has been busy doing the work.
A food controller under the guidance of an upazila nirbahi officer has been updating the lists of beneficiaries across the country.
After the Covid-19 hit, poor and low-income families, who were faced with a food crisis in the absence of income during the countrywide shutdown, were badly in need of food assistance.
However, the government soon found itself in an uneasy situation with allegations of irregularities pouring in from different parts of the country over the distribution of relief.
Subsequently, the government instituted investigations into the alleged irregularities.
Sarwar Mahmud, director general of the Directorate General of Food, said, "We have begun an investigation after various allegations over food relief distribution surfaced. It is still going on."
Complaints over fake ration cards still coming in
There are still reports of fake ration cards in some places. Razia Begum and Nargis Akter, residents at Char Nasirpur union in Sadarpur upazila of Faridpur, do not know anything about their enrolment with the government food aid.
There are allegations that people close to the local chairman have taken advantage of the cards.
Local residents have complained about the matter to the upazila nirbahi officer and the deputy commissioner. The complaint is still under investigation.
Govt to introduce smart cards for distributing relief
To rein in the irregularities, the government is developing a database of beneficiaries. They will be provided with smart Quick Response (QR) cards.
The database will contain the National Identity numbers of recipients, their mobile phone numbers, addresses and other information so that all duplications and irregularities can be avoided.
In September, the government will experimentally use some smart cards for distributing food relief as a way of plugging the loopholes.
Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum said, "We will go for smart cards, work on which has already begun. This, of course, requires a little time. With such cards, no one will get a chance to cheat."