The government has taken a hard line against theft and irregularities in its relief programme for marginalised and low-income people during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Policymakers have directed all departments concerned to take stern action when they receive allegations that relief was misappropriated or stolen.
Sources in the government said, thus far, they have immediately responded to every allegation and showed no mercy for embezzlers.
Md Shah Kamal, senior secretary to the disaster management and relief ministry, told The Business Standard that mobile courts have already punished some people for embezzling aid while several other people have been arrested by law enforcement.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in a televised address to the nation on March 25, announced wider social safety net measures for low-income and homeless people to help them deal with tough times during Covid-19.
She also said low-income people will receive government assistance under the Ghore Fera (Returning Home) programme in their village homes because many have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Additionally, homeless and landless people will get free housing and food for six months – plus some cash. Meanwhile the Vulnerable Group Development and Vulnerable Group Feeding programmes, plus Tk10 per kg rice sales, will continue.
As per instructions, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief has been disbursing rice and cash for low-income people who are outside of the social safety net.
As of April 9, the government has allocated 65,967 tonnes of rice for relief, according to the ministry. It has also allocated Tk25 crore in cash relief and more than Tk3 crore to purchase baby food.
Meanwhile, allegations that relief materials have been embezzled have been made in some parts of the country.
Local administrations and law enforcement have arrested several people for their alleged involvement in misappropriating and stealing aid.
The Business Standard talked to several policymakers and some leaders of the ruling party to know their stance regarding these allegations of aid theft.
Sources at the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said the prime minister has ordered the authorities concerned to be vigilant against irregularities and warned all against corruption.
They said all law enforcement agencies have been instructed to take action if they receive allegations.
Different government agencies are monitoring the activities and directly reporting the updates to the prime minister.
Further, the premier, herself, is collecting information with the help of her sources nationwide.
Sources at the PMO said Sheikh Hasina had also instructed government officials and her party leaders to work in coordination with each other in distributing relief.
She instructed party leaders to oversee the relief distribution process to prevent irregularities and ensure that relief gets to all deserving people.
Sources said the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had already instructed all of its divisional offices and the integrated district offices to closely monitor relief programmes in coordination with deputy commissioners. ACC officials have already begun their work.
Dr Enamur Rahman, state minister for the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, said the prime minister has warned several times that stern action will be taken against corruption in this tough time.
"We are not allowing anyone, against whom we are receiving allegations, to go untouched. We are not taking into consideration the individual's political or administrative identity," he said to The Business Standard.
"We are bringing people under the legal process if there is an allegation of corruption against them.''
Md Shah Kamal added that the government had already prepared a list of around 50 lakh families to provide with aid.
"We are considering an aid distribution system in which there will be no scope for corruption. The process' update will be done over the course of time, and in the existing system we are distributing aid with zero tolerance for corruption,'' the disaster management and relief secretary added.
Mahbubul Alam Hanif, joint general secretary of the ruling Awami League party, told The Business Standard that they have already instructed their party leaders – up to the grassroots level – to monitor the relief distribution process in line with the direction of the party president.
"It is very unfortunate that a few people are trying to embezzle aid meant for the poor. When the whole country is fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic, they are trying to take a chance. Our party workers will not allow anybody to steal the stake of the poor,'' he added.
Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office, has recommended instant measures be taken against corruption in aid programmes.
"The prime minister has already declared her stand against corruption in aid programmes. It should be carefully implemented,'' he added.
Top policymakers and economists said, considering every situation and issue, stern action should be taken against those who are found to be involved in anomalies. Otherwise, the government's noble initiative to serve the poor and low-income people will be in vain, they added.
The Local Government Division, on Saturday, issued a letter warning against irregularities in aid distribution.
The letter was sent to deputy commissioners and upazila and union parishad chairpersons.
"If any public representative or government official is found to be involved in irregularities in relief distribution, the individual will be dismissed and a case will be filed against them," the letter read.
In the meantime, the prime minister has again warned all against any anomalies in relief and aid distribution.
"I am very sorry to say, we have received allegations against some people regarding misappropriation of relief goods in this crisis period," she said.
"I again warn you all that nobody will be left unpunished. If necessary, we will punish them instantly with the help of mobile courts,'' the premier said on Sunday – while speaking to the local administration and representatives of the Barisal and Khulna divisions via a videoconference call.