It stretches credulity.
No fewer than forty government officials are planning to go abroad, their mission being to import iodine worth Tk8 crore annually. The trip itself will be undertaken at an expense of Tk2 crore to the national exchequer.
The proposal for the trip was made under the "Control of iodine deficiency disorders through universal iodation of salt (CIDD fourth phase)" project of the Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (Bscic).
The proposal was sent to the Planning Commission for its approval. However, following a review of the proposal, the commission has voiced its objections to the foreign trip, according to Planning Commission sources.
The proposal recommended allocations of Tk5 lakh for each official and Tk2 crore for 40 officials. Intriguingly, the proposal did not mention the country the officials planned to visit.
The project has been in place for the last 20 years. Three stages of it have been completed from June 1999 to December 2018.
Bscic sources have said that earlier, altogether 30 officials – 10 on each trip – journeyed abroad in connection with the project.
Ataur Rahman Siddiqui, the Project Director, said, "Development partners of the project want to raise awareness about iodine deficiency disorders. Besides, they have emphasised strict supervision right from the salt production stage to the retail selling stage."
He added that the officials had earlier made a trip to India only. "A decision on the destination for this new trip will be taken later," he said.
Iodine import project trip
The aim of the project is to import potassium iodine and raise awareness about iodine deficiency. Bscic has also submitted a proposal to the Planning Commission on setting up a potassium iodate plant.
Though it has been 20 years since the project was inaugurated, Bscic has been unable to ensure universal iodised salt as per the government's plan.
That is obviously an explanation behind Bscic's proposal for the validity of the project to be extended till December 2023.
A total of Tk147 crore has been earmarked for the implementation of the project. Bscic expects to receive Tk12 crore as foreign aid. It has proposed that the remaining expenditure be met from the government's fund and Bscic's own fund.
Sources have pointed out that there is hardly any logic in selling imported iodine to salt producers. It should be considered routine work. As for supervision, the Bangladesh Standards and Testing Institute (BSTI), Bangladesh Food Safety Authority and Directorate of National Consumers' Right Protection are there.
The project has proposed setting up a potassium iodate plant at a cost of Tk10 crore. But, surprisingly, Bscic has not undertaken any feasibility study, either technical or economic, on establishing the plant.
There are glaring gaps in the proposal. For instance, it does not mention where the plant will be set up, whether Bscic has the expertise to manage the plant, and, overall, the reasons for the plant to be set up.
In its report on the proposal, the Planning Commission has made it clear that it is mandatory for feasibility studies to be done in the matter of projects costing above Tk25 crore. But this project of Tk147 crore has not gone through any feasibility study.
The proposal speaks of the project being funded by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (Gain), Nutrition International (NI) and United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), apart from the funds made available by the government.
Such projects require letters of consent from development associates through Finance and Economic Relation Division before they can be approved.
According to Planning Commission sources, sometimes insignificant projects are approved by the government under political and bureaucratic pressure. Besides, projects undertaken without first having gone through feasibility studies end up costing more than the proposed budget.
"Again, it would be a waste of public money if the projects are cancelled halfway. In this regard, we need to carry on with the projects. Hence, projects should not be passed without reports being prepared on the sources of funds and feasibility studies," said Planning Commission officials.
When asked about the objections of the Planning Commission, Ataur Rahman Siddiqui said, "Iodine worth Tk7 crore to Tk8 crore is being imported from India under this project. It is an important project of the government."
Elaborating, he said, "If required, Bscic will do a feasibility study on setting up the iodate plant. In that case, setting up the plant will be deferred for a year. But we cannot stop importing iodine. We have to continue the project in the fourth stage and for that we do not need to do any feasibility study."
Meanwhile, in July this year, the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division of the Planning Ministry published a final evaluation report on the third stage of the "Control of iodine deficiency disorders through universal iodation of salt (CCID)" project.
The report noted that universal iodised salt could not be ensured for all under the project as it could not be implemented at the district and marginal levels.
There is a lack of oversight at the district level on such issues as the implementation of laws to prevent sales of non-iodised salt.
Besides, the project could not stop the use of non-iodised salt for edible purposes. Thus the aim of 100 percent iodised salt being used has remained unattained.
The third stage of the project was implemented in 2011 in Dhaka, Narayanganj, Chandpur, Chattogram, Potiya, Cox's Bazar, Khulna and Jhalakathi.
Though the project was targeted for completion by June 2016, it took an additional two years for reasons of a varied nature.
The aim of the third stage was to set up mandatory salt testing centres in all salt factories and ensure a quality control system at the district level at a cost of Tk71 crore.
It is to be mentioned that prior to the 1980s, iodine deficiency disorders took an epidemic form. Disorders like goitre, stunted growth, physical and psychological impairment, premature miscarriage and other under-nutrition related diseases underwent an increase. Such factors led to the government's initiating a universal iodised salt programme three decades ago.
The Iodine Deficiency Disease Prevention Act was passed in 1989 to meet the iodine deficiencies in the human body. Based on the Act, Bscic implemented a iodised salt production project under the Ministry of Industries.
In January 1995, the government banned the production, marketing and storing of non-iodised salt.