One would expect that online virtual meetings and workshops would cost less to run than real events with lots of expenses, but it appears that some government virtual meetings are as expensive as ever.
At a critical time when the government is struggling to handle an unprecedented pandemic with an inadequate health infrastructure and an economy badly hit by Covid-19, online workshops of the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) under the planning ministry are using all available state funds as if holding real world events.
IMED officials are now collecting a huge amount of money from the government in the form of allowances for participating in those online meetings organised in fiscal year 2019-20 to do impact assessment and intensive monitoring of 72 projects.
Although the workshops were online, all the participants have already collected a bill of over Tk1.38 crore in cash in lieu of stationery items such as bags, folders, pens, pads, etc.
What is even more interesting is that all the 73 Class-1 officers of the IMED have received cash – over Tk1.15 lakh each – against these stationery items.
Although most of the participants took part in online workshops from their homes in the last fiscal year, they submitted food bills totalling Tk43.2 lakh. Each of two of the three meetings of the technical and the steering committees were organised using the Zoom app and cost Tk14.40 lakh. In total, the cost of online meetings and meals came to Tk57.60 lakh.
Private organisations, which were employed for the outsourcing work, submitted a bill of Tk10.80 lakh as stationery and other expenses.
A review of a number of bills shows that 120 participants in each workshop did not have to provide a hard copy of their reports as the meetings were online. However, in some cases, a bill of Tk15,000 was raised per project from state funds for provisions of hard copies.
The IMED prepared the impact assessment and intensive monitoring report through outsourcing from its revenue sector in fiscal year 2019-20.
The main work of the survey started in February this year and was completed in June last. A total of 72 projects, nine from each of the IMED's eight sectors, were selected for the survey in the last financial year.
Through contacting a number of outsourcing organisations, The Business Standard came to know that the IMED had provided them with a common format of the bill, which they submitted after filling it in accordingly.
An official of a private organisation, on condition of anonymity, said the IMED had asked the organisation to prepare the bill in an identical way. As a result, financial figures in all bills looked the same.
An official of another organisation, asking not to be named, said the IMED was supposed to provide them with necessary documents in support of their food bills but the division was yet to do so. As a result, his organisation could not submit the bills.
IMED Director General Afzal Hossain said there was no provision that financial benefits would be reduced with the meetings being held online.
"Hence, the money is being spent on all those sectors mentioned in the outsourcing rules."
Honoraria for officials
Each participant in the online workshops received Tk1,200 after a deduction of VAT and tax at source. As a result, 73 IMED officials earned Tk87,600 from the workshops.
The IMED now has 73 class-1 officers who can participate in all workshops. Whether or not they participate in the workshops, all of them receive honoraria. In addition, class-2 officers of the division, officials of the Central Procurement Technical Unit, the Planning Commission and the implementing agencies and experts also take part in these workshops.
The income in allowances of IMED Secretary Abul Mansur Md Faizullah, Additional Secretary Mohammad Abdul Mannan and director generals of the IMED departments are certainly eye-catching.
The chief guest at each workshop receives Tk5,990, excluding VAT, in honorarium. In addition, the special guest, the president and the main speaker get Tk5,250 each.
In the workshops held in the last fiscal year, the IMED secretary was the chief guest most of the time. Sometimes, he also presided over the meetings. Therefore, the secretary earned about Tk4.5 lakh from the workshops.
The IMED secretary is the convener of the steering committee set up to monitor outsourcing activities. Last year, the steering committee met 216 times for the 72 projects, 3 meetings for each.
According to a finance department circular, the honoraria of all members of the steering committee is Tk1,500 per head, after a deduction of VAT. As a result, the IMED secretary earned Tk3.24 lakh from the steering committee meetings and more than Tk5 lakh in hospitality allowance.
Meanwhile, it has been alleged that the supporting manpower of the project, i.e. IMED employees have been deprived in many cases in a distribution of the allowances.
Tk54 lakh was allocated for the supporting manpower, with Tk75,000 per report. But an IMED official acknowledged that discrimination was resorted to in the distribution of the money among the officials and staff of the division.
Again, the administrative branch of the IMED took Tk18.36 lakh from 72 projects as a block amount. The money will be disbursed to the secretary and the additional secretary.
Meanwhile, Additional Secretary Mohammad Abdul Mannan earned Tk3.78 lakh from the consultation meetings. Again, he also got Tk3.24 lakh as a member of the steering committee and more than Tk5 lakh in hospitality allowance.
According to a source at the IMED, the secretary has returned Tk15 lakh to the government funds from his income.
A senior official said that IMED officials wait for the money all the year round and it is not possible to reduce the figure suddenly. An initiative was taken to eliminate the stationery expenses but it has not been possible.
Moreover, this time the secretary is returning the food bills he got from the meetings held after the lockdown was announced in late March. Besides, efforts are being made to get it from various sectors of the IMED, he added.
The official added that in the previous financial year Tk1.5 lakh was set for a sector called Management Service which the IMED secretary has dropped this time. As a result, the income of many officials has dropped up to Tk5 lakh, causing dissatisfaction to many.
Although the management service sector has been eliminated, money for the supporting manpower has been increased from Tk30,000 to Tk75,000 per project. Stationery expenses have been raised too. Besides, an attempt was made to allocate Tk50,000 per project for the editing panel expenses but that was not possible. The IMED officials share this money among themselves. This time, the IMED officials are sharing Tk36 lakh.
The main work of impact assessment and intensive monitoring started in February but the government announced a lockdown soon after the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country in March.
At the time, many people raised questions about the field-level workshops because, in the two months of the lockdown, all transport movements were suspended in the country. As a result, the total expenditure of Tk57.60 lakh has also been questioned.
There is a steering and a technical committee headed by the IMED secretary and the director general of the sector for proper supervision of the impact assessment and intensive monitoring work. But the lockdown started in March after only one meeting. The other two meetings were held online.
A total of Tk52.92 lakh was spent on honoraria and entertainment of the Technical Committee members, convened by the director general of the sector. The committee comprises 11 members, who each received honoraria and hospitality allowance to the tune of Tk4.81 lakh.
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of Policy Research Institute, said the IMED is supposed to identify irregularities in projects. "But it was not the right time to outsource work amid the lockdown."
The government should take back the extra money spent for the purpose, he said, adding that if IMED wastes money in such a way, other government agencies will be encouraged to follow suit.
With the development of the country, the size of allocations increases along with the number of projects in the Annual Development Programme. As a result, the IMED introduced outsourcing in 2010 on the pretext of a manpower crisis.