Five years ago Sapia, 70, a beggar, approached Md Jamal Mir, a local representative, for an old age allowance. She had to wait two years to get her name in the eligibility list. Sapia was finally asked to give Tk 3000 to get a regular allowance. She paid the bribe.
Three years have passed but the wait for the vulnerable woman is not over.
Failing to get her allowance, Sapia filed a complaint at the Borhanuddin Upazila Social Welfare Office against Mir. The Social Welfare Office found Sapia's claim to be true.
"My husband died 10 years ago," said Sapia. "I have a daughter and nothing else that matters. I don't even have a house. I beg for a living. I went to a ward member [Mir] and requested for a widow and husband deserted destitute women allowance. I even bribed him Tk 3000. But he made a fool of me. Now he neither gives my money back nor makes arrangements for my allowance."
The tale of bribe
The old age allowances program started in 1997 with 400,000 beneficiaries and an allocation of Tk 48 crore. Now the number of beneficiaries of this program has increased ten-fold, and the allocation is Tk 2,400 crore (FY19) with Tk 600 for each person per month.
The government introduced the 'Widow, Husband Deserted and Destitute Allowance' in 1996 with four lakh widows and Tk 4.03 crore, with each widow getting Tk100 per month. Now there are 14 lakh widows with each getting Tk600 per month.
Sources at the Social Welfare Ministry said the objective of the allowances is to empower poor widowed and distressed women through financial support, and to improve the widowed women's status both within the family and in society.
Ensuring socio-economic development and social security for poor widowed or distressed women, and increase their dignity within the family and the community.
Strengthening of mental health through grants to poor widowed or distressed women and to the elderly.
In Bhola, about one lakh underprivileged people get the allowance. These include 23,752 widows, 57,403 elderly people, 13,026 disabled people and 702 Bedes.
In Borhanuddin, 8,503 people get an old age allowance, 3,538 get a widow, destitute and destitute allowance, and 1,905 get a disability allowance.
In Sachra Union under Borhanuddin Upazila, 694 people get an old age allowance and 322 get a widow, deserted and destitute allowance.
Allowances in the widow, deserted, and destitute category aim to provide cash to poor and vulnerable widowed women to improve their socio-economic wellbeing.
Many vulnerable people like Sapia have no choice but to bribe local representatives to get the allowances that they are entitled to. Only a select few get a return on the bribe, but for the rest it is a big zero.
Sapia is from Sachra union in Borhanuddin upazila under Bhola district. Many people there have been duped into bribing Mir. He takes a bribe of Tk3000 to Tk5000 from each applicant, but no one has received the allowance.
Md Bahauddin, the social welfare officer in Borhanuddin upazila, told The Business Standard that the Social Welfare Office has evidence to confirm Mir's misdeeds. Only a few people are getting an allowance while the majority, who are in need, are not.
Khaleda Khatun Rekha, the nirbahi officer at Borhanuddin Upazila, told this correspondent that she has received a copy of the written allegation and the probe report from the social welfare office.
"I will send it to the deputy commissioner's office soon," she said.
"I have asked the upazila social welfare officer to make a list of the unscrupulous local public representatives who are taking or used to take bribes from allowance seekers," she added.
This correspondent could not reach Md Jamal Mir, member of Ward No 7 under Sachra Union.
Sources at the Bhola District Social Welfare Office say that their office has received many allegations stating that almost all the union committee members and the chairmen, in some cases, take bribes to enter a person's name in the allowance list.
The Union level committee, with the chairman as its head and ward members as members, selects people who are eligible for the widow and old age allowances. The committee members and sometimes the chairmen prepare the list after taking large bribes from applicants.
Bhola district Social Welfare Officer Abul Kalam Azad admitted it by saying, "It is true. Many of the local representatives take a big chunk of money from [vulnerable] people. We are trying to stop such irregularities but the structural flaw is holding us back. The union committee members decide who are going to be the beneficiaries of the allowance program."
"The local representatives get to select who will get the allowance and who will not. They squeeze as much money as they can out of people applying for allowances in order to make a fortune out of it," he added.
"This is the heart of the problem," claimed Azad. "There will be no end to these anomalies as long as the union committee exists," he maintained.
Echoing Azad, Bahauddin said most of the members of the union committee are in the habit of taking bribes. "We are in no way responsible for selecting the beneficiaries of the allowance," he clarified.
"Not many people have the nerve to file a complaint against local representatives. We will not know that there are irregularities unless we hear from the allowance applicants," Borhanuddin maintained.
Paru Bibi of Satkhira, a widow in her 60s, has been begging for 30 years and is yet to get any vulnerable women or old age allowance. She approached everyone, including influential people, to get an allowance card. But no one helped.
Bibi finally realised that things do not work this way when it comes to getting a card. She bribed a local representative, but that representative named Nuruzzaman Gazi, who is also a union member of Satkhira's Shamnagar upazila, simply put Bibi on his waiting list. She has been on the list for two years.
Now Bibi does not know if her wait for a card will ever end.
Bibi said: "My husband died 32 years ago. Since then I had to live by asking people for money or food. I learned about the allowance program five years ago and went to a lot of people, but to no avail. Finally, I gave Tk 2000 to
Nuruzzaman to get the card. Nothing has changed for me yet."
Nuruzzaman, as expected, denied Bibi's allegation. This correspondent learned about similar experiences in Kalkini upazila under Madaripur district.
Admitting that there are irregularities in recipient selection and in the distribution process in the widow and old age allowance program, Gazi Mohammad Nurul Kabir, director general of the Department of Social Services (DSS), said that they are trying to right the wrong. "We have adopted a number of plans to digitalise all processes in order to stop such anomalies," he elaborated.
The union level committee gives the first go-ahead signal in the widow allowance beneficiary selection. After that, the list needs to be approved by the upazila, the district, and the DSS.
Officials of the DSS say, "It will be impossible to stop corruption [in the distribution of such allowances] if a union committee for such allowances exists. We hope to reach a decision about the union level committee," said Kabir, in the same vein.