Govt needs to be techie to reach out to people in need of aid

If the relevant demographic data including employment and income info are added to people’s national ID cards, the government can easily prepare a robust database for relief operations

Shamim A. Zahedy

When availability of data and statistics for many formal sectors is a big hurdle in Bangladesh, let alone those on informal and non-formal areas, reaching out to distressed people with food and cash aid during this novel coronavirus-induced nationwide shutdown is certainly an uphill climb.

All the efforts under the government, private organisations and individual initiatives to feed the poor appear to be disjointed, failing many of the new poor such as home-based domestic helps and street vendors to get access to the support.

The consequences of the incoherent relief endeavours—with some people receiving nothing, some a scanty amount of food, while still some collecting plenty—are evident in the hungry faces and shrill voices on the lane and by lane, asking for ‘bhat’, or rice, which were hardly seen in Bangladesh in the last three decades to be precise.

It is now an established theory, thanks to Indian economist Amartya Sen’s one study, that in the times of distress, people mainly suffer not due to shortage of food but because of its unequal allocation or erroneous distribution. 

In his Poverty and Famines (1981), Sen challenged ‘the prevailing “FAD hypothesis,” the assumption that total food-availability decline (FAD) is the central cause of all famines.’ Sen argued that ‘the more proximate cause is the so-called “entitlement failure,” which can occur even when there is no decline in aggregate food production.’

Recent press reports truly indicate that the relief materials provided by the government to mitigate sufferings of the marginalised and low-income groups have not reached all the “deserving people.”

Besides the non-availability of accurate data on the number of people and their whereabouts to reach them out with the assistance, there are other problems: many areas have seen political influences in distributing aid, while some areas have seen relief misappropriation, especially by the ruling party leaders.

It is also important to know the number of people who need assistance during the Covid-19 lockdown. The preliminary estimate on the number of people slipping into poverty anew is stated to be around 25 million.

A recent media report citing an assessment by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies Research Director Binayak Sen puts the number of new poor people across Bangladesh at no less than 24 million — 8 million in urban and 15.5 million in rural areas.

Oxfam, a major International NGO, meanwhile said: “The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could push half a billion more people into poverty [worldwide] unless urgent action is taken to bail out developing countries.”

For Bangladesh, sending aid in the forms of cash and kind to some 25 million new poor in the next three months or so might not see desired success if it follows the conventional distribution mechanism. Suggestions on many alternative routes and processes have come up by the time, though.

In a commendable move, the government is already contemplating to develop a Quick Response (QR) card-based database of nearly 12.5 million families to ensure proper distribution of food aid, thereby plugging some loopholes in the current distribution system, marred by duplicate and fake recipient entries.

Some have also pitched the idea of introducing India’s Aadhaar card-like certification to ensure food distribution. Much like smart NID in Bangladesh, Aadhaar is a 12-digit unique number issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India by taking a person’s biometric details such as iris scan and fingerprints, and demographic information such as date of birth and address.

A few others have suggested for social security number (SSN)-based solution what the US citizens enjoy.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) sounds relevant here: Dekha hai nai chakkhu meliya/Ghar hate shudhu dui pa feliya/Ekti dhaner shisher/ Upar ekti shishir bindu (I haven’t seen with my eyes wide open/Only two steps away from home/Lies a dewdrop/ On a sheaf of paddy).

One doesn’t need to travel to foreign lands, spending a fortune, to see the unknown. It already exists right here at home.

One can ask, however, what does Bangladesh do with whatever it has in its store to make the best use of? The country has a modern and validated smart national ID card and the authorities can consider making it an all purpose card, not just primarily limiting to voting. The country has already invested lots of money on it, and the system is robust.

This smart NID or the national ID card contains almost all the important biometric details for identification of a person. If the relevant demographic data including employment and income info are added, the government can easily prepare a robust database for relief operations.

As the process of NID cards distribution is still incomplete, the government can make a dependable database of target people by making use of the regular NID cards alongside the smart NIDs.

And for finding location of people during the lockdown or any crisis time, the big data processing of more than 166 million mobile connections could work wonder as the government has already decided to apply data analytics using mobile phone users’ information to contain the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Bangladesh, biometric mobile subscriptions are linked with NIDs, making them almost live source of information, literally minute by minute.

Whenever a person switches on his or her phone, the device registers the subscriber identity module or SIM card with the mobile network server using the nearest base station, hence providing location of the user.

An individual user, however, is allowed to register five SIM cards against each national ID. This may require further steps in processing to identify the location of any particular user.

If the existing data infrastructure does not fit well, it needs to be amended for effective use for the next disaster since this pandemic is not the last crisis to hit Bangladeshis.

Nonetheless, it is for sure that for a proper distribution of relief goods among the people based on their geographical location, the authorities need to be techie for now and for the future.


First printed :

9 May, 2020 10:51:56 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 10 May, 2020 12:20:06 PM

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