Some people in Dhaka slums are also invisible to the government machinery because their names are not on the voter list of the city corporations
For a slum dweller like the 50-year-old Bakuli Begum in the city's Peyarabag area under Moghbazar, the anxiety to find food daily is more urgent than the threat of the coronavirus.
She does not even know that the government has been running a huge relief program for people just like her who exist day to day. The reason is that in the last 18 days of the city's shut down, barring one exception – nobody offered her any relief.
Bakuli has three working sons. But none of her sons could find any jobs since the shut-down started.
A few days into the shut-down, she was happy to receive some food from the police. This included a packet of 4 kg rice, one kg daal, 2 kg potato, a packet of soybean oil and a soap.
"We went through the food in two days," she said.
One of her sons, who is a transgender, heard of food being distributed by various private organisations and went out in search of it. But this time the police beat him up and sent him home.
Bakuli's family is one of the 16 families – totalling 50 members who live in the Peyarabag slum. None of them have received the government's relief.
The slum dwellers' misery started a few weeks before the government announced the shut-down. The women residents who used to work as domestic helps lost their jobs from the last week of February as their employers told them to stop working fearing the spread of the virus.
Parul, a 30-year-old woman living in this slum, used to work for four families. She has remained idle for a month as her employers asked her not to come to work from March until the pandemic situation improved.
"We did not get any government relief yet, moreover, nobody enrolled our names in the relief roll," she said.
"We could not even go out of the slum to look for food as the police are very strict on us," she said.
These people are also invisible to the government machinery because their names are not on the voter list of the city corporations in Dhaka.
Relief not reaching the poor
The Business Standard found out that there was enough arrangement for relief. But the relief allocation process moves through four bureaucratic levels – before it is delivered to the needy.
At the top, the ministry allocates funds to the district commissioners. The district commissioners then send the allocation to the city corporations which then distribute it through local public representatives.
In the Peyarabag case, the relief materials remained stuck at the district commissioner's office till April 8 for some unknown reason. An intervention from high level later made the office to partly release the relief allocation to the city corporations.
The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief started special relief allocation for the coronavirus crisis from March 24, and has been releasing materials twice a week.
As of April 9, the ministry has released a special allocation of a total of 56,567 tonnes of rice and cash Tk22.15 crore for the poor people in 64 districts.
This allocation is supposed to reach every ward twice a week until the shut-down is lifted.
In Dhaka, the city corporations received 1,703 tonnes of rice and cash Tk1 crore till April 9.
In the first allocation to the city corporation after 14 days of lock down, the Dhaka district commissioner office released only 100 tonnes of rice and cash Tk10 lakh.
Each of the 54 wards under the Dhaka North City Corporation was allocated 1,851 kilos of rice and Tk18,518 cash. The allocation was made following the receipt from the district commissioner.
Around 6.5 lakh people live in slums in Dhaka city, according to the government's estimation.
The Peyarabag slum is under the jurisdiction of ward 35 in Moghbazar. Its councillor Muktar Sardar said Saturday that he did not get any government relief yet. The city corporation gave him only 500 packets of food once from its own arrangement so far.
Is the relief enough for all the poor people?
Ward 35 actually has an undelivered allocation of 1,851 kg rice and a cash allocation of Tk18,518. Muktar said he has received relief demand from 10,000 voters in his area. But this did not include the floating people like the non-voters who also live in the slums.
According to Muktar, the amount of relief was not enough even for the 10,000 voters who are waiting for the relief. "How would the floating people get relief?" he asked.
A surprised ministry
The Senior Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief Shah Kamal was surprised to learn that the slum dwellers were not getting any relief. He wanted the name of the slum so he could find out the reason from the officer in charge of the relief operation.
"The concerned officer reported to me that relief reached everywhere," he later said.
He said the ministry has been providing 400 tonnes of rice and Tk20 lakh cash every week for Dhaka city corporations.
The relief is disbursed immediately after allocation and people will get the relief from the very next day, said Kazi Tasmin Ara Ajmery, deputy secretary of Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief.
She said her ministry has been allocating relief twice a week from March 24 for all 64 districts of the country, so every ward is supposed to get the allocated relief twice a week.
Expressing surprise, she said, "I do not know why the wards of north city corporation did not get the allocation yet."
She said there was no shortage of relief because the ministry has been providing special allocation for the pandemic situation, in addition to that, there is a reserve of relief with the district commissioners. Moreover, if any claims of shortage are received, the ministry would take care of that but so far nobody has claimed any shortage, she said.
"We are repeatedly asking the Deputy Commissioners to inform us if they need more relief so that not a single person remains unfed."
"If needed, we are ready to provide allocation every day. But no requirements were received from deputy commissioners, she added."
What the district administration says
When contacted for comment, Abu Saleh Mohammed Ferdous Khan, deputy commissioner of Dhaka district, redirected The Business Standard to talk to Md Shahiduzzaman, additional deputy commissioner.
Shahiduzzaman claimed that the district administration had been handling the relief effort till April 7. From April 8, the city corporations were given sub-allocation of funds following due legal process and instructions of the government's high-ups, he said.
But how did the district administration deliver the relief till April 7?
He said, "We were dealing with ward councillors. But the city corporations were also dealing with ward councillors which created confusion and overlaps." As a result, on 8 April, a decision was taken to organise the distribution of funds in a more systematic way.
He claimed that district administration was distributing rice, daal and potato until transferring the fund to two city corporations. But these relief allocations were not given to ward councillors directly.
"It was because ward councillors did not give us any list. You know the crisis broke out not so long ago, so we focused on some slums," he said.
What the North City Corporation says
Mir Nahid Ahsan, zonal executive officer of zone 3 of north city corporation, said he received government relief for 10 wards under his zone for the first time on 9 April. He could not distribute the allocation to the local representative till 11 April.
Ward councillors only include voters in lists
The Business Standard talked to a few ward councillors about receiving government relief.
Mostak Ahmed, councillor of ward 23 in Malibagh said he came to know about the allocation of government relief of food and cash from this reporter for the first time. He had prepared a list of 2,000 poor following the instruction of the city corporation and only voters were included in the list.
He said there were around 300 slums in his area where the majority of the residents were non-voters.
Shafiullah, councillor of ward 24 in Tejgaon industrial area said he did not receive any government relief to distribute. He has prepared a list of 6,000 people for relief.
He said there are around six slums in his area where 1,200 families are living consisting of 3,600 members.