As many as 87.7 million people are likely to miss out smart card – the machine-readable National Identity (NID) card – if the election commission fails to deliver the cards to the citizens within this year. The commission took up the Identification System for Enhancing Access to Services (IDEA) project six years ago with an aim to provide over 90 million voters with the smart NID card.
But so far, only 10.2 million cards have been prepared, and of them, around 2.3 million have been distributed. That means 9.7 million ready cards have not been distributed yet, while 78 million cards are yet to be prepared. The deadline of the project ends in December. The authorities will have to deliver the remaining 87.7 million cards within the next six months, which seems to be next to impossible. Observers have pointed out that at the pace the commission has been distributing the cards, it will take a couple of years more to accomplish the task. But now uncertainty looms large about what will happen once the project tenure comes to an end. The election commission in 2011 worked out a plan to provide smart cards under the IDEA project, which is being jointly sponsored by the World Bank and the government of Bangladesh. As per the deal, it is mandatory to hand over cards to 90 million voters by December 2017. But so far the EC distributed 2.3 million cards (until May 2017) at the expense of BDT8.3322 billion. In the six years, card distribution process witnessed 2.55 percent progress, while 50.9 percent of the total project fund has been spent already.
Concerned officials have warned that the project will fall flat on face if the deadline is not extended. They said, operational procedure of the project was not in sync with the reality. Lack of tools and resources to do the job properly was evident; as a result the card distribution has been going on at a snail’s pace. Brigadier general Mohammed Saidul Islam, director of IDEA Project, said, “We are trying our level best to accelerate project work. In the course of implementing the project, we have faced various shortcomings and limitations. We have identified those problems and are now trying to solve them.” “If election commission approves, we will buy 2,000 finger print scanners and 2,000 iris scanners. It will enable us to distribute smart cards in every place at a time,” said Mohammed Saidul Islam.
In response to another query, he said, “We are contemplating about the fate of the project. Once the project deadline ends in December, we don’t know if the World Bank will continue to support the project or the government will finish the remaining task on its own funding. We will do whatever is best for the country.” In 2014, the election commission signed a BDT8 billion contract with a French firm named Oberthur Technologies for 90 million smart cards. As per the agreement, the French firm was supposed to supply 90 million blank cards by June this year, but so far it has delivered 50.8 million cards only. These imported blank cards are personalized before providing them to the registered voters. EC sources said the card distribution has also faced difficulty as the French firm has failed to provide an adequate amount of blank cards in time. Now EC will soon take a decision about whether it will renew the deal with that firm.
The distribution of smart NID cards began last year after wasting much time on preparations. On March 9, 2016, prime minister Sheikh Hasina formally inaugurated the distribution of smart NID cards to replace the laminated NID cards. But the actual distribution process began on October 3 that year. Since then, NID wing officials have been complaining that the distribution process is slow and cumbersome due to shortage of machines and equipment. At present over 10 million ready cards are gathering dust but EC cannot hand them over to voters due to the aforesaid shortcomings. EC takes fingerprints of all 10 fingers and iris images of the respective citizen before delivering the cards. But it has only 200 machine out of which around two dozen were out of order. Against this backdrop, the NID wing had proposed to discontinue collection of fingerprints of all fingers and iris impression as the exercise slows down the card distribution process. But the commission rejected the proposal saying, “The commission does not want to drop the two features as they are essential for the identification of a cardholder.” However, the EC approved NID wing’s proposal to procure at least 4,000 new machines (2,000 finger print scanners and 2,000 iris scanners) for speedy taking of voters’ fingerprints and iris impressions. Now the authorities concerned are hoping against hope that they will be able to meet the deadline.