Vol. 5 Num 780 Sun. August 06, 2006  
Front Page

Flawed machine readable passport scheme shelved
Ministry asks for re-tender on MRP, visa

The home ministry has finally scrapped its grossly flawed Tk 1,500 crore project on machine readable passport (MRP), visa and national identity card (NIDC) and asked the immigration and passport directorate to float a tender on MRP and visa only, sources said.

The MRP-visa project may require an expenditure of Tk 600 crore from the revenue budget unless it is re-designed by a professional consultant. While the present demand for passport is around 12 lakh a year, the home ministry put the demand for MRP at 30 lakh in the first year of its introduction.

Bangladesh has an international obligation to introduce MRP by 2007, and the home ministry appeared enthusiastic about the scheme till last month. But it has now lost interest since there is no chance that tender for this project can be completed within the tenure of the present government.

The political lobby that spearheaded the project by making the home ministry ignore various rules and regulations till last month has also stopped hammering on the scheme.

Sources close to the lobby said it was very enthusiastic about the scheme not because it wanted implementation of the scheme, rather it was looking for hefty commission in advance from the German company that would have been awarded contract for the project. Moreover, the German company was striking a deal with a Singapore-based company to do most part of the job.

Given the huge financial stakes, the lobby using various means tried to convince the prime minister late last month to overturn the Cabinet Purchase Committee's refusal. The committee on July 17 declined to approve the project and asked the home ministry to pursue only the MRP and visa scheme.

Sources mentioned that immediately after the purchase committee refusal, the home ministry at a meeting decided to exclude the NIDC component from the project and assign the passport directorate to float a tender on MRP and visa. The ministry also decided to form a committee on the tender but refrained from forming it.

Meanwhile. lobbyists argued with high officials of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and almost convinced them that this project should be re-sent to the purchase committee without any changes and have it approved. Otherwise, the government will not be able to complete its tender process, and consequently the lobbyists will not be 'benefited' by the scheme.

When PMO officials sought the prime minister's decision on the matter last week, a top official gave her a different view. He told the PM that if such a huge project is approved in violation of rules and regulations, it will be yet another political issue for the opposition. At this point of time, the ruling BNP is better off not approving the deal.

The prime minister accordingly decided that only the MRP and visa project would be undertaken as per her previous decision and as per the purchase committee directive, the sources added.

A highly placed source said the home ministry has failed to handle the MRP-visa and NIDC scheme from the beginning

"The prime minister on October 16, 2004 approved in principle a proposal on MRP and visa only. She did not approve the NIDC component. NIDC is a very significant matter having deep political and economic implications. But this component was added by the home ministry on its own without any policy decision backing it," the source said.

Following the prime minister's approval, the home ministry initially started off with the standard practice. In November 2004, it placed a proposal on MRP and NIDC before the secretary-level committee.

The committee remarked that the financial component of this programme will have to be approved either by the ECNEC or the home ministry, depending on how it is going to be financed, and the manpower component of this programme will have to be cleared by the establishment ministry.

The home ministry discussed the matters with the finance minister and establishment minister. When the ministries concerned started making various enquiries about the programme, the home ministry in January last year stopped all correspondence with them and started moving it in a different direction.

"The home ministry resorted to an unusual practice of pushing it (scheme) ahead on its own. The ministry started inviting officials of the finance, establishment or foreign ministries in its exercises for this programme. As a result, the scheme did not have a single opinion from an external committee," the source mentioned.

"The tender for MRP-NIDC was premature. A law is needed for the NIDC. The manpower component needs to be cleared by the finance ministry and finally approved by the national implementation committee on administrative reorganisation (NICAR). The whole project, be it financed under the revenue budget or by some other means, needs to be cleared by the finance ministry. None of these issues was addressed," he said.

The Tk 1,500 crore tender did not ensure competition and proper evaluation. The tender did not involve reputed international consultants though it involves new state of the art technology around the world. Instead, the ministry hired an expatriate consultant for this job under the influence of a minister's son, who was initially disqualified by the home ministry interview board.

Though 34 international companies showed interest in the bid, only four were pre-qualified through questionable ways. Then only two bids were submitted amid allegations of bid manipulation. As a result, the home ministry bid failed to generate competitive price.

Consequently, the home ministry failed to give a clear breakdown of the project cost at the July 17 purchase committee meeting.

The ministry also inflated the demand for passport that ultimately inflated the overall cost. The present demand for conventional passport is 1.2 million copies a year. The conventional passport lacks certain security aspects, which allow individuals to obtain multiple passports. But when MRP comes into effect, none can obtain more than one passport.

Experts say this would cut down passport demand by 5 to 7 per cent. Yet, the home ministry has arbitrarily estimated a demand of three million passport when MRP will be available.

"The scheme was given the status of a programme to place it under the revenue budget so that the standard financial scrutiny applicable to such huge procurements can be avoided. However, a programme under the revenue budget still needs to undergo a certain process, which the home ministry violated," a high official pointed out.

A programme under the revenue budget needs to be sent to the finance ministry with an estimated cost and a detailed breakdown. An inter-ministerial committee under the finance ministry then scrutinises the policy and budgetary aspects of that programme and make necessary amendments. This committee frames a summary and sends it to the finance minister for approval and the ministry then formally gives the home ministry go ahead informing it of the financial approval.

Besides, the home ministry has to clear its manpower component from another inter-ministerial committee of the finance ministry. This committee also scrutinises the proposal on manpower and approves it.