Monday, December 22, 2008

Getting the Impossible Done



In an exclusive interview, Major General Md Shafiqul Islam, ndc, psc, Military Secretary of the Bangladesh Army, which has co-managed the Bangladesh Voter Registration Project with the Election Commission, talks about how the dream of a flawless voter list has come true. This year the ID World International Congress has honoured Major General Islam with the ID Outstanding Achievement Award

Can you please tell us about the process in which the national ID card project worked?

Before explaining the process, I would like to touch up on the events that led to this project. The events of 11 January 2007 created a widespread national expectation for an accurate voter list with photographs. Considering the significance of the task, Bangladesh Army, under the direction of the Chief of Army Staff, proposed an integrated task, which would produce not only a voter list, but also National ID cards and a biometric database for the citizens above 18 years of age. The model for the process was deliberated by a national committee and then was put to test through a pilot project at Sreepur Pouroshobha on June 10, 2007.

At the same time, Bangladesh Election Commission (BEC) approved this project for nationwide implementation with the assistance of UNDP and requested Bangladesh Army to provide the necessary technical and logistical support required for implementing the same. Hence, a group of dedicated officers along with local software firms developed a customised software and set-up a control and monitoring network for undertaking the job. An operation, code named ‘NOBO JATRA’ was launched in late July 2007. A central control cell at Dhaka cantonment and divisional and district control cells were established to coordinate the project, with the aid of BEC and local administrations. The registration form contained all relevant fields required for the voter list and National ID cards. Registration on paper was accomplished through door-to-door visits by data enumerators while the digital registration was done at the registration centre under the direct supervision of the Army. In the coastal areas of the country, Bangladesh Navy supervised the task. Operators and technical managers were recruited and trained throughout the country by Army personnel. After the digital registration and proof checking of the data, the draft voter list and National ID cards were prepared by the Army.

The voter lists were then handed over to the local election offices and the National ID cards were distributed through the local administrations. An ordinance was also enacted by the government under which a new organization named National Identities Registration Authority (NIRA) had been set up to manage ID card issues in future. For registering and issuing ID cards to approximately 80.11 million voters throughout the entire country, an elaborate time and rotation plan was chalked out considering the topography, communication network, population distribution and socio-cultural sensitivity. To eliminate chances of duplicate registrations by an individual physical and biometrics digital checking were done rigorously. Following all these processes the National ID cards were prepared and distributed to all citizens by 30th October 2008. Throughout this process the citizens of Bangladesh as well as the media proactively helped the Army in completing this widely recognized task.

How challenging was the task?

The task was mammoth, the timeframe was tight and the challenges were many. Some of the challenges were:
The first hurdle we encountered was the selection and customisation of appropriate software. When the news became public that Bangladesh Army was going to enrol and issue ID cards to approximately 90 million people, both local and international software and hardware companies flooded in. Their whole intention was to grab this lucrative contract for business purposes ignoring our national requirements. They projected that a single international standard ID card would cost around 3 to 4 US dollars (amounting to a total of 270 to 360 million US dollars for 90 million voters). This cost projection was for ID cards alone, excluding the costs for voter list with photographs. Their predicted timeframe for the project outdid our expected time limit of 12 to 18 months. Moreover they would not handover the exclusive rights of the software. So we individually searched for and found a few software SDK sources and linked them with several willing local development partners. They took on the challenge and developed enrolment, server and matching software integrating multiple biometric features. Thus the entire technology gamut became solely a Bangladeshi affair.

The second challenge was the selection and procurement of appropriate and cost effective hardware. The huge amount of hardware required (11,000 laptops with webcams and fingerprint scanners, 600 desktops, 550 laser printers, 3000 generators to name a few) drew tough competition from various firms. These firms also tried to push low quality items taking legal advantage of PPR 2003. After much delay UNDP’s direct procurement of hardware saved the day. At one point we were stuck with digital signature capture devices. After much experiment with various digital signatures, we finally decided to capture the signatures from paper through webcam snapshot. It saved money and logistical hassle. Otherwise for the digital signature additional USB port was needed in the laptops. Another innovative decision was to add low-priced keyboard to each laptop so that the novice operators do not damage the integrated laptop keyboards. An additional challenge in the project was to establish an effective troubleshooting chain throughout the country so that technological glitches would not affect the operating state of the equipments.


The procurement, distribution and maintenance of a huge quantity of items like 1,60,000 reams of paper, 100 million laminating pouch, 6300 toner of 720 laser printers, 3500 generators and their spares posed a huge problem. Sometimes the foreign factory production line could not meet the running requirement on the ground. On many occasions, items like toner, laptops, laminating pouch, fingerprint scanners had to be airlifted directly from the production site to Zia International Airport. From there we directly dispatched them to the field of operation. In fact the slow pace of logistics procurement prolonged our field level registration time by about 2 months.

We came across various kinds of social challenges during the project. The most troubling was the use of individual’s title before his first name. It was decided in a high level meeting that names to be written as per each person’s SSC certificate. But many educated people wanted to reflect their professions before their given names with titles such as Lawyer, Physician, Professor, Teacher, Judge, Government Official status, Freedom Fighter etc. Managing these became difficult. The second issue was photographing women with veils. We organized a secluded corner for them with female operators. Another issue was the quality of photographs. Some of the operators could not capture the photographs properly. Other issues like determining age and date of birth of illiterate people, understanding the language and social customs of rural areas like that of Sylhet, Noakhali, and Chittagong posed considerable difficulty for us.

Skilled data entry operators and technical managers were the key to success of the project. Initially these tasks were performed by Army personnel. Gradually we trained students and local people in these fields. However in the coastal and bordering areas, suitable male/female operators were not available. So, on many occasions we transported operators from one district to another, organized their travel, accommodation, food etc so that the job could be completed in time. The nature of the job sometimes required female operators to work graveyard shifts and their safety became a point of concern. We had to organized police escort for them. A handful of operators even tried to beat the system with malpractices. For instance, instead of writing the full name of citizens they would type one alphabet and then move on to the next field. Some operators even copied their own fingerprint for individuals whose fingerprints took considerably longer time to capture. To prevent such incidents we had to take a number of technical and administrative actions.

These factors became critical for coastal, hilly, haor and char areas. We had to complete the registration of these areas keeping an eye on cyclone, monsoon, norwester and flood timing. In some areas like chars and haors it was more convenient to conduct the registration during flood than dry seasons. To meet the requirements of coastal areas, naval vessels were used. For Chittagong Hill Tracts, helicopter sorties were used to transport operators and equipment.


Many have voiced concerns about the issue of privacy. How do you perceive the issue?


For many nations, privacy is a controversial issue when it comes to ID cards with biometrics. However, more and more countries are resolving this problem and national ID cards are being introduced. In our case, we looked into the problem quite critically and took adequate administrative and legal measures to prevent the exploitation of sensitive data. For example, under no circumstances hard or soft data are handed over to wrong/ unauthorized recipient. Also, when data is given to public domains, biometric data is not released. This is the reason why contesting candidates in the forthcoming elections will be given electoral roll “without” photographs. Moreover, an exclusive organization (under the Ministry of Home Affairs)--the National Identities Registration Authorities (NIRA) has been set up to be the owner of the data relating to national ID cards. Most importantly, the enacted ordinance on national ID prohibits handing over of any biometric data without a court order. In the same ordinance, strict punishment has been mentioned for any unauthorised release or leakage of individual citizens’ data.

Will you share any personal experience centring on the project?

There are countless events of the two-year long project that are worth mentioning. In fact every day our team was enriched with new experiences. However, I shall share two small incidents from our pilot project at Sreepur Pouroshobha. To capture fingerprints we kept open-ended options so that a person could be registered with any of their ten fingerprints. We even anticipated that there would be few people (farmers, for example) for whom none of the fingerprints would be captured by scanners and therefore kept an ‘Unreadable Fingerprint’ option. However, at Sreepur someone showed up for registration who unfortunately didn’t have any of his hands and consequently the software didn’t allow his registration. We immediately sat down with the programmers and incorporated a NO FINGER option and then registered the person. In another incident an elderly woman, approximately of 90 years of age arrived for registration. She could barely walk or even raise her head for photograph. The operator’s helper held her head up so that she could be photographed. It was not mandatory for her to come to the registration centre since we would visit her home to register because of her age. So when asked why she had come she replied ‘amarta ami nibo”.

I predicted in my concluding remarks during the Sreepur Pilot Project concluding ceremony that probably these indomitable spirits would be our inspiring light for the uncertain future ahead. Now at the end of this journey I am convinced that their spirits and prayers have helped this challenge to come out with flying colours.


How do you feel after being awarded such a prestigious award?

I feel that through this award, the capability and hard work of Bangladesh Army have been recognized and every Bangladeshi all over the globe has been honoured, because every bit of this mega achievement is the result of the dedication, commitment and belief in the ability of self of all the Bangladeshis. And when this was recognized by a congress, which is the champion of ID technology, it was recognition of the synergic efforts of a nation thriving to identify itself with the progress of the advanced countries of the world. I echoed the same sentiment in front of the audience when I was requested to give my instant feeling in Milan on November 18, 2008.