Things that make you to Think

…and the poor get poorer

Abid Azad investigates the ignominious irregularities in the implementation of the UPPR programme which reveals how the poor people are deprived from the opportunities of being developed from this largest programme in Bangladesh….

One of the most debatable topics in our country is, perhaps, whether poverty is a blessing or a curse.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID) are jointly running one of the biggest development projects in Bangladesh, titled ‘Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction’ (UPPR) which began in 2008. The local and international associates in this project are the Local Government Engineering Department (LGED), Local Government Division (LGD), Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives, the Bangladesh government, UN-Habitat, ILO, UNICEF and CARE.

It is a well-known fact that, in the name of poverty alleviation, some of the influential people line their bottom-less wallets by exploiting the uneducated poor. Investigations by this reporter revealed that acts of sheer corruption are taking place in the name of this project, under which the poor has become a tradable commodity for the influential quarters. From what it seems, the project implementation authority is not committed to reducing poverty; rather reproducing the malady.

DFID and UNDP have contributed $117 million and $3 million respectively to the UPPR project. Besides this, some Tk 8.26 billion are being contributed by the Bangladesh government. The aim of this project is to improve the living conditions of three million urban poor and extreme poor, especially women and girls. During the implementation period of the project, they are being provided with basic sanitary and water facilities, adult education centres, educational funds for their children, development training on self employment, health services andcommunity development.

According to the UPPR fact sheet, approximately 35 per cent of the population in the six largest cities of the country live in slums; among them, 20 per cent are poor, while 23 per cent live well below the poverty line.

Initiatives such as these always look good on paper; however, when gross ‘irregularities’ are found at the grassroots levels, it is a matter of utmost anxiety to all stakeholders as well as observers. The majority of such irregularities usually occur in the various categories of training programmes, such as Economic Development for Business Management (EDBM), APEX, block boutique, jute diversified products, homestead gardening, etc. The community development committee (CDC) members, who are responsible for distributing the allocated budget to these training programmes rarely act in the interest of the poor people; it is an open secret that they incise undisclosed amounts from the allotted budget in the name of food and trainers’ costs.

While visiting Savar Pouroshobha (Municipality), this reporter met Aroti Raj Bongshi, who is one of the many women who are deprived of the allocated money from this project. Aroti is a member of the Joba Dal in Jeley Para (fishermen area) CDC under ward #4 and Bangshi Cluster near the River Bangshai at Savar. She said, “We have completed our 45-day training on karchupi (a special sewing technique) and learnt to work on sarees. We were remunerated with Tk 50 per day.”

However, Md Rezaur Rahim, town manager of Savar City Corporation (SCC), claimed that the SCC has provided Tk 200 per day for each trainee. When asked about this matter, Padma Rani, the cluster president of this ward, avoided the question by citing misleading reasons. Once she said the rest of the amount was for the trainees’ food costs, while at times she claimed it was the trainer’s cost. However, she could not produce any papers or journals as evidence to her claims.

During the three-month APEX training on RMG, Padma Rani said that each participant were given Tk 2,900 as the training allowance; however, according to UPPR Socio-Economic Fund (SEF) contract status of Savar Pouroshobha, the actual allocated amount was Tk 4,500 for each participant. On this topic, Padma Rani neither answered any relevant questions nor volunteered any information pertinent to the clear misappropriation of development funds.

A woman from this area who is employed under Padma, requesting anonymity, informed this reporter that Padma recently purchased a shop and a refrigerator for her son at Fulbaria. She further alleged that Padma’s economic condition has suspiciously improved just after she was elected as the cluster president, although she herself puts in little or no work in the organisation.

Bithi Rajbangshi, the treasurer of the Bangshi Cluster, said, “Padma does whatever she wishes. Though I am the treasurer, my authority is limited to signing some cheque books, bills or other documents. When I draw money from the bank, I have to send it to her straight away.” She further said, “She has shown losses in different projects on paper many times. Last time, she showed a loss of Tk 5,000 in a drain construction.”

Padma did not say anything about these allegations against her. She only said, “I never thought about these things seriously. From now onwards, I will pay attention.”

Interestingly, Ali Ahmed, the project director, considers these mismanagement and irregularities as an isolated case. He said, “As far as I know, there is no proof of such allegations. If anything can be found, we will give exemplary punishment.”

When asked about the monitoring cell of this project, Abdur Hakim, the deputy project director, said, “It is not the duty of the monitoring cell to root out these types of irregularities. However, if anything is found, then the monitoring cell will obviously take immediate steps to rectify the matter.”

“If matters continue to deteriorate this way, who will notify the authorities?” asked a nettled trainee.

There are many such unconfirmed allegations in Narayanganj City Corporation and Savar Pouroshobha. It is found that most of the CDC and cluster committee members are involved in recurring mismanagement and irregularities. Very few CDC and cluster committee members are doing their designated jobs, which is to engage in development activities to improve the lives of poor women and girls. As no salaries or remuneration are given to them from this project, and they are not employed anywhere else, the question arises – how do they earn from this work? “We are not doing anything except this job. When we get construction contracts, such as constructing sanitary latrines, deep tube wells and footpaths, we get some ‘profit’, which is provided by our ‘Sir’. Besides this, we have no income. We bring women and girls to the training centres and we supervise the CDC,” says Ruma, a vice-president of Hrishi Para CDC under the Narayanganj City Corporation.

While this project’s aim is to develop the poor people’s living conditions by providing them with basic facilities, those who are selected as the committee members have no intention to work towards building a better life, even though most of them come from poor backgrounds. In this job where no salary or honorary are given, their only goal is to realise as much individual profit as they can from the construction programmes.

For gaining first-hand information, this reporter went to meet the town manager of this project at the UPPR office in Narayanganj City Corporation three times in one day, but could not see him as he was busy; the other officials did not agree to say anything without his permission.

Because of a big budget, and the involvement of prominent organisations including the Bangladesh government, the UPPR project has created the hope of an improved life among the poor people.

Lack of conscience, social awareness and commitment among the poor communities and the leaders of those communities are found to be the accommodating factors behind the cause of such corrupt practices.

According to the UPPR project classification, there are three classes of people: extremely poor, poor and not poor. There are three objectives of this project as stated in the project fact sheet: first, urban poor communities are to be mobilised to create healthy and secure living environment while they acquire resources, knowledge and skills to increase their income and assets; second, pro-poor urban policies to be created to deliver benefits to the poor people; and third, capacity of the local governments and other organisations to be developed in order to support the efforts of the urban poor to overcome poverty through establishment of mutually supporting partnerships. These objectives will be fulfilled under two types of fund: Settlement Improvement Fund (SIF) and Socio-Economic Fund (SEF).

The charitable funds will help in motivating and providing stipend to the students who have dropped out of school to resume their studies; addressing community social problems like drug abuse, family violence, dowry, early marriage, divorce, etc are the other goals of this project.

Generally, 200-300 families come together to form a CDC; 6-10 CDC members are usually selected from them, thereby forming the members of a cluster.

The project will cover 24 Pouroshobhas under the country’s seven city corporations. Some of the municipalities are Tongi, Comilla, Tangail, Naogaon, Rangpur, Dinajpur, Savar, Jessore, Nawabganj, Gazipur, Bogra, Sirajganj, Mymensingh, Gopalganj, Kushtia and Hobiganj, under the city corporations of Dhaka, Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Rajshahi and Sylhet. The project is yet to start in seven more pourashavas: Feni, Syedpur, Pabna, Shatkhira, Chandpur, Jhinaidaha and Faridpur.

Kamala Rani Sarkar, a CDC member from Jamidar Bari at Savar, said, “We are not getting proper facilities like other women because of partiality and favouritism from the CDC committee members. My two sons had to stop their studies as we could no longer bear the cost.

“I see many students are getting stipend for their studies, but when I went to ask for stipend for my sons, they did not even bother to listen to me,” she said. Her sons were students of classes VIII and VI when they dropped out of school.

Like Kamala, many poor women in Savar Pourashobha’s CDC claimed that the CDC and cluster committee members provide all kinds of facilities under this project – loans, grants, educational funds, etc – as per their whims.

Moreover, they also asserted that most of the beneficiaries are persons of favour and are very closely related to the selected members. In some cases they involve their relatives within this project in order to facilitate their

Tania Begum, who is a member of Hrishi Para CDC, still cannot participate in any training and does not get any amount from charitable fund or loan for working purposes, though she is in desperate need of economic support.

In the CDC, there are around 500 poor and extremely poor families. Lal Banu, a 50-year old woman, could not get the CDC membership either. She lives by herself and is a day labourer. Once when she applied to be a member, she was told that she has to pay Tk 3,000.

“I am a household worker. I cannot always work due to my poor health condition. How can I manage Tk 3,000? If I could manage this much money, I would use it to start some sor of small business,” said Lal Banu.

“When I learnt that some people are providing charitable fund for small businesses, I thought I would be benefited, but it did not happen,” she added.

While asking some women as to why they did not get the monetary assistance, they replied, “We are not provided assistance as we can save not more that Tk 10 per week individually. Also, only those who are favourable to the committee members get to enjoy the benefits. For this, our conditions remain same as before.

“They (the CDC members) bring the same women again and again into the training programmes, even though those women had participated before; we are not even told to participate in the trainings,” lamented those frustrated women.

Kanchoni, a CDC member of Hrishi Para who was present at the time of this conversation, denied all these allegations. Chaina Rani Rajbangshi, another resident of Savar Pourashobha deprived of the benefits, said, “We only see the committee provide loans, but we are never offered any assistance, even though we have asked for it and are in dire need of support. The committee members provide facilities whimsically and to their favourable persons only.”

Furthermore, the poor people rarely find any positive outcome from their training; as a result, they are now falling into depression.

Many of them are now thinking about withdrawing their memberships from this project as their living conditions remain the same as before. “So poverty reduction continues hand-in-hand with poverty reproduction,” said one such ‘victim’.

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