Disabled development stunted by tussle of two organisations

National Disabled Development Foundation building at Mirpur in the capital cityProthom Alo

oThe 15-storey high rise building stands tall in Mirpur section 14 of the capital city. The building, Suborna, has been constructed on a one-acre plot of land for medical treatment, sports and cultural activities of disabled persons. The building was inaugurated around two years ago at a cost of Tk 830 million (Tk 83 crore), but remains non-functional. The persons for whom such a costly building was constructed are nowhere to be seen.

This is the National Disabled Development Foundation. The institution has a staff crisis and there are also problems pertaining to the land upon which it has been built. The department of social services does not want to relinquish the land. At the same time, the process to make the foundation into a directorate has also been held up. The department of social services has thrown a spanner into the works. The tension between the two organisations has stunted the development of the disabled.

It had been planned that the products made by disabled persons all over the country, would be exhibited and sold at a display centre in the building. There would be residential facilities and vocational training for the disabled there along with a daycare centre. Other facilities include a counseling centre and a recreational centre. The building also had provision for special care to address the needs of autistic persons. And two floors were for the officials and staff.

No centre to display products made by the disabled was found during a visit to the building on 27 July. No daycare was visible there either. There was no one on the 13th and 14th floor supposed to have been allocated for the disabled to stay and also for vocational training. Preparation has been made for indoor services for the disabled on the 5th floor, but it lay unused. The facilities for autistic persons on the 9th floor also remained idle. There was no recreational centre in sight.

Floors 7, 8 and 11 are being used as offices for the staff and officials of the disabled development foundation. There too, only 20 persons were present. These were the foundation's own officials, officers on deputation and other staff members. And so the building which was made to ensure the fundamental rights of the disabled, is not coming to any use.

Why is it not being possible to provide the disabled with services despite so much being spent on these facilities? In reply, managing director of the National Disabled Development Foundation and additional secretary of the government, Anisuzzaman, told Prothom Alo, it is not possible to provide all services at present due to the shortage of manpower. However, some services are being given. We have asked for the vacant posts to be filled, he said, adding that no one has been found for the posts as yet.

That was about the lack of services for the disabled people at the foundation’s complex. But the foundation has been limping along for over two decades since it was set up in 1999. A plan had been taken up a decade ago to set up a sports complex for the disabled at Savar so they could represent Bangladesh in sports at a global level. The foundation had been given the 12 acres of land for a token price of just Tk 100,000. In the 10 years since then, not even a brick has been laid in place there. Managing director Anisuzzaman said that a Tk 4.47 billion (Tk 447 crore) project was approved at the ECNEC meeting in April for a project to set up the sports complex. No project director has been appointed as yet.

Tussle over land

The land upon which the foundation’s building stands belongs to the department of social services. There has been a tussle over the land for the past nine years between the department of social services and the foundation. The department of social services is determined not to relinquish the land.

In 2013 when the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) had given its approval for the 15-storey building, it had said that the land was to be transferred in the name of the foundation. Since then there has been tension between the two government organisations over the land.

A virtual meeting was last held in 14 December regarding the land to be handed over to the National Disabled Development Foundation. The secretary of the social welfare ministry at the time Zainul Bari (now planning ministry secretary), chaired the meeting. It was decided then that the social welfare ministry would take over the land instead of either the foundation or the social services department. But the land still has not been transferred to the ministry as yet.

It was evident at the 14 December meeting that the department of social services was unwilling to hand over the land. The minutes of the meeting reveal that director general of the social services department, Sheikh Rafiqul Islam, said that the National Disabled Development Foundation still does not have the required capacity. Once it has the capacity, the land can be handed over then. It is logical that till then, the land remains with the department of social services, he said.

The meeting had decided that the social services department must relinquish the land, but the decision has not come into effect as yet. Attempts were made to contact Sheikh Rafiqul Islam over the mobile phone in this regard, but he could not be reached.

Both the social services department and the disabled foundation are under the social welfare ministry. Secretary of the social welfare ministry at the time, Zainul Bari, speaking to Prothom Alo, said, “While I had been in charge of the ministry, I had tried to resolve the prevailing problem between the two organisations, but I failed.”

Regarding the latest situation in this regard, state minister for social welfare Ashraf Ali told Prothom Alo that the land on which the building for the National Disabled Development Foundation has been built, will be transferred to the social welfare ministry. It hasn’t been finalised yet. The process is on.

Tensions between the two organisations

According to the social welfare ministry, the National Disabled Development Foundation was founded in 1999 with the aim to bring the disabled persons into the mainstream by means of education, training and employment.

The government in 2010 took steps to give the organisation a legal framework. The same year, the social welfare ministry sent a proposal to the public administration ministry to transform the foundation into a directorate. Three years after that, in 2013, the public administration ministry gave its approval for the disabled development directorate. The next year, on 2 April 2014, while inaugurating the World Autism Awareness Day, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina announced that the National Disabled Development Foundation would be made a directorate. She even unveiled the name plate of the directorate on the day.

At the meeting of the secretary committee on administrative development in 2019 too, everyone was also in consensus about changing the foundation into a directorate. Six years have passed since the declaration was made, but the foundation is still not a directorate.

Concerning the present state of the foundation, convenor of the council for visually impaired graduates, Ali Hussain, told Prothom Alo that the foundation was nowhere close to doing what was actually needed to be done for the thousands of disabled persons. They did not have the authority to take any decisions. Over a hundred disabled persons graduating from Dhaka University and other educational institutions around the country were not getting employment anywhere. It is because the institution is not a directorate, it is unable to make recruitments.

Officials of the disabled foundation said that the government offices and foreign organisations regard them as an NGO. No ministry gives them any importance. That is why they cannot succeed in any of their efforts. As a directorate they would be given due importance at home and abroad.

The foundation officials said that it was the department of social services that was holding up the foundation’s transformation into a directorate. They were doing so because then the Tk 1.65 billion (Tk 165 crore) of the disabled persons’ allowances would then go to the new directorate. The disabled directorate would also get charge of the education centres for the disabled. The social services department does not want to give this up, or relinquish the land either.

There are 2.2 million (22 lakh) disabled persons in the country at present. The foundation has no special activities for the disabled during the prevailing coronavirus times. At the outset of the pandemic, the foundation only distributed Tk 10 million (Tk 1 crore) around the country through the district administration. That is all the assistance it provided. It had an adequate fund, but remains inactive in assisting the disabled.

Deputy secretary at the time, Pradip Ranjan Chakrabarty, in 2013 drew up the plan for the foundation’s 15-storey building. He is now secretary, of the planning ministry’s Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Department (IMED). He told Prothom Alo, the aims and objectives with which the building was made, have not been fulfilled. He feels that all initiatives for the development of the disabled should be brought under one organisation.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir