Pragati Samaj Unnayan Sangstha took Tk 490 million from the government fund to provide training on how to cultivate vegetables in ‘greenhouse’ at yards. Widows and women oppressed by their husbands were supposed to receive the training. The trainees would get a greenhouse worth Tk 30,000 each and become self-reliant by cultivating vegetables.
Saleha Begum of Kamlabari union in Lalmonirhat’s Aditmari upazila was one of the beneficiaries of the project. This reporter on 31 May took a visit to her house to see how vegetable cultivation in the greenhouse was going on. But no greenhouse was found in the yard of Saleha’s house. She is neither a widow nor is she oppressed by her husband. Saleha’s husband Ramzan Ali runs a small business alongside farming. Their family is known as well-off in the village.
Saleha told Prothom Alo that she received a seven-day training on greenhouse farming around a year ago. Her husband also received the same training. They got Tk 3000 each but did not get the greenhouse.
This is an example of irregularities in the project run jointly by GO (Government Organisation)-NGOs (Non-Government Organisation). The Department of Social Services (DSS) spent Tk 5.03 billion in 21 such projects meant for creating employment and making impoverished people self-reliant during the Covid period. 13 of the projects have ended while 8 are about to be completed.
During visits to the sites, many instances of corruption and irregularities were found in five projects while discussing with the beneficiaries. DSS officials themselves admitted that the short-term training given under the projects was not useful. The requirement of experience was not adhered to in selecting some NGOs while the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) raised questions on some projects.
Different NGOs implemented these projects. Influential people including politicians, former bureaucrats, a vice chancellor of a university and film actors are in the board of directors of these NGOs. Some said these projects were given on the basis of personal connections. Then the projects were mired in corruption and irregularities.
Seven of the 21 projects were implemented fully or partly in Aditmari and Kaliganj upazilas of Lalmonirhat, the constituency of social welfare minister Nuruzzaman Ahmed. Three each were implemented in Jamalpur and Gopalganj. Social welfare minister Nuruzzaman Ahmed did not admit the allegation of corruption in the projects.
Talking to this correspondent on 14 June, the minister said, “I didn’t receive any allegation of irregularities. If someone gives any specific information, then action would be taken.”
Greenhouse of irregularities
Vegetables are grown in greenhouses countries with cold climates during snowfall. A greenhouse is basically a transparent room made of materials such as glass or polymer, through which light can enter but the heat cannot go out.
Pragati Samaj Unnayan Sangstha (PSUS) took government funds for providing this technology in vegetable cultivation in Bangladesh. Former additional secretary Atiqur Rahman is the chairman of PSUS. He told Prothom Alo on 21 June that he saw greenhouses when he went abroad. He then thought of implementing this method in Bangladesh.
Atiqur said he was the chairman of the NGO for a year after the approval of the greenhouse project. Later he could not stay on for family reasons.
However, Rahat Khan, general secretary of PSUS, told Prothom Alo on 22 June that Atiqur is still the chairman of the NGO.
The project under which the greenhouse was supposed to be given is titled ‘Mitigating economic losses of coronavirus by increasing agricultural production through use of sustainable greenhouse technology and improved agricultural inputs'. The tenure of the project was from 2021 to 2023.
This project was implemented in four districts—Rajshahi, Jamalpur, Lalmonirhat and Jashore. Prothom Alo assessed project implementation in Lalmonirhat and Jamalpur. Prothom Alo talked with 31 beneficiaries of the project based on the list provided by the DSS. Only one of them received greenhouse but does not use it. Instead of 21 days, they received training for 7 days. Although widows and women tortured by husbands were supposed to receive the training, in reality students, well-off people and men received the training.
Lalmonirhat’s Kaliganj upazila social services officer Abdur Razzaque on 30 May provided name of a beneficiary of the project. She is Bulbuli Khatun of the upazila. A visit to her house revealed that she is yet to unbox the equipment of greenhouse.
Asked why the other beneficiaries were not provided with greenhouse , project director Afzal Hossain told Prothom Alo, “Provide me the names of the beneficiaries who did not get (greenhouse). I will take action.”
DSS sources said an unofficial online meeting of the department recently discussed that Prothom Alo is working on a report on irregularities in the projects. Later, the trainees from Kaliganj upazila were called on Saturday and provided with the greenhouse, a year after being trained. However, seven women trainees from Aditmari upazila told Prothom Alo on Monday that they are yet to get greenhouses.
Investigation revealed that although the trainees in Lalmonirhat received Tk 3000 each, beneficiaries from Jamalpur got only Tk 1000. Shahinul Haque, Jamalpur coordinator of the NGO told Prothom Alo that he did that (giving taka 1000) as per order. He told this correspondent that he is younger brother of a former principal secretary to the prime minister.
Only training, no grants
Another project titled ‘Sustainable training on advancement of living standard of destitute, widow, jobless, disabled, marginalized and underprivileged people’ was implemented in Moulvibazar and Sunamganj districts. Six thousand people were supposed to be provided training under the project in 2021 and 2022. The project cost was Tk 230 million.
An NGO named Somaj Unnayan Kendra (SUK) implemented this project. The objective of the project was to develop skilled and self-reliant communities in the two districts by providing them with training in sewing, fashion designing, block-batik design, preparing food and computer usage.
Trainees in Sunamganj said they were supposed to get Tk 3500 as a grant but most of them did not receive the money. Yasmin Akter, a trainee from Noyagaon village under the district’s Jagannathpur upazila, told Prothom Alo, “They were supposed to give a grant. But we didn’t receive any.”
Jagannathpur upazila social services officer Bilal Hossain admitted that trainees did not receive the money. “But we don’t know anything about the money,” he told Prothom Alo.
SUK’s office address is given at a house in Dhaka’s Mohammadpur. Security guard of that house on 21 June said, SUK fled without paying rent for a month. Many people used to come to the office to get money from the NGO’s general secretary Zakir Hossain.
Zakir Hossain was contacted but he said he would talk later. He did the same every time he was called. Former secretary of power division Sultan Ahmed’s name was provided as chairman of the NGO in government documents. He told Prothom Alo, “They once contacted me to take charge as chairman but I didn’t respond.”
Project Evaluation Committee’s (PEC) meeting raised questions about giving the contract of the work to SUK on 25 November in 2020 citing non-compliance of the requirements. Yet SUK was given the work worth Tk 230 million.
Training was useless
A project named “Multilateral training” was approved in 2018 to improve the living standard of the transgender community. The cost of the project was estimated at Tk 148.8 million. The target of the training was to train the transgender community as beauticians, cleaners, garment workers and security guards to make them self-defendants.
The project ended in December 2020. Re-think, the organisation which implemented the project, has claimed that some 6,000 transgender people in Dhaka, Gopalganj, Chattogram, Noakhali, Sunamganj, Rajshahi, Barishal, Patuakhali, Lalmonirhat, Khulna and Mymensingh have been trained under this project.
Prothom Alo contacted the district administrations and social welfare offices in Lalmonirhat, Sunamganj and Noakhali. They said they didn’t know about any such training programme.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, deputy commissioner of Lalmonirhat Mohammad Ullah and deputy director of district social welfare office Abdul Motin said the Re-think didn’t train any transgender person in Lalmonirhat.
However, Re-think claimed in the report submitted to the planning commission that some 200 transgender persons were trained up under this programme in Lalmonirhat. However, a transgender leader in the district told Prothom Alo that the number of transgender persons in Lalmonirhat district was not more than 50.
The Re-think claimed that they have trained 300 transgender persons in Sunamganj. Speaking to Prothom Alo, Sunamganj District Transgender Welfare Association’s president Sumana Akter told Prothom Alo, “Where did they get 300 transgender persons in Sunamganj? The number of transgender people in Sunamganj is around 150 and they are saying that they have trained 300 of us! It’s a lie.” Same is the scenario in Noakhali.
Meanwhile, the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) said in a report in May last year that they haven’t found any transgender any of the five sectors of training.
Re-think president Luna Marzan told Prothom Alo that the members of transgender community are floating people. Her organisation also included transgender persons from other districts in the training. Asked about the statements from the local administration that they do know about any such programmes, she said, “It’s the liability of project administration.”
Luna Marzan thinks the training programme was not up to the mark. She claims this project was a bad experience for her. She didn’t withdraw the last two instalments which covers almost half of the total allocation for the project. Notably, the amount of total allocation was nearly Tk 150 million.
7-day training instead of 21 days
A project titled ‘Improving the socio-economic condition through training the backward and poor people on self-employed works’. The cost of the project was estimated at Tk 400 million. The project was implemented in Lalmonirhat, Jamalpur, Patuakhali and Bhola. The project ended in December 2021.
At least 7,300 people were supposed to receive the training on computer operating and driving under the project. According to the official documents, the duration of the training was 21 days. The Global Rural Environment Society (GRES) implemented the project.
This correspondent went to the Tushbhander union in Kaliganj upazila of Lalmonirhat with the list of the trainees on 31 May.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, Mizanur Rahman, one of the trainees, said they received 7-day training. He couldn’t learn to drive within such a short time. He works as a mason now. None of the people participating in the training took up driving as a profession.
Several trainees, including Obaidul Islam, Asaduzzaman, Haradhan Roy, Nishrat Jahan and Niranjan Mohanta, said the training didn’t come to any work.
Swapan Kumar Halder, director of the project, also admitted that training in such a short period of time does not come to any use. He told Prothom Alo, “I have raised the issue in different meetings.”
Shamimul Haque is the chairman of GRES, the agency which implemented the project. Asked about the allegations of irregularities, he said he hardly had gone to the project sites. He would look into the matter. He also said that he is a public relation officer of the Dhaka Power Distribution Company Limited (DPDC). His brother is a former principal secretary of the prime minister.
They had no idea of any training
The project titled 'Improving the quality of life through various trainings for the extremely poor people of Lalmonirhat district' had a cost of Tk 246.8 million and was implemented by an NGO called Pushpa Bangladesh. The project focused on providing training in computer operation, food preparation, and other skills. Its duration was from 2020 to 2021.
However, some beneficiaries of the project have reported not receiving certain benefits, including training, bags, notebooks, pens, travel allowance, and a one-time cash assistance of Tk 15,000. For instance, Abu Bakar Siddique, a student of Aditmari Government College in Lalmonirhat, and Zahid Hasan, a student of Adarsha Degree College in Lalmonirhat, both of whom stated that they have no knowledge of these matters.
Additionally, there were beneficiaries who claimed to have received training but did not receive any cash assistance. There are conflicting statements from the project director, MA Matin, and Pushpa Bangladesh's executive director, Nishat Jahan, regarding this issue. MA Matin asserts that all aspects, including payment to the trainees, were under the control of the project implementing agency. On the contrary, Nishat Jahan argues that their responsibility was limited to providing training, and they were not accountable for cash assistance.
'I don't know you'
An NGO named Human Concerned has undertaken a project that involves training in mobile phone repair, driving, and other skills. The chairman of the organisation is Sheikh Munni, and the co-chairman is film actor Danny Sidak. The project's total cost is Tk 90 million, and its duration spans from 2021 to June 2023.
During a meeting held on 28 March, chaired by social welfare secretary Jahangir Alam, dissatisfaction was expressed over the project's slow progress. It was revealed that the training, which was supposed to be conducted at the upazila level, had not been provided. Further queries made to the social service offices of four upazilas confirmed that no such training had taken place.
The address of Human Concerned is a house located on Green Road in the capital. When visited on 21 June, a security guard named Fazlul Haque informed Prothom Alo that the building is a residential one, and Sheikh Munni resides on the fifth floor. However, she is currently in Canada. Notably, Sheikh Munni identifies herself on Facebook as the founder president of Canada Jubo Mahila League.
When contacted by phone, Danny Sidak abruptly ended the conversation upon hearing that the caller was a news reporter, stating, "I don't know you."
Strategy to get project approval
The projects related to training mentioned above did not undergo approval from the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC). This is because projects costing less than 500 million can be approved solely by the planning minister. Consequently, these projects received approval through online PEC meetings during the Covid lockdown.
According to sources in the Ministry of Planning and Social Welfare, most of the NGOs that obtained these projects have connections with influential individuals in the government. It is alleged that these connections facilitated their acquisition of the projects.
For instance, during a PEC meeting on 25 June, a project worth approximately Tk 240 million was discussed, and the meeting records indicated that a minister provided written and verbal instructions to process the project.
Planning secretary Satyajit Karmakar acknowledged that these training projects lack effectiveness. He conveyed to Prothom Alo on 17 May that 23 government ministries are currently involved in various training programmes, ranging from three days to three months. However, many of these trainings are not very beneficial. As a result, the government aims to centralise all training activities through the National Skill Development Authority (NSDA).
The Department of Social Services (DSS) has not conducted any assessment of the benefits or the number of people employed through the projects undertaken during the Covid period. Additionally, several other projects are currently awaiting approval.
On 15 July, Iftekharuzzaman, the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), told to Prothom Alo that the prevailing culture in the country prioritises achieving benefits over fulfilling project goals and objectives. He noted that from the formulation of the projects to their implementation, collusion among interested parties is prevalent. Iftekharuzzaman believes that the DSS projects should be subjected to review and auditing.
*This report appeared on the print and online versions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Galib Ashraf, Ashish Basu and Farzana Liakat