Street children rehabilitation programme rife with corruption

Chicken, lentils and other foodstuff is washed in front of the latrine at the street children's centreProthom Alo

There were 71 children ready to have their lunch. It was a simple meal of a chicken and potato curry and lentils. But on many of the plates, it was mostly potato with a few chicken feet, the parts of chicken normally thrown away. One of the children muttered quietly, “We are served this food.”

These are children living at the state-run street children rehabilitation centre in Kamlapur of the capital. This was the scene at the centre during a visit there on 23 February.

There is another rehabilitation centre for street children in Karwan Bazar of the capital. The meals at both centres are more or less the same.

These two shelters have been operating under the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs since 2016. The authorities here cook the food themselves and serve this to the children, but the end of the month they submit bills in the name of two local restaurants. However these restaurants were not found to even exist at the addresses provided. The owners of the actual restaurants said they knew nothing about these bills.

Several of the staff members at the shelter said these programmes were being carried out without any tender. Fake bills imply irregularities and this invariably involved financial discrepancies.

Deputy Director of the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and Director of rehabilitation project, Mohammad Masudul Kabir, told Prothom Alo, "The absence of tender in any government project is an anomaly. Food is being cooked for the children rather than buying it from outside, in consideration of their health. The bills are being made within the daily allocated budget of Tk 140 per child. There are no financial irregularities.” However, he said, they would be starting the tender process soon.

A team consisting of Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) assistant directors Silvia Ferdous and Md Abul Kalam Azad raided the street children's rehabilitation centre in Kamlapur 10 February, following allegations of embezzlement of project funds and forging of bills and vouchers. However, ACC has not informed the shelter authorities about their findings as yet.

The first project director of the rehabilitation programme was Abul Hossain, project director of the Multi-Sectoral Programme on Violence against Women at the time. He was in charge till 2020. He said they had not taken up any tender process as the number of children eating at the centre during meal time was uncertain. Nonetheless, this should not be happening in a government programme, he added.

He said their activities were audited and no objections had been made. The current project director Mohammad Masudul Kabir said no audit had been conducted after he took charge.

The children are given chicken claws to eat
Prothom Alo

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina directed the Ministry of Social Welfare and the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs in 2015 to rehabilitate street children. The women and children affairs ministry started their operation after a base survey conducted on the street children of Dhaka north and south city corporations. Later, the finance ministry allocated Tk 30 million (Tk 3 crore) in support of the women and children affairs ministry. From the beginning of the programme, there was no section for expenditure in recruiting manpower. Staff members, hired based on a daily wage of Tk 500 (now Tk 600), are running the programme.

In the 2021-22 fiscal, Tk 44 million (Tk 4.4 crore) was allocated for this programme. In 2020-21 this was Tk 40 million (Tk 4 crore). In that year the expenditure was Tk 34,865,000 (Tk 3 crore 48 lakh 65 thousand). The remaining Tk 5,135,000 (Tk 51 lakh 35 thousand) was returned to the government treasury.

Grocery, including rice and lentils, is bought from Sajib Enterprise in Jatrabari for both the centres. Meat, fish and vegetables are brought from Karwan Bazar and Jatrabari. Both centres spend about Tk 600,000 (Tk 6 lakh) on an average every month on grocery. In 2021-22 FY, Tk 13 million (Tk 1.3 crore) has been allotted for food and Tk 1 million (Tk 10 lakh) for other expenses.

Clothes drying in the staircase
Prothom Alo

Except those two shelters there are nine outreach schools for street children where 270 kids are studying. And Tk 40 has been allocated for snacks (tiffin) per student.

Initially the non-government organisation Aparajeyo Bangladesh was involved with the street children rehabilitation programme. Executive Director of the organisation Wahida Banu told Prothom Alo they had signed a one-year contract with the ministry. Later there was some negligence in extending the contract, but they continued their work for around another four years. Ministry officials would make the bills and vouchers. The NGO later withdrew from the project due to the lack of transparency in the programme.

Restaurant owners unaware

Chadpur Hotel and Restaurant is one of the two restaurants under whose name bills are being produced. Karwan Bazar is mentioned as its address in the cash memos. About 6 to 7 years ago that restaurant moved to Maona Chowrasta area in Gazipur. When contacted the cell phone number given on the cash memo, owner of the restaurant Md Aslam informed he knows nothing about this government programme and that his restaurant is quite small.

Children sleeping at the Kamlapur centre
Prothom Alo

The other restaurant is named Uttar Jatrabari Bhojonbilash Hotel and Restaurant. Son of the owner Md Faisal Khan said neither he nor his father knows anything about those bills and vouchers. He added the truth will be revealed once high level government officials investigate the matter.

Both of them expressed concern over the possibilities of them landing in trouble for bills and vouchers being produced in their names in a government-run programme.

Visiting both centres

While visiting the Kamlapur centre in the morning and Karwan Bazar centre in the afternoon on 23 February, the children and associated people were interviewed. Eleven girls have been staying long in the Kamlapur centre. The shelter in Karwan Bazar is only for boys.

Belal is a resident of the Kamlapur centre. He used to gather up chillies from trucks while living on the street. Upon arriving at the shelter he was admitted to Class One. Last November he left the shelter without informing anyone but returned recently. He said he went to Chattogram and now wishes to go to school again. Officials of these two shelters are saying the biggest challenge for rehabilitation is children leaving the centres.

The girls’ latrine and bathroom in the Kamlapur is in a deplorable condition. The kitchen is tiny. Those girls bathe inside the toilet while, rice, lentils, fish and meat are also washed there. There are no arrangements for drying their clothes. They dry their cloths under the fan in their room or on the railings of the staircase. The bed sheets and curtains are washed only once a month. The place is damp and infested with cockroaches.

In the Karwan Bazar centre, 71 children were present on that afternoon. Many of them had rashes on their bodies.

The children in the centres wash their clothes and plates themselves among other chores. The girls residing in the Kamlapur shelter do many chores for the staff members. There are accusations against staff members misbehaving with the street children as well.

Director of Street Children Rehabilitation Programme Mohammad Masudul Kabir has been running the operation since January last year. Admitting various limitations of the programme, the official remarked once the programme is implemented across the country, rehabilitation of the street kids will be visible.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Nourin Ahmed Monisha