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Meantime, the former upazila nirbahi officers (UNOs) of Kazipur in Munshiganj, Sirajganj sadar and Amtali in Barguna, the former UNO (now acting deputy commissioner) of Sherpur, Bogura; and the assistant commissioner (land) of Munshiganj sadar, have been accused of irregularities in the matter and made OSD (officers on special duty). A departmental case has been filed against one of them, and investigations have started against other officials as well as concerned people’s representatives and so on.

The concerned officials of the prime minister’s office have taken the matter very seriously. After all, this is the prime minister’s project. In July, five teams of the PM’s office, despite the prevalence of coronavirus, rushed around to look into these irregularities. We hope they will be able to discern the difference between the vision and reality and also find the reasons behind the allegations.

What is Ashrayan-2?

On the occasion of Mujib Borsho, the Ashrayan project was taken up on 12 October 2020 for the homeless and landless. Whether it was to complete the work as fast as possible or to keep a distance for the corruption of the contractors, the task was given to the UNOs. The PM’s office was to supervise. The houses were to be built on ‘khas’ land and within a specified span of time.

The houses were to be ‘semi-pucca’ (brick walls and tin roofs) and 19 ft 6 inches by 22 ft 6 inches in area. Each house would have a kitchen, a toilet and a tubewell too. The construction of each house would entail an expenditure of Tk 107,100. Along with the design, the amount of bricks, cement and sand had also been specified. The procurement process was to follow the given guidelines.

Other than the UNO, the implementation committee also included the assistant commissioner (land), upazila engineer (LGED), union parishad chairman, and upazila project implementation officer (PIO). Following this procedure, so far 118,380 landless people have been given two-roomed houses, each on 2 decimals of land.

The back story

First the ministry for disaster management and relief had proposed that disaster-proof houses be provided to these people. The aim was to construct 68,038 houses, for one in each village. The proposal was finalised at an inter-ministerial meeting with officials of the prime minister’s office Ashrayan project and the cluster village project. It was decided that all homeless landless people of the country (608,514) would be given a semi-pucca home. A guideline to construct the homes was prepared. The design and estimate was drawn up by a technical committee comprising engineers of the Ashrayan-2 project, the cluster village project and the disaster management directorate.

Adequate allocation per house?

The allocations were not adequate and so the expenditure was readjusted thrice. In the first phase the cost was fixed at Tk 171,000 per house. In the third phase this was Tk 200,000. Then again, khas land is invariably occupied, located in low-lying areas and far from other settlements or on chars (sandbars).

Such land requires piling, landfill and all sorts of preparation. Where would the UNO get funds for that? One of the UNOs brought up the issue and the irate deputy commissioner brusquely dismissed him, saying, “If you can’t do it, go home.” His words and gestures towards his young colleague were excessively rude, beyond description. His message was, just manage it however you can.

The sooner we realise the need to meaningfully involve the homeless and landless people for whom the initiative was taken up, in the planning and implementation of the project, the better

The PIO knows how to manage things. Everything is possible for them. He assured the glum UNO, “It can be done, I am here.” The PIO is also a member secretary of the project implementation committee. They can take all sort of assistance from the social safety net projects to fill the deficiencies. Where suitable khas land was not found, the houses were hurriedly constructed by a canal. And soil was taken from the banks of the canal to place around the houses and save money. As a result, at the slightest rain, the soil washed away into the canal and the houses began to crumble. In some places the houses were built on a six inch foundation instead of a 10 inch one. As a result, the doors and windows began to fall apart within two months of the houses being handed over. The houses are breaking in some places. Compromises had to be made in the sand-cement ratio. The plaster of the houses is just falling away from the walls.

Realising the situation, the Gopalganj deputy commissioner recently said, “I see pictures being uploaded all over about the houses collapsing in some areas. Gopalganj is a low-lying area. There is less soil and so sand had to be used as a landfill. If the water accumulated anywhere is removed, the sand sinks in. If there are faults anywhere, we will fix these immediately.”

The sooner we realise the need to meaningfully involve the homeless and landless people for whom the initiative was taken up, in the planning and implementation of the project, the better. Under pressure of the social media, the field level officials can be used as scapegoats, but that will not bode well.

* Gawher Nayeem Wahra is a writer and researcher and can be reached at [email protected]

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

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