Behind the Scenes of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha
One of the boats of Shidhulai in Chalanbeel.
On August 17, 2007 SWM's cover story focussed on the 'Boat School' project of Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha. When we first learned about the project we were told that the NGO had 88 boats in the Chalanbeel area and 88,000 families were being benefitted from its various activities, which included floating primary schools, libraries, computer training centres and agriculture training centres which were fully equipped with computers with Internet connection and multimedia projectors. After talking to its founder AHM Rezwan he arranged for a field visit accompanied by him to Gurudashpur in Natore, his homeland, where the project also has an office.
On August 4 we visited the project site along with Rezwan. During the four-hour trip up and down the Chalanbeel we saw three boats, as was featured in our cover story. In one boat a first grade class was taking place, with the aid of a computer.
In another boat about eight to ten SSC students reading books from the library, while others were learning basic computer skills and Internet browsing in four personal computers. In yet another boat an instructor was training men and women, with the help of a multimedia projector, how to avoid using pesticides and the session included video-conferencing. All the boats had solar panels on top and batteries were being charged which were used for power for the computers and for Portable Solar Home Systems (PSHS).
On our way back we visited two homes, which used these PSHS for two lights in their homes which did not have electricity. At one home the battery was not working and the residents complained they had been asking for replacements for some time but did not get any. At this Rezwan directed his staff to replace the batteries immediately. The residents also said that the lamps were extremely helpful for the two students in the house, who earlier had to read by candle or hurricane light. At the other home the lights were working and two little girls confirmed that they studied in the 'Boat School', although the parents complained that the school had refused to take the boys.
An empty library room of Shidulai Swanirvar Sangstha.
Later in an interview Rezwan detailed about how he watched every year students dropping out of school during the monsoon season when they had to stop going to school for three months because the schools went under water and the paths leading to the schools were also submerged. He also added that many girls were deprived from going to school because of the closed society. Add to that global warming and the environmentalists' warnings that Bangladesh was high up in the list of countries most likely to go under water this project was innovative, practical and very relevant for a country like ours. Rezwan has won him several international awards mentionable among which were the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Access to Learning Award 2005, UNDP's Equator Prize 2006 and the Ashden Awards 2007. Rezwan also added that his next project was to build floating homes which could be used as flood shelters. Asked about exactly how many boats he had, he replied that at the beginning of the year there were 88 boats (as was reported by many major daily newspapers) but they had recently "merged some of their projects" and the number had come down to 35. He did not clarify what he exactly meant by that.
Following several corruption allegations raised by a group of ICT journalists who had been investigating the organisation's work for almost a year we revisited Gurudashpur on August 23. According to Muhammad Yakub Ali, the Assistant Education Officer of the Government Education Department there were 49 government primary schools, 29 registered primary non-government schools, 3 community schools and 64 NGO-run schools, most of which belonged to BRAC. They did not have any information regarding Shidhulai's schools. BRAC had their statements with the education office but Shidhulai did not. The presence of schools was apparent on our trip through the Chalanbeel later on too. On our two-hour trip upstream we found at least 10 schools on either side of the Chalanbeel. Water had already gone down by at least five feet since our last visit just a couple of weeks ago and none of the schools were under water. The presence of BRAC schools was also clear all over Gurudashpur Thana throughout our rickshaw-van trip.
The Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) of Gurudashpur Sk Mohammad Moniruzzaman also said that he knew that Shidhulai ran their boat schools in that area and they had given statements with the office about their activities but had never thoroughly inspected the work of the NGO. "The UNO's work is to investigate whether the NGOs are working outside public interest or not," says Moniruzzaman, "but when I wanted to see the project for myself they did not show me." Moniruzzaman also said that he had no idea about the syllabus they followed and although the term exams were going on in all other primary schools, Shidhulai did not present any papers regarding any exams. In fact when we visited the two boat schools we found that the teachers were reading out from their books, indicating that no exams were going on. "I don't have a very good impression about the project. And it's absurd if anyone says that their children can't go to school because of the water," says Moniruzzaman, "if someone actually said that we would have to make the arrangements so that they can."
According to the fact sheet submitted to the UNO office of Gurudashpur, Shidhulai has seven schools in the Gurudashpur upazila where 203 students study, they also have a 'Human Rights Programme' conducted at nine centres were there were almost 400 beneficiaries. When we asked the UNO about the kind of human rights programmes carried out here, he admitted his complete ignorance about it. The factsheet also claimed that there were almost 600 beneficiaries of their 'Health and Wellbeing' Programme in Gurudashpur alone.
An official at the Education Department said that officials of the project do not show outsiders the boats without an appointment. In all the boats that we went to in our second visit the caretakers of the boats tried to prevent us from taking photos.
We went back through the same trail of the Chalanbeel that we had earlier taken to see for ourselves how the schools were faring. After about half an hour we came across a library belonging to Shidhulai. Only the caretaker of the boat was inside and there were three shelves full of books and no computers. The few computer tables were all empty. When we went there it was around 11AM and asked where everyone was, the caretaker said that they would come after a couple of hours for the computer classes. Locals said that there were computer classes held on the boat and they were quite happy with it. We saw two schools, one was conducting classes for the first grade and the other was conducting classes for the third grade. The classes were quite full and the children in the third grade concurred that they had been studying here for three years. But neither of these boats had any computers in them. We found another empty boat, which the caretaker said had a leak. We saw another boat just taking off from a point and talked to the locals there. They assured that classes were regularly held at the boat school and the teacher had just conducted a one-and-a-half-hour-long class of first grade. We asked the locals though whether they were enrolled into the boat school because they could not go to the other primary schools for some reason. Everyone said that they would have enrolled into the primary schools anyway, but the authorities at the boat school had asked them to join their school instead.
On August 26 we asked AHM Rezwan to come to The Daily Star office to clarify his position. In all the earlier reports that came out on the newspapers Rezwan mentions that he has 88 boats where Shidhulai's activities were carried out. The breakdown of which is given on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website - 15 boats were floating classrooms, 24 boats were floating libraries with 1500 books and four PV-powered computers with Internet access in each, 10 boats were 'mobile education and information centres' with Internet access and DVD/CD players and projector also used as agriculture training centres and 30 boats were dedicated battery charging stations, and nine boats had healthcare and 'other services'. According to members of BIJF (Bangladesh ICT Journalists' Forum) on July 27, 2007 Rezwan had met with them and the letter had challenged him that he did not have 88 boats at all. Rezwan said that he would prove to them in seven days that he had 88 boats. When we interviewed him on August 4, 2007 for our cover story Rezwan said that 'earlier in the year' he did have 88 boats but had 'merged' some of the projects and brought the number of boats down to 35. The breakdown he gave proved unsatisfactory: 12 libraries, 9 floating schools, 4 agriculture training centres and 10 other boats were used for transportation and 'solid waste management' activities. He did not elaborate what 'solid waste management' activities were carried out on the boats.
On September 5 the editor and publisher of The Daily Star asked Rezwan how soon he would be able to show us the 35 boats, all in one place. Although he refused to give an exact date he said he would do so within days. Till the filing of this report on September 25 he has not contacted us.
SWM also got in touch with some people in leading positions in that area and this is what they had to say about his project:
Shahadat Hossain, Chamari UP Chairman said that he didn't know anything about the project. Since the office of the NGO is near his house he just saw some people going in and out of the office but had never seen any of their work with his own eyes.
Farhadul Alam, the Headmaster of Mohishmari Govt Primary School said that he had seen all the work done at the boats. He also said that they had about '60 to 70' boats for their project.
Shariful Islam Bulbul, Dahia UP Chairman said he did not know much about their project although he had heard about it.
Sarker Emdadul Haque, Moshinda UP Chairman said that their claim to work in the whole chalanbeel area was overestimated. He also said he had heard about the project but not seen any of their work.
Abdul Aziz, Dharabarsha UP Chairman, who said that he had been a chairman since 1992, did not see much of their work. He said they probably did not have more than four of five boats and they did not do any work in his union.
Ehsan Kabir, the Deputy Commissioner of Natore said he saw the boats for the first time when he went to see the flood condition recently and knew only what he saw about their project on a TV programme. He also asked Rezwan to show him all the boats together at the same time a week earlier to when we talked to him and has not heard from Rezwan since.
SWM decided to do a cover story on Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha because we thought it was a pioneering attempt to bring education and technology to the poor villagers of northern Bangladesh. The use of solar power made the project seem even more innovative. On our first visit when we were accompanied by Rezwan, the project activities shown to the SWM reporter and photographer were impressive and lived up to the claims made. Because of allegations of corruption put forward by some journalists the SWM decided to visit the area again. The second investigation found that some of Sidhulai's claims were exaggerated or not substantiated. His claim of having 35 boats for the project was contradicted by his own statement when he gave the breakdown of the boats that included 10 boats that were used for ferrying people and 'waste management', and his further avoidance to show the boats together, to the ICT journalists and then to us.
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