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Special Feature

Landless people from all over Tangail came to attend the public hearing. Photos: Amirul Rajiv

This is What Democracy Looks Like

The spirit of revolution was in the air. Finally, the power was in the hands of the landless and the poor.

Sushmita S Preetha

Thousands of people gathered on the open field of Dhonbari in Modhupur, Tangail to challenge the corrupt and undemocratic practices of government officials in the region, despite repeated efforts from the local elite to stop people from attending the event. “Workers of the world, unite!” they chanted in unison, and sang gono shongeet (people's songs), as they waited for the public hearing to commence.

Photos: Amirul Rajiv

“The public hearing is meant to be a forum where the common people can expose the shady dealings of the government and hold government officials accountable for their actions,” says Landless Organisation's General Secretary Shamsul Haque. The Landless Organisation, which consists of landless members of Dhonbari upazila, organised the event in coordination with Nijera Kori, an NGO that works to mobilise and empower landless groups in different parts of the country. It was the first time that a public hearing had been organised in Bangladesh.

Before the hearing, the landless members collected information on the various government programmes that are supposed to benefit the poor by using the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The Act was enacted in 2009 to help establish accountability and transparency in every sphere of society, and to promote a culture of openness and public participation.

“From 2010, we have been holding trainings and workshops to increase our awareness of RTI,” states Md Kosimuddin, President, Landless Organisation. He explains that once they began to apply for information, they gained valuable insight on RTI at the field level – about the usefulness and limitations of the act. “But our biggest learning was that it wasn't simply enough to apply for information to make this law effective. The way to make this law truly work was to use RTI to hold the state and other relevant bodies accountable,” he adds.

During the hearing, the Landless Organisation presented a report exploring and identifying the various discrepancies in the 40-day Employment Generation Programme of the government, which is meant to assist the hardcore poor particularly the day and farm labourers in overcoming their poverty and job crisis during the lean period. Each allegation of corruption and mismanagement in the report was accompanied by testimonies of labourers, landless people and other affected groups. After each allegation, the convener declared, “Is there anyone who disagrees with the testimonies presented?” Every time, the question was met by a deafening “No”.

The report explained that the landless members and Nijera Kori staff had worked ceaselessly on the public hearing for eight months. First, they made 19 applications for information on different government projects, out of which 18 were granted. But when it came to the request for details on the 40-day Employment Generation Programme, the application was refused and the members were harassed. It was only after they appealed that the information was finally granted to them.

The landless organisation formed eight teams to collect and verify information on the programme. The investigation teams interviewed 407 people (141 women and 266 men) in two unions, Paishka and Jodhnathpur. Through their intensive investigations, they found that there were severe inconsistencies in the implementation of the programme.

People giving personal testimonies on stage.
Photos: Amirul Rajiv

The rules and regulations of the 40-day Employment Generation Programme clearly outline the eligibility criteria for selecting labourers. Section eight of the programme implementation plan states that only those with less than 50 decimals of land can be included in the list as labourers. It also states that skilled workers, such as carpenters, electricians or factory workers cannot be in the list. However, the investigation teams found strong evidence of corruption, nepotism and irregularities in 45 percent of cases.

“I am a carpenter, and I earn around 350 taka per day. Why would I work as a day labourer? The landless members came and told me that my name was in the list,” says Humayun from Ghagra village. “They showed me the master-roll and it had a thumb print next to it. It showed that I had been given Tk 60,000, but in my life I have never given a thumb print. So I asked a relative of mine who worked at the ward office if he knew of it, but he denied everything. Someone used my name to get his hands on the poor labourer's money.”

It was also found that nine percent of the people included in the list were too old and couldn't do the required hard work. “I asked them for elderly pension and instead they told me I could work as a labourer. But in my age, I can't work in the field, so now I have nothing,” says Hajera.

It was found that multiple people from some families and even people receiving other safety nets benefits were included in the list in clear violation of the rules and regulations set by the government. Meanwhile, although there is a condition asserting that at least 33 percent of labourers must be women, only 27 percent of them were women. In addition, many women were harassed during their work by the local elite. They were asked to not bring their children, and were made to hear crude comments like, “You have relations with the members of Union Parishad, so you need to work.” Kajalie from Islampur village says, “They treat us like dirt. There's no drinking water or shade; no place to put our children. We have to put up with everything they say. They use us like we're tools.”

The investigation teams also found that a total of 364 people were denied their rightful wages during the programme period, which means that the rate of corruption in the two unions is as high as 90 percent. A majority of people were only made to work for 35 days instead of the designated 40, and the wages for the last five days went to the pockets of the local administration. They also identified a number of influential and well-off people who didn't work even for a single day, but collected wages every week from the bank.

After the landless members presented their evidence, the representatives from the government banks, the mayor of Dhonbari, the Project Implementation Officer (PIO) and the Union Nirbahi Officer were asked to come up and defend themselves and justify their positions in front of the people.

People voicing their allegiance to the testimonies against the government's corrupt practices.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv

In his speech, Rajib Al-Rana, the PIO, tried to explain himself saying, “If we were to select people based on the rules and regulations ordained by the government, it would take us at least a month to complete the selection process, but we are given only five days or so. As a result, they can be some discrepancy here and there.” He further claimed that if a project finished within 35 days instead of 40 days, he would return the remaining money to the government. When the landless members protested his statements and the convener pointed out that the master roll showed that no money had been returned to the government, he exclaimed, “If the government sees any irregularity in my actions, it can take necessary measures.” As soon as he finished giving his speech, he literally escaped from the venue in frustration and anger.

Meanwhile the bank officials, who were responsible for overlooking the financial transactions, could not offer a believable defence, with some officials meekly claiming that they didn't often have enough time to check the records properly. The UNO, too, and other local government officials, presented ineffectual statements declaring they were doing their best to protect public interest, but no one could deny the evidence of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement presented by the landless members.

Prominent civil society members were present at the public hearing.
Photo: Amirul Rajiv

Nijera Kori coordinator, Khushi Kabir, Executive Director of Ain O Shalish Kendra and Chairperson of Transparency International Bangladesh, Sultana Kamal and Information Commissioner, Sadeka Halim also spoke at the public hearing, praising the efforts of the landless members and urging the local government and administration to mend their ways and protect the interests of the people. Prominent civil society members, including Hameeda Hossain, human rights activist, Meghna Guhathakurta, Executive Director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB) and Rizwana Hasan, Executive Director of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), were present during the hearing.

“Many of you here today may be illiterate, but you don't have any lack of wisdom and knowledge,” said Halim, addressing the crowd. “You are the true soldiers in our struggle for democracy and justice.”

Referring to the spirit and values of the Liberation War, Sultana Kamal commented, “The officials involved in the project didn't just dishonour your rights and entitlements, they also dishonoured themselves and the state. They have tainted the values of freedom.”

Addressing the crowd, Khushi Kabir said, “I know a lot more people were scheduled to come, but they couldn't out of fear since most of you have been threatened to not attend this hearing and give testimonies. You were told that you would not receive any sort of benefit in the future. I applaud the ones who did come, and want to ensure everyone that we will not accept any torture or discrimination to any of you for speaking out.”

This public hearing is one of many actions undertaken by landless groups and Nijera Kori throughout the year to ensure accountability, transparency and access of government programmes. They believe that collectively, citizens can question and challenge undemocratic and unjust practices and uphold democracy. The power, after all, is ours at the end of the day.

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