a2i Digital Centres in Dhaka City: Entrepreneurs allege zero cooperation from ward councillors
Despite having a clear guideline issued from the Local Government Division, entrepreneurs under the government's a2i programme are not getting proper support due to lack of coordination with ward councillors, they alleged.
They even alleged that they have been harassed by the councillors when they attempted to open "digital centres" under the project.
They were supposed to be provided with an office alongside the councillors' by the city corporation, but no such space has been arranged by the city corporation, they added.
Many of them have set up separate office spaces on their own, from where they are running the digital services, entrepreneurs from both city the corporations of Dhaka complained.
According to the officials concerned, ICT Division's a2i programme began an initiative to introduce digital centres at union levels across the country. Their aim was to strengthen local government units and provide digital services to people through pourasabha, municipality, and ward level interventions. While the initiative initially focused on rural areas, it was expanded to Dhaka's wards in 2013 with support from the city corporations and the Local Government Division (LGD).
The centres go under three names, UDC for Union Parishad Digital Centre; PDC for Pouro Digital Centre and CDC for City Digital Centre.
WHO ARE THE ENTREPRENEURS?
There are 92 a2i entrepreneurs under the two city corporations' 129 wards.
Of them, there are 52 entrepreneurs in DSCC's 75 wards (57 old, 18 new) and 41 in DNCC's 54 wards (36 old and 18 new), according to city corporation officials.
a2i programme and the local administration chose entrepreneurs for the CDCs to provide digital services to citizens, such as filing job applications online, making online payments for passport, trade license etc.
They would provide such services to people in their assigned ward in exchange of a fixed rate decided by a2i and the city corporations.
There should be one digital centre in every ward with two entrepreneurs, one man and one woman, with the councillors' office.
LGD GUIDELINE REMAINS IGNORED
A 2014 circular from LGD to city corporations outlines the guidelines on how the digital centres would run its activities and how the city corporations would support the entrepreneurs.
Under the guideline, the city corporations were supposed to choose the entrepreneurs and provide them with a designated space along with necessary equipment and ensure safety; arrange for loans at a low rate of interest, and arrange necessary training for their skill development.
It also says city corporations will prioritise the entrepreneurs' services if needed for the corporations' own work.
Moreover, it reads that to monitor the digital centres' activities, there should be a monitoring committee in the ward level with the councillor as head of the committee.
However, the reality does not reflect these guidelines. Many councillors are completely unaware of these. Entrepreneurs don't have any space provided by the city corporations. Therefore, they set up their own digital centres separately from the councillor's office.
THE ENTREPRENEURS' WOES
DNCC City Digital Centre Entrepreneur Forum's president Zahirul Islam alleged that computers, laptops, printers and other equipment were provided by a2i and city corporations for the entrepreneurs two years ago, but they didn't get those as the councillors' offices kept those.
"We are the entrepreneurs and we are there to provide services at the ward level. But unfortunately, personnel in the ward level don't know anything about us," he complained.
Sharing a personal experience, the forum's vice president Zahir Islam said he was supposed to be the entrepreneur of ward-1 but when he went to its councillor Afsar Uddin Khan, he didn't receive any help.
"When I approached him, he didn't allow any space for me and treated me badly. It seemed he was not aware of the Digital Centre initiative. Then I applied to the city corporation's CEO to change my ward and I set up my digital centre in ward-2 on my own," he alleged.
Same condition prevails in DSCC. Its entrepreneur forum president, Halim Sarker Himel, said, "Most of the entrepreneurs of DSCC complained to us that councillors didn't allow them any space in their offices. Besides, we heard that Tk 62 lakh had been sanctioned for the entrepreneurs by DSCC before its current mayor took over the office. But none of that allocation has reached us, it appears."
"Moreover, UDC got computers, printers and other essential materials but the CDCs didn't get those. Therefore, people in the ward levels are being deprived of digital services," added Halim.
DSCC ward-19 entrepreneur Aklima Chowdhury also shared her bitter experience, saying, "When we asked the councillor for office space, he rejected us and even threatened us several times. Then we informed the city corporation and later got an office inside a shopping complex at Ramna."
"But it was on the roof and most of the time, the room was occupied by the councillor's men. They continuously took up space in our office. It was difficult for me run the digital centre this way," she said.
"Even when I was pregnant, I had to walk up the stairs to the 6th floor. It was difficult. I now feel discouraged to run the service at times," said Aklima, adding that she would move to a separate office on her own if she found one within her budget.
Other entrepreneurs from DSCC and DNCC recounted similar experiences. They also alleged that councillors want to keep their own men as entrepreneurs to run the digital centres, instead of the entrepreneurs selected by the a2i programme and city corporations. Therefore, the councillors are unwilling to extend their support, alleged the entrepreneurs.
When asked if they filed any complaint, they said filing complaints against the councillors wouldn't be a good idea considering the power they have locally. Hence many of them refrained for filing complaints.
Some entrepreneurs informed a2i personnel and city corporation officers regarding the matter, but no effective solution could be reached, they said.
DNCC ward-1 Councillor Afsar Uddin Khan was contacted about the digital centre in his area, but he appeared completely unaware of the initiative and said, "Let me call you back. I'll let you know if there is such initiative around my area."
Same thing happened when this correspondent called DNCC ward-17 Councillor Md Ishak Mia. At first he said that everything in his ward is digitally operated.
When asked about the entrepreneurs, he handed the phone to the ward's secretary Lutfur Rahman Halim, who said, "Our councillor is newly elected. We'll get back to you if any such entrepreneurs are there and digital centre exists in our ward."
VAGUE REASSURANCE FROM AUTHORITIES
Kamal Hossain Saikat, national consultant of the a2i programme, said, "Those who became new councillors are not aware of the initiative. But they will know soon."
When asked why there's no monitoring committee headed by the councillors as per the guideline, he replied, "As we already monitor them directly from a2i programme and monitor their income and performance, councillors do not need to interfere that much."
"We can see how much they earn along with other data through our online system from here and based on that, we evaluate their performance and arrange training if needed," he added.
When asked about the entrepreneurs' complaints against the councillors and whether they tried to solve those matters, he said from their a2i programme, they inform the city corporations. The city corporation officials should act if there are any complaints, he said.
He then suggested this correspondent to speak with city corporation authorities.
The focal person for the entrepreneurs at DSCC, Abu Taiyeb Rokon said, "Right now we don't have any complaints regarding councillors. However, in the beginning there were complaints."
"Our mayor has plans to strengthen the digital centres. Soon DSCC will hold an introduction meeting with the councillors and entrepreneurs so that both parties have a strong connection," added Rokon, also a system analyst of DSCC.
When asked about the budget for the entrepreneurs from DSCC, he said, "No money was spent for digital centres in previous years. However, this year we have allocated Tk 10 lakh for its development."
Regarding the gap between councillors and entrepreneurs, DNCC Secretary Rabindra Sri Barua said, "Councillors from new wards might not know about the digital centres but this will be solved in a few years."
Asked about the entrepreneurs' complaints that they didn't get any laptops or printers, he commented, "If there's any gap we'll have to address it and city corporation will take steps."