Several canal repair projects are being implemented in Natore Sadar upazila this year, under the government's 'Kabita' employment-generation scheme. But while the scheme stipulates the use of manual labour in order to provide local jobs, the projects routinely engage cheaper backhoes for excavation work. There are other anomalies. Some public canals have been illegally leased out as fish farms for extra revenue. Locals claim that excavated earth which is supposed to sure up canal embankments is sometimes sold to brick kilns instead.
“I have excavated the canal using a backhoe,” says Sumon Ali, a member of the Dighapatia union council who is also chairman of the committee implementing a Tk 3.07-lakh Kabita-funded project to repair the canal in Baladkhal village. “But I still need to submit a master role of labourers. If I don't do that the funds aren't released.”
“There was no way to complete the project without using a backhoe,” he continues. “If I hired labourers the project would run at a loss.”
Sumon also says he leased out the canal to a fish farmer for Tk 80,000 for one season. He claims to have donated that money to a local madrasa and a temple. “I am hopeful of securing more Kabita projects,” Sumon adds. “I have submitted a proposal for another canal repair project worth Tk 2 lakh and plan to submit another for road repair.”
The situation at the Tk 3.18-lakh Goyaldanda Canal project is similar. According to the project implementation officer for the whole of Natore Sadar upazila Ayesha Siddika, for this project Baro Harishpur union council member Ayesha Begum submitted a master role of labourers.
But as witnessed by several locals, the Goyaldanda project also relied on a backhoe. “The project committee is supposed to employ up to 25 labourers,” says one of them, Babu Mian. “But a backhoe was used to excavate the canal and for embankment works.”
Ayesha Begum claims the irregularity in the project's implementation is not her fault. “I am a widow and helpless,” she says. “Council member Ibrahim Hossain who is secretary of the project implementation committee, and our council chairman Osman Goni threatened me not to visit the site. They made me sign off on the project. I submitted a written complaint to the local administration but no action was taken.”
“The amount allocated for the project is very small,” says Ibrahim. “That's why we used a backhoe to dig out the canal; but we used labourers for the embankment work. Neither Osman Goni nor I ever threatened Ayesha Begum. Her complaint was mediated in front of our upazila chairman Sharuful Islam Ramjan and other officials.”
At a third site, the Mirzapurdhigha Canal in Chatni union, labourers also missed out. “I am using the backhoe for re-excavation work,” says the chairman of Chatni union council, Toffazal Sarker. “If I used labour it would cost around Tk 10 lakhs but the budget is only Tk 3.1 lakhs.” He requested that this information not be published on the grounds that he would still have to submit a master role of labourers.
Meanwhile in Halsa union, the Tk 2.17-lakh Chowk Bagrom Canal project is similarly being completed by backhoe. “It took 60 hours for the backhoe to do the digging work at a rate of Tk 2,250 per hour,” says Halsa union council member Selim Reza who is also the president of that project's implementation committee. “Now I will build the embankments using labourers.” He says he has already withdrawn Tk 1.53 lakhs of allocated funding, with the remainder due.
“I have visited these projects and did not find any corruption,” remarks Ayesha Siddika. “I saw that the work was being nicely implemented. What I don't know is whether they used labourers.”
Natore Sadar Upazila Nirbahi Officer Jesmin Akter Banu says she received the written complaint from Ayesha Begum. “If they use machinery no funds will be released,” Jesmin says.
Natore Deputy Commissioner Shaheena Khatun notes that she has asked for show-cause notices to be served on any implementation committees that have not used labourers. “Stern action will be taken in response to any irregularities in the implementation of Kabita projects,” she says.
The total budget for Kabita projects in Natore Sadar upazila is Tk 24.64 lakhs, of which the canal repair work projects form a part.