E-centres in shambles
We are thoroughly disappointed by the fate of an ambitious government project, undertaken more than a decade ago, to convert 8,500 post offices in rural areas to e-centres for the communities. A whopping Tk 541 crore was spent under the Post e-Centre for Rural Community project to deliver services including e-governance, e-commerce, e-education, e-agriculture, faster disbursement of remittances and allowances to rural communities. But a recent report by the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), based on field visits to 900 of the centres, concluded that the funds had essentially been "wasted." The rural communities are completely unaware of the digital services that are supposed to be offered, as a result of which most of the spaces are severely underutilised.
Although about Tk 380.68 crore was spent on purchasing expensive equipment such as computers, scanners, headphones, printers, finger vein machines and so on, 20 percent of the centres were never even inaugurated, while the equipment in the rest are also falling apart as a result of lack of use. Another Tk 7.81 crore was wasted by purchasing devices not required. Meanwhile, about Tk 18.83 crore was spent to purchase furniture, of which 70 percent was lost over the years. Those who are supposed to manage the e-centres and provide support to users were found to be occupied in other professions.
Given the current status of the centres, it seems safe to surmise that spending the funds was the sole purpose and priority of those planning and implementing the project. Clearly, no effort was made to involve the communities in the centres afterwards and to capacitate them to use the technology to better their lives. Those tasked with running the centres did not even bother to ensure their minimum maintenance. This is indeed shameful, particularly for a government that has always prided itself for its role in creating a Digital Bangladesh. Is this what lies behind the grand gesticulations of digitisation – deserted spaces with dilapidated gadgets that no one knows how to use?
Mustafa Jabbar, who has been serving as the posts and telecommunication minister since 2018, admitted that there was inadequate planning when the project was undertaken. But why has nothing been done to make these centres operational and useful in the past four years? As for the colossal waste of taxpayers' money to fund this project, who will answer for it? We welcome the CAG's audit, which has laid bare the appalling condition of the e-centres, and urge the relevant ministry to take urgent steps to salvage whatever still remains of the initial investment and start delivering at least some of the digital services promised.