In the first part of this series the Star Weekend revealed, how huge amounts of waqf (an endowment made by a Muslim to religious, educational or charitable cause) properties in Bangladesh have been completely grabbed by illegal occupiers. We found that 122,294 acres of endowed estates are now under illegal occupation and Bangladesh government's waqf administration has lost control over 90 percent of these estates.
Widespread corruption, weak legal framework, severe shortage of manpower and sheer negligence of the state to maintain the endowed properties have completely paralysed this resourceful model of social entrepreneurship which once developed institutions such as the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and Dhaka Medical College.
Due to widespread corruption and extremely slow legislative process, the practice of waqf is diminishing in Bangladesh. For instance, waqf administration filed a case in 1964 to restore the waqf properties of Khan Jahan Ali's historic shrine in Bagerhat. The case was finally solved in 2013. It took 49 years to get the verdict which ultimately stated that the waqf properties belong to Khan Jahan Ali Shrine Waqf estate.
However, cases regarding the 12,500 acres Ainuddin-Faizunnesa Waqf estate, the biggest waqf estate in Dhaka Metropolitan city, are yet to be resolved. The first case to rescue the estate's property was filed in 1944. There are still several pending cases on this precious estate and the waqf administration's drive to rescue the properties is uncertain due to the unsolved cases. “Very few people come to register for new waqf properties…I should say nobody. In fact, we are struggling to maintain the existing waqf properties and restoring the old ones,” states Waqf administrator Shahidul Islam.
Again, the waqf administration also does not have any precise records of the pending cases. According to Islam, there are around 421 pending cases in different courts. On the contrary, another official of the administration anonymously says that the actual number of pending cases is more than 2000.
In fact, the waqf administrator says, “Some of the cases were filed in the British period. Some papers of those cases could not be retrieved from Kolkata after the partition. This is why, many cases regarding waqf estates have been stalled and are not progressing at all.” However, the office could not give any exact estimation regarding the progress status of the unresolved cases.
Barrister Mohammad Shazzadul Islam, advocate at Supreme Court, says, “As far as I know, more than 400 cases are pending only in the High Court. So, the actual number should be much higher…there are several reasons behind this extreme procrastination. In most cases, the illegal occupiers are politically powerful people. They bribe government officials, prepare fake documents and employ politically influential advocates in the court.”
“On the other hand, the archiving system of the waqf administration office is very poor and traditional. Many old documents have been completely destroyed. The officials also don't know the whereabouts of most of the documents. As a result, we face difficulty to produce necessary documents in the court which also delays the legal procedures,” adds Barrister Islam.
In fact, in the archive room thousands of documents can be seen stacked on the open shelves without any protective covering. Many documents were seen to be eaten up by termites and are no longer suitable for any official use.
While most of the precious endowed properties have been illegally grabbed and its valuable papers yellowing and rotting in the bureaucratic archives, there are some waqf initiatives which are still trying to maintain the original essence of waqf amidst such a deadlocked situation. In fact, by ensuring transparency and accountability in the management system, these initiatives have set an example of how waqf can serve a developing country like Bangladesh.
One of these initiatives is Islamic Development Bank-Bangladesh Islamic Solidarity Educational Waqf (IDB-BISEW). From the income of the endowed IDB building and the computer market housed in the building, this waqf initiative spends USD 4 million every year for vocational training, IT (information technology) scholarship course and technical education in madrasas.
To run the waqf project, IDB-BISEW has formed a committee of mutawallis (trustees) with three high ranking officials from the Islamic Development Bank and three high ranking officials from the Bangladesh Government.
Under the supervision of this committee, the initiative runs six educational programs. Its IT scholarship is a fully-funded year-long programming course for non-technical background graduate students. Launched in 2003, this course has produced 10,500 efficient computer-programmers, 92 percent of whom are now satisfactorily employed.
The course is certified by international vendors like Microsoft and Oracle which ensured their employment, even abroad. According to Zahid Al Mahadi, program coordinator of IDB-BISEW, “Our course is rigorous and we assess our students through third-party consultants who arrange exams and assess our students. This is how we ensure quality of our training. And, we also have a placement cell that helps our students to get a suitable job. We also preserve a copy of their appointment letter to make sure of their recruitment,” he adds.
IDB-BISEW's vocational training has also ensured employment for 512 high school dropouts since 2012. These students, who could not complete their secondary education, are awarded scholarships from the waqf fund to receive six weeks intensive training in selected trades.
“Their food, accommodation and other expenditures are covered from the waqf fund for the entire training period and they also receive a monthly allowance of BDT 500 per month. 102 organisations are regularly hiring our students of vocational training programs,” says Mahadi. Besides, IDB-BISEW has established six technical madrasas where students get vocational education along with their regular religious education under Bangladesh Technical Education Board.
“This initiative targets a particularly neglected and vulnerable section of the student population and enhances their skills to secure their proper employment in the job market. We want to transform this massive young population into productive manpower who can contribute to the economic growth in a sustainable manner,” he adds.
IDB-BISEW's waqf initiative for providing quality technical education for disadvantaged youth is a stark example of waqf's massive development potential if transparency and proper maintenance can be ensured.
Recently, some Bangladeshi entrepreneurs have come forward to revive the practice of waqf on their own initiative. One of these initiatives is Center for Zakat Management, a non-profit organisation, which has pioneered an institutionalised approach of zakat management in Bangladesh by disbursing and managing zakat funds through a wide range of development initiatives all over the country.
It has also been disbursing waqf funds in livelihood development projects and educational initiatives. Niaz Rahim, group director of Rahimafrooz group and chairman of Center for Zakat Management thinks that the diminishing practice of waqf can be revived by institutionalising this practice on a private level while ensuring utmost transparency will be the first requirement.
“In CZM, we have to run four layers of audits to ensure transparency in our fund management. We have to run sharia audit, internal audit, finance audit and repeated audits by external, third-party auditors. Thanks to these efforts, this approach of utilising zakat funds for livelihood development projects and for educational purposes has earned worldwide credibility and appreciation. Similarly, waqf funds can also significantly contribute to bring sustainable economic development in the impoverished part of our society if it can be disbursed in an organised and transparent way,” he explains.
He also argues that cash waqf can be a useful innovation in popularising waqf. “Previously waqf were made mostly in the form of lands which were difficult to manage and distribute. Now, we are working to popularise cash waqf deposits in banks where people will be able deposit funds solely for charitable purposes. In this way, we can generate huge amount of funds for responsible social services, which can help our nation to attain the sustainable development goals, while reducing burden on the government,” argues Niaz Rahim.
Although our administration's mismanagement has brought waqf on the verge of extinction, some recent initiatives, which are independent of the government's waqf administration, have been striving to revive its original practice: the practice of serving humanity selflessly.
If this culture of charity can be revived and utilised in an organised way for developing social causes such as livelihood development, education, nutrition etc, there's no saying to what extent the country can progress.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org