The streets of the obscure town of Pandharkawda in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra have come to life. Hundreds of villagers crowd them for the weekly haat to buy their supplies of vegetables, spices, pulses and tobacco, while farmers throng shops selling seeds, pesticides, manure and farm commodities. Dressed in bright cotton sarees, women haggle with vendors. Even doctors, especially dentists, are having a busy day with long queues of patients outside their clinics.
Around the corner at the town square, a group squats under a tent, untouched by the hustle and bustle around. Posters in Marathi are all over the place. As the sun begins to touch the horizon, many villagers decide to call it a day.
Hurling their belongings into buses and phatphatis, they get ready for the journey home.
Darkness falls. The streets become deserted. But the men under the tent are still huddled together. Sharing kharra — a local blend of tobacco, betel nut and edible limestone — they share jokes in Marathi. Often, animated discussion fills the tent.
The next morning, people begin to crowd around the tent. Locals say that these men and women are protesting against the massive corruption in the UPA’s flagship scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in Yavatmal district. Organised by the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP), the protestors are demanding a high-level inquiry into diversion of funds meant for the poor. Niranjan Mesaram of the GGP claims that while farmers are committing suicide in the region, government officials, in collusion with private contractors, are siphoning off funds meant to support them in these times of distress.
“In Yavatmal district all MGNREGS projects in forest areas have been completed with machines; bogus muster rolls were made to show that villagers participated actively. Armed with these fake muster rolls, money was withdrawn from our accounts at the post office,” says Mesaram. Several villagers complained that their job cards and passbooks were in the possession of contractors who took them away with the promise of getting them work. GGP’s other demands include payment of unemployment wages to people who have not been given work despite seeking it. “We did not even know of unemployment wages until GGP representatives told us,” says a villager.
Locals insisted the Hardnews team visit Pahapal village in Kelapur block where corruption seems to be at its peak. Vasant Shinde, resident of Pahapal, took us around and described how hard it has become for the poor to make a living. Shinde works as a farm labourer and barely manages to earn Rs 200 in a week. Since most farmers are saving money by not employing labourers, he gets work once in a week, if lucky, twice. “I spend Rs 50 to travel from my village to Pandharkawada (and back) to join the protest. Much of my earning goes into this, but I still come, even if I have to take credit. This is because I am not getting what I deserve. I haven’t received a penny or any work while others are making a fortune by looting us. If this continues, I too will be forced to commit suicide. I don’t want my my family to sleep on an empty stomach every other day,” he says.
The panchayat office at Pahapal is bustling with people who have gathered to express their anger against the organised misappropriation of funds. Villagers have brought documents and fake muster rolls to prove how money has been swindled from the scheme. Vandana Maroti Shinde shows a copy of the muster roll on which her name is at the top while she has never been approached for any work under MGNREGS. “According to this muster roll, my family has been given Rs 20,619.76, while I have not received a paisa,” she says. She also shows an ‘official document’ on which her account number with the post office is listed. “I never knew that I had an account until I saw this paper.
The contractor first took away the job card. Then he gave us Rs 500 and said that we have to sign a paper to get work. We obliged, thinking we would get some work. Those were actually withdrawal slips that were used to pull out our money from our accounts,” she says angrily.
When asked why they have not confronted the contractor, another villager says, “We don’t want to be killed. He has several descriptionguards and if we dare raise these issues with him, he will get us killed.” Villagers allege that most of these fraudulent projects happened in the area under the forest department’s jurisdiction and forest officials were involved in the loot along with contractors and postal officials. The Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) in Pandharkawada reveals that they too have received complaints and the Deputy Collector of Yavatmal has initiated a probe.
Pratap Rathore, a panchayat samiti member in Yavatmal, has been at the vanguard of exposing the rot in the much hyped employment guarantee scheme. In his office, he takes out stashes of files that he has accumulated in his fight against this entrenched corruption. “Seven months back I enquired about the progress of the scheme in a panchayat samiti meeting of 1,430 gram panchayats. I was told that only two projects have been implemented in these 1,430 villages. I asked for the muster rolls, but they have been silent about it. I even held a press conference and urged that an inquiry be initiated against district officials. But all my pleas have fallen on deaf ears,” he says. He claims that after his revelations, District Guardian Minister Nitin Raut, who he believes is also involved, sent an MLA to threaten him.
Rathore says that 85 gram panchayats were given Rs 19 lakh each for plantations in 2012-2013. “However, there are hardly any plantations that have been done by the villagers,” he says. For example, in Jwala village of Arni block, a nursery was developed to grow 20,000 saplings for plantation. Money was spent for acquiring soil, super phosphate, fungicide, manure and seeds. Six months later, the saplings had to be shifted to bigger bags to accommodate the growing roots. They shoved the saplings into new bags without tearing apart the old ones. This led to the death of 50 per cent of plants. “Such scams are common and no one is ever held accountable,” says Rathore.
Reiterating what villagers in Pandharkawada alleged, Rathore says that names for muster rolls were selected randomly from the voter list and then machines were used instead of human labour. Payments were made and later withdrawn by contractors. Also, names of villagers who lived far away from the work site were mentioned in muster rolls. “People of my village were shown working in some far-flung village. Accounts of villagers were opened in post offices that were several kilometres from their villages. Accounts should be maintained in banks and post offices in a radius of 10 km but there are cases where accounts were opened 65 km away,” says Rathore. When confronted, postal officials told Rathore that people forced them to open their accounts. “They claimed that villagers argued that they can open their accounts wherever they like and hence the postal department couldn’t oppose it.”
At the forest headquarters in Yavatmal, a senior forest official confessed that irregularities have been reported from Pandharkawada and other blocks and an inquiry has been initiated. “There is a lot of substance in what people are saying. These are not false claims and we have enough evidence against certain forest officials. A lot of money has been siphoned off by these officials and they are hand-in-glove with private contractors. We will take action once the final report is out,” he says.
Nitin Ramkrishna Vyawhare, Deputy Collector, Employment Guarantee Scheme, Yavatmal district, confirmed about the dubious goings-on. He says that an inquiry has been initiated and reports from local tehsildars and Block Development Officers (BDOs) will be submitted in the next few days. He points out that in areas where more funds were spent, the number of complaints were the highest. “Most complaints related to irregularities have come from Mahagaon, Kalamb, Ghatanji, Maregaon and Kelapur blocks. There have been instances where job cards have been snatched away, fake muster rolls prepared and machines used. We have suspended several gram sevaks and showcause notices have been served to many. We have started an MGNREGS Jagruti Abhiyaan and one also initiating social audits in the district.”
He adds that the demand for work is less during the kharif season; after therabi crop it starts to gather momentum. “People don’t want to work in MGNREGS projects because the wages are lower than for farm labour work. So, people don’t even ask for work,” he says.
This is contrary to what villagers told Hardnews in Pandharkawada. Rathore explains that in a closed-door meeting of top officials it was declared that no unemployment wages should be paid as it would reflect poorly on the district administration. The MGNREGS web page of Yavatmal district shows that no unemployment wages have been paid in any of the blocks.
The average man-days in Yavatmal district is 70 while the government provides 365 days of guaranteed employment. “The first 100 days are covered by central assistance while the rest are taken care of by the state government,” says Vyahware. Villagers allege that they aren’t provided any work when they ask for it — “so what is the use of 365 days of guaranteed work”? “They should scrap it and give us guaranteed work for 100 days,” says Digambar Manre, a farm labourer.
To clean up the rot, Vyahware says that they will introduce e-muster rolls throughout the district from November 1. This will help in curbing these irregularities. Also, all accounts will now be maintained at banks instead of post offices where the chances of misappropriation are less. “If people ask for work then the gram sevak will fill e-forms and then submit them online. A branch will be nominated and they will make payments only after the bank official takes the biometric impression of the concerned person. All work will be done after the consent of the gram sabha. This should reduce irregularities substantially,” he says.
The criticism surrounding the quality of assets created under MGNREGS holds true in this district as well. Officers agree that the assets are not sustainable and only cater to short-term solutions. “The scheme is labour intensive and hence not much attention is paid to the quality of assets. There is only one junior engineer to look after 50-60 villages and it becomes extremely difficult for him to ensure quality,” says Vyahware. Many members of the panchayat samiti are not competent enough to handle such projects.
Indeed, MGNREGS has done little good for this region that desperately needs such schemes to lift people out of poverty or sustain them during lean periods. Caught in a debt trap, farmers are no longer employing agricultural labourers to avoid additional costs. In the context of stark poverty that stalks Yavatmal, MGNREGS should have been the remedy. Sadly, that, promise of the scheme remains unfulfilled.
(First published in The Hardnews)