In Palamu, asking questions can kill you

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Lalit Mehta, 34, PALAMU, JHARKHAND

MURDERED FOR: Helping villagers in his drought-stricken district to uncover corruption in government programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act

Samrat Chakrabarti

Photo: MD Iqbal

IN PALAMU, everyone thirsts. It is in this perennially drought-prone district of Jharkhand that Lalit Mehta was born and it was here he was to die, strangled with his own belt on a jungle track. A schoolteacher’s son, Mehta studied engineering in Bengaluru and came back confident he could quench Palamu’s thirst. He built 130 check dams in seven years, using hard-won government funds and his clever infrastructural interventions. Mehta was a father to be proud of. But his son Manish (now six) was so traumatised that for a year after his father’s murder he refused to identify him in photos. His younger son only knows he has gone to live with Chanda Mama.

For a year after his murder, Lalit Mehta’s elder son Manish refused to identify him in photos

When he was building check dams, Mehta dealt with Palamu’s inertia and apathy with his unfailing charm and penchant for logic — the same way he dealt with family opposition to his marrying Asrita, who belonged to another caste. Mehta and friends started Vikas Sahyog Kendra, an NGO that conducted social audits of government schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. As Jawahar, his colleague, puts it, “He had a hunger to create change and believed in evidence-based campaigns.” Regularly threatened by contractors and sometimes by government officials, Mehta perhaps didn’t realise less secure men, the district collector for instance, would feel humiliated when poor villagers armed with social audit reports interrogated them. As it turned out, the heat was getting to someone in Palamu. On 14 May 2008, a day after a fresh social audit had begun, Mehta, alone on his bike, was intercepted on his way to Chattarpur village. He was garroted and his head smashed in. The police said he was waylaid by robbers and did not wait for the requisite 48 hours in case of an unclaimed body, to bury Mehta. Palamu SP Deepak Verma calls it “a lapse”.

Today, Asrita struggles to raise her children on her schoolteacher’s salary. Perhaps the legacy of Mehta’s innocence is that the people of Palamu continue to ask questions of the powerful.

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