The 15 paise knot

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In Rajasthan’s Bamnor, villagers have to bribe to get their due. Will the proposed Lokpal reach out to them, asks Anumeha Yadav

Out of bounds: Children of Bamnor village in Rajasthan stand in front of the locked anganwadi
Out of bounds: Children of Bamnor village in Rajasthan stand in front of the locked anganwadi, Photo: Anumeha Yadav

AWAY FROM the din of television studios and the drama of Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan, events at a desert village in Barmer district of western Rajasthan may hold some key lessons for India’s anti-corruption crusaders. How will the campaign protect the poor in Bamnor village, who cough up bribes to get what the laws guarantee them — nutrition, shelter, a daily wage? And how will it protect men like Mangla Ram Meghwal, a Dalit, brutally attacked for questioning corruption in his village?

Meghwal, a truck driver, had gone to his panchayat office on 3 March to attend an MGNREGA social audit. “As soon as I entered, the sarpanch asked me to leave,” he recounts. “When I didn’t, he and his men bludgeoned my head with an axe. I lost consciousness.” Sarpanch Ghulam Shah’s supporters broke Meghwal’s left leg in three places, his right foot in four, and fractured the index finger of his right hand.

He lay bleeding on the floor of the panchayat office for an hour with over 150 people from the village watching. The previous year, Meghwal had dared to contest panchayat elections in this village dominated by Muslim landlords. Most recently, he had demanded to see records of MGNREGA expenses of the past three years and all panchayat public expenditure in 2001-08.

Ghulam Shah has been the sarpanch of Bamnor for the past 20 years. “He is also the postman, ration shop dealer; his wife runs the anganwadi and his brother is a contractor who supplies material for MGNREGA,” says Dharmi Chowdhary of NGO Lok Adhikar Network to strengthen food security. “Till last year, the ration shop would open two or three times a year; if you missed that, you could forget about getting any sugar and kerosene at all,” she says.

The country’s biggest oil discovery in the past two decades in Barmer brought large capital to some parts of the district but mostly bypassed the impoverished villages in Dhorimanna taluka. The dry, sandy earth supports coarse grains. Most families live on wage labour.

Of two anganwadis meant to provide cooked cereal to support infants and pregnant and nursing mothers, one is locked and the second has a broken stove with piles of human excreta next to it. The Primary Health Centre is open but villagers complain that the nurse demands payments for medicines supplied free.

It is the same with other entitlements such as funds for houses that below poverty line families are entitled to under Indira Awas Yojana. “The going rate is Rs 10,000 for the sarpanch and gram sevak. Else they stop the cooperative bank from releasing the money to us. Everyone’s share is fixed. Who do we complain to?” asks Mithu Ram, another villager from Bamnor.

Meghwal knew what he was getting into. He had intimated the local DSP and Collector on 28 February that he feared for his life. He got no protection. Since the attack, the police has arrested four goons but made no effort to interrogate Shah..

The sarpanches hold sway over who gets to be on the audit body that inspects public records of work done.

The state government set up two inquiries to probe into corruption. The state-level inquiry under MS Bhukar, Joint Director, Social Audit MGNREGA, found irregularities of over Rs 46 lakh and that roads and water tanks shown on paper were not built. Material worth Rs 36 lakh was shown purchased from Channa Khan, who owns no business and who villagers say works as a driver for the sarpanch. Overturning hierarchy, the government set up a second inquiry by district-level officials. Going by the second inquiry’s findings, the government reduced the amount of funds to be recovered for graft, ordered that infrastructure be built as shown on paper, and let Shah off without registering an FIR.

“Bhukar’s was a special audit, not an inquiry. The district-level one was the official inquiry. We asked the sarpanch to make up for the irregularities not because we were letting him get away but because we wanted that the works be completed,” explains CS Rajan, Principal Secretary, Rural Development, Rajasthan.

Will the Lokpal Bill change such stories of graft in panchayats across the country? What will it do for those for whom corruption means to be denied a water tank on their farm built under MGNREGA or going without a minimum wage? Former PM Rajiv Gandhi had famously described his dilemma — that of every Rs 1 spent at the Centre, only 15 paise reached villages. Will the new law change what is essentially a crisis of governance borne by the poorest?

Out of bounds: Mangla Ram, who was beaten up by the sarpanch for questioning his corrupt ways
Mangla Ram, who was beaten up by the sarpanch for questioning his corrupt ways

“The Lokpal’s representatives will be everywhere. They will promptly investigate any complaints and punish the guilty. Once a few people go to jail, it will serve as deterrent and remove corruption,” says Shanti Bhushan, senior lawyer and one of the civil society representatives drafting the Bill.

The draft Bill requires every public authority to create and display a citizens’ charter. Heads of all government departments will simultaneously be public grievance redressal officers. Chief Vigilance Officers (CVO) of each department will appoint appellate grievance officers to receive complaints against public grievance redressal officers. CVOs may direct drawing and disbursing officers to deduce penalty amounts of over Rs 250 a day from the salary of errant officers and compensate complainants. The Lokpal will conduct annual integrity audits and will task the vigilance officers with protecting whistleblowers. Besides the question whether this separates those committing graft from those probing, or creates another file silo of bureaucrats, there is concern over whether the most vulnerable will have access to officers equal to that of the powerful.

THE LATEST idea to make this structure more people-centric, proposed by the Anna Hazare- led group, is to have public juries similar to those in the US that will be made up of people appointed from various walks of life in districts and villages. “How will this jury work? Will a Dalit woman be able to keep her own when there is a Thakur landlord in the jury?” asks Nikhil Dey, founder member of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) at a Jaipur public hearing on MGNREGA corruption recently.

“I’m not rejecting the public jury idea but the current Bill does not consider existing power relations. Nor does it say what will ensure the integrity of these district officers investigating corruption,” he says.

Dey agrees that making public accounts open to everyone through social audits — an idea started by MKSS in rural Rajasthan that is now a feature of pro-poor laws such as MGNREGA — has also failed. The sarpanches hold sway over who gets to be on the audit committee that inspects public records of work done in the village.

The high-voltage debate over the Lokpal Bill rages on in Delhi and other metros. In Barmer, the wait for justice or even normalcy may be longer. “The doctor said there is a one percent chance I may walk or drive again,” says Meghwal.

Anumeha Yadav is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
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