Welfare’s Victim?

By Gladson Dungdung 

Tehelka 2 August, 2008
An NREGS contractor’s self-immolation reveals rampant corruption in the Scheme. 
Tapas in Hospital
Tapas in Hospital

ACOMMUNITY THAT has always been on the receiving end of dubious ‘development’ efforts undertaken in their name, the Adivasis of Jharkhand can now add the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) to the long list of their torments. The latest victim is 34-year-old Tapas Soren of Sarwaha village in Hazaribagh district, a small-time NREGS contractor whose death by self-immolation was reported across the country. On July 2 afternoon, Soren set himself afire at Hazaribagh’s busy Charhi Chowk. He was admitted to a Ranchi hospital and later on referred to Safdarjung hospital, New Delhi where he succumbed to his injuries on July 8.

Soren’s family — his wife Dashmi, 5-year-old son Sameer and 7-year-old daughter Sumanti — depended on agriculture, coal selling and forest produce for their survival. In December, 2007 Soren had secured a contract worth Rs 1.69 lakh under the NREGS for digging a well in his village. After the first phase of the scheme was completed, Soren had withdrawn Rs 22,500 from his bank account and had paid Rs 15,000 to the Block Development Officer (BDO) Manmohan Prasad as his “share” and the rest he paid as wages to his co-workers. After the second phase, he withdrew Rs 50,000 in the presence of Panchayat Sevak Brij Kishor Mahto, who took Rs 35,000 from him as bribe, and threatened that the balance amount would not be released unless he pays the “share” of higher officers including the Deputy Commissioner.

The next time Soren went to the bank, he was stunned to find that the remaining money was already withdrawn from his account with the involvement of bank officials. His complaints to bank authorities fell on deaf ears, while his co-workers started putting pressure on him for wages that were due. A rumour started doing the rounds that Soren had pocketed the money and was making a fool of his co-workers. To add to his troubles, a letter arrived from NREGS authorities demanding that he submit accounts to the concerned officer. This was the last straw; what prompted Soren to take the drastic step of self-immolation. The events that led up to the incident were recounted by Soren himself in a statement made in the hospital, and recorded on camera by the civil society group Jharkhand Mines Area Coordination Committee (JMACC), of which he was a member.

Soren’s self-immolation has created a storm in the social and political arenas of Jharkhand, and on the day of his funeral, some 2000 members of JMACC protested with the dead body in front of the governor’s residence demanding punishment to the guilty and compensation for Soren’s family. Former MP and president of Dishum Party Salkhan Murmu called for a CBI probe while Congress MLA Niyel Tirkey even demanded that Jharkhand’s minister for rural development Anos Ekka be charged with murder.

According to Sister Jema, an activist of Chotanagpur Adivasi Seva Samity who is very much involved in the case, corruption is widespread in the NREGS, and the Scheme benefits only the officials, and not the poor whom its intended for. “The bribe is fixed in percentage in all the schemes. Four percent to panchayat sevak, five percent to BDO, five percent to the engineer in charge, the list goes on. How can anyone carry out work in a situation like this?” she asks.

Under the orders of Chief Minister Madhu Koda, three of the officials involved — BDO Manmohan Prasad, Panchayat Sevak Brij Kishor Mahto and Junior Engineer Dinesh Prasad — have been suspended. Interestingly, 38 complaints related to corruption in NREGS were registered in Hazaribagh district but no action had been taken on any of them.

According to investigating officer Baldev Raj, Soren’s death was not due to corruption but a “mistake” done by the bank. JMACC general secretary Punit Minz is quick to dismiss this claim, saying, “The investigation officer is trying to shield the corrupt officers, and his statements amount to rubbing salt on Soren’s family. But we’re determined to fight until justice is secured.”

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