Panchayat elections are no more about power to the people. This carnival is drenched in a heady cocktail of liquor, cash, caste, and cash-rich development schemes
Sadiq Naqvi Bijnor (UP)
Empty plastic chairs and a makeshift stage with colourful banners are signs that an election meeting has just ended. It's past midnight as two young men gossip at a village square in Mukerpur Khema on the outskirts of Bijnor town. "I have been drinking all through last week. Just go to any of the candidates and they will readily pass on a bottle of country-made liquor," said one of them.
Panchayat elections are a carnival of sorts in the Hindi heartland. It is impossible to miss the tents on the periphery of every village, swarming with village elders clad in kurta pyjamas or lungis, bidis clutched between their fingers. Even small barber shops have doubled up as offices, spaces rife with election gossip.
At one of these 'offices', a village elder was heard telling a candidate how in just one day he has swung the odds in his favour by canvassing door to door: "I have convinced the Chamars (cobblers) to vote for us this time by promising them votes of our community (the Ansaris) in the next elections when the seat might be reserved for the Scheduled Castes (SCs)." This is planning grassroots democracy, long term.
Age-old relations between communities are a factor in deciding who votes for whom. Hence, this time the Sayyeds (an 'upper-caste' Muslim community) of Mukerpur Khema have decided to support "Harijan" candidates because the two communities have shared a strong bond since the feudal days when Dalits used to work on their farms.
Significantly, caste names are given pride of place in most posters and banners. Elders of various caste groups are approached and sometimes given money to campaign for candidates. "The incumbent pradhan (panchayat head) is so confident of winning again because he has bought influential people from all communities. He is offering us Rs 1,000 for every vote, though he has only got work done in his neighbourhood, leaving the rest to God," whispered Mohammad Ali of Mukerpur Khema.
Chakresh, the pradhan, refutes the allegation: "I am asking for votes only on the basis of what I have got done - cemented roads, ponds and street lights."
In Mukerpur Khema, 24 candidates are vying for the post of pradhan. In the last elections, Chakresh, a Dalit, had managed to win: it was an unreserved seat. "Undeniably, there is political assertion among the lower castes," said Bijnor-based lawyer Anil Chaudhary.
This is perhaps the costliest panchayat election ever in the district. Campaigning has started much in advance. "A candidate gave us a 500-rupee note on Eid-ul-fitr," said Mushtaq, a daily wager.
Candidates try to outdo each other in wooing voters. In a village in Najibabad block, two cousins are in the fray. One gifted a chicken to each voter, and the other responded by sending a chicken with a 100-rupee note tied to its legs - money for the cooking.
Some have donated for the construction of temples while others have bought expensive carpets for mosques. There are even reports of candidates setting up relief camps for people affected by monsoon floods.
In Mukerpur Khema, Chakresh has gifted 60 carrom boards, his election symbol, to young voters. Others are spending Rs 20,000 on each public meeting, usually followed by a round of tea, biscuits, fruits - and, of course, country and 'English' liquor. The election 'carnival' has ensured a rise in the sale of liquor; sales have reportedly touched Rs 50 crore. "We have to dole out free alcohol, otherwise people don't come for the meetings," said a candidate.
Even when it comes to intoxication, hierarchy rules: country-made, and sometimes spurious, liquor for commoners, whisky for the middlemen, and beer cans for youngsters who paste posters. There is also a caste dimension. Several candidates pointed out that country-made liquor is mainly for Dalits, who usually become victims of excessive drinking or spurious liquor, and sometimes pay with their lives. Recently, the district witnessed three such deaths.
Two of the dead belonged to Rukhario, where most of the villagers are Dalits. The locals were wary of discussing the incident. After much prodding, Jitendra, a local, confirmed that the two had gone to a candidate's house the night before they died; there, they had consumed the deadly liquor.
The sub-divisional magistrate, who is responsible for enforcing the 'Model Code of Conduct', said, "I know such parties are held every day. But what can I do?" Even the circle officer, Bijnor police station, said he cannot curb this menace. "Candidates are using new ways to smuggle alcohol from Haryana, Punjab, Delhi and Uttarakhand," he rued.
According to independent estimates, many candidates for the post of pradhan are spending Rs 2-5 lakh; those aspiring for Zila Panchayat (district council) Rs 10-20 lakh each. The figures may be lower in the reserved seats. "One Zila Panchayat candidate offered Rs 15 lakh to his opponent to make him withdraw," said an official. "Elections also stimulate the flow of black money," remarked a local journalist.
Local newspapers look like paid supplements with 5-6 pages of electoral ads. "They are spending thousands on ads every day," said a police officer. Ironically, the ads of the women candidates also carry pictures of their spouses.
With funds flowing in directly to the lowest level of governance, the fight for the post of pradhan has become desperate. "In the past several years, there has been a considerable increase in the funds directly at the disposal of pradhans, leading to more corruption," says Raj Kumar, SP, Bijnor district.
With schemes like MGNREGS, Midday Meals, Indira Awas Yojana, scholarships, pensions and anganwadi, etc, under the direct or indirect control of pradhans, funds are siphoned off in collusion with higher authorities.
As wages under MGNREGS go directly to the bank accounts of labourers, pradhans have figured out new ways to benefit. "They make fake job cards in the names of their relatives and associates, and fix their share in the loot. This way it gets tough to catch them," said an assistant development officer. "This is organised business which involves the pradhan, rozgar sewak and panchayat secretary, besides the higher-ups in the district administration."
Almost Rs 26 crore was sanctioned for the district under MGNREGS in 2008 and Rs 75 crore for the current year. Many pradhans reportedly take commission for everything they have to verify or sanction. "Usually a pradhan makes Rs 7,000 on every Indira Awas house that he sanctions," said a local official.
Money and food for the Midday Meal scheme are channelled to personal coffers even as children stay hungry, often posing with empty plates for local newspapers. "The pradhans also get their cut in work done through MP and MLA development funds,"say villagers.
Hardnews learnt that Poshtahaar, a special packet of nutritious food for children, is picked up by anganwadi workers from the block office and sold in the open market. "I buy these packets at Rs 200 per 25 kg for feeding cattle. It's cheaper than chokar (a kind of cattle-feed)," said Mukesh of Meherpur, a village in Aaku block. The pradhan is responsible for verifying the distribution of Poshtahaar.
Often, panchayat elections become a prestige issue for candidates, and for many, their first step in politics. So it becomes a mad race to trounce one's opponents by spending more money than them. Some end up bankrupt. This reporter found a candidate in Haldaur block asking his voters for money!
"If someone becomes the Zila Panchayat chairman by spending as much as a crore to buy the support of other members, there is no way he can earn it back by appropriating funds. So this is nothing but a question of prestige," said Mahendra Singh, district panchayati raj officer, Bijnor. Many candidates refute these charges. "This is the only way I can serve the people," said Ram Singh Ameen, a candidate from Mukerpur Khema.