MGNREGS: fake and fraudulent

In the deep interiors of Yavatmal, crores of Rupees have been swindled by an organised mafia while poor villagers have been pushed into abysmal poverty 

Akash Bisht/Sadiq Naqvi Pandharkawada, Yavatmal 

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 Armed with these fake muster rolls, money was withdrawn from our accounts at the post office,” says Mesaram.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 bodyguards 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. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2012