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E-literate paanwalla unearths Rs 1 crore NREGS scam

A school dropout in Gujarat’s Porbandar district used his newly-acquired computer literacy to reveal a Rs 1 crore scam in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

The benefits of learning to use a computer, and the information that is available at the click of a mouse, have been most dramatically demonstrated by 37-year-old Aslam Khokhar, a Class X dropout in Kotda village of Gujarat’s Porbandar district.

The paan shop owner, newly literate in computers, used Google to find out more about the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the largest employment guarantee programme in the world, initiated by the Indian government in 2005.

The programme guarantees 100 days of paid employment to adult members of every rural family that volunteers to do manual work.

Khokhar says he was thrilled to find every detail pertaining to the scheme, in his area, on the NREGS website. But then he came across a job card (which has to be filled in by beneficiaries of the scheme) made out in the name of a friend of his who is a government employee and ought not to be eligible for the scheme. More digging turned up several other names of doctors, lawyers, teachers and even non-resident Indians, whom he knew and who were listed as ‘labourers’.

Together with a local councillor and a Congress worker, Khokhar conducted door-to-door meetings with villagers named on the website as beneficiaries and found that they had neither worked on a NREGS project nor had they received any wages. One of them had been living in Muscat for three years and had no idea he was on the list and was getting paid for non-existent work.

Varu Karsan Uka and his wife are shown in the records to have built roads and dug wells for 60 days and to have received Rs 6,000 for the work, when in actual fact Uka is a state government official.

A forest guard, a doctor, state transport employees, a teacher, and even a couple who left the village and are settled in Israel, are among those shown to have job cards and been paid for work under the NREGS.

Preliminary investigations by the taluka development officer show that at least 73 ineligible people have been listed as NREGS beneficiaries without their knowledge. An amount of Rs 1 crore has thus been siphoned off under the scam.

Aslam Khokhar’s IT savvy has now prompted the district development officer to begin a door-to-door survey to unearth the extent of the scam. The police too said they would launch a probe to verify all 963 accounts.

As for who is behind the scam, postmaster of the Kotda post office, Ramdev Odedara and sarpanch Bhima Modha are suspected. They had allegedly picked names and addresses randomly from the voters’ list, made job cards, opened savings accounts against the names and then withdrawn the money deposited in the accounts, in the last three years, according to a police complaint filed by a post office employee, Bhavesh Patel. When Khokhar filed an RTI application at the post office to get details of NREGS work in the district, he did not receive an answer. Now that the scam has been exposed, the post office has launched an inquiry against Odedara.

Source: The Indian Express, November 15, 2010