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The case of the disappearing ponds

By Pradeep Baisakh

An RTI inquiry in Kusmal village in Orissa’s Nuapada district revealed that though in official records seven farm ponds have been built under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, not a single pond exists in reality. Across this district, which has high levels of migration, Rs 77 lakh has been misappropriated under the job guarantee scheme by unscrupulous administration officials at all levels

The pond the junior engineer tried to dig after the expose

In Nuapada district of Orissa, farm ponds costing Rs 77 lakh, dug under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), have vanished – or never existed.

In October 2009, Khirasindhu Sagria, a youth from Kusmal village in Birighat panchayat under Khariar block of Nuapada district, sought information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act from the Kariar block office about the status of seven farm ponds that were to be dug in his village under MNREGA. A resolution had been passed in the gram sabha in 2007-08 to this effect.

The answer to his query was that all the ponds were completed as per records, at a cost of Rs 2.14 lakh. The fact is that not a single pond exists. The projects were started in 2008-09 but abandoned after some time. Panchayat and block level officials suggested that the ponds were washed away by the rain!

The pond-vanishing phenomenon has been occurring all over the district. Construction of about 2,000 farm ponds on private lands has been undertaken officially in the district from 2007-08 to 2009-10 at an estimated cost of more than Rs 10 crore. Some Rs 3.74 crore has already been spent. But verification of 200 farm ponds in eight panchayats in Khariar, Boden, and Sinapali blocks reveals that 41 farm ponds are non-existent (about 20%). So the quantum of money misappropriated in the form of ghost works is close to Rs 77 lakh in the district.

Apart from these non-existent ponds, Ajit Panda, a social activist who has studied the corruption in the farm ponds, says that “in about 50% of the remaining farm ponds, the work expenditure has been shown to be much higher than the work done. If we include the half-done farm ponds in the calculation, misappropriation would be more than 40% of the total expenditure.”

In the case of Kusmal village about which the RTI inquiry was made, once the gram sabha passed the resolution on building the ponds, the gram sathi, Rina Mandal, asked the beneficiaries in May 2008 to start the work and assured them that the money would be released. Later, her husband Jogeswar asked the beneficiaries to stop the work and told them they could get the full payment even without digging the pond. He asked for a bribe of Rs 5,000 from each of the workers and managed to amass a sum of Rs 35,000.

Kirasindhu Sagria, the whistleblower

Asked why they gave the bribe, Bidyadhar Majhi, one of the beneficiaries, said, “We feared that unless we give him the money he may scrap the projects altogether.” The other beneficiaries are Nutan Sagria, Renudhar Gahir, Sahadev Majhi, Makarsingh Majhi, Parakshita Majhi and Kokil Majhi.

According to the procedure laid down in the MGNREGA, the block development officer (BDO) must put his signature on the final report after receiving a photograph of the completed pond. In this case the BDO and the junior engineer have both signed, though the pond does not exist.

There are other irregularities. Muster rolls have been fudged to adjust the payment; names of dead persons and teachers and students of the local school show up on the muster roll. Hari Majhi is dead, Nirekha Jagat is paralysed and Nimesh Sunani is a 10-year-old student, but their names appear in the muster roll to suggest that they have worked on the pond projects.

The BDO, Nabin Chandra Naik, and the collector, Bishnu Prasad Panda, were informed about the fraud in January 2010 but took no action. After Khirasindhu Sagria blew the whistle on the scam, the junior engineer, S Samantray, attempted to dig the ponds using machines (which is forbidden under MGNREGA), and the gram sathi, Rina Mandal, foisted a false case of rape and chain-snatching on him.

Rajkishor Mishra, Adviser to the Supreme Court Commission on Right to Food, made an e-complaint on March 5, 2010, to the Commissioner-cum-Secretary of the panchayati raj department of the state, S N Tripathy, and the Project Director of MGNREGA, S K Lohani, and eventually wrote to Amita Sharma, Additional Secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development.

Ashwani Kumar, member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) wrote to Amita Sharma urging her to send a central team to investigate the allegations. The rural development ministry despatched a national monitoring team headed by Colonel U B Singh which interacted with the beneficiaries, officials and other stakeholders in April 2010.

The chief minister of the state, Naveen Patnaik, has ordered appropriate action against the collector and the project director of the District Rural Development Agency, Akshya Jena. Four officials -- the present BDO of Khariar block, Nabin Chandra Naik, the former BDO Chita Ranjan Bangola, the Additional BDO, Bijaya Kumar Muduli and the Assistant Engineer Keshab Mahanty -- have been suspended.

Termination notices have been given to the junior engineer and the gram sathi and FIRs have been filed against them. Departmental proceedings against the Asst Engineer and the BDO were initiated.

Even though punitive actions have been initiated against the erring officials, the larger issue remains: what about the entitlement of the poor labourers which was siphoned off by the greedy officers? Will the government compensate their entitlements and loss?

The district of Nuapada is probably the most neglected in the state when it comes to implementation of MGNREGA. There are 100,000 job card holders of whom only about 18,000 households have been provided work in the last financial year (2009-10) for an average of 26 days. This is the official figure. Given the degree of corruption discussed above, the real benefit to the people from MGNREGA can well be imagined.

The non-existent farm pond of Makarsingh Majhi

According to the DRDA, if it gets timely release of money under MGNREGA, it could plan and implement better. However, Khuturam Sunani, a journalist, says, “The district has been unable to furnish the utilisation certificates in time, failing which release of money has been inconsistent. Government records received under RTI reveal that in Komna block alone about 50% of the farm ponds which started in 2007-08 and 2008-09 remain incomplete even today.”

In one case, labourers have not been paid their wages, amounting to Rs 3.16 lakh, for the past two years. Despite the Lok Adalat on MGNREGA held in the district in February 2010 ordering the administration to act, things have not been settled yet. When the central monitors asked for the records, the block authorities were unable to show the same. 

Nuapada is prone to high levels of migration. People from here go to work in Hyderabad and elsewhere in brick kilns in very poor conditions. One of the objectives of MGNREGA is to reduce migration but this it has conspicuously failed to do due to the apathy of the state government and inefficiency and corrupt practices of the district administration.

(Pradeep Baisakh is a freelance journalist based in Orissa)

Infochange News & Features, June 2010