MP villagers accuse panchayat of corruption, creating caste divide through MGNREGA allotments

MP villagers accuse panchayat of corruption, creating caste divide through MGNREGA allotments

MP villagers accuse panchayat of corruption, creating caste divide through MGNREGA allotments

The panchayat bhavan at Bhojakhedi (Picture credit - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)

The sarpanch, whose panchayat is under the scanner for several financial irregularities, said that "if different communities are employed together, they clash with each other".

Khandwa: A gram panchayat in Madhya Pradesh is allegedly dividing on caste lines those engaged in work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) and other government schemes. 

The practise came to light when 101Reporters spoke to Aqeel Khan, an RTI activist at Bhojakhedi gram panchayat in the state’s Khandwa district.  

Khan, who had filed an RTI application to the Zila panchayat on August 22, 2020, seeking details of what kind of work was assigned to which caste in the district, said the authorities are yet to respond to his query. 

The activist took up the matter after hearing regular complaints from panchayat members about irregularities in allotment of work in their village, which has about 30 per cent people belonging to the upper-caste Darbar community while the rest comprise Muslims and other castes. The percentage of Scheduled Castes (SC) is 16.1 and Scheduled Tribes (ST) is 2.1.

According to Census 2011, Bhojakhedi gram panchayat with 459 households has a population of 2,236. Its literacy rate is reportedly 76.8 per cent, higher than Madhya Pradesh's average of 69.32.

Yet, 82.84 per cent of the panchayat's electoral population – 938 people – are employed as manual labourers and 352 work in agricultural fields. This is because most residents here find work under the MGNREGA, which guarantees 100 days of employment to registered labourers, more profitable.

As it is, there is a shortage of work in rural areas. Bhojakhedi has about 300 cultivators who have agricultural land ranging from 2 to 10 acres. These landowners give wages of Rs 125 to Rs 150 per day to field hands who otherwise get about Rs 192 per day as labourers under the MGNREGA.

Panchayat and villagers speak up

Himmat Patel, a member of the panchayat committee, admitted to the division of labourers according to caste while assigning work, and said that he as well as other members had opposed this. But their resistance was brushed aside by panchayat co-secretary Dinesh Wankhede, who said it was his discretion how to allot duties.

When 101Reporters contacted Wankhede, he denied any caste divide in assigning work to the labourers. “There are 1,000 labourers in the village, and it is the responsibility of the panchayat to assign work to all of them. Only small-scale works are undertaken in the village, hence it is not possible to engage all labourers on a single task. There is no caste divide. We are assigning the works to labourers systematically,” he said.

According to sarpanch Mansharam Bare, they had implemented the work allotment system “with everyone's consent”.

“The works are divided among different communities and assigned first to Harijans, followed by tribals, Muslims, Kunbi Patels and then to the Darbars. We do not want to create any communal discord, but if we employ different communities together, they clash with each other,” he alleged.

Many villagers, however, rejected the sarpanch’s take. “There is no communal divide in the village. People live together and work together. By dividing them in the name of work, the panchayat is thinking that is achieving something. This practice should end,” said Salim Khan, a local farmer.

Shahzad Mansoori has been opposing the practice as well. He said a complaint had been made to the collector, but no one has taken the issue seriously. “Caste division in government work cannot be justified from any point of view,” he pointed out.

Vikram Singh Tomar from the village pointed out that because of the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, a new panchayat could not be formed. He alleged that the panchayat had been divided on caste lines ever since Mansharam became the sarpanch. The locals have been increasingly vocal about some of the alleged corruptions under the panchayat and activists like Khan that the panchayat wants to suppress dissent by literally dividing the people and breaking them up into groups. 

Local resident and activist Aqeel Khan from Bhojakhedi who filed an RTI seeking details about caste-based work allotments (Picture credit - Mohammad Asif Siddiqui)

Village resident, Yuvraj Tomar said, “To hide the corruption prevailing in the panchayat and to provide financial benefits to some people, attempts are being made to divide the people on caste. The entire village is angry with the working style of the present panchayat, but the members and sarpanch remain wilful.”

‘Fraud and collusion with mining mafia’

The last Panchayat elections in Madhya Pradesh were held in 2015 and the dates for the next elections have now been announced with the three-phase elections to be held in January and February 2022. The local activists and residents are hoping to highlight these issues in order to bring in a change in the coming elections. 

For instance, when plantation and drain construction works were taken up in the village before the rains, labourers belonging to the Scheduled Castes were employed for the construction of drains in the first week, those from tribal communities were allotted the work in the second week and those belonging to the Muslim community were assigned the job in the third week. Khan alleged that all plantation work in the village was assigned only to the family members and relatives of the sarpanch. 

The gram panchayat authorities are also reportedly under the scanner of the mining department after some panchayat members and the district MLA complained about their nexus with the illegal mining mafia and misappropriation of Rs 10 lakh.

Khan gave an example of the “sports ground” that the panchayat was building for the practice of rural players in the village. As much as Rs 10 lakh was withdrawn from the panchayat account for this work but nothing actually materialised on the ground, and what started on the land was ballast mine work by one Rakesh, he said.

Khan pointed out that although the mining licence had expired in 2017, excavation work was in progress even this year on the area marked for the playground. “Information about the mining work was not given to other members of the panchayat, and the villagers fought against it continuously till the work was stopped,” alleged Khan.

 An investigation is on in the matter. 

In another instance, brought to light in an affidavit submitted to the collector by panch Himmat Sanduke, the panchayat has not allotted a single cottage or pucca house to any family in the village for the past seven years. More than 300 requests have been pending during the same. Of the 11 cottages were allotted the last time in 2014, only three were fully completed. Work on the rest is pending due to lack of funds.

The villagers have also alleged cheating of about Rs 10 lakh by the sarpanch and panchayat secretary during the construction of a gravel road from Bhojakhedi to Devjhiri a month ago. The work, for which local labourers could have been employed and paid, was undertaken using JCB machines.

On the alleged irregularities in the workings of the panchayat, district mineral officer Sachin Verma said they had given a report on the matter and a big racket seems to be on. “I will not be able to give information about who is guilty in this. I acknowledge the involvement of the panchayat,” he said.

Sanjay Tiwari, the additional CEO of Khandwa district panchayat, too said he was seeking information on the issue.

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