Four villagers who tenaciously used RTI are presently on a satyagraha in front of the Rajkot district collectorate demanding action against corrupt officials in the Indira Awaas Yojana but no one, including Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, is listening
While Narendra Modi’s Gujarat is portrayed as a sterling example of good governance, brazen corruption in the premier housing scheme, Indira Awaas Yojana meant for those below poverty line (BPL) has not led to action against corrupt officials who have been diverting housing funds meant for the poorest of the poor to the ‘rich’ and ‘influential’ of the village, as exposed through RTI (Right to Information).
The Indira Awaas Yojana scheme is run by the Union rural development ministry to construct houses for people below poverty line. The financial assistance comprises Rs75,000 allotted to a woman or in the joint name of husband and wife. It is also extended to widows and war widows. It was the plight of a poor widow of Dhank village in Rajkot district that led to the corruption trail through incriminating evidence found through a series of RTI applications filed in the last two years, but the corrupt continue to be protected.
To protest against inaction by the state government, four villagers of Dhank in Rajkot district where the scam was exposed, Bharatbhai Ghughal, Bhanjibhai Jogel Naranbhai Varagiya and Govind Gangera are on satyagraha for the past one week in front of the Rajkot Collector’s office, to demand proper action against officers responsible for corruption in Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY). These officers, which include block development officers, assistant engineers and sarpanchs diverted funds to the rich and influential of the village for renovation of their houses. In some cases, the very same ‘rich’ and ‘influential’ people were also beneficiaries of another similar state government-run scheme, Sardar Patel Awaas Yojana (SPAY). As per rules, only villagers below poverty line can avail of one of the two schemes.
The endless power of citizen empowerment through RTI is reflected in this particular case, two villagers of Dhank who studied up to Std VII—Bharatbhai Ghughal and Bhanjibhai Jogel—tirelessly pursued the RTI route for two long years and blew the lid off a mega housing scam that is allegedly prevalent in most villages of Gujarat. Their frustration at corrupt officials not being punished despite incriminating evidence they exposed forcing the State Information Commission to direct vigilance commission to take action, has forced them to sit on satyagraha in front of the Rajkot Collector’s office.
In a press statement issued by the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) which has guided these two villagers to crusade through RTI, Ghughal and Jogel have stated that, “We are agriculture labourers. Through RTI we came to know about the scam. We have approached the vigilance commission, as well as panchayat, rural housing department but no action is being taken against the officers who were responsible for this corruption. We were threatened by village sarpanch and panchayat officials but we are fighting for the cause to change the system. It’s almost a year but government has not taken any action against the responsible officers.” The press release has appealed to citizens and activists, nationwide to contact Bhanjibhai Jogel, Bharatbhai Ghughal on 09974573036 for moral support and send emails requesting action on the corrupt to RM Patel, Additional Chief Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Housing Dept (GOG)
[email protected], [email protected]; D Rajgopalan, Chief Information Commissioner – Gujarat [email protected] ; Rajendar Kumar, District Collector Rajkot [email protected] and/or N B Upadhyay, District Development Officer, [email protected].
Jogel and Ghughal filed RTI applications at the Gram Panchayat office in 2010 requesting names of the beneficiaries in Dhank village for the IAY and SPAY schemes for the last five years. When the sarpanch came to know of this, he along with his men beat the duo. In fact, he threatened to kill them by burning their houses in the night—a statement which he made in front of the District Development Officer (DDO) who was unmoved by it. Refusing to cow down, they took the help of Pankti Jog, a RTI activist working for MAGP which also has a whistleblowers’ helpline, based in Ahmedabad. She filed a police complaint and also ensured police protection to them.
When the PIO did not reply, they filed the first appeal with the first appellate authority, that is, the District Development Office of Rajkot district. During the hearing, the PIO submitted a hand-written chit with six names of beneficiaries who received allotment out of the rules. Jogel and Ghughal refused this shabby information and demanded a certified copy of the list of beneficiaries and whether they belonged to the BPL section of the society. Says Pankti Jog, “finally multiple RTI applications were filed to procure the same information and finally they received the list. The information stated that there were 65 beneficiaries in the last five years out of which 22 of them belonged to the affluent class and had received multiple benefits, meaning they received money two to three times under the two housing schemes and had renovated their houses with it.”
Jogel and Ghughal then analysed the sheet, re-worked it in an excel sheet format and with red marks defining irregularities. They then sent it to the Vigilance Commission for suitable action against the illegal beneficiaries. Says Pankti Jog, “The Vigilance Commission was initially slow in its action but in March 2011 directed the principal secretary of the panchayat department to conduct and inquiry and submit its report to the commission. The panchayat department sought details from the District Rural Development Authority (DRDA) by conducting investigation on ground. The two RTI applicants helped the authorities in identifying homes and the DRDA conducted a panchnama and collected testimonials which proved that 22 affluent households had indeed siphoned the money meant for the poorest of the poor.
Manu Moudgil, who has done a case study on this issue states that the villagers bravely used the RTI after the conventional methods of procuring failed. He writes, “it was in 2010 that Gughal and Jogal observed that well-to-do people owning large properties were getting the houses meant for below poverty line persons. They, joined by four others, decided to raise the issue first through official representations. Their first step was to file a joint complaint to the Taluka (Tehsil) Development Officer (TDO) on 30 March 2010, seeking an inquiry into the matter. Getting no response from the administration, they armed themselves with knowledge about the RTI Act, which they had heard was bringing about transparency in governance.”
Despite incriminating evidence found against the seven officers including the sarpanch of the village Dhank which has a population 7,000 odd, neither the Panchayat Department nor the Vigilance Commission is taking action against them. States Pankti Jog, “corruption in these housing schemes’ disbursal of money runs in crores of rupees across Gujarat but the Narendra Modi government seems hesitant to take action.” The reason why these poor villagers have had to resort to satyagraha.
(Vinita Deshmukh is the consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte. She can be reached at [email protected].)
With the government campaigning for FDI in retail, the question is, is it really going to help? If yes, then whom?
Today, the ministry of commerce and industry took its campaign to promote FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) in retail to the literate population of India, with full page advertisements in newspapers.
The advertisement claims that such direct investment will bring huge benefits not only to the farmers but to the society at large and that it will generate over 10 million new jobs and so on. Naturally, it does not give any time frame to achieve this end.
The ministry calls this as “another revolutionary leap” for the Indian economy. Reading such an ad makes it nice, but whether it will truly benefit the people in the long run remains to be seen. At least in US, it did not do so, according to the media.
The first and foremost fear is that farmers will be exploited by the predatory pricing policy of the large retailers, a job that is probably and already being done by a host of middlemen. So, instead of many such middlemen, there will one source where the farmer will face a single-window ‘clearance’, and that of the FDI retailer!
Having said that, will this process reduce the ultimate cost that the actual consumer has to pay for the farm products? Yes, in more ways than one, as the present Indian retails and supermarkets reveal.
Let's take a look at any Indian major city, like Bangalore, for instance. There are several big business houses in retail, such as Reliance, Tatas, Goenkas, and supermarkets like Spar, Big Bazaar, etc to name a few. In this category, we could include government sponsored HOPCOMs too.
There is intense competition amongst all these organizations. The pricing is sharp and the range of products covered is going up by the day.
And who are the buyers? They are the growing middle-class rich consumer society, where the chances are that both husband and wife earn a living and have a reasonably comfortable lifestyle. In all probability, they shop once in a week to make the purchases and do it methodically; no spur of the moment purchase, but needs are listed and shopping is done at leisure on chosen days.
The only thing that is left to buy is the odd item that may fall short which the family member at home or the cook may resort to purchase from the nearest Kirana shop or buy from the cart vendor, whose prices are at least 50% higher than the retailers mentioned above. This is based on the actual experience of the writer’s family.
FDI in retail is not a simple exercise to be covered in a single article but an in-depth study will take quite sometime and its impact cannot be visualized easily. If Reliance and Big Bazaar have come to stay, so will the FDI in retail, in due course.
FDI in retail will be subject to a lot of discussions and scrutiny. To generalize and compare how other countries have fared and still let kirana (small shops in road corners) survive or bring about better returns to farmer is a futile exercise. The conditions in India are different. We need to clearly spell out some basic pre-conditions that have to be complied within a specified time-frame, failing which, the licensee will have to pack up and go home.
a) At least 30% of the indigenous farm produce will have to be retailed
b) Each FDI-R licensee be given the choice of seven to 10 locations where it can commence its actual retail operations
c) These operating centres will have to be supported by actual infrastructural development of warehouses, cold storage and transportation logistics in identified sources of supply at the produce points
d) The next set of new cities will be after successful performance, a minimum of 18-24 months later, with the same conditions relating to infrastructure development or by expansion of existing ones
e) The activities of the FDI-R licensee will be subject to a close check and follow-up by a regulator who will maintain a watchdog committee for keeping a track of purchase pricing to retail selling; of the actual commitments in terms of fulfilling employment growth and how these actually are benefiting the country in terms of taxes earned
f) These FDI-R licensees should not become the single largest selling point for marketing products of other countries when identical or similar products of indigenous makes are readily available.
These measures would be the first of many that one can think of as a start.
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce and was associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US. He can be contacted at [email protected].)
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