Citizens' Issues
Well done, Sagria—the ghost farm pond whistleblower of Odisha

In the innocuous Kusmal village of Odisha, young Khirasindhu Sagria uses RTI to expose the scandal of several ghost farm ponds which were never built but he is instead rewarded with harassment and threats from government functionaries

Sagria Khirasindhu is a young Dalit villager residing in the innocuous Kusmal village of Nuapada district in West Odisha. Most of the 298 households that comprise Kusmal are eligible to be the beneficiaries of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) much tom-tommed scheme for the rural poor, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) commonly termed as NREGA, as its residents comprise Dalits and tribals. In fact, in Nuapada district alone, there are 1,12,842 job card holders under this scheme for which the UPA government in its 2010-2011 budget has allocated Rs40,100 crore to cover entire rural India.

Portrayed as the world’s largest rural employment scheme undertaken by any government, the NREGA has predictably been mired in corruption, financial irregularities, siphoning off money by village-level officers and worse, non-construction or poor construction of development works, in most states in India. You may see this link from the official website of NREGA which gives examples of shoddy work across India and shows the callousness with which it is handled—http://nrega.nic.i/MGNREGA_WORKS_DRAFT_MANUAL12.pdf

Construction of farm ponds to facilitate water conservation is one of the various works undertaken under the NREGA (See Box 3 for list of works under NREGA).  Seven farm ponds were sanctioned by the Gram Panchayat to be built in the private lands of seven marginal farmers of Kushal village in Khairar Block in the year 2007. However, till date all of these remain ghost farm ponds, as the villagers term them, meaning—non-existent farm ponds. However, payment of over Rs2 lakh has already been pocketed by village level government functionaries.

The Centre sent a monitoring team to conduct investigation into the Kushal ghost farm ponds scandal, on the complaint of activists spearheaded by Ajit Kumar Panda. As a result, two block development officers, one additional block development officer and the assistant engineer were suspended. The junior engineer and the Gram Sathi (friend of the village) were disengaged. However, no action has been taken against the collector. In fact, recently, the suspended officials have been reinstated. The corruption may seem miniscule against the backdrop of the mammoth second generation (2G) and Commonwealth Games scam but such micro-level scams in NREGA together make up for an equally large scandal. Hence, Sagria’s role as a whistleblower attains significance.

Sagria who courageously invoked the Right to Information Act (RTI) to find out the status of payments made for these seven ghost farm ponds has been recently given a show-cause notice by the collector of Nuapada district demanding why the activist’s name should not be included in a list, which the collector is preparing, concerning “persons encouraging litigation in the grama (village)”. He has also been booked for rape and snatching of a mangalsutra by a woman Gram Sathi who, along with her husband and brother-in-law, is an illegal beneficiary of NREGA wages meant for the workers who were to build the seven farm ponds.

So, what did Sagria do to deserve ire of the government babus? RTI activist Ajit Kumar Panda and founder, Krushaka Sakti Sangathan is the pillar of support for Sagria. Narrating the chronology of Sagria’s campaign he states:

“An amount of Rs2.45 lakh was sanctioned @Rs35,000 for each farm pond. Work order was issued in the name of the junior engineer of the block. When the list was finalised, the Gram Sathi of the village instructed the beneficiaries to begin the work in the first week of May, 2008.
“The 1st phase of bribing: The beneficiaries wanted to do the work themselves and thus started digging. But the husband of the Gram Sathi —Jogeswar Sagria asked the beneficiaries to stop the work after some days and said that the beneficiaries could get the full payment even without digging the farm pond. He asked the beneficiaries to pay Rs5,000  each. With the fear that Jogeswar might influence the block development officer (BDO) to delete their names from the beneficiary list, the beneficiaries paid Rs5,000 each to Jogeswar (totalling Rs35,000) and stopped the digging.

“The second phase of bribing: The measurement was done by the concerned junior engineer and roughly a bill of Rs10,000 for each pond was passed by the BDO, Khariar block (on the basis of junior engineer’s measurement and the muster rolls prepared by the Gram Sathi) for payment of wages to the labourers on 30 August 2008 i.e. after 105 days of the completion of the first phase (9 May 2008 to 15 May 2008.) The wages were transferred by the block to the bank accounts of the workers. Most of the works in this first phase had been done by the beneficiaries themselves. Thus the wage amount went to their accounts. The Gram Sathi demanded more bribe and in this second phase of bribing the beneficiaries paid between Rs3,000 to Rs4,000 each with the hope that the final bills of payment will be made soon. They hoped that they will construct the ponds after the final payment.

“Information obtained on RTI: When the work did not resume, Mr Sagria applied to the PIO, Khariar block seeking information on payments made. He was provided the information on 7th November. It was found that more than Rs.2.13 lakh have already been paid to labourers for construction of the seven farm ponds. Careful study of the muster rolls, procured under RTI, revealed that, they have been manipulated both in the 1st and 2nd phases. Names of dead persons and teachers and students of the local school have been entered in the muster rolls. Name of same persons appear in a number of muster rolls. (How could he be working on different projects the same day?)

“Grievance to BDO/collector: The villagers reported this matter to the BDO but no action was taken within seven days as per the Act. After it was reported to the collector, an inquiry was conducted. Various authorities under the collector visited the village one after another, but no action was taken to punish the culprits. Rather, to suppress the matter, the junior engineer was caught red-handed trying to construct the farm pond by using a machine, in the dead of the night. (Use of machine is not permitted under the NREGA scheme)

“Death threat and Police case against Mr Sagria: To harass Mr Sagria who availed information through RTI, Gram Sathi Rina Mandal filed a case against him in the local police station (attempt to rape and snatching of a mangalsutra). Chandan Sagria elder brother of Jogeswar and his wife filed another case of attempt to murder in the police station against Mr Sagria and other six villagers supporting the cause. Mr Sagria was also threatened by another brother of Jogeswar (Narahari Sagria) a teacher in a primary school and president of the district primary teachers association.  

“Intervention of the support group at Khariar: We have an informal support group at Khariar (consisting of social activists, lawyers, journalists and lecturers) to extend all sorts of support to the beneficiaries and the social activists working at village level on various issues;

“The support group at Khariar initiated the following steps,

1.    Conducted regular village meetings to encourage the villagers and the beneficiaries to maintain unity.
2.    Conducted press meet and motivated the media to focus on the issue persistently.
3.    Persuaded the members of the support groups to demand information from the BDO about action taken on the complaint of villagers.
4.    Used Google OREGA watch group as a forum for discussion by providing information on day to day development.
5.    Continuously wrote to the secretary Panchayati Raj sending copies to the joint secretary, MORD, New Delhi and some of the members of Central Employment Guaranty Council.

The continuous efforts finally resulted in the visit of director, special project, NREGA to Kusmal village to conduct inquiry. But surprisingly after the visit, the Khariar police is planning to charge-sheet Mr Sagria on the cases filed against him. This was in spite of the assurance provided by the director that no police action would be initiated against Mr Sagria.

Now, Mr Panda asks, “what will Mr Sagria do now? Go to the high court for an anticipatory bail which officials know he cannot afford? Or allow the police to arrest him? The perpetrators and the police are trying their best to put Mr Sagria behind bars as they feel such action will create in others to campaign against the corrupt. However, we have decided to help him move the high court.”

Mr Sagria though remains undeterred. Recently, he obtained the records of a tank renovation work undertaken at Khudpej Panchayat in Khariar block under NREGA. The expenditure shown in the muster roll was Rs80,000. He placed the muster roll before the villagers and the villagers found that half of the signatures in the roll were fabricated. The information revealed that the officials involved in the tank renovation work had swindled Rs40,000.

A classic example of why a strong Lokpal Bill with the entire lower bureaucracy under it and with independent investigative powers is the urgent need of the country soaked in corruption.

Some examples of irregularities and manipulations in farm ponds in Odisha as reported by Ajit Kumar Panda to the ministry of rural development: {break}

 Irregularities in farm ponds:
 1. Farm pond of Dhusasan Bag Village: Jharsaram Block: Khariar, Gram Panchayat: Birighat
 Year of Work: 2007-08   
 Estimated Cost: Rs35,000
 Expenditure Incurred as per Muster Roll (MR): An amount of Rs32,260 has been shown as expenditure in the muster rolls and bills of payment.
 Approximate Cost as per the Size of Farm Pond: The size reveals that the expenditure is less than Rs10,000. Verification of muster roll reveals that names of dead and old persons have been entered.
 Examples of Manipulation in MR:
1.    Hari Majhi: Dead since long. He has been paid Rs607.00
2.    Nirekha Jagat: A paralysed man unable to move from bed for more than seven years. (Rs900)
3.    Nimesh Sunani: About 10 years old residing at Khariar in school (Rs450)
4.    Takemani Bag: A student in Khariar school.(Rs950)
5.    Asha Jagat : More than 70 years (Rs450)
6.    Kamu Bag: No one is in this name.
7.    Tulu Bag: Student reading in class V.
8.    Dhaneswar Bag: No one in this name is found in this village.
9.    Family members of Gaon Sathi have not worked in the farm pond but have been paid lion’s share of the wage.


 2. Farm pond of Jamindar Tandi

Village: Pakhansar  Gram Panchayat: Nehena, Khariar Block

 Expenditure Made by Panchayat Samiti: Rs18,933
 Manipulation in MR: Eight people have worked in total for seven days. Four of them have earned Rs428.57 each per day! Three labourers have earned wage of 285.71 each per day

Enquiring about the high wage, we found out that the farm pond has been dug with a machine It still carries the marks of the machine. The MR is a total manipulation.

The villagers said that, they did not know that the digging by the machine was for constructing the pond. The soil in that land was of Murum quality. The contractor took that hard soil (Murum) for the road work. “And the farm pond was dug.”

Further inquiry revealed that, the soil conservation department has also dug one more farm pond in the land of Jamindar utilising NREGS fund (Rs14,756).

3.Farm pond of Amarsing Majhi
Village: Bad Dohel Gram Panchayat: Nehena  Block: Khariar   
Two farm ponds have been sanctioned in the name of Amarsing Majhi with two separate work codes. The executing agency is the soil conservation office, Khariar
Estimated Cost: Rs35,000 for each pond as per the information of Amarsing
Expenditure shown in the MR: Rs21,135 in the first one; Rs32,010.00 in the second one. But only one has been constructed— 60 ft length x 45 ft wide x 8 ft depth


4. Farm pond of Mana Sagria
 Village: Bad Dohel Gram Panchayat: Nehena Block: Khariar
 Estimated Cost: Rs35,000
 Expenditure shown in the MR:  Rs35,000
 Actual Size: 50 ft length x 50 ft wide x 3 ft depth


5. Farm pond of Lalu Majhi
Village:Sukli Bhata Gram Panchayat:Litisargi   Block: Boden
Estimated Cost: Rs35,000
Expenditure shown in the MR: Rs18,451
No work has been done


6. Farm pond of Bijaya Prakash Nanda
Village: Anlabhata Gram Panchayat: Litisargi  Block: Boden
Estimated Cost: Rs35,000
Expenditure shown in the MR: Rs.32560
Actual expenses according to eye estimate: Less than Rs5,000


7. Farm pond of Dhaneswar Nanda.
Village: Anlabhata Gram Panchayat: Litisargi, Block: Boden
Estimated Cost: Rs35,000
Expenditure shown in the MR: Rs33600

Some other examples of irregularities in villages Chatiaguda, Sagunbahdi and Mahulpada, Block- Sinapali, Dist  Nuapada 





Bhalachandra Singde

5 years ago

Vo Ek Musaphir Aur Mai Rasta Yaaro
Kahatha Basame Mere Use Rokana Yaaro.
This is the state of Indians and the Politicians of India.
Mahatma Gandhi had rightly stated that the Congress Party be dismantled and fresh 2 party politics be introduced.


5 years ago

I agree with SMukherjee


5 years ago

Thanks for your highlighting such corrupt practices. In fact such 'small corruption' at the lowest levels are multiplied millions of times at the national level to bleed the country of hundreds and thousands of crores of rupees. Hardly 10-15% of the amount meant for the 'poor' must be possibly reaching the intended beneficiaries and most of them, as these examples show, are being drawn into a vicious cycle of blackmailing, bribing, threats, false cases, etc.

In the name of serving the poor such schemes are helping massive loot of the nation by such dishonest insincere govt officials and party soundrels at all levels (top to bottom!). And these must be stopped with an iron hand with particular care being taken not to implicate any innocent victims. A strong Lokpal is long overdue.

‘Its high time that people make ‘paid news’ a dirty word’

Veteran journalists express their concerns about paid news at a panel discussion

“I don’t think that the people and the media are ignorant of this issue called paid news. However, we must make it a very dirty word, and have an authority that should crack down on it. India needs to have some strong media watchdog which will not interfere with journalistic freedom but must come down heavily on paid news,” said Smruti Koppikar, associate editor (West) and bureau chief at Outlook. She was speaking at a panel discussion organised by Moneylife Foundation on paid news, following a screening of the movie ‘Brokering News’, directed by Umesh Agarwal, which deals with the subject.

For knowing more about the movie, read

Ethics, introspection and vigilance
Ms Koppikar said that the Election Commission has been far more pro-active in countering the malaise than media itself has. “And when I see veteran journalists say ‘don’t blame the media’ I feel like asking that who else has eroded its own credibility,” she said.

Ms Koppikar also talked about dignity of the editor. She said, “When the editor knows that a reporter is close to someone and maybe enjoying some favours due to that relationship, she should not let that reporter write on that person/entity. I don’t say that journalists can’t develop friendships, but the editor should make sure that the line of professionalism is never overstepped.” She gave the example of the editor of Outlook, who published the Radia tapes, and was subsequently banned from appearing on some news channels. “The media itself doesn’t want to get corrected,” she observed.

Dnyanada Deshpande, who had worked as an editor for television channel IBN Lokmat, talked about the nexus between regional media publications and politicians. “There are many unknown publications which get huge amount of funds from their corporate and political stakeholders. Almost all vernacular publications have some sort of political backing. Who is going to expose whom, then?” she said.

She spoke about a journalist who had been caustic against Sharad Pawar for 20 years. “Suddenly, he joins another publication, and has nothing but good things to say about Pawar,” she said, “One can learn a lot of things by observing the changing pattern in the journalist’s writings.”

Veteran journalist Ms Geeta Seshu talked about a stringer for a Delhi daily, Nayi Duniya. “He just wrote one story about a fishy business and he was killed. Surprisingly, Nayi Duniya did not launch any investigations. What do we make of such cases?” When a member of the audience raised the issue of media ownership, Ms Seshu said, “What we can see is though the range of media/publication has diversified, ownership has consolidated. In USA, there are more channels than ever, but only six owners. India is not much different. Many corporates and powerful people own stakes in multiple houses—so, they can influence almost all.”

Incidentally, Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani is reportedly in talks for buying the debt-ridden Network18 (which owns CNBC, Viacom, MTV and jointly owns CNN IBN with Time Warner). Mr Ambani is also invested in hedge fund DE Shaw, which owns 14% stake in NDTV. Read more

Ranjona Banerji, consultant to and columnist said, “Somewhere, media house management also needs to be held accountable and be made to introspect—because they force in a lot of content. And one must be wary of correspondents who double up as advertising agents for corporates or political parties.” Ms Banerji pointed out that the Editor’s Guild and the Press Council of India had been fairly toothless, and has failed to check the phenomenon of paid news.

Legitimising the compromise
Ms Deshpande talked about the various awards that publication houses give. She said, “If a media house manages to get some very credible people on their jury or as awardees; they legitimise their stand. People then stop questioning their content. Awards are more about who give them than who receive them.” She talked about a Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) chairman who stopped cracking down on some parties after he got an award from a news channel.

She said how even senior journalists in the know of paid-news phenomenon are interested to work with guilty media houses because they command prestige. She talked about how journalists who were awarded junkets by companies like Posco and other mining/power entities blacked out the oppression local people and tribals were put through, and only after a major fire happened in one of the protest sites, the media was forced to report.

Ms Koppikar said that paid news was a fairly old phenomenon, and she had witnessed stringers act like advertisement collectors from politicians during 1991 elections itself. “Every newspaper publishes such content during elections and gets highly paid. Though some publications demarcate it as ‘sponsored content’, most carry it as news,” she said.

When asked about compulsory declarations on behalf of reporters about stakeholding in brands or availing favours from politicians, she said that such disclosures are not feasible on a daily basis and will not work out in the long run. “Do you expect a reporter to write under every article that he has been allotted a flat under the minister’s discretion quota?” she asked.

Ms Banerji talked about how the company management compromise the editorial space for getting advertisements. “Just look at the uproar about the journalists’ wage-board recommendations. All newspapers fumed about how the government is no one to dictate what they pay their staff”, she said, “yet, most of them pay their reporters much more than the board figures. The protest was a gesture of resistance, claiming control over their reporters.”

The journalists also talked about how paid news plays a big part in business reporting and healthcare coverage.

The cure
“The biggest problem is that people do not want to pay for news,” pointed out Ms Koppikar. Some members of audience suggested using the digital platform and the social media to put up independent content; and spread awareness on paid news. However, all journalists pointed out that subscription-based revenue models have not worked in India, and have not brought in enough to continue in the long run.

All journalists agreed that there is need for strong media vigilance bodies. Ms Seshu said, “And I think that the public should really start asking tough questions. When a reporter is allotted a flat by the minister, it is from the tax payers’ money. They must ask why that has been done. Even Doordarshan must be hauled up for having paid shows on healthcare and being a government mouthpiece, because that is also funded by the public.”

Ms Koppikar pointed out that the recommendations of the Paid News sub-committee report must be implemented immediately. She said, “Ultimately, we have to make paid news a very dirty word. People should abhor it and force the media to abstain from it.”


Ranbaxy inks consent decree with USFDA

Ranbaxy also intends to make a provision of $500 million in connection with the investigation by the US Department of Justice

Drug-maker Ranbaxy Laboratories said it has signed an agreement with the US health regulator to lift a ban on the import of drugs from certain manufacturing plants in India and will pay up to $500 million to settle a case lodged by the Department of Justice.

"Ranbaxy Laboratories announced that it has signed a consent decree with the US Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). Ranbaxy has committed to further strengthen procedures and policies to ensure data integrity and to comply with current good manufacturing practices," the company said in a statement.

"Separately, Ranbaxy also announced that it intends to make a provision of $500 million (approximately Rs2,640 crore) in connection with the investigation by the US Department of Justice, which the company believes will be sufficient to resolve all potential civil and criminal liability," it added.

In 2008, the USFDA had banned 30 generic drugs produced by Ranbaxy at its Dewas (Madhya Pradesh) and Paonta Sahib and Batamandi unit in Himachal Pradesh, citing gross violation of approved manufacturing norms. In the same year, the US Department of Justice had moved a motion against the company in a local court alleging forgery of documents and fraudulent practice.

Ranbaxy CEO and managing director Arun Sawhney said: "While we were disappointed by the conduct that led to the FDA's investigation, we are proud of the systematic corrective steps we have taken to upgrade and enhance the quality of our business and manufacturing processes."

The settlement with the USFDA follows the recent launch of a generic version of Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug, by the Gurgaon-based company in the American market.

In the late afternoon, Ranbaxy Laboratories was trading at around Rs406.50 per share on the Bombay Stock Exchange, 2.82% up from the previous close.


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