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 


 

 

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COMMENTS

Bhalachandra Singde

7 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.

Matthew

7 years ago

I agree with SMukherjee

SMukherjee

7 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.

The weekly haat way to reducing expenses

 If you are looking at reducing your household budgets and at the same time interested in learning more on how the direct to seller with minimal middle-men concept works in India, then attend your friendly neighbourhood ‘haat’ or weekly market regularly

The FDI in retail or not debate continues, with most of the action being taken up for big and for small debates, while reality is that the smallest on the ground, the weekly ‘haats’ which are India’s equivalents of the “farmer's markets” elsewhere in the world, are rapidly gaining ground in an era of better roads, smaller trucks and mobile phone-based supply chains. A visit to one such weekly ‘haat’ just opposite Noida’s upscale and swanky Sector 50 and not far from the tony Noida Golf Course revealed prices at easily half or even lower than the going levels for everything from food items of all sorts to footwear both new and repaired to new and second hand electronic items.

More interestingly, the wide variety of upscale  luxury motor vehicles parked in the vicinity and the familiarity that their occupants revealed with the merchants and their wares spread out on most everything from durries on the ground to hand-carts up front with mini-trucks as back-ends for more variety, was a revelation in itself. Frankly, there was hardly anything not available there which is not also found at prices way higher in Delhi - from foei gras to FabIndia knockoffs - all ostensibly from the same vendors who supply the bigger stores in town. Armani meets AR Mani, in a manner of speaking.

This is hardly rocket science or news anymore, but there is a generation of people who believed that the world began and ended in malls, who are now picking up brand new silk waistcoats otherwise retailing for Rs1,500 at about Rs300 and loading up on potatoes at Rs10 for 3-kg pre-packed paper bags is a sizeable saving on budgets. This is right next to the stack on the ground selling denim trousers in all sizes for Rs50 and upwards. And there is no dearth of newspaper ads and inserts of prices prevailing for the same items at bigger stores, for direct comparisons. Also, in one section, are vendors who will buy your scrap and ‘kabaddee’ at way higher rates than the gent going past your house on a cycle.

But then, it is not only about prices, either, though bargaining is an art form which also expands one’s forgotten humour horizons. The sheer range of knowledge that these sales persons display, micro-mini entrepreneurs, all is mind-boggling, and the rapid fire comments on how much customers can pick up for less than the cost of parking in a mall is sure to hit the correct spot—on weekends, parking rates at many of the malls have now gone into three-digit numbers, and perception is that if you go there in a smaller car, then you get a parking slot far away from the access points in the dingiest corner of the basement parking lots—while here you walk across or bring out the cycle for better deals, dressed in your pyjamas if you so desire.

There is the young man selling freshly ground ‘atta’ of all sorts and combinations, coarse and other grains mixed with everything from soya to dried vegetables and more, holding forth confidently on the subject of gluten free and why the older coarse grains are better for us in India. And giving small combo sample packs of different mixes good enough to make a dozen or more rotis for the impulse purchase price of Rs10. In reasonably decent English, the young man explains to potential customers how he sells these sample packs “at cost”, also because they have his mobile number and mini calendar inside for future, repeat and regular home delivery. And that he cares for people with diabetes, too.

Not too far is the young lady, confident that the world will be saved from lacto intolerance and much more with her range of tofu, again, the small Rs10 sample bag is an ice breaker. Here the story is on how intelligence as well as strength for adults is directly linked to the benefits from soya-based products, while milk is good too, but only for growing children. Does any adult animal drink milk is what she states and asks—and that’s logic which is unbeatable, probably has some scientific significance somewhere, too.

The dhaniya-pudhina-fresh lime-fresh chillies seller has his own pitch going—offering a small bag of free potatoes with his wares, with a ditty about changing times, to the effect that how his stuff used to be free with vegetables at one time, but is now soon going to offer free vegetables with his repertoire, so buy before the prices go up. Prod him further, and he reveals that in the back of his truck, he stores fresh herbs for those who know what they want—keeping it there to reduce spoilage by handling.

To add to the colour and fun, major MNC brands as well as multi-level-marketing products of the branded and packed variety of consumer goods are also available—often at prices below the “best deal” rates advertised by shops in the neighbourhood.  As a matter of fact, pretty much everything that can be bought in a mainstream market or mall, is also available here—and if is not, they will offer to source it for you and deliver it to your home. There is the usual slew of “Chinese goods" too, of the glassware and electronic gadgetry kind, even spices from Pakistan and Afghanistan, reportedly picked up in bulk from the recent trade fair.

If you are looking at reducing your household budgets and at the same time interested in learning more on how the direct to seller with minimal middle-men concept works in India, then attend your friendly neighbourhood ‘haat’ or weekly market regularly. You don't have to buy, pavement-watching in lieu of window shopping is a well recognised sport here, and repeat visits will make you a regular with other benefits—including free sampling of products.

There are, of course, some caveats here which need to be made very clear:

  • Bargaining is essential. If you do not know how to bargain, then hang around, tune in, identify and follow the experts around.
  • Invest in a small portable weighing machine, with which you can re-confirm the weight of what you are buying.
  • The issue of fakes in branded goods is as worrisome at regular outlets as it is at such locations.
  • A good way of firming up a local warranty is by taking a photo of the vendor and his goods.
  • Going for the first time with somebody who knows the market is a good idea.
  • The later you go, the cheaper the prices for perishables, although the best may have been sold by then.
  • You are not going to get a cash receipt for things, now will your plastic work here.
  • Like in the real world, you will rub shoulders with all segments of society, and the single class Delhi Metro has fixed that.
  • If in doubt, be direct about your queries, and decide on the response’s genuineness on your own.

Reducing expenditure is now a fact of life, across the board, and the haats take some of the bite away. Good luck.

 

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COMMENTS

p k

7 years ago

i wonder if any such HAAT is there in Pune?

Prakash Bhate

7 years ago

FDI in retail will not be able to stop these weekly haats; in fact, such haats despite the fierce bargaining, shortchanging in weights, cash transactions only, price fluctuations as the day proceeds, mud and slush during monsoons will give the retailers, local or foreign, a run for their money. Those opposing FDI in retail are either scared and have no confidence in the abilities of Indian people or have vested interests or are just opposing for the sake of opposing. It is high time that consumers get a level playing field.

Arun Iyer

7 years ago

Very nice article.
This is the real Bharat; and the need of the day.

Be careful while typing URLs as misspelling may take you to a typosquatting website

Typosquatters register misspellings of popular websites in the hope that they will be able to make money out of traffic from unintentional typing mistakes made by internet surfers

In case you are one of the people who prefer to type a complete URL while surfing the Internet, here is a warning from IT security and control firm Sophos. It says one needs to be very careful while typing URLs otherwise you may be led to typosquatting websites like adult sites or phishing sites. Typosquatters register misspellings of popular websites in the hope that they will be able to make money out of traffic from unintentional typing mistakes made by internet surfers, the report added.

“It's so easy to mistype a URL, and it’s inevitable that from time to time you will end up on an unintended website. In the worst cases, careless typing can lead you to a criminal website designed to steal your identity or phish your credentials. A good idea is to bookmark your favourite websites rather than rely upon your fingers working correct,” said Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos.

According to a study conducted by Sophos, there is a significant typosquatting ecosystem around high-profile, often-typed domain names. A huge 86% of the possible one letter misspellings of the Apple homepage led to typosquatting sites.

Sophos said it looked at typosquatting targeting its own website and those of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Apple. The study looked for registered websites for every single one letter typo of the company name: one letter omitted (e.g. Sopos), one letter mistyped (e.g. Sphos), or one letter added (Ssophos).

Of the 14,495 misspelled URLs looked at in the study, 738 or 5.1% were categorized by Sophos as cybercrime or adult. The former should always be blocked; the latter should be blocked at least in the workplace or around children, the security firm said.

The highest proportion of the squatting sites, 15% led to advertising sites. Cybercriminals will register misspelled sites to make advertising revenue every time someone mistypes the name of a popular site. Around 12% were found to be IT & hosting pages—suggesting that they have been registered with the intention of being held onto and sold at a profit, which is also known as ‘domain parking’, the report said.

Another important factor that makes people to type the URLs, is security concern related with clicking on a link, which is good thing. In addition majority of people even try to type the http or www and .com besides the URL. This can be avoided by using a shortcut. One should type the URL (like Google) and then press ‘control+enter’ buttons. This automatically adds the required http, www and .com in the URL.

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COMMENTS

Narendra Doshi

7 years ago

In one of your recent articles (10 to 50 days ago) it was mentioned that one should ALWAYS type the URL for greater security and avoid password etc getting decoded easily.
Please define the % of risk in either case to enable decide which to use.

REPLY

MDT

In Reply to Narendra Doshi 7 years ago

Thanks Mr Doshi. We had said that one should avoid clicking on links from a search engine result, especially for using finanacial services online and should instead type the complete URL in the address bar. At the same time one should be careful while typing the URL and check before clicking the go button or pressing 'enter' button as wrong spelling may take you to wrong website that may not have good intention.

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