Bengal: People of Jangal Mahal Raise Serious Concerns Ahead of Panchayat Polls
Bankura: For five years, the Trinamul Congress (TMC) governed the panchayat in Bankura District's Jangal Mahal without facing any opposition. In 2018, elections were not held in nearly 80% of the seats in the three-tier panchayat, leading to the TMC's uncontested victory. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had then proudly proclaimed, "Today, Jangal Mahal is filled with happiness." However, as the 2023 panchayat elections draw near, people are now raising concerns about the services provided by the panchayat based on their personal experiences and observations within their local areas.
Incident 1: Farmers Discover Buried Fertiliser Packets and Pesticides
On May 19 of last year, NewsClick visited Bonkati village in Gorabari Gram Panchayat of Khatra Block, where several farmers, including Kartik Bauri, Partha Bhattacharya, Nimai Bauri, and Asim Das, mentioned that the government allocated fertilisers and pesticides to the panchayat for distribution among them. However, the farmers of this village repeatedly failed to receive them. They alleged that with backing from Subroto Mohapatra, a resident of the village and Chief of the Standing Committee of Agriculture of Khatra Panchayat Samity, the local TMC activists attempted to sell the fertilisers and pesticides elsewhere. The farmers said they also found that manure had been buried in the forest ground on the bank of the Kangsaboti River near the village. Due to heavy rain, the soil had loosened, allowing a shepherd to spot a few packets of fertiliser. The farmers then went to the location and retrieved more than a thousand packets of fertilisers and pesticides from the river bank.
The matter was reported to the then Khatra Subdivisional Officer (SDO), Moitry Chakroborty, and Block Development Officer (BDO) Abhik Ghosh. The SDO apparently expressed horror at the situation and assured immediate action. The police from Khatra Police Station went to the location, recovered the fertilisers, and brought them in. The villagers of Bonkati also lodged written complaints with the SDO and the police station.
At that time, Ananda Mahato, the President of Khatra Panchayat Samity and TMC Block President, told NewsClick that the Panchayat Samity would investigate and take action against all culprits without any exceptions. A delegation was submitted to SDO Khatra by the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] demanding a thorough investigation and punishment for the culprits. However, no investigation took place. Surprisingly, a few days later, the SDO was transferred to another location, and Mahato was removed from his position as Panchayat Samity President and TMC Block President by the TMC.
Subrata Mohapatra has been appointed the new Block President of the Trinamool Congress. The mystery surrounding the fertiliser in Bonkati village, under Gorabari Panchayat, remains unsolved. No culprits were caught, but hundreds of farmers were affected. According to the villagers, this incident revealed the extent of corruption within the panchayat.
Incident 2: Indiscriminate Cutting of Panchayat Trees Without Proper Tender
On the morning of February 19 this year, many trees were found lying on the bank of the Kangsaboti River in Bonkati village. The remaining trees are also being cut. Farm labourer Tapan Bauri stood beside the felled trees, crying loudly. He said, "I used to farm on this land. Like me, Sadhan Bauri, Chitta Bauri, and Akul Das of this village used to cultivate paddy and seasonal vegetables regularly. We did not face any problem during the Left Front regime."
Tapan Bauri alleged that ten years ago, some local TMC leaders and elected panchayat officials, including the then Gorabari Gram Panchayat chief Srikanto Nabik and Khatra Panchayat Samity member Subrato Mohapatra, had told them that there would be no farming anymore. Additionally, trees would be planted under the social forestry scheme of MGNREGA.
Sadhan Bauri said, "They told us that we had to protect the trees, and we would receive a share of the proceeds from the sale of the trees when they were cut."
The farm labourers of the village said, "We stopped cultivation and guarded these trees. Now, the trees are being cut, and panchayat officials and TMC activists are saying we will not get a single penny."
Adhir Naik, a resident of Bonkati village, said, "I opposed the cutting of these trees. For that reason, TMC activists of this village beat me up with shoes."
Regarding this incident, the Ranger of Khatra Forest Range, Sitaram Das, told NewsClick, "I heard that trees are being cut there. No permission was taken from the forest department for cutting trees. I asked Gorabari Panchayat to submit all the information, but they did not come to me or submit any information. Now, I see a lot of trees being cut."
Local resident and veteran lawyer Basudeb Bhattacharya said that the trees were illegally planted on the banks of the Kangsabati River and the grazing areas with a budget of Rs 44 lakhs from the MGNREGA project.
An officer from Kangsaboti, who did not want to be named, said, "We have not given any permission to plant trees. So how did the trees stay for ten years? No reply was found."
Most trees have been cut down, and their financial value is close to crores of rupees. The locals demanded to know whether the money had been deposited in the Panchayat treasury or gone to specific individuals of the ruling party.
Moreover, 130 hectares of deep forest at Dang Mejia, referred to as the "lung of the industrial area Mejia," are being cleared for six months through a new tactic of spreading fear of ghosts.
Sandalwood, Shal, Teak, and Sirish trees worth crores of rupees have been cut. Batul Bauri, a villager, said words spread that the forest is haunted by ghosts at night. Some people died by suicide there a few years ago. Fear has been instilled in the people, and no one travels through the road after evening, he said. But a group of elected Mejia Gram Panchayat members and an employee of Mejia Forest come around and trees are cut in the middle of the night.
When questioned about the tree felling, Pratima Das, the Chief of Mejia Gram Panchayat, said, "I do not know what is happening where."
An officer from the Forest Department's Bankura North Circle said, "We will investigate." People do not know what investigation is going on, but we see that the local TMC activists and Panchayat members are clearly involved in cutting the Mejia forest, he said. Dipak Dubey, a teacher in the area, has also filed a complaint regarding this.
A similar incident took place in Khalpara Mouza in the Dundar area of Raipur block. Sambhu Hembram, a member of the Forest Protection Committee in this area, alleged that TMC leaders were involved in the process. He claimed that trees worth lakhs of rupees were cut and kept at the house of a ruling party leader in Halutkanali. It is alleged that all the trees were sold from there. Local forest officer Suman Pati said he had no information about this.
Scenario 3: Accusation of Increasing Private Property Through Panchayat
On May 4 this year, hundreds of people in Sonardanda village, Marar Gram Panchayat of Bishnupur Block, erupted in protest. They alleged that the Gram Panchayat Chief and several TMC leaders had obtained patta (permanent settlement of government land) on their behalf. The land was initially designated for the cemetery.
The agitating local youths, including Shahensa Mandal, Rafikul Islam, and Majnu Khan, stated that there are ten bighas of government land in plot numbers 1231 and 1313, opposite the Bishnupur Marar High School on National Highway 60. This land was supposed to be allocated for a cemetery in the area.
They claimed that officials from the Bishnupur Land Department had also visited the site and advised them to obtain approval from the Panchayat Chief.
The protesters approached the Panchayat Chief of Marar Gram Panchayat, Arun Biswas, and submitted an application for approval. However, he did not provide the approval, stating that it would be handled by the Trinamool leadership.
On April 28 at 9:15 PM, they witnessed the Panchayat Pradhan (Chief), Arun Biswas, along with his wife Mamata, receiving four bighas of patta land. Furthermore, local TMC leader Sadibul Manna, Rafik Manna, his three sons, and even his deceased son Mejanur Manna, who died in a road accident last year, were granted land patta.
When questioned by the reporter, Pradhan Arun Biswas admitted to receiving the patta land but did not provide any explanation regarding the cemetery. The local people filed complaints with the Bishnupur Sub Divisional Officer and the police station, but no solution has been provided yet.
Allegedly, the Deputy Chief of Pakhonna Gram Panchayat in Barjora Block has encroached upon the land of Pakhanna Hospital premises and the open road while engaging in the trade of stones and sand.
According to the people of Pakhonna village, the doctor's quarters inside the hospital have become a police outpost. Atanu Ghose, the Deputy Chief of the Panchayat, is running the stone and sand business by occupying the open land in front of the hospital and police outpost. People are questioning how such illegal activities can take place in front of the police and hospital authorities.
Former Member of Legislative Assembly Barjora, Sujit Chakraborty, stated that he had raised this question many times in the assembly, but no action has been taken. The current TMC MLA of Barjora has promised to request the administration to take action against it. However, according to the people of Pakhonna, no proper action has been taken, and this business continues to operate on government premises.
Scenario 4: Questions About the Works of MGNREGA
Over the past five years, several allegations have been raised against almost all gram panchayats in Jangal Mahal Bankura District regarding the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Allegations of corruption have also surfaced concerning the hospital project under this initiative. For instance, in the financial year 2021-22, an expenditure of INR 4,39,252 has been reported for planting medicinal plants in the premises of Beliatore Primary Health Center through the MGNREGA project. However, upon inspection, it was found that the hospital area is overrun with weeds, and there is not a single medicinal plant to be found, despite the expenditure. SujitChakroborty, the former MLA of Barjora and a resident of Beliatore, complained that only one or two trees were planted, and now there is nothing left. Additionally, an expenditure of INR 38 lakhs has been shown for constructing the boundary wall of this hospital, but the entire work remains incomplete. The Chairman of the Patient Welfare Committee of this hospital, Kalipada Mukherjee, stated that the medicinal trees were damaged due to a lack of maintenance.
It is alleged that around Rs 3 lakhs rupees have been misappropriated in the name of constructing a metal road in Kamarkuli, a remote village dominated by tribal communities under the Rajakata Gram Panchayat of Ranibandh. Surprisingly, there is no road to be found, and even the local panchayat member, Porimol Tudu, is unaware of any such construction, despite a signboard indicating the completion on the road under the REGA project.
In Betalon village of Mangalpur, under the Indas block, a contractor involved in road construction for the PMGSY project removed soil from a person's land and dumped it by the side of the road. This land has now become a pit due to the excavation of the soil. An expenditure of INR 1,66,343 has been reported for the construction of a reservoir under the REGA project. Residents of this village, including DharmadasMallik, Sadhan Ray, and Mamata Ray, claim that the entire amount has been misappropriated.
Within the framework of the MGNREGA project, many job card holders who are opposed to the ruling party, TMC, have been denied work opportunities, while those who have never worked have received wages deposited into their accounts. People allege that some leaders of the ruling party and panchayat officials have benefited from this unfair arrangement.
In response to the allegations of corruption, the presidents of TMC Bankura and Bishnupur organisations, Dibyendu Singha Mohapatra and Aloke Mukherjee, respectively, have stated that these are false accusations made by the opposition. They argue that substantial work has been carried out in the district.
In light of these allegations, Ajit Pati, CPI(M) Bankura District Secretary, highlighted that multiple petitions had been submitted to the District Magistrate of Bankura on behalf of the Left Front. These petitions contain detailed information regarding corruption in MGNREGA, categorised by specific areas. However, no action has been taken thus far, and no investigations have been conducted.
The writer covers the Jangal Mahal region for ‘Ganashakti’ newspaper in West Bengal. The views are personal.
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