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WB: Jangal Mahal People Facing Food Scarcity; no MGNREGA Work, Earlier Wages yet to be Paid

Union rural development ministry has decided to withhold the MGNREGA funds for West Bengal for 2022-23 and 2023-24.
Food crisis of Ananti sabar family at mukutmanipur khatra

Food crisis of Ananti sabar family at mukutmanipur khatra

Subal Murmu, 60, rushed to the Sukhadali branch (Bankura district) of the State Bank of India on May 25 to get money for his wife's treatment. His wife has been undergoing chest pain for almost two years. He asked the bank officials if his MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) wages were credited. The answer was no. 

"Two years ago, I worked under MGNREGA, and till today, I did not get my wages. I am due Rs 8,000. I don't know when I will receive it. Right now, there is no work for land labourers. How can we live?" 

This incident is not isolated; the same scenario can be seen across the Jangal Mahal. Due to the lack of overall work, including a 100-day job scheme and the lack of biometric linkage in ration cards, there is a food crisis in Jangal Mahal in Bengal. Many do not disclose it to protect their social status.

Union rural development ministry has decided to withhold the MGNREGA funds for West Bengal for the financial year of 2022-23 and 2023-24, extending the imposition of section 27 of the MGNREGA that allows for stoppage of funds for violation of rules in the implementation of the by the state. 

Distress people of Ranibandh jangal mahal bankura

Distress people of Ranibandh jangal mahal bankura

West Bengal is the only state in the country against which this section was invoked. 

Section 27 of the Act says, "Central government may, on receipt of any complaint regarding the issue of improper utilisation of funds granted under this Act in respect of any scheme if prima facie satisfied that there is a case, cause an investigation into the complaint made by any agency designed by it an if necessary order stoppage of the release of the fund to the scheme." 

The Centre first invoked the rule in December 2021 based on a ground survey by the Panchayat and Rural development department of the Central government which revealed large-scale corruption and violation of the guideline of this scheme. According to the P&RD report, the Central government owes Rs 7,500 crore to the state, of which labour wages amount to Rs 2,744 crore. The Central government pays all workers' wages in the 100-day job scheme. For almost two years, the workers remain unpaid for their work.

The Central government allocated money to the labour budget in the financial year 2020- 21. Why did the workers not get the money if the work was done? 

According to the MGNREGA website, 2,32,31,028 person days have been created in the Bankura district in the last two financial years. Workers are owed around Rs 100.63 crore.  

14.Close brick kiln at onda, bankura

Close brick kiln at onda, bankura. 

After receiving the complaint, the central survey team first visited the Bankura district for an investigation. During the field investigation, the central survey team found that most of the corruption occurred in the name of creating orchards and social forestry. 

Two years ago, an officer of the central survey team said they did not know where the corruption had occurred. First, the survey team held a meeting with the district administrative officer. Later they went to the gram panchayat office. In the presence of the panchayat pradhan and other employees, the survey team saw the written document of MGNREGA work of the concerned panchayat. 

After receiving the information from the panchayat, when the team visited the work site and started investigating, they found that the information written in the panchayat's books was not consistent with reality. For example, the number of workers mentioned in a job is several times lesser than the number of workers engaged. In addition, many workers whose names were mentioned in the master roll of work turned out to be non-existent. 

Such information from Rudra, Ambikanagar, Rajakata panchayat in Ranibandh block, Goyalbari, Shyamsundarpur, and Dundar in Raipur has come to the notice of the central survey team. There is no sign of excavation or renovation of reservoirs at several places, including Raipur, Sarangi, Simlapal, Taldangra, Indas, Barjora, Sonamukhi, Shaltora, and Joypur. But crores of rupees have been taken from the MGNREGA project for these works. 

Food crisis at lodya village at Ranibandh

Food crisis at lodya village at Ranibandh

Allegedly, the biggest corruption happened in the creation of orchards. Around Rs 56 lakh has been shown to create Mango, guava, and lemon orchards in the bed of Kangsaboti River. The irrigation authority said they had not given any approval. Where is the orchard created? Not a single tree exists now. Allegedly, this work was done directly by the present Trinamool Congress Block president and elected executive of Khatra panchayat samiti. 

Tiluri panchayat pradhan of Saltora Block has shown an expenditure of Rs 4 lakh from MGNREGA after she created an orchard at her place. But she could not show even a single sapling of the garden to the central team.

A panchayat official of Jangal Mahal Ranibandh said, "All saplings for the orchard came from Bankura Agro industries. Its owner is a former member of the legislative assembly of TMC and is currently an elected official of Bankura Zilla parishad. Every Mango sapling, which cost Rs 15 in the open market, was brought at Rs 70. These saplings were brought from Bankura and kept at Mahabir Lodge at Khatra. The deputy chief of Khatra gram panchayat used to supply these to all parts of the Khatra subdivision. But to a large extent, orchard seedlings were not sent."

It became an unwritten rule that a minimum of 200 persons would show up for any job where 50 workers worked. The extra wage money allegedly would go into the pockets of local TMC leaders and workers. 

Again, several Panchayat employees, such as nirman sahayak (construction assistant), a skilled technical person, and Gram rozgar sevak (village employment officer), are allegedly involved in this corruption. 

The central Audit team has mentioned these at the respective state and central levels. 

An official of the MGNREGA project of Bankura said, 'We submitted an action taken report in September last year and revised reply in December answering the additional queries from the Union ministry. Since then, we have been waiting for further questions or an answer from the ministry on whether they plan to lift section 27." 

Over 500 stone quarries and crushers are in the Bankura district, of which 356 are in Saltora. After negotiation with the district administration, the owners used to deposit Rs 4.60 crore annually to the government. 

Close stone quarry at saltora

Close stone quarry at saltora

After the 2021 Assembly elections, the administration closed the quarry and crusher. Despite several requests, they were not reopened.  

An Additional District Magistrate of Bankura said that the district administration has nothing to do in this regard. 

Due to the closing of this sector, more than one lakh people have become unemployed.

A large proportion of labourers were involved in sand mining. The district administration has had no role in sand extraction for the last four years. Everything is being done from the state level. 

Taking advantage of this, some sand traders are doing monopoly business. The price of sand has increased. 

Many workers were also associated with brick kilns. There were 560 kilns in the district. Now only 105 are running. Soil mafias supply soil at exorbitant prices. Coal prices have increased four times; new environmental protection rules have been issued. As a result, most of the brick kilns are closed today. 

Recently, the low-income people of a large part of Jangal Mahal have been deprived of getting rationed food items. 

People march for demanding work at ranibandh

People march for demanding work at ranibandh

According to National Food Security (NFS) rules, Aadhar cards should have biometric links with ration cards. In many areas of the Bankura district, thousands of families have yet to receive their ration cards, and many still need Aadhar cards. People are still queuing for Aadhar cards at the post office. Again, they often face problems due to wrong names, addresses and beneficiary photos. 

In many places, it is seen that the head of the family has linked their biometric to the ration card; after their death, the ration dealer is not giving the ration when their family members go to fetch the ration. Again, even after several years ago, Aadhar biometrics were linked, now that impression is not seen.

The people of Jangal Mahal have fallen into a severe livelihood crisis due to unemployment and ration problems. 

A few days ago, an agricultural labourer died by suicide due to his precarious financial situation. This incident was not isolated. Many marginalised people continue to struggle. 

The writer covers the Jungle Mahal region for the ‘Ganashakti’ newspaper in West Bengal. The views are personal.

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