Three years ago, Mangra Munda sold his land in Jharkhand’s Khunti district to the government for Rs 95 lakhs for a proposed Knowledge City in the region, hoping to get out of the crushing poverty of small-time farmers.
But now, the dreams of a comfortable life have gone up in smoke. Clad in a tattered shirt and a soiled dhoti, the 75-year-old can’t stand upright and is unable to even afford medical treatment for his damaged spine.
In theory, Mangra may be a millionaire but the illiterate farmer never gets to see the promised riches as conniving middlemen swindled his family.
“A relative takes us to the bank every month and gives us Rs 10-15,000. We don’t know how much money is there in our account as we are illiterate and do not know banking process,” says Mangra’s daughter-in-law, Basuki Devi. When asked to show the passbook, the family says it is with the relative.
Across Jharkhand, hundreds of illiterate tribals who make up over a quarter of the state’s population are being duped of their compensation amounts by middlemen, often in collusion with administrative officials. Activists say the practice of exploiting tribals in the name of development has been going on for decades.
Mangra’s family at least gets some money at the end of the month. Not everyone else is as lucky.
An influential local politician allegedly illegally withdrew Rs 36 lakh out of the account of Mangri Mundain, barely three months after the widow received her compensation package of Rs 37.31 lakh.
As her money was being embezzled, Mangri house crumbled and she was forced to take shelter in an abandoned community hall but was still unaware of the fraud.
Three months have passed since Mangri’s daughter approached the district administration for help but officials are yet to take any action. “A proper probe will reveal involvement of several top administrative and bank officials in the fraud,” says Dilip Mishra, a local Jharkhand Vikas Morcha-Prajatantrik (JVM-P) leader who unearthed the scam.
The story is repeated across the state. Be it the Ichha-Kharkai irrigation project in West Singhbhum or the land acquisition for Heavy Engineering Corporation in Ranchi, tribals not only lose their land, but are also cheated out of their compensation by middlemen.
“This practice is prevalent in the tribal belts since the early sixties when government and semi-government companies started acquiring tribals land in hordes to set up plants,” says economist Ramesh Saran.
After acquiring their land and doling out compensation, the government forgets its responsibilities towards the land donors, mostly tribals, in this state. “It should look beyond it and hold counselling sessions for the donors so that they do not get duped,” he says.
The Ranchi University professor says instead of handing out entire amount, the government should put a certain portion of the money in a fixed deposit account in the beneficiary or dependent’s name.
“Land is the biggest asset for tribals. No money can compensate the loss of their land. Still if they are parting away with their land for nation building, it’s the state’s responsibility to ensure that they are not duped,” says Mukesh Birua, vice-president of Ho Mahasabha, a prominent tribal body of West Singhbhum.
Adding to the problem, several tribal groups in the state still prefer the age-old barter system to meet their needs.
Labourers in many tribal districts working for the government’s rural jobs scheme complain contractors confiscate their roll books and give them less than half the minimum wage.
Dr Felix Padel, anthropologist and a descendent of Charles Darwin said tribal society takes things for need, not greed. “They are being exploited in the name development while they are more developed and civilised than the mainstream,” he says.
Back in Khunti, government officials say they are unaware of the large-scale malpractice. “I am aware of only one case that of Mangri,” says additional collector Ranjit Kumar Lal.
Khunti branch manager of Indian Bank, S T Horo, says she was not present when the alleged fraud occurred but adds there is nothing illegal if an account holder consents and remains physically present for the transaction. The fight for the tribals, it appears, has just begun.