‘Cut money’ puts Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress on back foot
At Joydev, believed to be the birthplace of 12th century Sanskrit poet Jaidev, the composer of Gita Govinda, Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Pradip Chatterjee could be seen collecting money from local vegetable sellers on July 2.
Chatterjee was nonchalant. He said he does not demand “cut money”, or illegal commission, from funds sanctioned for constructing houses or toilets.
“Some beneficiaries (of the social welfare schemes) voluntarily donate. We are now returning the money,” said the booth unit president of the TMC.
Chatterjee, and many more like him across West Bengal, are in a spot. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s June 18 appeal asking party leaders to return “cut money” have exposed such functionaries to constant public scrutiny.
Even as Banerjee asked a section of the ruling TMC workers and leaders who take “cut money” from welfare scheme beneficiaries to return whatever they have extorted, her message became a political weapon for her rivals. Though the TMC clarified later that 99.99 % of its leaders and workers were honest and that the CM’s warning was meant for just 0.01%, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president Dilip Ghosh said the ruling party believed in the “culture of corruption”.
During his election rallies for the Lok Sabha elections in Bengal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, now the home minister, spoke about corruption in the ruling party.
Now, with the backing of the BJP local leaders, people across the state, ranging from landless farmers to businessmen in cities, have started naming and shaming TMC leaders who allegedly took money from them. Some have returned the money even as the opposition claimed that it showed the practice was indeed prevalent and put the TMC further on the back foot.
In Birbhum district, which has witnessed the violent clashes between TMC and BJP supporters, Trilochan Mukherjee, a TMC booth president, became the first ruling party leader to return money to villagers. On June 25, Mukherjee handed over R2.28 lakh to 141 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA) beneficiaries in Koma gram panchayat.
Mukherjee refused to talk about returning the money but maintained that allegations against him were false.
Mukherjee is not only one. “TMC booth president Pradip Chatterjee (in Joydev village) returned Rs 10,000 to me and my father, Dulal Bagdi. TMC took it when we were building our house under PM Awas Yojana,” said Ananda Bagdi, a resident of the village. Chatterjee, who denied the charge, said they were preparing a list of people who gave TMC money to buy sweets. “The total amount cannot be more than Rs 1 lakh. Things will be sorted out,” Chatterjee said. These are just a few of many cases reported from across Bengal. During village visits, HT found that cut money problem was rampant.
For instance, rural beneficiaries of Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna (PMAY), who got money for building a house, had to pay a commission to local TMC leaders. “Only if we paid, the officials used to release the money,” said a villager of Chatra who refused to be identified, claiming he could be targeted by TMC local leaders.
Around 198 km from Kolkata, Chatra has around 506 voters and is among poorest of the 12 villages in the gram panchayat.
“TMC leaders demanded Rs 8,000 for releasing Rs 1.20 lakh for my house. After bargaining, they settled for Rs 4,000. They also took Rs 900 for releasing Rs 10,000 for the toilet,” said Dulal Mal at Chatra. His neighbour, Tanu Mal, is now hopeful to getting the money back. “Finally, we may get our money back.”
At Mathpalsa gram panchayat in Birbhum’s Sainthia block, one of the biggest contributosr to the “cut money” kitty was a Rs 20 lakh road that was never build under MGNREGA, said district officials who visited the site last month.
An official on condition of anonymity said Rs 20 lakh was shown to have been spent for building the road that is not there. After enquiry, it was found that job cards were issued and money was transferred to villagers’ banks accounts, the official said.
“The money went into about 400 accounts and the highest payment was Rs. 8,000-Rs. 10,000. Some account holders said that they got up to Rs. 1,000 each and rest went to panchayat leaders,” the official said, adding that MGNREGA workers never saw their job cards and many gave access to their bank accounts to local (TMC) leaders to withdraw the money.
Abhijit Saha, head of Mathpalsa gram panchayat and a TMC leader, said the allegations were baseless.
“Whether it is a farmer, a civil contractor or owner of a small factory, everybody is affected by this tolabaji (extortion). A very broad ballpark figure could be Rs. 30,000 crore a year if we add up the state’s budgetary allocations for social welfare schemes and development projects as well as the money extorted from private builders, businessmen, small traders, job seekers and even rickshaw pullers,” said professor Indraneel Dasgupta of the Indian Statistical Institute and an alumnus of the University of California.
Several local-level TMC leaders claimed that the money went to the higher-ups in the party.
“I gave money to my seniors in the party. Please ask them where the money went,” said Lalu Hazra, a TMC booth committee member in Joydev, repeating a common argument of lower-rung leaders in districts such as Hooghly, Birbhum and Bardhaman.
On June 27, Kalimoy Gangopadhyay, a TMC panchayat leader accused of extorting villagers at Bardhaman’s Mangalkot, said, “I took the money at the instruction of our block president Ramjan Sheikh.” Sheikh said the allegations were baseless and engineered by the BJP.
A TMC leader in Suri Block II, who did not wish to be identified, said: “The money we collect is handed over to local leaders who possibly send it up the ladder. However, we get an additional cut from the civil contractors engaged in rural projects.”
Senior party leaders deny the charge. “There are a few black sheep who extort money and keep it. We are seeking explanation from leaders against whom cut money complaints have come,” said Patha Chatterjee, the state education minister and a TMC spokesperson.
THE POLITICAL BATTLE
In the state where the BJP is finding its foothold and won 18 of the state’s 42 seats in the recently held Lok Sabha elections, the opposition party is intensifying its protests on the issue. The party, which won just four seats fewer than what the TMC bagged and emerged as the main challenger for the 2021 assembly elections, has seen a political opportunity.
At Bhromorkole village in Birbhum’s Sainthia block, around 192 kms from Kolkata, BJP worker Pathik Bagdi said, “Most of the beneficiaries of welfare schemes in our area are TMC functionaries and members of their family. Every time we raise questions, we face intimidation.”
Kalo Sona Mandol, the BJP’s Birbhum district general secretary, said their sustained campaign against the TMC was working as they were receiving hundreds of complaints over “cut money”. “The people are supporting us because TMC leaders made a mockery of the system at every level,” he said.
TMC’s Birbhum district president Anubrata Mondal, a strongman known for his vitriolic speeches, however, said that the “cut money” controversy was a well-planned propaganda by the BJP. “Had there been so much corruption, Bengal would not have transformed in seven years. We will give a befitting reply,” he said.
Suvashis Maitra, political analyst and columnist, said, “By speaking against corruption in her own party, Mamata Banerjee has at least been able to shift public focus away from the BJP. Till now, Bengal’s political narrative was building up entirely around the saffron force. Banerjee is regularly encouraging people to speak up. Nobody, however, can say with certainty this will help her regain lost ground.”