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No guarantees

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is about to get bigger, to cover all of rural India. Hindustan Times takes a look at the rollout so far and what is working and what is not.
Hindustan Times | By Sandipan Sharma, Manohar Thana, Jhalawar
UPDATED ON MAR 20, 2008 01:04 AM IST

This Diwali, just as his panchayat completed 18 months under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Banskheri sarpanch Shambhu Dayal Bheel decided to celebrate. He bought a new SUV and a tractor.

And a pedigree bitch everyone calls Tommy.

Sarpanch ke paas maal aa gaya hai, saat hazaar ka kutta palta hai (The sarpanch has run into wealth, keeps a Rs 7,000 pet),” says Hira Lal, who teaches in a local school. But there is no envy in his voice, just disgust.

“We have filed at least 20 FIRs against sarpanchs and panchayat officials for embezzlement of funds. All of them will be punished,” says Ashish Sharma, the programme officer for NREGA in Manohar Thana.

But many are being protected allegedly by their political masters.

Banskheri, like the 280 other villages in Manohar Thana, is in Rajasthan, close to the border with Madhya Pradesh. And most of its residents are poor labourers. Since the NREGA was launched in Jhalawar, more than Rs 160-crore have been pumped into its 40 panchayats to improve their lot through the NREGA scheme.

NREGA promises 100 days of work to the poor in selected areas.

Shambhu, who till recently was a small farmer, finds it difficult to shrug off accusations that the NREGA is the source of his affluence.

“He doesn’t know what to say. I will tell you: all this is safed jhoot (white lie),” says Kishan Neta Bheel, Shambhu’s father.
Kishan is referred to as the “SP” (sarpanch pitah — Sarpanch’s father). He did not contest the election himself because he had “too many kids”. But he calls the shots in the panchayat.

“The allegations against my son are because of the HM bhavna (Hindu-Muslim divide) between us and the Meos. Shambhu’s in-laws gifted Tommy to us. The tractor and the SUV were financed by a bank,” he says, throwing a bank statement on the chair.

Devendra Sharma, an engineering graduate who heads Hum Kisan, a loose network of farmers in Jhiri village near Banskheri, says Shambhu’s bank balance is growing faster than his pet’s family. (Tommy gave birth to six pups last month). “There is evidence of large-scale bungling in the NREGA fund for Banskheri,” he says.

“The average money spent by a panchayat since the launch of NREGA is nearly 80 lakh per year. Earlier, their budget would be less than five lakh,” says Ashish Sharma.

Villagers allege the biggest beneficiaries have been sarpanchs like Shambhu. “Many of them have become NREGA lakhpatis,” says Hum Kisan’s Sharma. “Almost every sarpanch has bought new land, vehicles and tractors after the scheme was launched,” he says.

Gulab Chand, the “SP” (sarpanch pati) of Banskheda, just a few kilometers from Banskheri, readily confesses that he bought 3.25 bigha of irrigated land after the launch of the scheme. His counterpart in the adjoining Awalheda panchayat also accepts that their double-storey house is a recent addition to their assets.

Some of them have run out of luck lately and landed in jail.

On February 20, the administration slapped a notice for recovery of Rs 33,000 on Shambhu after finding that he had fudged the bills for a NREGA work. Others bills submitted by him for supply of construction material are also under scrutiny.

Biram Lal Bheel, sarpanch of Chandipur, is out on bail after the administration filed an FIR against him for swindling Rs 2.10 lakh from the NREGA fund. The sarpanch of Gorband is facing a court enquiry after an investigation by NGOs and local administration found six dead people on the muster rolls.

In May 2007, a Government enquiry into the muster rolls of Himmatgarh panchayat revealed that more than 50 per cent entries were fake.

“Himmatgarh sarpanch Radheshyam Dangi controls 25,000 votes in CM Vasundhara Raje’s Jhalrapatan constituency. So, no action was taken against him,” alleges Congress district chief Raghu Raj Singh Hada.

Dangi, incidentally, is a member of the state-level committee that monitors the scheme in Rajasthan.

“Himmatgarh’s Dangi and Banskheri’s Tommy have become symbols of what is wrong with NREGA in Jhalawar,” says Hada.

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