The two-storied, blue and white house stands in sharp contrast to the cluster of squat, brick-tiled huts in Namkhana in Sundarbans. This is home to Panchayat Samiti member and ruling Trinamool Congress member Dhirendranath Patra and has, clearly, withstood Cyclone Amphan when it tore through the village on May 20 right in the middle of the Covid lockdown.
The only sign of damage is the ripped corrugated sheet over the roof but Patra’s son and six members of his family applied and have been cleared for compensation at the rate of Rs 20,000 per head (for complete house damage) — in violation of rules set down by the West Bengal government. Rules under which each will also get Rs 28,000 per head as wages for 100 days’ labour for reconstruction.
About 125 km away, in Panchla village in Howrah district, is the two-storied house of Panchayat Samiti member and TMC member Rimpa Roy. Again, there are few signs of damage in her house but she and five members of her family, including her in-laws, husband, father and brother, applied for compensation — and have been cleared.
Asked if they have received the money, both Patra and Roy decline to answer. Theirs aren’t isolated cases.
The Indian Express visited several villages in the cyclone-hit districts of Howrah, North 24 Parganas, East Midnapore, South 24 Parganas and Sundarbans, to investigate beneficiary claims against records of damage, spoke to many residents who have applied and are waiting for relief, interviewed local officials and politicians and found glaring irregularities in the way money has been paid — or claims cleared for payment.
Relatives of politically powerful members of Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads have been approved for compensation even if there’s no damage to their homes while deserving applicants wait. Many of these beneficiaires are from TMC since it dominates the Panchayats but there are also cases from BJP and CPM.
That’s not all, The Indian Express investigation also found that approvals have gone to bogus claims with the same name as father and husband or someone who died years ago. In many cases, compensation specifically marked for those who work on betel vines has been paid to those who do not qualify.
The process and how it was short-circuited
Right next door to Roy’s house in Howrah, is clay tiled hut where the roof has been blown away. This is the house of Niranjan Roy, a zari worker, who lives with wife Mithu and their two sons. They applied for compensation but still do not figure in the list of beneficiaries.
“When we approached her (Rimpa Roy), she said we are not entitled for compensation. But she included her relatives. I have applied to the BDO, but nothing happened so far. Just look at her house and look at mine”, said Niranjan.
At the heart of the controversy, is the short-circuiting of due process.
To ensure fairness and accuracy, the committee to decide on applications has the Block Development Officer, representatives of the Panchayat and one representative of the Opposition who examine the list of beneficiaries sent by Panchayat members.
The committee is supposed to do door-to-door inspections. In many cases, however, The Indian Express found, no meetings were held, no field visits took place, the Opposition leader wasn’t kept in the loop. In short, these rules existed – only on paper.
There is no list yet of exactly who all have been paid but by the first week of June, for which data is available, the state government had released Rs 6250 crore as relief. Of this, Rs 2400 crore was for house-building assistance with an initial beneficiary estimate of 5 lakh; Rs 300 crore for farmers’ assistance and Rs 200 crore for help for damaged Paan boroj (betel vines).
Asked to explain how she got her family on the list when there was no damage to her house, Roy is unusually direct: “The BDO called me and asked for a list of people whose houses were damaged. It was not possible for me to do a survey in such a short time. So I put the names of my relatives and their bank account numbers and submitted it.”
Said BDO, Panchla, Esha Ghosh: “The block development office did not make the list. So I cannot comment.”
The Opposition leader in Roy’s Panchayat is Forward Bloc’s Farid Mollah. “Panchayat members made the list sitting in their homes and BDO accepted it as genuine. It is a practice that Opposition leaders are included in the meetings and field visits for relief. We were not even informed. “
This is a textbook case that is played out in village after village.
List of names: the haves and the have-nots
Many TMC members, asked to explain, claim the Oppositin has sneaked their name into the list, a claim hard to believe given that the application needs details like bank account and Aadhaar card numbers.
Patra claims his name on the list is a “conspiracy” by some “trying to tarnish my image.”
In Howrah, about 5 km from Rimpa Roy’s house is the three-storied house of Selima Begam, another Panchayat Samity member (Panchla) at Bikihakola village. There are no signs of damage and yet Selima’s son Hasibul is on the list of beneficiaries.
“I did not apply for compensation, I do not know how my name came up. It is likely that Opposition parties want to malign my mother and put my name on the list,” said Hasibul, who is a computer teacher in a local school.
In the Kakdwip Namkhana area in Sunderbans, the compensation list features Gram Pradhan Champa Bairagi who has her husband, two daughters, brother, sister-in-law and brother’s son on the list. Echoing Hasibul, she blames the Opposition for trying to “malign me” by “putting my relatives’ names on the list.”
Geetu Sarkar, BJP Panchayat Samiti member of Bagdah, North 24 Parganas, has got her husband Bidyut’s name on the list although their two-storied concrete house shows no signs of damage.
Ironically, one of the first to flag these complaints was Mujibar Rehman, Pradhan of Panchla Gram Panchayat.
On June 22, in a letter to the Howrah District Magistrate, he couldn’t be more direct: “Most of the names in the list sent by Panchla Gram Panchayat are of the rich and influential. Those people who have genuinely suffered damage, majority of them are not on the list.”
Speaking to The Indian Express, Rehman is wary of giving details. “In my position I am unable to say who these influential people are. The villagers know everything. I have done my duty my alerting not only the administration but also my party higher ups.”
The have nots and the waiting
Off the National Highway 6, The Indian Express met several families whose houses have been severely damaged but they are not on the list of beneficiaries.
Take daily wage worker Khokan Dolui. His wife Purnima Dolui sits in front of their mud house where only the bamboo frame of the roof is intact. “I have heard we are on the list but no one has contacted us, no money has come,” she said.
This is the same story for Jhuma Pandit (35), wife of Alok Pandit, also a daily wage labourer. “No ruling party leaders have visited us, our names are not in the beneficiary list. We got only a plastic sheet for the roof but nothing else.”
At the Namkhana BDO office, five local youths have got temporary jobs as data entry operators. Officials said they were revising the claims and making house visits.
“But it is difficult to get money back once it gets into the accounts. We are also accepting fresh applications. About 8000 new applications have poured in. We have hired hands to help us with data entry,” said an officer attached to BDO. “Let’s hope this time there are no complaints.”
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