Until the panchayats are empowered, a diffused arrangement of power and responsibility will continue to make the scheme vulnerable to manipulation
Prasanna Mohanty | January 16, 2013
On October 18, the scheduled gram sabha meeting at Dhavalapur panchyat in Sheragada block of Ganjam district began about three hours late because most villagers were busy getting their Aadhaar cards made at a local school. The woman sarpanch, Sunita Swain, was at her home, waiting for her husband, the ‘sarpanch pati’, Ramesh Swain (found loitering around everywhere else except the gram sabha venue). She wouldn’t come out of the house without her husband leading her. “That is the custom”, the villagers explained, and her ghunghat made an affirmative nod.
Late start meant an excellent opportunity for me to talk to the panchayat functionaries and examine their record on the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY). The revelations that followed were quite revealing.
The IAY waiting list was last prepared in 2005 and was meant for five years. This meant the list should have been updated in 2010, but wasn’t. The list had two segments, one for the general category BPL families and the other for the SCs/STs among the BPL families.
In the general category, the list carried 358 names. Of that 33 were found ineligible because they had pucca houses (during a recent survey in the block the findings of which are yet to be compiled) but nobody seemingly knew whether these houses existed at the time of preparing the list or were built later. Twenty-nine had already received money. The rest 296 were waiting for their turn.
This meant the last man in the list would have to wait for 60 years to get the fund. Here is how.
This panchayat has about 800 households. Its annual share of IAY beneficiaries stands at 8 – 5 for general category and 3 for SCs/STs. (The state’s share of annual IAY beneficiaries is 1.5 lakh, which gets divided by districts, blocks and panchayats. Thus, this panchayat’s share came to 8. The beneficiaries are entitled to get Rs 48,500 in 8 gram panchayats of this district, including Dhavalpur, because these are declared Maoist-hit. Normal areas get Rs 45,000). At this rate, the list will get exhausted in 60 years (296/5).
The other category, for SCs/STs, had its own tale to tell. The list had 192 names. Exactly 100 of them had been found to be having pucca houses (again, without any idea about when they were built) and hence marked ineligible. The rest, 92, had received their money.
This meant that all the eligible SC/ST families had received IAY assistance. But this also meant that this panchayat’s SCs/STs quota of 3 had been reverted back to the block, as these can’t be passed on to the general category claimants.
The BDO, Manoj Swain, said he had reverted back 171 in all from the block, out of 255 allotted to the SCs/STs, to the district.
It turned out that at the previous day’s gram sabha (this time gram sabha was spread over two days), 50 villagers had made fresh claims for IAY and would soon be added to the list. These 50 were unverified claims. When asked why, the official handling the matter, gram panchaya extension officer (GPEO), Bhagwan Behera, said: “Who will verify? We have orders only to hold palli sabha and gram sabha.” The seeds of the mistakes committed in the 2005 list have, thus, been planted.
In the neighbouring Krushna Sahi panchayat, all the SC/ST beneficiaries have got money but the general category list still had 80 names waiting for their turn. Since this panchayat’s annual quota for the general category is 2 (and 2 for SCs/STs, which were returned), the last person will have to wait for 40 years.
At the October 18 gram sabha, 200 more people staked and listed their claims. Assuming that their claims are genuine, the waiting period will spread to 140 years if all of them belong to the general category.
It was this long waiting period that caused anxious moments at Sagar Palli village’s palli sabha in Takarada panchayat on October 2. The BDO was heckled, forcing him to explain how the priorities of selecting the beneficiaries had been fixed: top priority was being given (in the existing list) to those with ‘zero’ score in the 2002 BPL survey by the state — which was based on a 13-point criterion, to exclude those having a house, agriculture land, motorized vehicle, TV etc. (Incidentally, this list was rejected by the union government for showing unreasonably high number of BPL families and hence, the state’s BPL list continues to be that of 1997 vintage.)
Next were those who figured in the 1997 BPL list. Then came the ones who scored ‘one’ in the 2002 survey. Those who had completed 100 days of MNREGS work were the last in priority. (Fresh claimants will be listed thereafter. Incidentally, since no gram sabha was held in all these years, no names had been added to the list earlier. It was for the first time that a regular gram sabha was held and fresh claims were listed this year, pending final approval from the higher-ups though.)
At the block level, the BDO said, a quota of 438 was fixed for the IAY beneficiaries for 2012-13. Of these, 267 eligible families (including general and SCs/STs) had already been issued work orders (which means they can start construction of their houses and the funds, linked to the stages of construction, will be released in phases). The rest, 171 (from among SCs/STs beneficiaries), had been reverted to the district.
Since the findings of a house-to-house survey, which the BDO got ordered on his own, have not been compiled, the total number of people in the waiting list or the ineligibles in the list, are not known. No such record exists at the district level either.
Additionally, this block is providing IAY house to FRA (Forest Rights Act) beneficiaries too, for the first time this year. Statistically speaking, there are 189 FRA beneficiaries, of which 151 have already got IAY money. Ten have pucca houses and are ineligible. Eight have been given work orders. Four have two claims each at two different places. The rest, 16, would be settled through the gram sabha.
An interesting nugget: the block sets aside 5 percent quota for the fire victims. The BDO explains why. He says fire causes extensive damages in this part of the state because of a unique arrangement and design of houses. The houses share common walls (of the rooms, not boundary walls which don’t exist) and are arranged in a row without a break until the last one in the row. So, once fire catches one house it spreads quickly to the others. That is why a fire station is coming up in this block, which is unique and unheard of for a rural setting.
This district and the neighbouring Gajapati, which also borders Andhra Pradesh, have very distinctly designed houses. Most of them are between 5-6ft to 12-14ft in width, and 30-40ft or more in length.
This means, rooms are built one after the other in a straight line.
When brothers divide their properties, they divide the house in the middle by erecting a wall. This reduces the width of rooms to a mere 5-6 ft. No house of this width is further divided.
The houses in a row may number 10, 20 or 30.
The rationale of this arrangement was explained by A Tripati Balaji Patra (mark the name), an entrepreneur and civil society activist from neighbouring Hinjlicut as he took me around his house: (a) Neighbours build houses around common walls (of rooms in a straight line) to prevent thieves from digging holes into a house from a side wall, called ‘sindhi’ all over Odisha, which used to be a common threat to all mud houses. Mud houses may have disappeared but the practice continues. People in this part of the state are known for their excessive fondness for and hoarding gold, and hence the threat. A common wall reduces the threat, unless the house is the last one in the row, and makes it easier for the neighbours to detect any disturbances, should an attempt be made to dig a hole. (b) It is economical because common wall of all rooms reduces the cost. (c) When brothers separate they erect a wall across the house (all rooms), reducing the width.
The distinctive nature of houses isn’t the only thing. Notice Patra’s name – A Tripati Balaji Patra – a unique mix of Telugu and Odia tradition of naming.
As for the benefits of IAY reaching people, there is little to doubt. Visits to villages show that people are actually getting benefit in large numbers. Enter any village in the block and you can easily find out houses built with IAY fund. In Subaliapalli village under Khirida panchayat, for example, there are at least 5 houses built under the scheme on either side of the main village road. There are several others on the northern end of the village. All built over the years. In Takarada village, Bhika Das got the work orders for Rs 45,000 in 2010 and spent about Rs 10,000 more from his pocket to build a small house for his family. Though Takarada village is supposed to have exhausted the list, the villagers said three or four people staked their claims at the recently held palli sabha.
Nevertheless, the problems are aplenty. It isn’t only about the long waiting list. It is also about bogus entries and ineligibles cornering the benefits. As lists of Dhavalapur and other panchayats showed, a very large number of people with pucca houses got in, which were detected during a house-to-house survey. An obvious flaw in the survey is that nobody knows quite how many of them had pucca houses when they got IAY funding. The panchayati raj (that manages the scheme) secretary, Aparajita Sarangi, told Governance Now that it was her gut feeling that 2 to 5 percent in the list could be bogus. Going by the experience, the bogus entries could be much higher. Since the recently held gram sabha listed names without verification, the threat continues.
Luckily Sarangi is alive to the possibility and has asked her officials to put the list in public domain and invite objections to “weed out” the ineligibles. Not less than an officer of sub-collector rank will hear the complaints, inquire into it, prepare a correct list by November 20 and get it uploaded in the official website by November 25. That is her orders.
Collector Dr Krishan Kumar has a different take on the issue. He says the solution lies in fixing a clear responsibility, which is not possible in the current arrangement. Who would you hold accountable for an ineligible person getting IAY benefit when a collector, a BDO, panchayats and its functionaries at various levels, separately or together, can decide who gets the IAY benefit? They become a party to the dispute and will more likely to cover up the lapses.
Fixing responsibility, he says, will require first, empowering the panchayats by giving them functions, functionaries and funds as envisaged in the 73rd amendment, so that at the panchayat level, a sarpanch gets complete control over all administration of all the schemes in his/her areas and the funds. A gram panchayat can then demand accountability from the sarpanch. The higher ups can act as both supervisors and arbitrators.
This handing over of the panchayat’s powers that the law envisages can’t be done by the bureaucrats. It has to be done by the political establishment, says the collector, rightly.
Thereby hangs the tale.
(Prasanna Mohanty was stationed in Sheragada block of Ganjam district late last year)
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