Friday, Jan 27, 2023

Express Investigation – Part 2 | Suspect PM Awaas lists in West Bengal: Alarm bells rang early, went unheard

Case of one family of eight on the list reveals gaps in identification of beneficiaries and challenge ahead

This pucca house is where Altaf Ansari, brother-in-law of TMC worker Jehangir Sheikh, stays in Madarhat. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
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Express Investigation – Part 2 | Suspect PM Awaas lists in West Bengal: Alarm bells rang early, went unheard
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Ineligible individuals getting on the potential list of beneficiaries of the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana-Gramin (PMAYG) across West Bengal, as highlighted by The Indian Express Monday, shouldn’t have come as a surprise — especially to those whose job was to monitor this process.

For, exactly two months ago to date, Nagendra Nath Sinha, Secretary, Union Ministry of Rural Development, the nodal ministry for the scheme, had sent a letter to P Ulaganathan, Secretary, state Panchayat and Rural Development Department.

Needs of my relatives are genuine: Jehangir Sheikh (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

This letter, which came after the Centre decided to resume the scheme following a pause of over eight months amid a political standoff, minced few words.

Calling on the state to “scrupulously” follow the implementation framework, Sinha underlined the need for “zero tolerance against any allegation of bribery or corruption”. He also asked the state government to ensure that districts form “special teams of senior officers including engineers to verify veracity of allegations relating to bribery/ corruption and take strict legal action if found guilty”.

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That verification would, perhaps, have averted a situation like the one in Masjidpara village of Madarhat Gram panchayat under the Baruipur block in South 24 Parganas where the list of potential beneficiaries includes Jehangir Sheikh — and seven of his relatives.

Jehangir is a contractual staffer at the local panchayat office and a TMC worker, and he stays in a pucca house as do his relatives who live in the same neighborhood. The scheme only covers those with conditions of poverty, destitution and kutcha or dilapidated housing — not those who already own pucca houses.
The case of Jehangir and his relatives underscore the flawed process of identification.

Consider these:

* Jehangir Sheikh: He lives in a pucca single-storeyed house with a concrete roof. The concrete pillars on the roof indicate that another floor is on the anvil. Inside his house, there are at least three rooms apart from a kitchen.


“I applied for a house under PMAYG five years ago. At the time, I had a kutcha house. Later, my economic condition improved and I built this house…” Asked about his relatives, he said, “If I have so many relatives in this village, it is not my fault. If they do not fulfill the conditions, their names will be deleted. But their requirements are genuine.”

This doesn’t match with what’s on the ground.

* Roshan Sheikh, Jehangir’s brother: His two-floor concrete house is a two-minute walk from Jehangir’s house. Rohan’s wife Roshenara Bibi said, “We do not stay here permanently. We have a patch of land and a small room here in the village. If we get the PMAYG money, we will build a proper house there.”


* Firoz Sheikh & Siraj Sheikh, Jehangir’s cousins: Their two-floor pucca house with extensions in the front and back is right across Roshan’s house. There is a cow shed in front. Firoz’s sister Murshida Khatun said, “You can see that we have a house. But water leaks from the roof when it rains.”

* Yasin Sheikh, Jehangir’s brother: Adjacent to Firoz and Siraj’s house is the residence of Yasin Sheikh with concrete walls and a tiled roof. There are rows of rooms on the right and bathrooms on the left separated by a courtyard in the middle.

“I applied for the scheme in 2018. In December last year, they (local officials) surveyed my house. I don’t have a proper house. I share this house with another brother. Why should I be denied the PMAYG money?” said Yasin.

* Supiya Bibi, Jehangir’s sister: Her house had concrete walls and a tiled roof with two rooms and a separate covered kitchen area. “I am a widow. I have been trying to get a house for a long time. My four sons are engaged in low-paying jobs, I have no income of my own. I only have a few cows,” she said.

* Salman Bajigar, brother-in-law of Jehangir’s sister Supiya: Salman stays in a pucca house with a row of rooms, concrete walls and a tiled roof. “I stay at my mother’s residence with my brothers and work in a garment shop. If I get PMAYG money, I will be able to have a separate house of my own,” Salman said.


* Altaf Ansari, Jehangir’s brother-in-law: Altaf stays near Jehangir’s house in a two-floor concrete building with a concrete roof. There is additional land in front, surrounded by a concrete wall. Altaf said his father-in-law gave him the plot of land. “I am staying here on rent. I have no house,” he said.

Asked about these cases, Sourav Maji, Block Development Officer (BDO), Baruipur, said: “The survey was done by ASHA and anganwadi workers…The names of those eligible were ratified by the Gram Sabha. Later, we put up a complaint drop box for the public. We have received complaints and acted on them. Some were valid, some were false complaints. Around 1,264 names were rejected from the list of selected persons in this block. The process of rejection is still on. No one with a pucca house is allowed to be a beneficiary.”


Clearly, the lists are work in progress and will further delay the implementation. Progress was stalled last financial year over a tussle on the name of the project — the state wanted to call the rural scheme also as “Banglar Awas Yojana” or “Banglar Bari”.

In its letter to the state, the Centre underlined that it had sanctioned Rs 8,200 crore to build 11,36,488 houses under the scheme in the state between 2022 and 2023. But State Panchayat and Rural Development Minister Pradip Majumder told The Indian Express that “we are yet to receive a single penny” and called the standoff “nothing but political vendetta”.


Still, in December, weeks after the Centre’s letter, the state started the inspection process for the scheme even as protests broke out in several districts, such as North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Murshidabad and Malda, against ineligible individuals finding their way into the potential beneficiary list.

In Murshidabad for instance, shaken by resentment on the ground, 17 panchayat members of the TMC resigned — prompting the party to engage in a damage-control exercise and reject the resignations.

On January 5, two teams from the Ministry of Rural Development visited Purba Medinipur and Malda districts, triggering a fresh political war of words. Ulaganathan did not respond to text messages and calls from The Indian Express seeking comment.

TMC leader Kunal Ghosh said the state government has “zero tolerance for corruption”. When told about the specific cases The Indian Express had investigated, Ghosh said: “If anyone, who is not entitled, is included in the list, the name will be deleted after the survey. But it should be noted that many applied for PMAY four or five years ago. Later, they may have earned money and constructed houses. That is not irregularity or corruption.”

BJP and CPI(M) leaders, however, accused the ruling party of “looting money”.

“The names of those who are truly living in miserable conditions have been cut. Either you have to be TMC or pay Rs 20,000-25,000. In one village in my area, 450 names were cut from the list. We have sent that list to Delhi. The investigation has begun,” said BJP leader Dilip Ghosh.

CPI(M)’s Susanta Ghosh said: “To get a good post, a TMC leader has to pay money. So after buying the post, they have to engage in corruption to recover that money.”

First published on: 24-01-2023 at 04:16 IST
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