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Express Investigation – Part 1: PM Awaas is for rural poor but in West Bengal, owners of houses like these are on the list

Officials pass the buck, blame ‘panchayat surveys’, some owners say they were poor when they applied, some say it was a ‘mistake’

pm awaas yojna, west bengal, express investigationTMC-ruled gram panchayat up-pradhan Jahangir Sekh owns the three-floor house and the under-construction four-floor house in Keshabpur village. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)
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Express Investigation – Part 1: PM Awaas is for rural poor but in West Bengal, owners of houses like these are on the list
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* A three-floor pucca house equipped with a CCTV camera in front, a courtyard and a garage on the ground floor.

* Next door, an under-construction four-floor house with an iron-gated garage on the ground floor. As of last week, all the floors were ready, needing just paint and spots of cement for completion.

* A two-floor pucca house with an air-conditioner.

* A four-room pucca house with a cowshed in the front yard.

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* Another pucca house with a garment workshop attached.

The list goes on and on, of houses like these, each a far cry from the eligibility criteria for the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana-Gramin (PMAY-G) under which those with pucca houses cannot apply. Clearly, none qualifies for the scheme’s inclusion conditions of poverty, destitution and kutcha or dilapidated housing.

Yet, as an investigation by The Indian Express shows, these house owners, many of them linked to the ruling Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, figure on official lists prepared by the local administration as potential beneficiaries of PMAY-G.

PM Awaas yojana scam, bengal PM Awaas scam Pucca house owned by Nitai Kundu, a TMC leader in Jamalpur. Kundu said his name was put on the list by leaders of his own party to “malign” him. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

No funds have been disbursed but had it not been for a string of protests at the local level, these lists, sources said, could have set the stage for them to become actual beneficiaries.

“The key approvals are done at the district level and so it’s easy for local staff in collusion with the home owners to use funds to build extensions under the PMAY-G,” said Apurba Chatterjee, a CPI(M) district secretariat member from Purba Bardhaman.

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Indeed, the process of identifying potential beneficiaries is now at the heart of the latest tussle between the TMC government and the BJP-ruled Centre. This, amid simmering local discontent and heated protests alleging bias in favour of members of the state’s ruling party.

PM Awaas yojana scam, bengal PM Awaas scam This pucca house with workshop in Rudrapur is owned by Kabirul Haq, a local TMC leader. Kabirul’s wife Parvin (above) said they had a mud house when they applied. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

So much so, after pausing the scheme in the state for over eight months last year, the Centre finally allocated Rs 8,200 crore for 11,36,488 PMAY-G houses with a stern reminder in November: follow the implementation framework.

The scheme has also led to a political firestorm with the TMC saying that it is being unfairly targeted by the Centre and that the father of BJP leader and Central Minister Nishit Pramanik has also been identified as a potential beneficiary of the scheme in Cooch Behar district. In response, Pramanik has claimed that the name was added as part of a political “conspiracy”.

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Being identified as eligible for the scheme is only the first step in a long process that involves multiple checks at the state and Central levels before the money is transferred to bank accounts.

PM Awaas yojana scam, bengal PM Awaas scam Pabitra Biswas and wife Madhuri stay in this pucca “family home” with TMC leader Sabita Biswas in Kashipur. Madhuri (above) said she and her husband live in the cow shed. (Express Photo by Partha Paul)

What The Indian Express found after investigating beneficiary lists, conducting site visits, and interviewing applicants and local officials, were flaws in the very first tier of the process, the block level.

The Indian Express visited Purba Bardhaman, North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas, three districts that have witnessed protests by local residents over the scheme. And found that from the deputy pradhan of a TMC-ruled panchayat to a party core committee member and a local Trinamool worker who is also a panchayat staffer — all had pucca houses and yet were identified at the local level as eligible to qualify for PMAY-G.

When contacted, one of them attributed the process to a “mistake”, another said he was not aware of his inclusion and a third said he had spoken to the Block Development Officer (BDO) to get his name removed. The BDOs passed the buck, blaming the preliminary survey at the panchayat level and lack of control over the process — and claimed they are “cleaning up” the list, removing several names.

Purba Bardhaman

* TMC-ruled gram panchayat up-pradhan Jahangir Sekh is the owner of a three-floor house with the CCTV camera and the under-construction house next door, in Keshabpur village under Shakhari Gram Panchayat in Khandoghosh block.

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His wife Sima’s name, and those of his brothers Alamgir and Ajamgir, and his father Sekh Mahasen who died last year, are on the list of potential PMAY-G beneficiaries prepared at the block level.

Jahangir was not at his house when The Indian Express visited. He did not respond to calls or messages, either. When contacted, Aparthib Islam, the TMC block president, said, “The people here are angry over the names of Jahangir and his family members being included in the list when he has two palatial houses. But when the survey (to identify potential beneficiaries) took place, Jahangir had a mud house. After winning the panchayat polls in 2018, he started a rice business and earned well.”

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Said Satyajit Kumar, Block Development Officer (BDO), Khandoghosh: “The survey was done in 2018. The BDOs had no control of that survey that was conducted through a mobile app by village resource persons from the panchayat.” Asked about Jahangir and his family, the BDO said, “Their names were removed from the list before any protest.”

* About 40 km away, at Surekalna in Jamalpur block, a two-floor concrete house with an AC belongs to Nitai Kundu, who is the TMC president of Jamalpur 2 Anchal. His name is on the list. “A section of leaders in my party, who are trying to malign me, put my name in the list. I have told BDO that I do not want a PMAY house,” said Kundu.

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Shubhankar Majumder, BDO, Jamalpur, said, “It was surveyed in 2018. I was not in this block then. The list was created by taking a picture of the house through the app. Out of 21,000 names in the list from this block, we have already omitted 6,500.”

* About 27 km away, in Haripur village, the list includes the name of Ratna Mahanta, who heads the TMC-run Raina 1 Panchayat Samiti. At her concrete house, The Indian Express met Ratna’s mother-in-law Malati Mahanta. “We had a mud house some years ago. Now we have a concrete house. But somehow, by mistake, the name of my daughter-in-law came up in the list,” Malati said.

When contacted over phone, Ratna said, “I still have a mud house. The concrete house you saw was made recently after my party colleagues helped me with some money. I have already asked officials to remove my name from the list.”

North 24 Parganas

* At Purba Rudrapur village in Habra, the PMAY-G list has the name of Kabirul Haq, a TMC core committee member in the area. Haq owns a concrete, tiled house with an attached work area for readymade garments with about a dozen workers. He was not available for comment. His wife Parvin, who was at the house, said, “My husband’s name is on the list because we used to have a mud house some years ago. We built this house and workshop three years ago.”

* At Kashipur village nearby, Pabitra Biswas is on the list although he stays in a concrete “family home” with his “relative”, local TMC leader and teacher Sabita Biswas. “This is my relative’s house. Not mine. The cow shed is where we live. We deserve a house under PMAY,” said Madhuri, the wife of Pabitra Biswas. Speaking over the phone, Sabita said, “My uncle’s son is on the list. He is poor.”

Jayanta Dey, BDO, Habra-1 block, did not provide details of Biswas’s case but said that Kabirul Haq had applied last month “to remove his name from the list”, which has been done. “The main point is no one who owns a pucca house should get a house under the scheme (PMAY). We are trying to ensure that,” Dey said.

‘What about us?’

The BDO’s assurance offers little hope for those like Sabina Bibi, whose house made of tin sheets stands right across the concrete two-floor home of TMC Anchal president Nitai Kundu, who has been identified as a potential beneficiary in Purba Bardhaman’s Jamalpur.

“I first applied for the scheme three years ago, nothing happened. I applied again a few months ago. My name is not yet on the list. It is hell for us, including my four children, during the rainy season. Now look at the concrete house of our neta,” she said, pointing to Kundu’s house. “Are we not deserving enough to get a house under this scheme?”

First published on: 23-01-2023 at 04:10 IST
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