Battling polio since childhood, keeping his family afloat, ensuring that at least one of his two sons completes college — Shyamsundar Dhara, 66, says this is possible only because of the Rs 2 lakh he earns a year, on an average, from his 12 cottah of betel vine in Howrah’s Uluberia block.
“First came the lockdown. Then, Cyclone Amphan almost completely ruined my crop. We heard that the state government is sending money directly to the accounts of those affected,” says Dhara at his home in Bahira Gram Panchayat.
It’s been nearly two months now, and the family is “still waiting”. “We have not got a single paisa. We went to the panchayat office but they did not even give us an application form to apply for relief,” says Dhara’s younger son Chanchal, 28, who holds an MA degree in History from Burdwan University and is hoping to get a government job.
The Indian Express visited several panchayats in Howrah and South 24 Parganas, the heart of West Bengal’s betel-vine belt, and found echoes of the same complaint, from residents to Opposition leaders: Many who lost or suffered severe damage to their crop are out of the government’s compensation list while those who are “politically connected” have got in.
These field visits were a part of The Indian Express investigation into alleged irregularities in the manner in which several of these lists were prepared after Cyclone Amphan tore through Howrah, North 24 Parganas, East Midnapore, South 24 Parganas and Sundarbans on May 20.
The investigation revealed how relatives of politically powerful members of Gram Panchayats, Panchayat Samitis and Zilla Parishads were approved for compensation even if there’s no damage to their homes while deserving applicants wait.
It also showed how “typing errors” led to one man being listed as the father of nine unrelated beneficiaries from different families, and how the dead came back to life on official records — the kind of errors, which, Opposition leaders point out, provide the cover of deniability to recipients in case of scrutiny.
According to the state government, 2,50,556.17 hectares of betel vine, litchi and mango were damaged in the cyclone, with an estimated loss of Rs 6,581 crore.
For the betel-vine sector, which produces the leaves that drive the state’s “paan” sales, the government released Rs 200 crore in the first week of June as compensation for 1 lakh people, with direct transfers of Rs 5,000 to each bank account. It also announced Rs 15,000 each for wages equivalent to 100 days’ work.
According to the Horticulture Department, East and West Midnapore, South 24 Parganas, Howrah and Nadia are among the major betel leaf-producing districts, generating around 136 lakh “mots”, or bundles, per year — about 10,000 leaves form a “mot”. “There are over 2 lakh paan farmers in the state, apart from labourers,” says Narayan Das, executive committee member of the All Bengal Betel Leaf Farmers Samiti.
In the affected districts, officials are yet to release the list of those who have been paid. But in Dhara’s Bahira Gram Panchayat, CPM leader Swapan Das claims that “of 337 persons who got relief for severe damage to crop, more than 40 per cent don’t own betel vines”.
At Kalinagar Gram Panchayat, resident Bitosh Mete claims the “money went to Prashanta Sadukhan, a panchayat samiti member and his two brothers who do not own any betel vine”.
Outside their three-storey house, Sadukhan’s brother Dipankar refuses to address the allegations. “We will take the compensation, whatever the government gives us,” he says. Dipankar insists that the brothers own betel-vine crop but declines to provide any details.
The Block Development Officer declined to comment but an official at the BDO’s office says fresh lists have been published after a review was conducted.
About 15 km away, in Panchla, Forward Bloc leader Farid Mollah says the “block office published a list of 990 beneficiaries”. “But we found that in the 11 Gram Panchayats, there were not more than 250 betel-vine farmers. Also, we came to know that at least 120 genuine victims were not on the list,” claims Mollah.
Residents and Opposition leaders say the lists were prepared by panchayat leaders without adhering to the standard practice of a committee being formed with the BDO, panchayat and Opposition representatives, and house visits conducted for verification.
Says Panchla BDO Esha Ghosh: “The Block Development Office did not make the list. So, we can’t comment on this issue.”
But the ruling TMC’s Panchayat Pradhan, Sheikh Mujibar Rehman, admits there were irregularities. “Some leaders of our party are doing this. They are tarnishing the image of the party,” he says.
At Namkhana block in South 24 Parganas, CPM’s Sajal Kumar Barui, the Opposition leader of Haripur Gram Panchayat claims the local list contains a significant anomaly. “Last November, after Cyclone Bulbul, the number of betel-vine beneficiaries was 100. Now, it is four times that number, according to the list we obtained unofficially,” he says.
However, TMC leader and Deputy Pradhan of Haripur, Madhusudan Manna, says “all these allegations are fabricated by Opposition parties”. “There may be some discrepancies here and there, but that is minimal,” he says.
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