In Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district, Central funds to be received by tribal families under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for construction of dug-wells on farmlands were allegedly siphoned off before any benefit could be passed on to the beneficiaries, an investigation by the state’s tribal development department has found.
It has also been found that officials involved in the racket had submitted bogus field reports and false utilisation certificates (UCs) as a cover-up. The Indian Express has a copy of the findings, and also tracked down some victims of this scam.
With activists working in the field of tribal welfare claiming that the practice is not just limited to Nandurbar but spread across the state, Rajagopal Devara, Secretary, Tribal Development, said, “We have issued directives for an FIR to be lodged in this matter. Instructions to check whether similar malpractice has occurred in other districts would also be given.”
Nandurbar is counted as one of the country’s most backward districts. The funds that were siphoned off belong to a Special Central Assistance Scheme for upgrading livelihoods of forest dependent communities given land rights under the FRA.
The investigation suggests the irregularities began in 2013.
On April 24, 2013, the agriculture development officer (ADO) of the Nandurbar Zila Parishad (ZP) wrote to the project officer of the Taloda-based office of the Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) seeking release of FRA funds for construction of dug-wells on farmlands in 2010-11 and 2011-12. Records show that the ITDP sanctioned Rs 1.85 crore for 85 targetted beneficiaries on September 19, 2013, based on a technical report by the Groundwater Surveys and Development Agency.
The investigators have now found that these benefits never reached any of the beneficiaries. Ironically, the ZP, which carried out its own investigations in the matter, has reported back claiming that the funds were never deposited in the official account operated by the ADO’s office, even as ITDP’s accounts show that the amount, released through a cheque, was deposited in a private bank and then withdrawn. Officials said the role of the person who collected the cheque at the ADO’s behest was being probed. Also being verified is the role that other officials in the ITDP or the ZP may have played in the scam.
The plot thickened further when a bogus report dated January 21, 2014, purportedly from the ADO, claimed that work under the project was in progress.
Investigators have said a sample of seven places was submitted, claiming that works had been completed at five and was going on in the remaining two.
Records further show the first whiff of the scam came in May 2014, when Suresh Bhamta, who was shown as one of the beneficiaries from Nandurbar’s Akkalkuwa taluka, approached ITDP officials for release of the Central funds. “I was stunned when they (the officials) told me that funds for this purpose had already been released and shown as utilised against my name. They could not believe it when I denied that a well had been constructed on my farm,” said Bhamta.
Field visits by inspectors from the tribal development department found that the entire status report was bogus. “The benefits had not reached any among those shown as beneficiaries,” the then inspector M V Mali told the investigators.
While the ITDP wrote to the ZP about the discrepancy, another report submitted by the ADO on August 20, 2015, claimed that 71 beneficiaries had already received the benefit. A utilisation certificate (UC), which bore signatures of a ZP irrigation engineer and a private consulting engineer certifying completion of work, was also submitted. An inquiry into this submission, too, revealed that all the claims were “untrue”. “The signatures on the UC were of the same persons and appear forged,” the report claims. Field surveys conducted between March and May this year have further confirmed “the benefits were given on paper only; weren’t passed on in reality”.
Abhijit Raut, Project Officer, ITDP, confirmed that an FIR would be lodged soon. “There has been corruption and misuse of funds for tribal welfare,” he said. While Raut claimed that records showed the funds were released at the instance of the ADO and the tribal development officials might have played no further role, he admitted that a detailed investigation was needed to pin down all those responsible.
Madhukar Kalshetty, Collector, Nandurbar, said, “Strict action will be taken in the case. I’ve already asked the ZP CEO and Raut to submit reports fixing accountability on officials.”
Pratibha Shinde of the Lok Sangharsh Morcha, an tribal rights outfit, said, “Similar instances of tribal funds being siphoned off have come to light in other districts too.” In fact, she claimed to have received complaints of almost a same episode from Jalgaon’s Yawal. “The government must either adopt a system of passing direct benefits to tribal beneficiaries or evolve a much stronger monitoring mechanism to avoid such leaks,” she added.
Bhamta said, “We (tribals) have suffered years of neglect. When land rights were awarded to us, we felt that justice was finally being done. But we have just been scammed again.” Vinod Vesave, another victim of the scam, wondered if he would ever be able to claim the scheme’s benefit.