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Monday, December 1, 2008

Three sarpanches, no justice

Gajjudeori panchayat in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla district has three sarpanches, backed by three different panchayat secretaries. All three sarpanches claim to be the ‘real’ one, and all of them possess and use the official seals! Despite repeated appeals to the authorities, no one wants to get involved in local politics to resolve this strange situation.

As the car shudders its way to the panchayat office over an uneven dirt road, the villagers gather into a tight, curious group. But by the time the car stops, two people have beaten a hasty retreat.

When we get out of the car, we are told that the people who just left were the sarpanch and the panchayat secretary of the village. That is, one of the three sarpanches and three secretaries that the panchayat is saddled with.

Yes, three. Gajjudeori panchayat in Madhya Pradesh’s Mandla district has not one, not two, but three sarpanches, backed by three different panchayat secretaries. All three sarpanches claim to be the ‘real’ one, and all of them possess and use the official seals!

This strange turn of events happened four years ago when Gond tribal resident Panchamlal Marko was elected sarpanch of Gajjudeori panchayat (comprising the villages of Gajjudeori, Khaddeori and Bisanpura in Niwas block, Mandla district) from a reserved seat, with the support of the BJP. The villagers allege that Marko, who was until then an ordinary young man leading an ordinary life, was taken in hand by local BJP leaders and introduced to ‘the high life’.

Former sarpanch Krishna Kumar Singrauri of Gajjudeori says: “Since he was elected, Marko has developed expensive shauks (tastes) like heavy drinking and womanising, in the company of BJP leaders, and has become a puppet in the hands of these bigwigs.”

In three years, the villagers say, these local leaders had used Marko for corrupt dealings worth Rs 16,00,000. The deals cover virtually every kind of development and welfare work carried out in the villages, from building roads and digging wells under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), to construction of school and panchayat buildings, to distribution of ration cards, drawing up BPL (below the poverty line) lists, etc.

“You can’t imagine corruption on the scale at which it exists in Gajjudeori panchayat,” says resident Karamlal Soyam. The villagers rattle off an endless list: 16 kapildhara wells that have been lying incomplete for the last two years have been recorded as complete (some of them were sanctioned twice under different schemes and the funds have disappeared); only 100,000 saplings have been planted under the 400,000-saplings Nandan Falodyan Yojana project; endless paddy-bunding and road-building work has been carried out under the NREGS for four years, and there are no bunds or roads to show for all the effort. The list goes on and on...

But the cherry on the cake has to be the 16 BPL ration cards that have been issued to the family of Vishnu Prasad, panchayat member and BJP bigwig. “His brother works with the state electricity department; he himself owns 150 acres of land,” says Soyam. “But he has 16 BPL cards while those who really need them don’t have any.”

On August 15, 2007, the panchayat residents, led by Khaddeori gramdoot Chaitram Jharia and Bisanpura gramdoot Nandlal Burman decided to take action against Marko’s corrupt ways. They locked him in the panchayat building, following Independence Day celebrations, demanding the release of NREGS wages worth Rs 600,000-700,000 for around 250 people in the village, that had been held up for a whole year. The incident was covered by some local TV channels, and Marko was freed only after he gave written assurance that the issue would be resolved within three days.

The outstanding wages were released but Marko retaliated by filing false cases of assault against the two gramdoots and two other residents.

Fed up with Marko, the villagers began a campaign for his ouster. Finally, in October 2007, Marko was suspended under Section 40 of the Panchayati Raj Act by the then collector Subhash Jain. Backed by powerful political interests, he appealed. The case dragged on.

Meanwhile, Bisram Singh Soyam of Gajjudeori was appointed ad hoc sarpanch in place of Marko. On July 11, 2008, Dulshah Baiga, also of the same village, was elected sarpanch in a by-election.

The matter should have ended here. It didn’t. Within days of the election, Marko obtained a stay against his removal from the divisional commissioner’s office and pronounced himself the ‘real’ sarpanch. He has since been wielding de facto power as sarpanch.

Not to be outdone, ad hoc sarpanch Bisram Singh Soyam, who till then had not officially handed over charge to Dulshah, refused to do so and asserted that he was sarpanch. Dulshah, who is financially weak and socially isolated, and the only Baiga in a panchayat that has an almost equal population of Gond tribals and non-tribals, has not been able to take charge. But he does have an official seal and calls himself the ‘real’ sarpanch.

Ganpatiya Bai Soyam, a resident, sums it up best: “All three sarpanches have rubber stamps, and everyone who needs a signature on a document goes to the sarpanch he is friendliest with. The one blessing is that no applications are ever held up because one or the other of the three is willing to clear it.”

Despite several complaints having been lodged with the block panchayat CEO and the collector, no official action has been taken to resolve this strange situation. As a result, all three sarpanches hold sway over the panchayat.

Meanwhile, Marko continues his corrupt ways. Twice the villagers caught him and his cronies stealing construction material -- once it was 60 bags of cement brought to the village to construct a middle-school building, and the other time it was sand, bricks and iron for Ganpatiya Bai’s well that was sanctioned under the NREGS. Marko remains unfazed; with his strong political connections he knows no one can touch him.

When I reached Gajjudeori, Marko and his secretary had left the village for Khaddeori, leaving the keys of the panchayat building with a resident. (Apparently he had heard a rumour that a ‘big journalist from Delhi’ was coming.) The panchayat building, which, residents say, is always locked, was open but the cupboards inside were locked. According to residents, all the records had been removed. When I followed Marko to Khaddeori and sent him a message requesting a meeting he replied that I would have to get a letter to the effect from the collector.

Soyam and Baiga, who were also present in Gajjudeori when I visited the village, also refused to meet me.

According to the villagers, Marko enjoys the support of a powerful tribal leader, former state minister for tribal affairs and currently a Member of Parliament. “Everyone, right from successive collectors to MPs and MLAs has visited this village and expressed concern over the situation. But the situation has not improved,” says Sukhlal Singrauri, a resident. “No one dares touch Marko, and no one dares speak up against him.” The villagers all say the other two sarpanches refused meetings because they were afraid of Marko. “They are facing up to the situation as well as they can,” said one bystander who refused to be named. “But they dare not cross Marko openly.”

As I prepare to leave the village, former sarpanch Krishna Kumar Singrauri calls out: “Please take our story to Delhi and ask the leaders to help us.” Then, as an afterthought, he mutters: “There is no point though. No one can help us until we help ourselves.”

By Aparna Pallavi


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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