In Rural Chhattisgarh, One Man Continues to Fight a Corrupt System

While the Centre has praised Chhattisgarh for its implementation of MGNREGS, Chandeshwar Khushwaha has exposed how the state government glosses over evident failures.

Chandreshwar Khushwaha. Credit: Special arrangement

Chandreshwar Khushwaha. Credit: Special arrangement

A small act of heroism can sometimes become the harbinger of change. This is exactly what happened in Deviganj village, in northern Chhattisgarh’s Balrampur district. Chandreshwar Khushwaha, a man with very limited means, stood up against the powerful district administration in his fight against corrupt practices in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). Aided by the non-governmental mobile radio platform CGNet Swara, Khushwaha blew the whistle on an unfolding scam, exposing that gram panchayat leaders syphoned off the wages of hundreds of villagers.

But his fight was not without roadblocks. As he stood alone, he faced threats, intimidation and boycott from a hostile administrative machinery.

The Chhattisgarh government has initiated a project that requires gram panchayats to build ponds – both big and small – in villages under the central cluster facilitation team (CFT) project, which seeks to converge MGNREGS and the National Rural Livelihood Mission. Depending on the number of ponds needed, it allocates funds to every panchayat. According to Khushwaha, around 25 ponds were to be built in Deviganj, each costing Rs 2.14 lakh.

Work began in February 2016 for the construction of four ponds. As is the usual (though illegal) practice now in most remote villages, the sarpanch keeps the job cards with himself. Illiteracy and misinformation about the rural guarantee scheme helps the sarpanch authorise MGNREGS work without having to keep workers in the loop.

Devigunj was not an exception.

Villagers enrolled for work. However, the sarpanch filled in their names on muster rolls even before they had completed the work. This piqued Khushwaha, as it could help the sarpanch show ‘completed work’ under MGNREGS and get wages sanctioned from the government without the workers actually getting employed.

He first noticed that everything was not the way it should be when the sarpanch got JCB machines to clear areas allocated for pond construction. Upon further enquiry, the sarpanch told him that the machine work is only temporary.

This is illegal, since the MGNREGS bars all machine work. “Except four ponds, the JCB machines were digging up the rest. I thought how could it be temporary? I wanted to check the muster rolls of work as none of us were getting paid,” Khushwaha told The Wire.

On March 5 this year, Khushwaha recorded the problem in his village at CGNet Swara, which had organised a workshop on civic responsibilities at Devigunj earlier that year. The volunteers at the mobile radio platform advised him to file an RTI to the block authorities demanding the muster rolls. Khushwaha, with the help of CGNet Swara, filed a RTI but did not get a reply. So he lodged a complaint with the block circle officer.

This forced the district administration to release the muster rolls of the work done in Devigunj. The results were shocking. “The muster rolls were all filled up with names of workers and they claimed that these workers received the wages for pond work,” said Khushwaha.

Khushwaha found out that the sarpanch had employed some contractors to do the pond work, which is illegal under the MGNREGS. This helped the sarpanch save on workers’ wages, paying only a fraction of it to the contractors. Usually, contractors charge around Rs 15,000-20,000 for such work.

“According to our estimate, at least Rs 12 lakh was syphoned off,” said Khushwaha.

He claims that his investigation alerted the district administration. “I received many threats from the sarpanch and his gundas (goons). The circle officer, and a few other officials from the block, came to the village and warned me not to create trouble,” Khushwaha said.

Fearing for his life in the absence of any support, Khushwaha switched off his phone for the next three months and decided not to pursue the case.

This is when CGNet Swara sent a volunteer team to Devigunj and finally managed to pursuade Khushwaha to follow up on the case. “Our team met the district officials. We also got some officers at Raipur to talk to the district administration. Some civil society activists – from India and abroad – also built pressure on the district officials to correct the wrongs committed in Devigunj,” said CGNet Swara founder Shubhranshu Choudhary.

Representative image of MGNREGS workers. Credit: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters

Representative image of MGNREGS workers. Credit: Krishnendu Halder/Reuters

Khushwaha met the collector Awanish Kumar Sharan with all the details of the case. Sharan immediately constituted an official probe team. “After this, the circle officer came to apologise and instructed the gram panchayat to start MGNREGS work on ponds again,” Khushwaha claimed.

After this arduous struggle, Khushwaha managed to get the panchayat to start work on the ponds again in August. However, after this initial success, Khushwaha said that no work was commissioned in September and October, even though pond construction is unfinished and much of the wages are still unpaid. However, unlike last time, many villagers are ready to support him.

Speaking to The Wire, circle officer Ajay Tripathi, however, dismissed Khushwaha’s allegations. “The probe found that the allegations are untrue. The complainant was trying to corner the sarpanch because of some personal issues.”

Tripathi’s response seems to be unconvincing, since Khushwaha produced all the documents, including photographs showing JCB machines at work at the pond sites, in front of the collector.

Khushwaha’s fight is perhaps only one of the many fights that idealistic villagers have waged against institutional corruption in different corners of India. Hundreds of villagers in many other states, with help from civil society organisations, have been trying to stop the systematic scuttling of MGNREGS funds.

Khushwaha’s battle against the system, which is likely to continue as the work on ponds has stopped again, is a significant rejoinder to the union government’s claims that Chhattisgarh is one of the top-performing states in implementing the CFT project. More importantly, it points out how the state administration inflates statistics, as Devigunj’s muster rolls show, to portray a positive image even as the ground reality is starkly different. Many civil rights activists have often pointed out that instead of a targeted approach towards generating employment under MGNREGS in select districts, the scheme should be accorded a much more significant role in economic growth. This, according to them, could help the government focus on the scheme better and contain corruption.