COUNT­ING THE COST OF ‘CUT-MONEY’

Will Ma­mata’s open ad­mis­sion of ram­pant cor­rup­tion in the TMC ranks sink her party or shore up her im­age as a leader who puts the in­ter­ests of the poor ahead of her party?

India Today - - CONTENTS - By Romita Datta

Will Ma­mata’s ad­mis­sion of ram­pant cor­rup­tion shore up her im­age as a leader who puts the poor ahead of the party?

ON JUNE 18, AD­DRESS­ING AN OPEN FO­RUM of the Tri­namool Congress (TMC) in Kolkata, Ma­mata Ban­er­jee made the un­like­li­est of ad­mis­sions. The TMC, she rued, was en­trenched in cor­rup­tion down to its low­est rungs and it was time to draw the line. “I don’t want thieves in the party,” Ma­mata said. “Those who have taken money (from the peo­ple), go re­turn it. You are not even spar­ing the dead and are tak­ing 10 per cent com­mis­sion from the Rs 2,000 the govern­ment gives to the poor for performing last rites.”

With this, the West Ben­gal chief min­is­ter had blown the whis­tle on the cul­ture of ‘cut-money’ the BJP said had gained cur­rency un­der the TMC in Ben­gal—a bribe or com­mis­sion that even the poor­est of poor al­legedly have to pay to lo­cal TMC lead­ers to avail of their cen­tral or state govern­ment grants.

Ma­mata’s confession couldn’t have come at a worse time. What was in­tended as an im­age-makeover ex­er­cise has turned into a pub­lic re­la­tions fi­asco and given the op­po­si­tion fresh am­mu­ni­tion against the TMC. The BJP has been lead­ing demon­stra­tions

across the state and al­leges at­tacks on its cadre by the TMC and po­lice alike for fil­ing po­lice com­plaints against the ex­tor­tion­ists. In sev­eral parts of Ben­gal, the homes of lo­cal TMC lead­ers have been laid siege to by poor peo­ple at the re­ceiv­ing end of such deep-rooted cor­rup­tion. Poor vil­lagers like Shankar Bagdi, from Paik­para in Birb­hum district’s Sainthia area.

PAY­ING THE ‘PRICE’

Bagdi had ap­plied for a grant un­der the Prad­han Mantri Awas Yo­janaGramin (PMAY-G) to build a pucca house. Since the time his name came up in the ben­e­fi­ciary list three years ago, Bagdi had been mak­ing rounds of the lo­cal TMC of­fice and meet­ing pan­chayat mem­bers. Only when he bribed the lo­cal TMC bosses Rs 7,000 this year did the first PMAY in­stal­ment of Rs 40,000 come through, he al­leges. Un­able to pay an­other Rs 3,000, he fears be­ing de­nied the re­main­ing grant of Rs 80,000. This mon­soon, Bagdi’s semi-built house re­mains a roof­less struc­ture, without walls.

Grants un­der govern­ment schemes are direct ben­e­fit trans­fers. Ben­e­fi­cia­ries al­lege that lo­cal TMC lead­ers de­mand­ing cut-money seize their bank and post-of­fice doc­u­ments, such as pass­books and with­drawal slips. “They re­turn the doc­u­ments only af­ter ev­ery penny of the grant has been with­drawn. We are forced to sign the with­drawal slip and hand it over,” al­leges Sukhadeb Dolui from a vil­lage un­der Ha­tora pan­chayat in Birb­hum.

Be it MNREGA wages, al­lot­ments for build­ing toi­lets and PMAY-G houses or the re­cruit­ment of school teach­ers, com­plaints are com­ing in that noth­ing moves un­til you pay the ‘price’ in many pan­chay­ats. “I had to pay a bribe of Rs 7,000 to get a MNREGA job card. When I went to col­lect my wages, I found two other names in the pan­chayat records against my card,” says Ha­tora pan­chayat res­i­dent Shya­mal Bagdi. He al­leges he was duped by the pan­chayat pres­i­dent from the TMC.

Birb­hum zila parishad sab­had­hipati Bikash Ray Chaud­huri says a probe is un­der­way into the al­leged mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion of MNREGA funds worth Rs 22 lakh in Paik­para and Belia. He prom­ises that “the cul­prits would be brought to book”.

Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers say such cor­rup­tion was preva­lent dur­ing the Left Front rule as well, but in iso­lated pock­ets of the state. The Left be­ing a reg­i­mented party, it all hap­pened in rel­a­tive se­crecy. Manoj Chakrabort­y, the Congress chief whip in the West Ben­gal assem­bly, al­leges: “One needs to pay up, be it while claim­ing a govern­ment fund, get­ting jobs in schools and govern­ment of­fices, for ad­mis­sion in col­leges or to get a bed in hos­pi­tal. This has been a stan­dard prac­tice in the past eight years [of TMC rule].”

MA­MATA’S TIM­ING

While her ad­mis­sion has cer­tainly wors­ened the cri­sis in the TMC, Ma­mata per­haps felt that re­vamp­ing and re­brand­ing the party in the face of a stri­dent BJP would mean start­ing from scratch. The TMC suf­fered its worst-ever elec­toral set­back in this Lok Sabha elec­tion, its seats drop­ping from 34 in 2014 to 22 out of a to­tal of 42 seats. The BJP’s 40 per cent vote share and 18-seat haul, up from two in 2014, is its best per­for­mance yet in Ben­gal, a state it aims to cap­ture in the 2021 assem­bly elec­tion. Shaken by the de­feat, Ma­mata’s ex­as­per­a­tion has been ev­i­dent—the road­side fra­cas with Jai Shri Ram-shout­ing BJP ac­tivists, the tirade against ‘out­siders’ for not speak­ing Bangla and the mis­han­dling of the doc­tors’ agi­ta­tion last month. She has also been deal­ing with a se­ries of de­fec­tions of TMC leg­is­la­tors, coun­cil­lors and district and pan­chay­atlevel lead­ers to the BJP.

“Ma­mata Ban­er­jee needed to take a rad­i­cal step to di­vert pub­lic at­ten­tion from the BJP’s con­tin­u­ing on­slaught on her party,” ar­gues Pras­anta Ray, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Kolkata’s Pres­i­dency Univer­sity. “Cut-money has been a ma­jor pub­lic com­plaint. What bet­ter way to ad­dress their griev­ance and look to re­con­nect than ad­mit a mis­take and seek for­give­ness?”

Sovon Lal Dutta Gupta, a for­mer pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at Cal­cutta Univer­sity, sees it as an at­tempt at an im­age over­haul. “Ma­mata is not only try­ing to dis­tance her­self from un­scrupu­lous Tri­namool lead­ers, but also pro­ject­ing her­self as an an­ti­cor­rup­tion crusader who wouldn’t

“WHAT’S WRONG IF I TRY TO DIS­CI­PLINE MY PARTY WORK­ERS, ASK THEM TO WORK HARD AND NOT MIS­USE GOVERN­MENT FUNDS?”

Ma­mata Ban­er­jee Chief Min­is­ter, West Ben­gal

hes­i­tate to take stern ac­tion against her par­ty­men,” he says.

A crack­down has in­deed fol­lowed. Sukesh Ja­dav, the vil­lage head of Ma­hanan­datala in Ratua, Malda district, was ar­rested on charges of amass­ing Rs 1 crore by fleec­ing peo­ple of funds sanc­tioned to build toi­lets. “We have put 18 peo­ple be­hind bars. Ac­tion is be­ing taken by the po­lice and the state’s eco­nomic of­fences wing on al­most all the 1,200 com­plaints re­ceived so far,” claims a TMC leader who did not want to be iden­ti­fied.

THE FIRE SPREADS

Seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity, the BJP has been or­gan­is­ing protest marches and al­legedly van­dal­is­ing the homes and of­fices of TMC func­tionar­ies in the dis­tricts of Birb­hum, Bard­haman, Na­dia, West Mid­na­pore, Cooch Be­har, Bankura and Kolkata, de­mand­ing re­funds of cut-money to the peo­ple.

While hun­dreds of TMC func­tionar­ies have fled their ar­eas, many have given writ­ten un­der­tak­ings that the cut-money will be re­turned. In sev­eral ar­eas, the vi­o­lence has gone out of hand. A TMC booth agent, Pur­nendu Chat­topad­hyay, was found hang­ing from a tree in East Bard­haman. Sheikh Habibul, a su­per­vi­sor of the state govern­ment’s 100-days’ work scheme in Bard­haman, was tied to a tree and thrashed by a mob. Du­lal Pra­manik, a su­per­vi­sor from Kalna in East Bard­haman, com­mit­ted sui­cide.

Mou Ray Hazra, a TMC coun­cil­lor from Mid­na­pore ac­cused of tak­ing bribes of Rs 3.5 lakh to clear build­ing plans, has claimed that the cut-money chain runs up to the higher ech­e­lons of the party. “Didi has landed us in grave dan­ger by try­ing to prove that she’s hon­est while oth­ers are dis­hon­est,” she said.

The state govern­ment has di­rected ad­di­tional di­rec­tor gen­eral of po­lice (law and or­der) Gyan­want Singh to reg­is­ter cases against the bribe-tak­ers un­der sec­tion 409 of the In­dian Pe­nal Code, for crim­i­nal breach of trust by a pub­lic ser­vant. The po­lice have also been in­structed to act against peo­ple try­ing to break law and or­der. Vil­lagers, how­ever, ac­cuse the po­lice of in­tim­i­da­tion. At Der­pur vil­lage, un­der Ha­tora pan­chayat, a po­lice crack­down on pro­test­ers al­legedly did not spare even women and chil­dren. Among the 13 vil­lagers al­legedly de­tained were Sand­hya Dolui, a phys­i­cally chal­lenged woman, and Mousumi Bagdi, mother of an ail­ing two-year-old child.

With Ma­mata’s holier-than-thou at­ti­tude show­ing the rest of the party in poor light, the TMC soon got se­nior min­is­ter Partha Chat­ter­jee to de­clare that the prob­lem was re­stricted to func­tionar­ies who had joined from other par­ties. “Bar­ring one or two gen­uine cases, there are sev­eral in­stances of the BJP tar­get­ing TMC men with false charges to set­tle scores,” he said.

While the TMC hopes Ma­mata’s gam­bit of com­ing clean would even­tu­ally prove to be a mas­ter­stroke, pro­ject­ing her as a leader gen­uinely com­mit­ted to fight­ing mi­cro-level cor­rup­tion that af­fects the com­mon folk, at the mo­ment, the cri­sis is hurt­ing the party and caus­ing many heads to roll. With the BJP snap­ping at her heels, the ques­tion is who will have the last laugh.

DIARY EN­TRY Vil­lagers in Birb­hum’s Paik­para with de­tails of cut­money al­legedly paid to TMC lead­ers for the re­lease of PMAY-G funds

LIV­ING HELL Shankar Bagdi and wife at their un­fin­ished home in Birb­hum. Un­able to pay more as bribes, they can’t ac­cess their full PMAY-G grant

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