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?
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].”
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