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Jean Dreze

3 December 2005

On 17 October 2005, five days after the Right to Information Act came into force, a public hearing in Lakshmangarh village (Surguja District, Chhattisgarh) showed how the Act can empower ordinary people and enable them to fight corruption.

The public hearing focused on the recent construction of a "talab" (pond) under the National Food For Work Programme. A sum of Rs 3.5 lakhs was sanctioned to the Irrigation Department for this project, of which Rs 3.1 lakhs have been spent. The entire amount was spent on labour, over three "muster rolls" covering one week each. (1 lakh = 100,000)

Getting hold of the muster rolls was no easy task. This happened before the Right to Information Act came into force. The initial attempt was made by a team of students from Delhi University, who were conducting a field survey of the National Food For Work Programme in Surguja last June on behalf of Dr N C Saxena, Commissioner of the Supreme Court. In spite of the Commissioner's backing, the students were made to run from pillar to post for several weeks in search of the muster rolls. It is only after the Rozgar Adhikar Yatra occupied the local office of the Irrigation Department on 4 June that the concerned officials finally agreed to part with two of the three muster rolls.

The public hearing convened on 17 October immediately showed that the muster rolls had been fudged. There were 320 names on the rolls, from three adjacent villages: Lakshmangarh, Phoolgi and Sanibarra. Each labourer's village of residence is written in the muster rolls against his or her name, making it possible to verify the names from the "voters' lists". It emerged that only 63 of the 320 names were genuine the other names were fake. Residents of all three villages attended the public hearing, and they confirmed that the 257 untraceable names were fictitious.

According to the muster rolls, all the labourers were paid the statutory minimum wage of Rs 55 per day. This was corroborated by labourers at the public hearing. At this rate, the wages of 320 labourers working for three weeks (six work days each week) would account for the full Rs 3.1 lakhs officially spent on the project. But only one fifth of these "labourers" were actually there. The wages of the other four fifths were appropriated by corrupt officials.

It is interesting that those who did work received the full wage of Rs 55 per day - no cheating there. This is probably to keep them happy and reduce the risk that they might complain. Indeed, according to one local activist, when labourers get their full wage it is much harder to persuade them to raise questions about the project. "As long as I have received my due," they say, "why should I bother about the rest?"

Also interesting is that all the thumbprints in the muster rolls were fake, even in the case of "genuine" labourers. Among those attending the public hearing were several labourers (including Santu, Dharam, Sainath and Godhu) who were most surprised to find their alleged "thumbprint" in the muster rolls, as they are able to sign their name and always do so when certifying a document. They gave samples of their signatures and thumbprints for verification. All the labourers present, literate or illiterate said that they had never put their signature or thumbprint on the official muster roll. Instead they had been asked to put it on a different document the "kaccha muster roll".

The kaccha muster roll is an informal register, maintained at the worksite. It is used for the purpose of recording attendance and making wage payments. But the official ("pacca") muster roll is a separate document, comprehensively fudged. This practice of maintaining two muster rolls, one for wage payments and one for securing the release of funds, is widespread. For decades, it has been a convenient means of siphoning off money from public works programmes. As long as the muster rolls are inaccessible to the public, this method is relatively safe.

The Lakshmangarh talab is a startling example of unrestrained embezzlement based on this method. Even the local residents, who are used to being cheated, were shocked by the scale of corruption on this project. At the end of the public hearing, one labourer angrily told the representative of the Irrigation Department: "Agar khana hai to hisab se khao. Hamara baap bankar mat khao, hamara beta bankar khao" (If you really need to cheat, do it with moderation.)

The evidence of fraud in Lakshmangarh is clear and incontrovertible. The names were checked from the voters' lists, and checked again in public proceedings available on video tape. Those who attended the public hearing unanimously signed a memorandum summarising the evidence. And the thumbprints on the muster rolls can be easily checked against the samples provided at the public hearing.

Lakshmangarh, therefore, will be a useful test of the government's willingness to crack down on corruption. At the end of the public hearing, a delegation was sent to the District Collector, Mr. Manoj Kumar Pingua, and the evidence was presented to him. He promised to take action against the culprits. Whether or not this actually happens remains to be seen. Earlier experience in Surguja and elsewhere is not encouraging in this respect: corrupt officials are rarely caught, let alone punished.

The silver lining though is that public tolerance of corruption is rapidly dwindling, making it harder and harder for the administration to remain passive.

What is heartening about the public hearing in Lakshmangarh is that the entire exercise was conducted by local residents with no special expertise in the matter. The verification of muster rolls was initiated by Gangabhai Paikra, an adivasi youngster with five years of schooling. Once the muster rolls were obtained from the Irrigation Department, verifying them was a simple matter. Therein lies the hope of eradicating corruption in public works: the simple act of making muster rolls readily accessible will empower ordinary people to act as "freelance inspectors". This has already been done with good effect in Rajasthan, and there is no reason why it cannot be done elsewhere.

Jean Dreze
3 Dec 2005

Jean Dreze is a visiting professor at the G B Pant Social Science Institute (Allahabad), and is also associated with the National Campaign for the People's Right to Information.

Citizen Direct is India Together's channel for publishing reports from citizens who have detailed information about specific civil society concerns and matters, by virtue of their participation, association, or independent observation. These reports are therefore as witnessed and understood by the authors themselves; India Together accepts no liability or responsibility for them.   More

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  • Posted by Gaurav on December 23, 2005 04:10 AM

    The anger in saying "Khana hi...." reflects that people's have become frustrated due to corruption. They are looking for channels to give voice to eliminate this vice. The awareness and exposure is required on one hand, while on the other measures should be taken to protect people's voices and whistle blowers, before Right to Information act will deliver positive results.

    It will then create a conducive atmosphere to curb corruption and provide equity in opportunities and fair share for a "shining India".

  • Posted by Vishnu Rajgadia on December 26, 2005 08:30 AM

    Thanks for exposing govt's style of governance. We are in Jharkhand facing a lot of problems in getting informations from officials. Thanks you for your continued attempts for RTI.

    Vishnu Rajgadia
    Director, Prabhat Khabar Institute of Media Studies, MHI Building, Kokar, Ranchi (Jharkhand)

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