Housing scheme irregularities spark political slugfest in Bengal
The West Bengal government has struck off names of hundreds of people under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) housing scheme for the poor after it found applications of people having multistoried homes were approved in at least nine districts, officials said. This has led to a political slugfest in the run up to the panchayat elections to be held in early 2023.
Kolkata The West Bengal government has struck off names of hundreds of people under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) housing scheme for the poor after it found applications of people having multistoried homes were approved in at least nine districts, officials said. This has led to a political slugfest in the run up to the panchayat elections to be held in early 2023. It is believed that the lists, prepared around five years ago, have tens of thousands of ineligible applicants.
The state government started the scrutiny of applications and physical verification from mid-November. Till mid-December, officials said, discrepancies surfaced in East Midnapore, West Midnapore, East Burdwan, Bankura, Purulia, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Murshidabad, and directions were issued to Block Divisional Officers (BDOs) and subdivisional officers (SDOs) to take pictures and videos of the homes of those who sought to take advantage of the scheme.
“In many cases, the ineligible applicants argued that they lived in huts till 2018 (when they applied) and built brick and mortar buildings with their own funds over the last five years. Such an explanation may prompt anyone to wonder if construction work was on in full swing in Bengal’s villages during the Covid-19 lockdown,” a senior bureaucrat said on condition of anonymity.
An officer from North 24 Parganas Rajarhat community block on the eastern outskirts of Kolkata, who spoke on condition of anonymity, termed the irregularities in the PMAY applications “mind-boggling”. He said when a local BDO and police went to the Chandpur panchayat area on December 15, they found an applicant living in a house with a marble floor. “The man was absent. His wife argued that the house belongs to a relative and she and her husband sleep in the kitchen,” the officer added.
Another officer from Bankura district, which is located around 230km to the west of Kolkata, spoke of the opposition that inspectors faced. “Protestors allege that names of those who meet the criteria for PMAY have been struck off, but we have been instructed not to show lenience or give in to any pressure tactics,” he said.
The government has set up a committee at the state secretariat to monitor a fresh survey that started two weeks ago, a senior state government official familiar with the development said. “The process has already started to delete names of those whose application was wrongly approved,” he added, asking not to be named.
On November 24, the Union rural development ministry sanctioned ₹13,000 crore for building 1.1 million homes under the PMAY project in Bengal, partially clearing an impasse that arose earlier this year because of suspension of Central funds for social welfare schemes.
The BJP has been demanding since 2020 that funds for all social welfare projects be stopped as the TMC government was misusing funds and renaming Central schemes for political mileage. For instance, PMAY was renamed Bangla Awas Yojana, prompting the Centre to stop funds in March this year.
In July, officers from Delhi arrived in Bengal to examine the implementation of PMAY and other schemes. The state government then instructed district authorities to repaint all signboards in which the names of the schemes were changed.
Block level officers from several districts said while many of the allegations they probed pointed to TMC leaders or their relatives, irregularities were also found in several cases directly linked to BJP and Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), panchayat leaders.
East Burdwan district officials said Fatima Bibi Sheikh, a TMC member of Rayan gram panchayat, was found to have enrolled herself as well as seven relatives who own two- and three-storied houses. The names were deleted after a spot inspection by the local BDO on December 16.
Eligibility checks go beyond mere ownership of houses, officials said. Other conditions include ownership of car, two-wheeler, mechanised boat, power tiller, a monthly income of above ₹10,000, payment of income or professional tax by a member of the family, ownership of five acres or more of multi-crop land, ownership of landline phone and refrigerator and Kishan Credit Card that offers loan of ₹50,000. A family having a member working for the government or having a house under similar scheme is also not entitled to a house under PMAY, one of the NDA government’s flagship pro-poor programmes.
In Murshidabad district, leaders of three TMC-controlled panchayats allegedly suppressed facts to apply for houses. One of them, Rubel Biswas, who heads the Daulatabad panchayat, was found to have enrolled 18 of his relatives in the scheme too. All the names were deleted after scrutiny, an official said. Biswas argued before the survey team that he was away from home for months when the list was prepared in 2018 without his knowledge.
Causing embarrassment for the BJP, the name of the father of Union minster of state for home affairs, Nisith Pramanik, who represents the Cooch Behar Lok Sabha constituency in north Bengal, was found in the PMAY list for Bhetaguri panchayat in Dinhata area on December 16. Pramanik was in the TMC when the list was prepared, and BJP leaders accused the ruling party of adding his father’s name.
“The panchayat in question is run by the TMC. How can they blame the BJP? Thousands of such irregularities are surfacing every day,” BJP state president Sukanta Majumdar said. The Union minister’s father wrote to district administration, seeking deletion of his name.
In West Midnapore district, where the number of transgressions run into thousands, officials were taken by surprise during a scrutiny at Keshpur community block on December 12 when they found Lalu Khan, an applicant, owned a huge three-storied house.
“It is a palatial building, if one goes by the standard of living of the local population. Khan’s name was deleted immediately,” an official said.
Habiba Begum, head of the local panchayat, told the officials that Khan lived in a mud house till 2017 and built the house over the last two years.
Leader of the opposition in the Bengal assembly, Suvendu Adhikari, said he and Sukanta Majumdar would meet Union rural development and panchayati raj minister Giriraj Singh on December 19 to discuss the widespread anomalies in the scheme’s implementation Bengal. The Bengal BJP wants the list of applicants to be uploaded online by the Centre.
TMC state general secretary Kunal Ghosh said: “Adhikari should not be making such allegations. His party has miniscule presence in the districts. It is a fact that some irregularities have been detected among a few million applications. The government is rectifying these.”
Officials monitoring the fresh scrutiny said up to a third of the names may be struck off the old lists if the government strictly follows all conditions of the PMAY scheme.
Asha workers targeted
Accredited social health activists, or Asha workers, who worked extensively in Bengal’s villages during the pandemic were entrusted by the state to scrutinise the lists prepared in 2017-18.
The government had to step in when their survey revealed the anomalies. “Many Asha workers allegedly faced threats when they detected that numerous applicants were not entitled to houses under PMAY. The police in every district have been asked to ensure their security,” said a senior bureaucrat.
The suspect death by suicide of a 39-year-old Asha worker, Reba Biswas, at Swarupnagar in North 24 Parganas district on December 13 had prompted the BJP to take up the issue.
Union minister of state for shipping, Shantanu Thakur, visited Swarupnagar on December 17 and met the victim’s relatives who alleged that she was depressed ever since she started receiving threats.
“The government should have provided security for Asha workers across Bengal since they were the ones who started the survey. The police must arrest those responsible for the death of this woman,” Thakur said.
In another incident, Saraswati Ghosh, an Asha worker at Guptipara in Hooghly district, alleged that some people set fire to a stack of jute bales kept in the backyard of her home on December 16. Local BJP Lok Sabha member Locket Chatterjee visited her home the next day and demanded that all PMAY lists across Bengal be scrapped.
“The entire process has been corrupted by TMC. All lists should be scrapped. The Centre should formulate a strict guideline for Bengal,” Chatterjee said.
Asha workers have held several demonstrations in Kolkata and the districts since last week, saying they don’t want to be part of the survey.
Political science professor Udayan Bandopadhyay said the TMC government should rectify the lists before the coming panchayat polls.
“The state must be strict on this issue,” said Bandopadhyay.
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