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How Amphan and Covid-19 Relief Efforts in Bengal Led to Controversies Involving Bogus Beneficiaries

Residents carry tin sheets salvaged from the rubble of a damaged house in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, India, May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Residents carry tin sheets salvaged from the rubble of a damaged house in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, in South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, India, May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Not only were some TMC leaders and workers accused of siphoning off government money but also of indulging in corrupt practices in listing names of those (mainly their own relatives, family members and friends) who are actually not eligible for the compensation package.

A piece of jaggery and a handful of puffed rice is all Minu Bibi can give her six-year-old daughter Nausheen Parveen for breakfast.

Sitting at one corner of her dilapidated muddy house made of hay bales with a roof made of palm fronds at Basantapur village in South 24 Parganas district, Nausheen is struggling to keep swarms of flies away from the piece of jaggery as she is hungry and desperate to finish it fast.

Her mother, while holding her other daughter, Aliya (2), is keeping herself busy in making cow dung cakes to run her earthen oven as wood is expensive in the rainy season. Her father Motibur Rahaman Sheikh works as a daily wage labourer in a bakery unit. He goes to the bakery unit twice a week (to reduce overcrowding) with a promise to return home with some alms to survive.

Before ‘Amphan’ life was not that challenging for Motibur as he was happy with whatever money he was earning by doing odd jobs in the bakery unit. But the killer cyclone and then Covid-19 had taken everything from him. “Every day is a struggle for me. First it was Amphan and now corona. The government is releasing funds but the lower-rank workers are indulging in corruption. It’s very difficult to survive,” Motibur told News18.

With the power of three hurricanes combined and believed to be Bengal’s fiercest cyclone in decades, Amphan’s rage has left irreparable damage in South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Kolkata, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas, Midnapore, etc, since May 20, 2020.

Then came a series of relief packages announced by chief minister Mamata Banerjee for the welfare of the cyclone-affected people including compensation at the rate of Rs 20,000 per head (for complete house damage).

So far, the state government had approximately released Rs 6,250 crore as relief package including Rs 2,400 crore for house-building assistance. For farmers, the government has announced a package of Rs 300 crore and for betel vines the compensation package announced was Rs 200 crore.

However, despite proactive steps taken by Mamata Banerjee, all her initiatives were spoiled by her own ground-level party workers and panchayat leaders, critics say.

Not only were they accused of siphoning off government money but also of indulging in corrupt practices in listing names of those (mainly their own relatives, family members and friends) who are actually not eligible for the compensation package.

Several cases emerged mainly in South 24 Parganas and Howrah districts where the occupants (mostly holding posts at panchayats, block committees, zila parishads) of two-three-storey buildings managed to get their names in the beneficiary list while names of needy families were missing or omitted.

For example, the case of Niranjan Mondal of Basuldanga in Diamond Harbour in South 24 Parganas district appears not only shocking but also shows why the chief minister herself decided to initiate a crackdown on corrupt leaders across the state.

As per beneficiary lists, Niranjan Mondal has 16 children and, interestingly, some of the kids have surnames like ‘Naskar’ and ‘Chakraborty’.

A few kilometres away from Niranjan Mondal’s house, Jharna Haldar of Diyarak Gram Panchayat in South 24 Parganas district, lost her ailing husband in Amphan as the asbestos sheet of her house fell on him. Not only that, the fierce cyclone also damaged her house.

She alleged that no one visited her home and also accused the local leadership of not listening to her pleas for compensation.

“Post Amphan and now due to Covid-19, we are facing acute financial problems. I lost my husband. My house was damaged. My son Anup Haldar works in a garage but he is also facing problems from his employers. There is a local councillor in my area and his name is Saurav. I told him about my problem and requested for compensation but my pleas fell on deaf ears. I have got nothing but there are many in my area who are living in two-storey buildings and managed to get themselves enlisted in the beneficiary list,” Jharna told News18.

Similarly, Bablu Maity of Parulia gram panchayat in South 24 Parganas is a Trinamool Congress worker and he lives in a two-storey house and also owns a vehicle garage at 76 number bus stand at Diamond Harbour Road. His house shows no signs of damage due to Cyclone Amphan, but yet he managed to get his name in the beneficiary list.

Another person (close to some ruling party members), Mintu Kayal, lives in a pucca house and runs an imitation jewellery shop while his wife runs a beauty parlour at Sonamukhi market in Parulia gram panchayat in South 24 Parganas.

In this case, too, the social status of the family members clearly shows that they are not entitled as beneficiary but surprisingly Mintu managed to get his name on the list.

However, in the same Parulia gram panchayat area, Haripada Das of Kalicharanpur, whose house was damaged in the cyclone, is still waiting for compensation from the government.

“In May, they came to my house and took my account number. Till today, I have got nothing. Interestingly, there are some people in my village who are actually not entitled for Amphan relief but they got the money. I will not reveal their name or else I will be in trouble,” Haripada, a farmer by profession, said.

Similarly, in Kakdwip located in the Sundarbans, gram pradhan Champa Bairagi not only listed herself as a beneficiary but also included her entire family members’ names. She is not alone as nearby Namkhana TMC worker Dhiren Patra too managed to get the compensation meant for the Amphan- affected people.

Responding to Bairagi and Patra’s cases, Sundarbans affairs minister Manturam Pakhira said, “Champa’s name was there in the list but she didn’t take any money. Her name was later deleted. In the case of Dhiren Patra, the pucca house belongs to his son and not him. However, he returned the money which he had received as compensation. Ever since we have noticed some discrepancies, we have acted seriously and taken adequate action against those who are trying to malign the party by indulging in such malpractices."

There are many such cases reported from Howrah, North 24 Parganas, Hooghly and after being flooded with complaints, an angry chief minister herself intervened and took stern action against the corrupt leaders and workers.

At Uluberia in Howrah district, whoever prepared the list (intentionally or unintentionally) included the name of one Sheikh Nazrul who died two years ago. His son Jahirul not only expressed shock but was also worried that he could land in trouble for no fault of his.

Addressing a press conference on July 16 at the state secretariat, Mamata Banerjee said, “I would like to assure all that no genuine cases will be deprived. We have received 40,000 complaints/requests and out of 40,000, names of 26,000 were already there in the list of district magistrates. We have prepared a fresh list of 6,000 beneficiaries and within three days they will be compensated.”

She added, “We have rejected names of 6,000 people (who managed to get their names listed) from the list. We found that they lied and they were actually not entitled for the compensation package. Actually, it was our mistake because we tried to compensate people soon after the devastation. In the process, mistakes happened. If you look at the percentage, only 0.5 per cent mistake happened while listing. I would like to repeat that no genuine case will be deprived.”