When Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik made an announcement on April 19 giving sarpanches the ‘powers of a collector’ to decentralise the fight against Coronavirus, he could never have imagined it would lead to this. Taking his words a little too literally, a sarpanch in Bolangir district requisitioned bulldozers and JCB machines to demolish six under-construction houses, allotted under the Prime Minister’s Awas Yojana - Grameen (PMAY-G) to poor tribal families. The sarpanch has now landed in jail along with her husband for exceeding her brief!
Hemakanti Munda, the female sarpanch of Salebhata panchayat in Agalpara block of Bolangir district – who, like the victims, is a tribal herself - did not think she had done anything wrong. “I, along with my husband and a few other members of the village committee, demolished the houses as I have been granted the powers of a collector by the government,” an unrepentant Hemakanti replied without batting an eyelid when asked by a TV news channel why she did what she did.
The unlawful demolition drive carried out by the overzealous sarpanch and her cohorts on August 11 has rendered six poor tribal families homeless. They are now living under an open sky. “With no roof over our head, how will we survive?” wondered one of the victims. The victims said they had not violated any rules while constructing the houses duly allotted to them under the PMAY-G.
Inquiries on the ground by Outlook corroborated their claim that they started construction of their houses on vacant government land only after it was duly allotted by the panchayat and block administration based on the recommendations of the local tehsildar. “We have received two installments of PMAY-G, which was good enough to start the work but not enough to complete it. We had to borrow money from a local moneylender to make sure the construction work does not stop midway. But everything has now been reduced to rubbles,” rued another victim.
Based on a complaint filed by the affected families, Loisingha police registered a case against the 10 persons who oversaw the demolition last Tuesday for gross abuse of power and arrested the lady sarpanch and her husband Mohan Munda on Sunday. The team led by DSP Ranjita Singh produced the couple al court and sent them to jail after their bail plea was rejected. The other eight whose names figure in the FIR are absconding.
But the whole episode begs the question: why would a sarpanch, a tribal herself, demolish the duly allotted under-construction houses of fellow tribals?
Reports from the ground suggest the ugly, embarrassing incident was the fallout of petty, partisan politics with the scarcely educated tribal sarpanch merely being used as a pawn by a politically powerful leader from the area. Outlook has learned that it was the son of this leader, a former MLA, who instigated the sarpanch to act against the six tribal families who apparently did not vote for the candidate backed by him in the last election. He is among the eight persons absconding since the incident came to light.
Under the rules, a sarpanch gets suspended if s/he is in jail for two consecutive days. Thus, Munda is all set to lose her powers, including the ‘collector’s power’ she thought she had been vested with. In such an event, the naib sarpanch, who is backed by the politically powerful family, takes over as the acting sarpanch. This could well be part of the plan hatched by the politically influential family, sources said.
While in jail, the lady sarpanch would have plenty of time to ruminate over where she went wrong. But the incident opens up afresh the debate as to whether it is important to give education and a certain level of awareness to people in the drive to usher in ‘grassroots empowerment’?
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