(First published in Governance Now, issue dated September 1, 2011)
Three magic wands–Right to Information, social audits and the Lokpal–have been offered as the means to fight corruption in the largely urban middle-class discourse. However, the question is, have these solutions worked for Mangla Ram?
Now who is this Mangla Ram and why does he matter to the anti-corruption discourse? He is the face of the invisible poor in India. He is one of those millions who wage everyday battles against the corrupt for securing their entitlements. He is a 37-year-old truck driver from the dusty village of Bamnor in Barmer, Rajasthan. He hails from the Scheduled Caste Meghwal community whose members have traditionally worked as labourers in the farm fields of the rich Muslim landlords here.
Mangla Ram being carried on a stretcher by volunteers of the Dalit Atyachar Nivaran Samiti in Barmer, Rajasthan.
An overnight train journey from the national capital, Barmer has acquired fame of late for the rich oil fields that were discovered here. But not even a fraction of that wealth has reached its far-flung villages. Bamnor, which falls on the National Highway 15, is relatively nondescript, distinguished only by the undulating sand dunes that greet one’s eyes en route. Most of the poor residents of the village are forced to migrate to neighbouring Gujarat in search of better jobs.
Mangla was eligible for a below poverty line (BPL) ration card and funds under the Indira Awas Yojana but was struggling to get both. People in his village were also irked with the anganwadi that rarely functioned, the high school where one teacher managed 300 students and the rural development schemes in which they hardly ever were employed.
So, to set the things right, Mangla decided to exercise his right to information. When he sought information under the RTI Act on the expenditures actually made under various government schemes, it was an open challenge to Ghulam Shah who has held the post of sarpanch for 30 years. On March 3, Mangla Ram turned up at the venue of the village social audit committee meeting hoping to get the abadi (land use conversion to ‘residential’) of his basti done – in the absence of which they faced the threat of eviction. That was when the sarpanch and his men beat him up with wooden axes and lathis while the villagers stood watching helplessly.
Lying in a pool of blood at the site of the attack
The attackers broke Mangla’s left leg in three places, his right foot in four, and fractured the index finger of his right hand. Now, it seems, Mangla may not be able to walk, forget drive a truck again. Thanks to the benevolence of the Meghwal community in Barmer, Mangla’s hospital bills have been taken care of.
Mangla Ram’s story is not an isolated one. In the five years since the RTI Act was passed, close to 100 such activists have been attacked and 17 have been murdered. This is why it is rather ironic that in the whole anti-corruption discourse, the concerns of those like Mangla Ram have hardly figured.
From pillar to post
Since November 2007, Mangla Ram’s RTI papers have shuttled among the offices of the Bamnor gram panchayat, the Dhorimana block development officer and the Rajasthan state information commission (SIC). Mangla got a taste of what was in store when the Bamnor gram panchayat office asked Mangla to pay up Rs 40,282 for providing information. In August 2008, the SIC directed the panchayat to hand over the necessary information for a payment of Rs 200. Though the amount was duly deposited the gram panchayat did not reveal the information sought. Mangla had also filed an RTI appeal for the same set of information at the office of the BDO as well.
The SIC ordered a hearing of Mangla’s case twice in early 2009 in Jaipur, but the concerned officers from the panchayat or BDO never turned up for the hearing. When Mangla filed an appeal complaining about the harassment, about running around from one office to another (the poor man could not afford the travel costs, the SIC reprimanded him for demanding very lengthy information and ordered the Dhorimana BDO to send the necessary documents through post and also allow the person to inspect the relevant files in their office.
Mangla turned up at the BDO office on September 19, 2009, but he was not allowed to inspect the expenditure files. Instead, a set of documents were sent to him through registered post a month later. This, of course, did not contain the entire information he had sought. But when he appealed again to the SIC in this regard, it sent him a letter saying his case was closed.
Evidence of corruption
Soon after Mangla was attacked, Mahendra Singh Bhukar, joint director of the MGNREGS social audit committee, undertook a special audit of the expenditures undertaken as part of the rural job guarantee scheme. The ensuing report threw up incriminating evidence against the sarpanch. It stated that between 2007 and 2010, financial irregularities of nearly Rs 10 lakh were found in the laying of gravel road alone. The report also pointed out that of the 185 underground water tank works sanctioned under MGNREGS, only 21 tanks were constructed – though official records showed an expenditure of over Rs 5 lakh for undertaking the work.
Bhukar’s report also noted that the firm of Messrs Chenna Khan Moosa Khan that had been shown as an awardee of contract worth Rs 36 lakh for laying gravel roads was an unregistered, non-existent firm! Villagers later found out that the firm was registered in the name of the driver of the sarpanch who was a BPL card holder. Bhukar recommended that sarpanch Ghulam Shah be investigated for fraud and be declared unfit for the post under the provisions of the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act, 1994.
No action, however, was initiated against the sarpanch on this report. Instead, the Rajasthan government scrapped this inquiry and instituted a second district-level investigation at the behest of Congress MLA Padmaram Meghwal who alleged that Bhukar’s investigation was biased and wrong. But even this second investigation report is not oblivious to the discrepancies in the works executed under MGNREGS. It also confirmed that the panchayat had claimed more expenditure for works than what was originally done. Though civil society organisations such as Lok Adhikar Network and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan and local dalit rights groups have demanded a proper inquiry, nothing has happened.
The delivery gap
What Mangla Ram’s case demonstrates is that in the face of powerful vested interests and lack of political and administrative will, even the best of laws and policies can fail to deliver.
Noted sociologist and commentator Shiv Visvanathan says, “I am not surprised to hear Mangla Ram’s story really”.
“What one is getting to witness right now is that we have these laws and policies driven by tremendous idealism that fall short as effective delivery mechanisms. What one ought to understand is that corruption itself functions like a knowledge economy where power dynamics are at work. When something like the RTI comes up it threatens the functioning of this economy,” says Visvanathan, who has co-edited ‘Foul Play: Chronicles of Corruption 1947-97’.
“What one is getting to witness right now is that we have these laws and policies driven by tremendous idealism that fall short as effective delivery mechanisms. What one ought to understand is that corruption itself functions like a knowledge economy where power dynamics are at work. When something like the RTI comes up it threatens the functioning of this economy.”
Shiv Visvanathan, sociologist
Social activist Nikhil Dey notes: “The current anti-corruption discourse has largely centred around whether the prime minister or the CBI will be included under the ambit of the Lokpal, but the question that also needs to be raised is whether such remedies will work for those like Mangla Ram, and how.”
“The current anti-corruption discourse has largely centred around whether the prime minister or the CBI will be included under the ambit of the Lokpal, but the question that also needs to be raised is whether such remedies will work for those like Mangla Ram, and how.”
– Social activist Nikhil Dey
According to the findings of the ‘India Corruption Study: 2010’, prepared by the Centre for Media Studies, rural households end up paying bribes totalling Rs 471.8 crore a year for basic entitlements such as ration card, health services and education. This was based on a survey of nearly 10,000 households in 12 states, proving that corruption was a widespread phenomenon affecting the socio-economically weaker sections to a great extent.
As far as the draft Lokpal bill is concerned, there is no room in it for investigating corruption happening at the lower levels of the bureaucracy where the culture of bribe-seeking is rampant.
Social audits – the way forward?
In this context, the new social audit rules for the MGNREGS recently notified by the ministry of rural development offer a ray of hope. Mangla says that right now the condition in his village is such that if a social audit committee meeting is taking place, the villagers are mostly clueless about it. But with the new rules now being notified, the scene is likely to change.
As per the new rules, the social audit body will be independent of the implementing agency and it will involve wide participation of beneficiaries. Based on the Andhra Pradesh model of social audit which has seen many successful recoveries of funds embezzled under MGNREGS, these new rules would ensure that the sarpanch has no say in the selection of social audit committee members or the process of auditing, thus making it easy for those like Mangla to report when sanctioned works are not completed.
“The new social audit rules will go a long way in ensuring that the gram panchayat does not hijack the audit process as has happened in Rajasthan. Also, it is now binding on the state to act on the findings of the social audits,” says Dey.
Yamini Aiyar, director of Accountability Initiative at the Centre for Policy Research, says that social audits go a long way in strengthening ordinary people’s capacity to raise their voice against corruption.
“In Andhra Pradesh we conducted a case study in 2007 where the government has facilitated social audits for MGNREGS. It has been noticed that the basic awareness of the public regarding the scheme improved due to social audits. Social audits provide a public platform for people at the mandal level forcing local government representatives to answer their queries,” she says.
However, she adds that to ensure that people’s demands are met and the system is effective, proper grievance redressal mechanisms need to be designed. “It’s also a question of fixing responsibilities and who will be responsible for acting on the demands placed during social audits,” she says.
Mangla is eager that the provision of social audits be applied to all government schemes and not just for MGNREGS. Wiser from experience, he says it is far easier for ordinary villagers like him to collectively raise voice against the corrupt than do it alone.
Meanwhile, what stands out from Mangla’s story is the indomitable spirit of the poor who raise their voice against the corrupt. He himself is eager to fight the next panchayat election and defeat the current sarpanch.
“Main khada toh ho nahi paaunga, par election mein toh khada ho sakta hoon (I may not be able to stand, but I can stand in elections),” he says.