In the midst of the gloom caused by the Covid pandemic there is a uniquely inspiring story from Madhya Pradesh. It is about how a group of villagers smartly leveraged the ongoing vaccination drive to win their long running battle against corruption in a prestigious government scheme.
The story starts in the pre-Covid period, when the villagers of Dularia gram panchayat of Betul district, a predominantly Adivasi area, got enraged at money due to them being swindled by local officials.
The scheme involved was the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY), a flagship Mission of Government of India, launched in June 2015 houses, to build thousands of houses for the poor by 2022. Under this scheme, an interest subsidy on purchase, construction, extension or improvement of a house is provided to those belonging to the economically weaker sections, low and middle income groups.
In the Dularia panchayat area, 40 houses were approved under this scheme and over 250 workers were also engaged to build them. Many of the workers were also beneficiaries of the PMAY scheme and were to be paid wages of 12 to 15 thousand rupees each for their work. The funds for this would come from the Mahatma Gandhi Employment Guarantee Scheme.
However, when the payment to beneficiaries became due they found it had been instead diverted to the accounts of two villagers, ostensibly for digging a pond, which was never done at all in reality.
“More than 5.36 lakh rupees of wages meant for those who worked on the housing project have been transferred into the accounts of those close to panchayat officials” says one of the Dularia workers, who did not want to be named, for fear of harassment.
The Dularia panchayat comprises of four villages – Dularia, Amdhana, Gobarbel and Kekadia Khurd. The total population of the four villages is around 3200.
For the past two years, ever since this fraudulent act of stealing wages of the workers came to light, the villagers of Dularia have been demanding an investigation and action against the corrupt officials. Petitions were submitted to the Collector of Betul, Divisional Commissioner, Chief Executive Officer of the zilla panchayat and panchayat samithi but to no avail.
Meanwhile, the Covid pandemic arrived and the emergency situation was used to try and suppress the villager’s campaign. Nothing seemed to produce any results till some villagers got the idea of boycotting the vaccination drive to highlight their search for justice.
So when MP health officials came to Dularia panchayat seeking their cooperation in mobilising people to get vaccinated the villagers declared they would ‘rather die of Covid than of corruption’. They also coined the slogan “no investigation, no vaccination!”
“We all had decided that until the corruption in our panchayat is investigated and the culprits are punished, we will not get the vaccine to protect against the Covid epidemic. When the vaccination team came, we sent them back twice” one of the Dularia agitators told Covid Response Watch.
As news of this agitation reached more senior levels in the bureaucracy the Collector, Chief Executive Officer of the district panchayat and others rushed to Dularia. They promised an investigation into the corruption charges and take up their other complaints too, which had been ignored for years.
“Apart from the PMAY, there has been corruption in other schemes too and the panchayat has been totally compromised. We have been complaining about all this for two years. The officials tried to persuade us to get vaccinated by promising to act against the corrupt, but nothing was done” says one of the Dularia residents.
In order to placate the people of Dularia the officials even got two villagers – Kishor Dhurve and Rajesh Hirawe- to talk to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of his ‘Mann ki Baat’ program on the topic of vaccination on 26 June this year.
The district officials did not tell the Prime Minister that there has been corruption involved in implementation of the PMAY program and that the villagers were angry about this. Even the Prime Minister’s Office was not informed about the disturbances in the Dularia panchayat.
“ All of us liked the fact that the Prime Minister interacted with our people. We assured the Prime Minister that everyone in the village would get vaccinated. However, we insist that the investigation of corruption must be carried out” said one of the villagers.
According to the villagers officials had resorted to making false affidavits to show they were taking action. District officials also apparently claimed that villagers of Dularia were refusing to get vaccinated due to the prevalence of many myths about vaccine safety among them.
As a result of the agitation finally, in late June this year a sum of 8.28 lakh rupees was recovered from the Dularia panchayat officials. The money had been siphoned off from the PMAY and other government schemes over the last several years.
Following this action the villagers decided to cooperate with the vaccination drive. By the first week of August 2021 from near zero, the vaccination rate increased to 75 percent of the total population in four villages of the Dularia panchayat.
All around, there are many painful stories of the Covid pandemic’s deadly impact and their bad memories will remain for years. But the successful struggle of the Dularia villagers against corrupt officials will also be remembered of how the pandemic was used to obtain justice against great odds.
Akash Kapse is a freelance journalist