Rural realities in Rajasthan

Published : Mar 04, 2000 00:00 IST

A public hearing in a Rajasthan village marks the beginning of a new phase of the right to information movement.


ON paper, the new building in the village is the community centre of the panchayat. In reality it is the proud possession of the thakur of the village, an annexe to his capacious residence. Meet Nain Singh Solanki, an accused now for this manipulative ac t as cited in a First Information Report (FIR) filed by the administration, of village Data Niwas, panchayat Umarwas, block Kumbhalgarh, district Rajsamand in central Rajasthan. Heir to the ravla, or the local manor, he lords it over his panchayat , unmindful of the niceties of these supposedly democratic times. Weaving wile and terror, he and an upper caste coterie in Umarwas have domesticated panchayati raj and diverted development to their doorstep.

An illustration: all the funds earmarked for housing under the Indira Awas Yojna have not gone to the really eligible poor but been ploughed into augmenting the assets already owned by Nain Singh Solanki, five of his relatives and three other ward panche s.

Also worth meeting is sarpanch Pyarchand Khatik, beguiled and submissive, with never the faintest idea of what he was signing. Born in a Scheduled Caste, he has in the four years that he has held his office filled the coffers of the dominant upper caste coterie. In effect he signed in early 1999 his own eventual dismissal.

This is the rural reality in much of Rajasthan, as laid bare in a Jan Sunwai, or public hearing, organised at Bori village in Umarwas panchayat. This is part of a cycle of such events organised as part of the people's right to information movement led by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), an organisation of workers and peasants active in the central districts of Rajsamand, Pali, Bhilwara and Ajmer. On the panel at Bori were writer and activist Arundhati Roy and writer Madhu Kishwar.

Unintimidated by the loud interruptions of the powerful local caucus, ordinary villagers of Umarwas panchayat made themselves heard clearly and forcefully. Also present were officials of the State administration, notably Rajsamand District Collector Nirm al Wadhwani and Superintendent of Police (S.P.) M.N. Atre. It was for the first time that the State administration had chosen to participate at such a senior level in a public hearing of the MKSS, a regular event in the area now for five years.

The Jan Sunwai at Bori was a significant step forward in the grassroots right to information movement led by the MKSS. As in the case of earlier public hearings, exposing large-scale corruption in the utilisation of development funds at the village panch ayat level was a strong theme.

Apart from this, the Bori event succeeded in drawing attention to the strong manipulative nexus that has emerged between feudal elements and power structures of the modern state. It proved that a collective exercise by the people of their right to inform ation as in a Jan Sunwai can be an important method of fighting corruption and reclaiming development and democratising governance.

THIS public hearing followed the same process as earlier ones. In the weeks leading up to the event, the MKSS had obtained copies of all the accounts relating to development works in Umarwas panchayat. In all, records pertaining to an expenditure of Rs. 22 lakhs were gathered. For this, the MKSS relied upon a right that had been won after a sustained struggle - the right to obtain copies of all records at the level of panchayati raj bodies, as conceded by the Rajasthan government in June 1997.

These accounts were then cross-checked by means of spot verification, discussions with the villagers and enquiries from labourers employed in development works. The findings from this round of inquiry were read out by MKSS activists at the Jan Sunwai. Pe ople in the gathering who had come from various villages of Umarwas panchayat then narrated the ground reality. This reality was shocking. The following is a sampling from the catalogue of malfeasance by locally powerful caucuses and conniving administra tors:

* The building which on paper came up as a community centre in Data Niwas actually became a part of ward panch Nain Singh's house. The community centre in Asan village became a part of panchayat samiti member Kamala Nath's residence (she too is named an accused along with Nain Singh in the government FIR lodged in the wake of the public hearing). The villagers did not even know that these were supposed to be community centres;

* A water channel drawn by the panchayat from a pond at a cost of Rs. 2.50 lakhs and meant to irrigate all the fields of Bansa village in reality irrigates only the fields of Nain Singh and his kin;

* Panchayat records show that Nain Singh, through his wife, his two brothers and three other relatives, were beneficiaries of Indira Awas allotments despite the fact that they were not "homeless" and already owned property. A villager took money twice in the name of two wives, one of them dead long ago and the other a fictional entity;

* Panchayat records also show that three other ward panches became similar beneficiaries, among others, of the Indira Awas scheme - one through her son, another through his wife and the third herself;

* While the claims of all the 30 Indira Awas beneficiaries are bogus, their having undeservedly smuggled themselves into the Below Poverty Line list, none of the really poor Bhil tribal people of Garhtalai village features in the list. The Bhils, as a re sult, do not even draw the benefits from the public distribution system meant for the poor (the government FIR also notes the malfeasance in the Indira Awas allocations but does not detail it);

* Ghost wages were paid on the basis of false entries in muster rolls;

* Central Rajasthan villagers build hathais or traditional public platforms by contributing resources and voluntary labour. But thousands of rupees were embezzled in Umarwas panchayat in the name of building these platforms.

The atmosphere at the Jan Sunwai grew more charged as this list grew. And as the voices of protest from the assembled villagers grew, all efforts by Nain Singh and his coterie to interrupt the proceedings were subdued. The coterie tried to lay the blame entirely on the dismissed sarpanch, Pyarchand, under whose signature all the works were sanctioned and executed. But Pyarchand's plea that he was manipulated and forced to submit carried credibility as he stood to benefit little from any of the irregular ities that were uncovered.

Even the Collector and the Tehsildar had to admit at the public hearing that irregularities on such a scale could not take place without the active connivance of government and bank officials. The Junior Engineer, for instance, who ratifies the construct ion of houses built under the Indira Awas scheme at every stage, the Block Development Officer who clears the list of names in the first place, and the bank manager who is meant to identify and verify each account holder.

ANOTHER aspect that the public hearing brought out was the direct linkage between the undue gains of the rich and the powerful and the continuing deprivation of the poor and the indigent. It has been a feature of the right to information movement in Raja sthan that it locates this right firmly in the context of the right to life and dignity.

Before the Umarwas event, the MKSS had held public hearings in areas where village society was more or less homogenous and the feudal upper caste crust of big land and resource owners was absent. Umarwas for them was a new setting not only in terms of lo cale but also social dynamics and was more representative of rural Rajasthan. To this extent, it went some way in clearing doubts about the replicability and sustainability of the Jan Sunwai as a forum for the collective exercise by the people of their r ight to information in a social setting marked by class and caste disparities.

Another unique aspect of this Jan Sunwai was that it was held at the request of the sarpanch, who had approached the MKSS for support two years ago, much before he was suspended and eventually dismissed, with the government ordering a recovery of Rs. 1.5 0 lakhs from him. Pyarchand came to the MKSS when he realised that he had been exploited and then cast away by an upper caste coterie only interested in safeguarding its own dominance. The administration's action in dismissing Pyarchand was based on an a nonymous complaint that followed soon after he had first approached the MKSS. In this respect too the Umarwas public hearing seemed to have important lessons to offer. First, complete transparency is the best defence against blackmail and manipulation. Second, reservations as a means of empowerment are inadequate in the absence of a viable support structure.

The Bori Jan Sunwai seemed to offer a glimmer of such a support structure among the Dalits of Umarwas panchayat, as they spoke out publicly for the first time against those who controlled the deployment of their labour and resources. Till 15 days before the public hearing, fear reigned in the village and no one dared speak out.

The subversion of panchayati raj and the system of reservation began with the election of Pyarchand. Meghwals are the most numerous among the Scheduled Castes of Umarwas panchayat. When the sarpanch's post in Umarwas was earmarked for the Scheduled Caste s in the first panchayat elections held after the 73rd constitutional amendment was ratified, the upper caste coterie in Umarwas began seeking a candidate who would not threaten their own interests.

A Meghwal as the sarpanch would have been dangerous for their designs because of the numerically strong support base he could count upon. As their candidate, therefore, they brought Pyarchand back home from faraway Surat in Gujarat, where he had for long been making a living as a kerosene hawker. Pyarchand is a Khatik, a Scheduled Caste whose members are thinly scattered in Umarwas panchayat. The dominant coterie in Umarwas mobilised the entire upper caste vote to ensure that he triumphed against Bhurel al, who was the Meghwal candidate for the sarpanch's post. Solanki and two of his prominent associates even loaned Pyarchand the money for his election expenses and claim also to have spent a huge sum on his behalf.

The Jan Sunwai threw up a fresh plea to the administration in the form of a resolution seeking the vindication of Pyarchand and the prosecution of the real beneficiaries of corruption in local development schemes. While Solanki and his associates have be en free from any process of accountability, two government servants who were suspended along with Pyarchand were reinstated some months later, even as the hapless sarpanch was dismissed.

Responding to the concerns expressed at the Jan Sunwai, Collector Nirmal Wadhwani and S.P. M.N. Atre assured the gathering of action against the guilty. The Collector admitted having learnt a lot about the rural reality from the public hearing.

THE Bori Jan Sunwai on December 18, 1999 marks the beginning of a new phase of the right to information movement in Rajasthan. From end 1994 to early 1998, grassroots Jan Sunwais knocked in vain on the doors of an indifferent administration. There never was the semblance of an administrative follow-up on the exposure of various rural development scams. When sarpanches wilted under public pressure and agreed to return the amounts embezzled, the administration stepped in to coerce them into back-tracking. The confrontation at the grassroots level spilled over to the State level.

It was only after a prolonged agitation that the previous Bharatiya Janata Party government of Rajasthan conceded the people's right to information with respect to panchayati raj bodies. During that period, the BJP government had, in a transparently dive rsionary effort, raised the counter-question of the transparency of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Taking up the challenge, the Social Work Research Centre, Tilonia, an NGO with a substantive annual funding, held a transparency meeting in mid-199 7, opening up all its accounts for public scrutiny. Since then, other NGOs like the URMUL group of western Rajasthan, and Social Action for Rural Advancement (SARA) of Sikar, followed the example. The latest in this series was the Prayatna group of Dudu block in Jaipur district which did the same on December 21, following the Bori public hearing.

In order to steal a march over the BJP, the Congress(I), which came to power in the State in 1998, had promised in its election manifesto that it would give the people of Rajasthan the right to information with respect to various essential aspects of gov ernance. When reminded of this by the MKSS and the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, the Congress(I) government appointed a committee under a senior bureaucrat, P.N. Bhandari, which initiated a dialogue to prepare a draft bill on the r ight to information. The Bhandari Committee submitted its report to the State government some time ago. This phase of dialogue over, the MKSS decided to return to the mode of Jan Sunwais, the actual forum for the collective exercise of the people's right to information.

To keep up the pressure for a State legislation, the MKSS and the NCPRI followed up the Bori public hearing with a day-long meeting on December 22 in Jaipur on the recommendations of the Bhandari Committee, which have not been officially made public, and a draft right to information bill prepared by the Central government. Even though the meeting felt that the Bhandari Committee recommendations did not meet fully the expectations of the movement, they were still deemed to be better than the Central draf t bill that has been proposed by the BJP-led government at the Centre (Frontline, January 7, 2000).

Whether fully substantiated or not, the various points raised at the public hearing seemed to oblige the administration to initiate a full-fledged investigation into the misuse of public funds in Umarwas.

On January 7, 2000, the Block Development Officer of Kumbhalgarh filed a first information report (FIR no. 9/2000) at Gadbhor police station as a supposed sequel to the Bori Umarwas public hearing. Ironically, despite the evidence of the Jan Sunwai and t he admissions and assurances of the officials who attended the event, the FIR in its substance was weighted against Pyarchand. All claims apart, the main thrust of the FIR has nothing to do with the Umarwas Jan Sunwai. Rather, its purpose seemingly is a one-and-a-half year old one of recovering the cash balance - a purpose for which Pyarchand has already been brought to book and dismissed from his post.

Only in passing does the FIR implicate another two elected representatives, Nain Singh and Kamala Nath. It lists one charge against each, that of having additional rooms built in their houses in the name of a community centre. The big charge against Nain Singh - that of diverting for sole personal use a water channel, worth Rs.2.5 lakhs, finds no mention. Except gram sewak Gopilal Regar, a Dalit like Pyarchand, the FIR mentions no government official. Again, only in passing does the FIR refer to the mai n charge made at the public hearing, relating to the widespread fraud in the Indira Awas allocations. In fact, it takes into consideration only Rs.1.1 lakhs of the total of Rs.4.71 lakhs of defrauded public funds identified.

Dissatisfied with the FIR, the MKSS activists met Rajasthan Minister for Panchayati Raj C.P. Joshi and government officials including the District Collector of Rajsamand demanding a supplementary FIR. They demanded that this should take into account all the points raised at the public hearing, also name the conniving government officials and book the beneficiaries of corruption instead of trying to find scapegoats. They also submitted documentary evidence in support of the issues raised at the Jan Sunwa i. The government assured them action after the situation created by the State employees' strike normalised. Failing this the MKSS would brace for an agitation.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment