Six months on: Can elections resolve this Madhya Pradesh village's corruption woes?
Back in December 2021, 101Reporters had visited Bhojakhedi and learnt of alleged corruption in the allocation of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) scheme, which ensures the 'right to work' in rural areas of the country. Residents had alleged that work under the scheme was divided along caste lines. They had even claimed that the relatives and family members of sarpanch Mansharam Bare would get the lion's share of the work. Several gram panchayat authorities are under the scanner for financial irregularities and for alleged links with the mining mafia.
Now, over six months on, Bhojakhedi is gearing up for an election. After nearly 13 years, the office of the sarpanch, which had been reserved for the Scheduled Tribes category, was open for all. But the mood on the ground remains despondent.
Many of the nearly 50 residents that 101Reporters spoke to clearly said they no longer had any faith in the Panchayati Raj system.
"It will be a miracle if things turn around here," one of them quips.
Polling in Bhojakhedi is slated for July 8, with the results due the very same day.
Meanwhile, resident Pannalal Kothare, who had been a panchayat member in the past, has been working to expose the corruption and financial irregularities in Bhojakhedi over the past five years. Kothare states that several complaints were made with regard to corruption in the local body, but they fell on deaf ears. Be it the case of the playground-turned-mine - as mentioned in the earlier report by 101Reporters - or that of drinking water supply, or even the caste division in the allocation of work under MGNREGA, top authorities always shielded the sarpanch and panchayat members, Kotare says, adding that the accusers themselves had come under attack.
Careful deliberation before voting
Aqeel Khan, the resident who has been vocal about the alleged racket of work being allocated on the basis of caste in the village, stresses that only the one who works for the development of Bhojakhedi will be elected sarpanch.
"We will elect someone who doesn't discriminate on the basis of caste," says Khan, adding that no candidate had started campaigning in the village yet. "There's no possibility of an unopposed election here, but we will deliberate over every sarpanch candidate before polling."
Shahzad Mansoori, a resident 101Reporters had spoken to in December 2021, who, too, raised issues with allocation of work in the village, says corruption is at a high in Bhojakhedi.
"Machines are now doing the work instead of labourers. When complaints are made, officials come and investigate the issue, but with no follow-ups," Mansoori adds.
Last month, he recalls, MGNREGA officials from Khandwa visited the village following complaints of lack of work. But the villagers had to go to the district headquarters to give their statements.
"While there was no investigation done on our grievances, the ones we complained about assaulted us. There was a complaint made about this at Chhaigaon Maakhan Police Station, as well," he says, adding that there had been no progress in the assault investigation over the past two months.
Another resident, Vikramsingh Tomar, says that even though everyone in the village wants a panchayat that will do honest work, there seems to be no hope.
"We have made RTI requests and filed several complaints. But at the end of the day, authorities mounted pressure on us instead. Even on the complaint filed about this over the chief minister's helpline (181) two months ago, there has been no response," Tomar says.
'There's no room for earnest people'
"There is so much corruption today in Bhojakhedi that earnest people do not want to contest elections," says Devrajsingh Tomar, a resident.
While Tomar wants to remain optimistic about the future, he is wary of the sarpanch hopefuls.
"Despite the corruption here, villagers still hope for a corruption-free panchayat that works for the people. But some of the names contesting for the post of sarpanch are synonymous with corruption," he says, adding that these people acted as contractors and often conspired with the panchayat to skim off labourers' wages.
"Expecting any sort of development from them is a far-fetched idea," Tomar sighs.
However, candidates contesting for the village chief's post say they will only work towards the development of Bhojakhedi and expose all past corruption along the way.
Mohan Singh Chauhan, one of the candidates, told 101Reporters that he had already made an agenda for the development of the village.
"There should be goodwill in the society. We'll ensure that there's no division of work in the name of caste in the panchayat. We will end that old panchayat system, take the benefits of schemes to every villager and also pressure the public to take action on all allegations of corruption," he emphasises.
Meanwhile, Bhanwar Singh Chauhan, the most educated of the candidates, says he wants to change the condition of the village.
"If I win the election, I will expose all the corrupt practices of the former panchayat. Every allegation will be thoroughly investigated," he adds.
A sorry case of women's participation
Speaking to 101Reporters, current sarpanch Mansharam Bare points out that five women were members of his panchayat, but they had never been to their office in seven years.
"I didn't even know their names," Bare says. "Their husbands would interfere in the panchayat's work due to which nothing could get done. Despite this, several projects such as a cement-concrete road, development of the village square and the Devjhiri temple were accomplished."
When asked about his involvement in the upcoming elections, Bare says he'd stay away from contesting for any post in Bhojakhedi panchayat in the future. On the allegations of corruption against the panchayat, he claims that "some people had done wrong things in my name".
"Those who did these things could not say anything much about them... I am satisfied with my work," he adds.
Panchayat member Rukminibai Kothare, a member of the Dalit community, says corruption in Bhojakhedi was so high that no one was heard here and their grievances remain unaddressed.
Responding to Bare's claims, Kothare adds, "It's not true that the female members always stayed away from the panchayat. I used to attend the panchayat meetings with my husband, but I stopped. The atmosphere was such that we didn't want to attend them any more."
A list of simple demands
Barely 300m into Bhojakhedi, the sight of shanties put together with tarpaulin sheets and ropes is a common sight. On meeting this reporter, a village elder expressed sudden enthusiasm.
"Have you come to build a proper house for me?" he asks.
When informed of the reporter's identity, the man gave a glimpse of his living conditions.
"I've been living here for ages. Several times, I've requested the panchayat for a pucca house. But for some reason or the other, my application has always been turned down," he says.
The elder had even approached District Collector Anup Kumar Singh during a public hearing.
"But my requests were left unheard. Now with the monsoon approaching, I'll have to stay awake all night if it rains heavily."
This was a recurring complaint; the most basic needs in the village have not been met. Hameeda Salim Khan, a resident who hails from a farming family, says people in Bhojakhedi still face issues related to drinking water because tap water schemes have not been implemented. This in addition to jobs and proper drainage is what the village needs now, she said.
"Barely any development work is seen in the village. Despite all this, people here are peaceful and follow the rules," Khan adds. As if to rise above the situation, in quiet defiance.
(The author is a Khandwa-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)