If the government had bought bicycles to give them to schoolgirls, you would have had a bicycle scam in Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar famously said, explaining why he gave bicycle vouchers to families. But when it came to giving land to landless Mahadalit families — the poorest and most marginalised of Dalits — the government forgot this wisdom.
Result: Allegedly acting in concert, government officials and brokers ganged up to buy land dirt cheap from villagers and then, within days, sold it to the government at four to five times that price. That land was then distributed under the Mahadalit Vikas Yojana.
This scheme was launched in 2009-10 to give 3-decimal (or 1,306.8 sq ft) plots to landless Mahadalit families to build a home under Indira Awas Yojana. (A decimal is one-hundredth of an acre.)
The Nitish Kumar government identified 2.18 lakh families across the state as beneficiaries under the scheme. Until last September — up to when figures are available — 1.53 lakh (just over 70 per cent) families were given plots. Under the scheme, the government must first try to secure gairmajura land (government land under illegal possession of individuals) and, if that isn't available, it can buy residential land at a "ceiling price" of not more than Rs 20,000 for three decimals (or Rs 6,666 per decimal).
The government has so far purchased land for 29,920 families, and will purchase land for another 27,603. Total cost: Rs 115 crore.
An investigation by The Indian Express in Araria — one of the top five districts in the number of beneficiaries — has revealed that plots given to at least 300 of these families were purchased at low prices from villagers who were largely unaware of the scheme, and then sold to the government at the ceiling price.
At the centre of the alleged nexus is the circle officer of Araria's Raniganj block, Ramvilas Jha, who is in charge of the scheme's implementation in the district. His cousin is married to Umesh Mishra, who runs a brick kiln and is a member of the Raniganj panchayat. Two of Mishra's employees in the kiln are also brokers who bought land from poor villagers and sold it to the government.
One of these men is Anil Panjiyar, a resident of Barbanna village employed by Mishra at a monthly salary of Rs 3,000. Records with The Indian Express show that on August 24, 2010, Panjiyar purchased 2.64 acres (264 decimals) in Kajra from Shahidi Khatoon and Shaquiba Khatoon of Rampur village for Rs 3.83 lakh (@ Rs 1,450 per decimal).
"He told us this was the best price he could offer given that the land was near a stream," said Shahidi Khatoon, a 32-year-old housewife. "We were desperate, we had loans from moneylenders, so we sold our land."
Shahidi's husband Mohammed Fayaz has four bigha of land which supports their family of six. They live in a tiny mud hut with a thatched roof, which stands in an open field. They have no money for a fence around the dwelling.
Barely 11 days after buying Shahidi's land, Panjiyar, as per records, sold it to the government, represented by Jha, for Rs 17,60,000 (@ Rs 6,666 per decimal, the government's ceiling) — a premium of nearly 360%. This land was then distributed to 88 families on September 1 on condition that they could neither sell nor transfer it.
"I was cheated," Shahidi said. "The circle officer used his relationship to get Panjiyar to buy land from us. They never told us that the government had fixed Rs 20,000 for 3 decimals. Had we known this, we would never have agreed to sell the land so cheap. The land's real price (Rs 17.6 lakh) would have come to us."
Shahidi's sister, Rahmati Khatoon, was wiser. She sold her 111-decimal plot on April 1, 2011 directly to the government at the ceiling price. But Rahmati is stuck as well — she has not been paid so far, and she alleged that Jha has been asking for a "bribe" to release her money.
Another of Mishra's employees, Mohammed Khurshid, struck a similar deal. Official records obtained by The Indian Express show that Khurshid got one Arun Thakur and his brother Tarun Thakur, poor farmers of Barbanna, to sell their 3.56 acres (356 decimal) at Bistoria on September 11, 2011, for Rs 4.90 lakh (@ Rs 1,376 per decimal).
With this money, the brothers bought a small jewellery shop in Raniganj town, from which they make about Rs 10,000 every month.
Less than 40 days after being the Thakurs' land, Khurshid sold it to the government (through Jha) for redistribution to Mahadalit families for Rs 23.73 lakh (@ Rs 20,000 per three decimals).
The land registration papers establish the nexus: Panjiyar signed as a witness just below Khurshid's signature.
In all, Raniganj block — under Jha — distributed land to 852 Mahadalit families for Rs 1.7 crore.
When contacted, Jha claimed the government had purchased land "directly from farmers". But when confronted with Khatoon's and Thakur's records, he declined to comment. Asked about buying land from brokers who are on his brother-in-law's payroll, Jha refused to comment.
Jha's brother-in-law Umesh Mishra and his employees Panjiyar and Khurshid did not respond to several phone calls.
Pradeep Kumar Singh, the BJP MP from Araria, said: "The government must follow up the Kajra and Bistoria cases and expose the guilty. There is no question of sparing those who are making money through the NDA government's showpiece scheme."
Not many are seeing it as a showpiece, though. Corruption isn't the only problem with the scheme; many of the beneficiaires have got their plots but are stranded — with neither access roads nor a house.
[Courtesy: The Indian Express, June 6, 2012]