Jharkhand Farmer’s Suicide Brings to the Fore MGNREGA’s Failure
Delay in MGNREGA payment pushed a farmer to kill himself, but officials are busy questioning if it was an accident.
Video Editor: Vishal Kumar & Ashutosh Bhardwaj
“I will have to drop out, someone will have to look after farming now,” says 17-year-old Suraj, son of late Lakhan Mahato, as he takes a moment to recollect his thoughts.
On the morning of 28 July 2019, Suraj’s family found out, much to their horror, that his father’s body was floating in the well nearby.
It took no time for Suraj and his mother, Vimla Devi, to connect the dots. It’s just that no one had apprehended that the 43-year-old farmer will take the extreme step in a fit of anguish.
Lakhan Mahato had enrolled for a scheme under the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) following which a well was to be constructed near his field. Though the construction began in 2017, Mahato never got the entire sum from the state government.
‘We Had Gone (to the Panchayat Office) 25 Times’
Holding a photo of Lakhan’s, in which he can be seen standing next to the well, Vimla Devi recalls how her husband was under severe stress due to the delay in payment :
“A payment of Rs 1.5 lakh was due. He was worried about the money and about when the funds would be released. We had taken loans and everybody has to farm and support their family. They will ask for their money.”Vimla Devi, Wife of Late Lakhan Mahato
Payment for construction under MGNREGA has usually two components: while 60 percent is allocated for the wages charged by labourers, remaining 40 percent is meant for expenditure on the cost of material used in building a structure.
Mahato’s family claims that despite repeated requests at the local panchayat office, Lakhan never got the 40 percent component for the material used in the construction of well.
Suraj would accompany his father on such visits to the BDO’s (Block Development Office) office, only to return empty-handed.
“We had gone (to the Panchayat Office) 25 times. My father asked about the money we had to receive. The BDO wouldn’t let us go inside and would ask us to leave.”Suraj, Son of Late Lakhan Mahato
Official Apathy: BDO Asks If It Was Suicide or Accident
Few days after the incident, Taramani Sahu, an activist associated with the NREGA Watch, visited Patratu village near Ranchi and met Lakhan Mahato’s family.
According to the fact-finding report by the NREGA Watch, Lakhan Mahato had been waiting for payment since 2018. An outstanding amount of Rs 1,18,545 had not been credited to his account for 13 months, thus, forcing Mahato to take loan from his relatives.
“He (Lakhan Mahato) was under so much debt that he was not able to say anything about it to anyone. The BDO would tell him that ‘your money will come soon.’”Taramani Sahu, NREGA Watch
When The Quint approached the BDO, Santosh Kumar, for an official response on the claims regarding delay in payment, he asked in return if Lakhan Mahato’s death was a suicide or an accident:
“What’s the case all about? It’s obviously an accident. The postmortem report says there was an injury mark on his stomach, which is unlikely when someone has jumped (into a well).”Santosh Kumar, Block Development Officer
28 Other Farmers Still Waiting for Compensation
Apart from Lakhan Mahato, there are 28 other farmers in the same village who had also opted for the MGNREGA scheme.
Like Lakhan, they too haven’t received compensation for material till date. Few admit that the problem lies in the fact that the concerned officials often demand bribe for clearing files.
“Everyone demands money, right from the stage of signing documents.”A farmer in Patratu village
Dinesh Mahato, also a farmer, is unable to comprehend why the officials are so confused when it comes to deciding the exact amount in the ratio of 60:40.
“Officials keep saying they aren’t able to find the ratio (of expenditure on material and labour).‘Once ratios are clear, money will be given’, this is what we are told.”Dinesh Mahato
Data available on the website of the Ministry of Rural Affairs reveals that a sum of Rs 78 crore under MGNREGA is pending as of 29 August 2019. The highest amount is that of Rs 180 crore pending in West Bengal, followed by Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan at Rs 179 crore and Rs 112 crore respectively.
“I am not sure about other states, but in Jharkhand at least, the crooks have found ways to game the bank payments”, wrote Jean Dreze, former member of the National Advisory Council, in 2018, for The Indian Express.
It’s these loopholes in the system of MGNREGA payment that pushed Mahato’s family in the vicious cycle of loans with Vimla Devi and her three sons left alone to bear the tragic loss all by themselves.
(With inputs from Jayshankar Kumar in Ranchi)
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