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Where empowerment discriminates

- In Tarun Gogoi’s constituency, a village tells a different tale; AIUDF moves to tackle corruption

If panchayat elections are about empowering those at the grassroots, grassroots is where the stories of zero-empowerment come from. Starting today, we will run a series collected by The Telegraph correspondents — of the body blows, that those who exist on the lowest rung of the Assam’s political ladder suffer

Titabar, Jan. 24: One has two options to cross the Kharjan rivulet to reach Kakati Kuri Gaon which is a part of Kakati Gaon ward, a hamlet in chief minister Tarun Gogoi’s constituency Titabar under the Melamatti gaon panchayat. The first option is two rickety bamboo poles laid across and the other slightly sturdier — two electric posts.

A woman comes out of a doorless curtained hut and complains: “Now the noi (rivulet) is dried up but our children risk their lives to go to school and college crossing these bridges when the river is in spate in monsoon. If the river rises up to the bridge level we send them over by rafts made of tied banana stalks.”

Five years since the last panchayat elections and a few days ahead of the next, Kakati Gaon has little to boast about. The stepmotherly treatment meted out to the 40 odd families is attributed to the fact that the village voted for the AGP in a Congress-majority panchayat which had eight ward members of the Congress.

Sai sai bostu dise,” and “sab bostur karone poisa lagae (People are given according to affiliation or money),” was the refrain of the inhabitants.

The Kaibartya Scheduled Caste-dominated population does not have any drinking water facility and the homes of the inhabitants are steeped in horror tales.

The house of Junu Das stands plastered in mud and bare of furniture. She did not get any money for a pucca house under the Indira Awas Yojana (IAY) money as she and her husband Baba (Petua) Das, a daily wage labourer, could not afford Rs 5,000 sought for “transportation costs” and “chai pani”.

“The whole village had sought a house for them seeing their penury but to no avail,” Prahlad Das, who lives in the opposite Potia Gaon, said while taking this correspondent around the village. There are other excuses besides non-payment for refusing someone money or free items like mosquito nets, bundles of weaving yarn or pucca latrines under various schemes.

One of them is the affiliation and the other is that you have to be listed as BPL (below poverty line). No one knows who prepared the list and how outdated it is. For BPL has little to do with poverty and even BPL gets precedence if they can pay more. In Purnima’s house, the open sky can be seen in the division between two rooms. The house leaks horribly when it rains and a portion of the mud floor is dug up so that the water can drain out. Jonali, who had got a pucca house under the IAY scheme about 10 years ago said the cementing was so poor that she had to plaster it with a mixture of mud and dung to get rid of the innumerable chinks and cracks.The pucca latrines tell tales of their own. Some were given commodes without the construction being done, others were not given the tin roof, the walls of most were of bamboo slats which they covered with cement bags or cloth. Even for a medicated mosquito net which the government gives for free, one has to shell out Rs 50. “I came to know that three times my name had featured on a list of beneficiaries for mosquito nets. But when I asked for it I was told that I had not garlanded the president and therefore was refused,” said Dipti Das, adding that they needed to show allegiance to the ruling party before they were given anything. Similar is the fate of Jahanara Rahman and her sister Safrin Hussain who live with their mother Hunmai Begum, a widow.

There is no latrine or weaving yarn in their home.

“We could not afford to pay Rs 100 for the yarn and therefore were never given any. We had voted for the Congress — most of the Muslim population here do — but even then we have been denied, most likely because we live in Kakati Gaon,” Jahanara said.

The place had no drinking water facility. Those who can afford it have installed deep tube wells on their own. For most of the village pond water is for washing and cleaning and drinking water has to be carried from a distance from a tube well across the road near the Melamatti Ussa Madhyamik Bidyalay.

Bhudeswar Das has applied thrice for old age pension for his father who is 65. For Ghan Shyam Saikia his mother died but she was not given the government’s old age pension though she applied thrice.

Renu Hazarika, the president of Melamatti gaon panchayat, could not be contacted. Her son Manoj Hazarika, who will be contesting as a ward member on a Congress ticket, said she was in Guwahati. Hazarika claimed that the allegations were baseless.

“People want houses even if their names do not feature on the BPL list. Those who do not get something immediately blame the president or ward member for corruption. Many a time they cannot furnish proper papers or photos in time because of which they are denied,” he said. A case has been registered against Renu Hazarika at Titabar police station.

Under Borholla police outpost in Titabar subdivision, Rangajan panchayat president Lilaram Gogoi had been arrested along with a beneficiary, Manju Bora, on charges of Indira Awas Yojana anomalies.

In Paschim Thengal gaon panchayat, secretary Lakhi Chutia and ward member of number 1 ward Ranjit Majhi have been arrested for anomalies in the NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act).

Junior engineer Nilim Ranjan Sharma working under Paschim Thengal gaon panchayat was also arrested for IAY anomalies.

Under Borholla police station in Titabar sub-division last year, Raidangjuri gaon panchyat president M. Saikia was arrested on similar charges.

Tarun Gogoi’s avowed and passionate words on rural development being the real index of development of any place may well hold true for many parts of his constituency but is Kakati Gaon an indication that rural empowerment can also be discriminatory?