January 29, 2017 12:29:09 am
Rajwant Singh lives in a one-room house in Draula village of Patiala district. The 30-year-old is among the 25 Dalits of this village, out of 60, who did not get a grant for a toilet under the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan. Rajwant has no doubt why he was left out. Neither have fellow Dalits Nirmal Singh, Mukhtiar Singh and Bant Kaur. “We are not supporters of the Akali sarpanch,” they say.
The sarpanch, Gurmel Singh, is an aide of Punjab Water and Sanitation Minister Surjit Singh Rakhra. He is also the ‘halqa in-charge’ of Samana constituency. Draula, an Akali base, is among 156 villages in the constituency. Barring about a dozen villages, most have Akali sarpanches.
Over 10 years of the Akali government, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal perfected a well-oiled machine of doling out patronage to party supporters either through sitting MLAs or, in seats that they didn’t win, halqa in-charges. The halqa in-charges and MLAs would prepare the list of needed development works as well as of beneficiaries of schemes.
Gurmel Singh denies allegations of favouritism. “We got grants for 35 toilets at Rs 15,000 each. These were disbursed to the top 35 beneficiaries in a list of 60. The rest 25 will be given in the next term,” he says. However, he admits that this list of “top 35” was prepared by his supporters.
Gurmel adds that in pension and job recruitments or schemes like atta-dal and shagun, the halqa in-charge alone doesn’t draw up the beneficiaries’ list. However, in the case of local demands like tubewell connections, water pipelines for irrigation in which 90 per cent subsidy is provided by the government, gas stoves and cylinders, and utilisation of the state’s Rural Development Fund (RDF), a halqa in-charge uses his or her discretion. A halqa in-charge, in turn, takes the help of either the village sarpanch or a village in-charge to identify the beneficiaries.
Sources say that under the RDF, which has remained a controversial fund, Akali Assembly segments got between Rs 15 crore and Rs 40 crore.
The RDF is meant to be used for a range of works in villages, and Punjab has spent over Rs 5,000 crore for the rural renewal mission under it. The money is transferred directly into the accounts of panchayats. “We then supervise the work and pay money when required,” says Gurmel Singh.
“With this mechanism, the party projected its local leaders as the face of the government for the common man,” says a halqa in-charge.
With the influence of the MLAs and halqa in-charges stretching to deputy commissioners and superintendents of police, the system remained a source of tension between not just the Akali functionaries and Congress MLAs but also between them and legislators of ally BJP.
One reason why Navjot Kaur Sidhu, now in the Congress, fell out with the state BJP leadership was her constant friction with the then district president, Upkar Singh Sandhu.
While Gurmel Singh denies the system is biased in favour of Akali supporters, ask him how many youths in Draula got employment in recent recruitment schemes, and he is honest, “Only one. Sandeep Singh was recruited in the police. He is the son of Gurjant Singh, an Akali leader.”
Anyone’s service regularised? “My aide Gurcharan Singh’s sons Gurdeep Singh and Makhan Singh’s services were regularised. They are Class IV employees.”
“We have to give preference to our supporters,” he smiles.
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