Kolkata: ‘Cut-money’, the colloquial term for extortion, is back to haunt West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee — this time in the form of corruption allegations in the distribution of relief to people affected by last month’s Cyclone Amphan.
The West Bengal government has received over 2,100 complains until last Friday, amid reports of clashes and attacks on panchayat and block development offices and villagers’ protests against alleged embezzlement by the Trinamool Congress’ grass-root leaders. Earlier, there had been several allegations and action in cases involving ration distribution during the lockdown.
CM Mamata, having been driven onto the back foot, called an all-party meeting last week and formed a committee including opposition leaders such as Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh to oversee Amphan relief distribution, set guidelines, and prepare a resolution appealing to the Centre for assistance.
With assembly elections set to be held in about nine months, Mamata’s Trinamool has hailed this step as “transparency”, while the opposition has called it an “eyewash”, and political observers say it’s a sign of her “nervousness” and “attempt to shift blame”.
The latest uproar over Amphan relief is the third instance of people protesting against Mamata and the Trinamool Congress, after the original ‘cut-money’ allegations and the ration-distribution fiasco during the Covid-19 lockdown. In all three instances, the names of district- and state-level Trinamool leaders have featured in connection with alleged scams, and Mamata has had to defend her party each time.
‘Cut-money’ meant corruption at the party level — extorting money from the beneficiaries of government schemes. The ‘cut’ varied from 20-40 per cent of the total benefits, depending on the leaders approached. Amid protests over ‘cut-money’, CM Mamata had said the party never asked for it, and legal action would be taken against the leaders who were involved.
Then came the allegations on foodgrain distribution. According to police reports, there were 205 protests and violations of law in April-May in 15 districts, as Trinamool leaders at the block and district levels were accused of hoarding grains meant for the public distribution system. There were also similar allegations against some BJP leaders. The CM instructed the police to book the offenders, and even removed the food and distribution secretary, a senior IAS officer.
Now, even before the dust had settled, came allegations about corruption in implementing the state government’s Rs 6,250-crore Amphan relief package. According to over 2,000 complaints received at state secretariat Nabanna, panchayat pradhans and members allegedly included their family’s names in the list of beneficiaries, instead of the truly needy.
The most glaring example of this was in Garalgacha gram panchayat in Hooghly district, where the pradhan, Manoj Singh, has listed his own phone number against more than 100 beneficiaries’ names, out of a total list of 166. His wife’s name was also on the list, a Trinamool statement accepted. The pradhan was removed, followed by other such cases.
On 24 June, Mamata called an all-party meeting and announced the formation of a committee including BJP’s Dilip Ghosh and CPI(M)’s Sujan Chakraborty to supervise relief distribution.
The CM had said: “Nobody will be spared. I have repeatedly said that the victims should get the relief. If anybody has any complaint of non-payment of relief money, lodge a complaint with the BDO’s office or with the local police station. Immediate action will be taken.”
‘Bigger scam than cut-money’
Senior Trinamool leader Om Prakash Mishra said Mamata’s initiative to involve all parties was unique. “It reflects her transparency. She did not spare her own party men. Police will take action against all who indulged in such corruption,” Mishra said.
However, opposition leaders have called the CM’s initiative an eyewash.
CPI(M)’s Chakraborty told ThePrint: “This all-party meeting and the committee were an eyewash. The government order notifying the committee has no mention of Amphan relief. It is about writing a resolution by all parties of Bengal to the Centre seeking assistance in fighting the Covid situation and Amphan aftermath. I have written to the chief secretary seeking clarification about this.”
State BJP chief Ghosh added: “I have written to the Prime Minister’s Office about the rampant corruption. Forget about ‘cut-money’, Trinamool Congress is now stealing central funds and ration coming for the poor.”
Ghosh said BJP workers had collected the names of 1,500 people whose houses were damaged at Dantan block in Paschim Medinipur. “Of 1,500, only one person’s name figured in the list of 271 people released by the block office,” he alleged.
Political analyst Prof. Biswanath Chakraborty of Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University said the Amphan relief scam appears to be bigger than cut-money and other previous allegations.
“Corruption has been institutionalised in Bengal. This is a huge scam and its magnitude is much bigger. It is Rs 20,000 per beneficiary. To me, it appears like the state- and district-level leaders consciously pushed their people into this for making their political fund ready before elections,” Chakraborty said.
About the violent protests against this alleged corruption, he added: “This is not about Trinamool and BJP. There is a public resistance now against the corruption in government schemes. This was the reason why Trinamool Congress suffered an electoral setback in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.”