Aizawl: When the postman came bearing a couple of hundred letters addressed to residents of Bairabi town in Mizoram, village authorities asked him to place the stack in a local library and announced over the public information system that the addressees may collect them.
But confusion and anger followed when the townspeople went to see what the letters were all about.
Signed by a joint secretary in the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, all the letters began with: “I congratulate you on getting a pucca house under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban)…”
The letters went on to invite the recipients to take part in a nationwide competition for the best house constructions by submitting photographs and videos of their newly-built houses.
The only problem was, none of those who received these congratulatory letters in Bairabi had built a pucca house under the central scheme, nor had they received any kind of money to start construction.
In the early weeks of September, the same story was seen in several towns across Mizoram, with thousands of people who are yet to receive funds under the urban housing scheme receiving these letters.
Under PMAY(U), beneficiaries chosen by the state government are given Rs 1.5 lakh, typically distributed in three installments — first of Rs 60,000 and then two equal ones of the remaining amount.
The issue has created a storm on social media platforms like Facebook and messaging apps like WhatsApp too, with several Mizo users expressing indignation at what they allege to be corruption by the Mizoram government ahead of last year’s assembly elections.
At the time, the state disbursed the full funds package to a select few instead of the initial installment to all the chosen beneficiaries. Now, a miscommunication between the central and state governments has inadvertently brought the issue back in the spotlight, with the nodal department in Mizoram apologising for “any mistakes”.
‘Not incompetence but corruption’
Jonathan B. Lalrinngheta, a resident of Hnahthial town in south-west Mizoram who received an electronic message from the ministry congratulating him for a house he hasn’t built, was livid.
“I don’t see how this can be the result of incompetence. I think this is corruption,” he said when asked if there had been any miscommunication over the beneficiaries.
Seilal, a resident of the northern town of Kolasib who also received a congratulatory letter, was distressed rather than angered by the letter’s contents, fearing that someone had siphoned off the money he was supposed to receive.
He was apprehensive that if the ministry’s records showed he had already received his share, there would be no way for him to receive the funds even if he hadn’t received any previously.
Auto-rickshaw driver Lalchungnunga Rokhum, one of the letter’s recipients in Bairabi, said there was a shared feeling of indignation among those who gathered at the local library.
According to R. Lalfakawma, village council president of Bairabi north, at least 200 people from the town had applied under the PMAY but none had received any funds so far.
Lalfakawma said this happened because the Mizoram government disbursed the full monetary package of Rs 1.5 lakh to a select group of beneficiaries at one go, instead of equal distribution of initial installments of Rs 60,000 to all the chosen beneficiaries.
Beneficiaries in Mizoram
According to a statement by the Mizoram Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation department, 17,670 people from 23 towns had been found eligible for the PMAY(U) scheme between 2015 — when the scheme was launched — and 2017.
Based on these figures, the department had prepared the detailed project report for all the towns which was approved by the union ministry.
Subsequently, Rs 94 crore was released to the state government to disburse the first installment of Rs 60,000 each.
How the fund flows
In Mizoram, as with other Northeastern states, all the houses are built under the beneficiary-led construction system where the beneficiary has her own land or house and is provided funds to build/upgrade.
Under PMAY(U), the Centre and states jointly share the funds, except for Northeast and hilly states where the fund sharing is in the ratio of 90:10.
After the Centre releases its share, it takes anywhere between three to four months for the state to process and release the money to the urban local bodies from where it is disbursed to the beneficiaries, said an official in the Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry, which is implementing the scheme in urban areas.
“This whole process takes anywhere between 5-6 months,” said the official who didn’t wish to be named.
The Centre releases 40 per cent of the funds in the first installment. The second installment is released after states submit utilisation certificate showing that they have used at least 70 per cent of the earlier central government funds, along with details of the money they have to release and information on the progress on the ground.
“We have come across instances where the states have held back the first installment and released it after clubbing the second installment. This, the states said, allowed the beneficiary to get lump sum money to build his house instead of getting money in installments,” said the official.
The official added the congratulatory letters are issued to beneficiaries as and when the state government identifies them and enter their data.
“But there is some gap between the time a beneficiary is identified and the state government releases funds to them,” the official added.
What Mizoram govt says
Once the controversy erupted in several Mizo towns in early September over the letters from the central ministry, the Mizoram Urban Development and Poverty Alleviation department maintained silence for weeks.
By the end of the month, however, the department confirmed Lalfakawma’s contention.
It said the state government had decided against disbursing the initial installment of Rs 60,000 to all the beneficiaries included in DPR 1 and instead chose to disburse the total of Rs 1.5 lakh at one go to 345 eligible beneficiaries at Aizawl and 200 others at Lawngtlai town “so that beneficiaries can finish construction early”.
The same procedure was subsequently followed in other towns as well, the statement added.
However, it didn’t specify when the decision to tweak the disbursement process was taken or what criteria were used to select the first batches of beneficiaries. It also didn’t mention how many people didn’t receive the funds despite getting the letters from the central government.
Further, it said the state government had prepared a ‘2nd DPR’ for the headquarters of eight Mizoram districts — Aizawl, Lunglei, Siaha, Champhai, Kolasib, Serchhip, Lawngtlai and Mamit — besides the initially approved DPR. Three more districts were notified by the state in mid-2019. The statement said the 2nd DPR has received “in-principle” approval by the ministry.
However, the statement did say that the 2nd DPR has received “in-principle” approval by the ministry.
As for congratulatory letters from the union ministry, the statement said they were issued to anyone who was part of the first DPR. The department went on to apologise for “any mistakes” it may have committed while implementing the scheme.
A senior official from the Mizoram department who didn’t wish to be named said they have been informed that sanction for pending funds is under process at the Union ministry and the state finance department, and further disbursements would be made once this is handed over. He, however, said there is no clear timeline at the moment.
A second Union Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry official said the ministry processes the disbursement of central funds as and when it gets request from states.
“We don’t hold back on central disbursements, provided all the parameters are met by the respective states. In Mizoram’s case also, there is no delay. The process of releasing funds is underway,” said the official who didn’t wish to be named.
With inputs from Moushumi Das Gupta.