Kolkata/New Delhi: A worn-down hut covered with broken tiles stands near a polluted pond in Joydevpur village, located in Diamond Harbour. Step inside, and you find a few large aluminium utensils, a small bed, a green chair, a broom and a few empty bottles of liquor.
A lone carrom board — broken — is the only thing that seems to be in line with the stated nature of the premises.
This is the Joydevpur Matrimandir Club (Registration number: S/69806), a purported sports training facility that received Rs 4 lakh in grants from the West Bengal government between 2017 and 2019.
Two kilometres away stands the two-room Young Athletic Club (S/12/18676) at Dakshin Parulia village. Located deep inside the village, it has a wooden bed, some cooking utensils, and empty liquor bottles. Broken bricks and sticks are found across the premises, as are some plastic pipes, a broken pedestal fan, and a few green chairs.
One of the rooms has a flashy wall with pink paint and a marble floor. There is a large wall-mounted LED TV and a music system — all said to be funded by a Rs 5 lakh government grant received between 2016 and 2019. Also inside the structure, a carrom board.
A carrom board — again broken, again the sole piece of sporting equipment in sight — is found at the Chalantika Sporting Club (S/97360) in North 24 Parganas district as well.
The two-storey building is located inside a dingy alley of Krishnapur area. Its ground floor is full of big equipment and utensils that appear to serve a caterer. On the top floor, one finds broken chairs and a TV. This club received a grant of Rs 4 lakh from the government between 2017 and 2019.
Around 25 km away from Krishnapur is the Udayan Pally Dilip Smriti Sangha club (S/2L/39214). Located in a slum, around a kilometre down a kutcha road, it is built on the side of a canal used to dispose of waste.
It is supposed to be a sports club, but one might easily mistake it for an office of the Trinamool Congress (TMC), with posters of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and MLA Sujit Bose, and party flags and banners, plastered all around. A fresh signboard featuring Mamata’s image is awaited.
Inside, there are some broken chairs, a half-constructed roof as well as Mamata’s framed photos on the wall. The club received Rs 5 lakh in a financial grant from the government between 2015 and 2018.
At Sikharpur village in north Bengal’s Jalpaiguri, the Murgibhita Jagriti Sangha O Pathagar (library, S/2L/ NO-25298) is a small structure built with tin and straw. It was locked when ThePrint visited.
The club was registered under the scheme in 2015, recommended by local Trinamool MLA Khageswar Roy.
Club secretary Bikram Roy, a local Trinamool leader, said they got “Rs 5 lakh from Didi” but claimed they “distributed blankets during the lockdown and helped villagers in need”. “The club does not have anything now, so we keep it closed. The room is open for adda only,” he added, referring to the colloquial term for a place to gather for conversation. “We have plans to construct a new concrete building soon,” he said, adding that the plan was delayed by the pandemic.
These five facilities are among an estimated 25,000 sports clubs that have been listed as eligible beneficiaries for a Rs 5 lakh West Bengal government grant-in-aid that is disbursed over a period of four years.
Launched in 2014, the scheme is meant to encourage the “development of sports activities through organising various sports events/creation of sports infrastructure and durable sports assets across the different districts of West Bengal”.
But the objective of encouraging sports appeared to be an afterthought — if that — at 27 of 30 beneficiary clubs that ThePrint visited in 7 districts across the length and breadth of West Bengal.
While a dozen said they participated in football matches every now and then, only one claimed to teach a sport, swimming, in a nearby pond. A common activity many of them claimed to organise were blood donation camps.
A few clubs said they run temples, with one telling ThePrint it didn’t have money to organise sport events. The grant from the government, they added, went towards conducting different programmes not related to sports.
An under-construction club spent nearly Rs 1.5 lakh on a singer brought in from Kolkata for a “jalsa” to “entertain villagers” after the lockdown.
There appears to be at least some slip between the cup and the lip because the Mamata Banerjee government has been trumpeting the scheme as a key initiative, claiming to have “supported 25,000 clubs financially by granting them Rs 5 lakh”, which comes to a total of Rs 1,250 crore.
So what gives?
All the clubs ThePrint visited said they were affiliated to political parties, and members engage in activities like participating in rallies and mobilising crowds.
At least two people associated with two different clubs spoke of an “unwritten rule” that the bulk of the funds — up to 70 per cent — are to be set aside for Trinamool Congress leaders or the party coffers.
One of them said not affiliating with the Trinamool means losing the grant altogether.
Reached for comment, West Bengal’s Minister of State for Sports and Youth Affairs Manoj Tiwary said the government will look into the matter and do “everything that is needed to be done”.
ThePrint mailed the Sports Minister with Cabinet rank Aroop Biswas a detailed questionnaire, and tried to contact him through phone calls and text messages, but a response could not be obtained since he is ill with Covid-19.
A detailed questionnaire was also sent to the Chief Minister’s Office and West Bengal Chief Secretary H.K. Dwivedi on 30 December, but there was no response by the time this report was published. A reminder text sent to Dwivedi on 3 January didn’t elicit a response either.
Subrata Biswas, Principal Secretary in the West Bengal Youth Services and Sports Department, said a survey conducted by them had also “found that a substantial number of clubs did not use the money for the purpose the grant was given”.
“We are trying to weed such clubs out of the system. In fact, we have to evaluate the scheme, and see if the scheme can function in the same design as it was,” he added.
The MLAs who recommended the clubs for the scheme largely pleaded ignorance about their activities.
How the scheme works
The sport grant is given by the West Bengal Youth Services and Sports Department. According to the Bengal government’s budget 2020-21, the department got an allocation of Rs 727.97 crore for this financial year.
The grant includes a Rs 2 lakh payment in the first year, and Rs 1 lakh each over the next three. The government keeps adding new clubs to the list.
The aforementioned objective of the scheme was laid out in an official notification issued on 17 September 2014.
In the same notification, the sports department issued a two-page form requesting applications from clubs looking to secure the grant.
According to a government list about the scheme, accessed by ThePrint, the clubs selected were recommended by Trinamool politicians, including MLAs and MPs.
Officials in the department said the government did not conduct any physical verification or audit for the clubs before granting the assistance.
ThePrint exclusively accessed the government’s official lists of the beneficiary clubs, which also log their registration numbers and other details, for two financial years, 2015-16 and 2016-17. Both the lists together include 21 districts, as Kalimpong and Jhargram were announced as separate districts in 2017.
The lists were made in parts, clubbing nine to 11 districts in each one.
The lists show that South 24 Parganas district, with 31 assembly constituencies, has the highest number of clubs that got a grant from the government (493). Murshidabad, with 22 assembly seats, has the lowest (69).
All these lists also specify the names of the elected representatives who recommended these clubs for the grant, alongside the names of the village or town where they are located.
A few of the names are Trinamool MP and national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee (ThePrint visited one of the clubs he recommended, Madhabpur Citizen Club), local MLA and minister Sujit Bose (Udayan Pally Dilip Smriti Sangha club), former Diamond Harbour MLA Dipak Haldar (Joydevpur Matrimandal Club, leader is now with the BJP), and former Trinamool MLA Naresh Chandra Bauri (Hatem Khan Pallymangal Samity Club).
A part of the 2016-17 lists that includes nine districts of southern and western Bengal — Purulia, Bankura, Hooghly, Birbhum, North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Murshidabad, West Midnapore, and East Midnapore — also has an extra column that states the “political affiliation” of the clubs. This slot was not present for the other districts or the 2015-16 list in the documents that ThePrint accessed.
The information for the nine districts suggests that of the 101 clubs that received the grant in Purulia, 71 were affiliated to the Trinamool Congress, and the column for the remaining 30 were left blank.
In Bankura, of 154 clubs, 47 were listed without any affiliation, while it was the Trinamool Congress and the Congress (an ally of the ruling party at the time, it had seven affiliated clubs) for the rest.
In Hooghly, of 235 clubs, 32 boxes were blank, and the rest were mentioned as affiliated to the Trinamool. In Birbhum, all 200 listed clubs were affiliated to the ruling party.
Barring 44 among the 426 clubs listed in North 24 Parganas, all the rest were affiliated to the Trinamool. In Nadia, it was all except 29 among 181 clubs. In Murshidabad, all the 69 clubs listed were affiliated to the Trinamool.
In West Midnapore, there were 307 clubs listed, and 261 were affiliated to the Trinamool. The number of unaffiliated clubs in East Midnapore’s was 63 out of 217.
In total, 1,592 of the 1,890 clubs listed are mentioned as “affiliated to Trinamool”.
Sports club with a political affiliation — what does it mean?
For sports clubs to have a political affiliation is a trend that dates back to the era of the Left parties’s rule in West Bengal.
The political affiliation of a local club or ‘para’ club means the organisation will work for the political party in question — the members are related or connected to the party, and will work for it during election campaigns, attending rallies and mobilising local residents in its support.
For example, at the Udayan Pally Dilip Smriti Sangha club in Mahisbathan, posters and banners make the affiliation to the Trinamool Congress clear.
Nirmal Haldar, the secretary of the club, told ThePrint that the “club was captured by local BJP members, and they put (BJP national president J.P.) Nadda’s photos here”.
“So we recaptured it. We have ordered a new signboard with Didi’s photo on it. It will be installed soon,” Haldar said.
However, the club, which has a temple attached, doesn’t have any sporting equipment.
Asked about the government grant, he alleged that a major part of the payout was “stolen by the BJP leaders, who then fled and could not be traced”.
At Hetampur village in Birbhum district’s Dubrajpur — in Bengal’s tribal and coal belt near the Jharkhand border — the Hatem Khan Pallymangal Samity Club (S/2L/34113) is a one-room facility along with a partially constructed community hall.
The premises boast of big banners and posters of Mamata Banerjee.
Some villagers told ThePrint that the club is used for party meetings, but Sabur Ali, club president and husband of Hetampur panchayat pradhan Kulsuma Bibi, offered another reason for the posters. Ali is the block Trinamool chief, and the panchayat is said to be run by the party.
“Didi has given us the money to strengthen our party’s base, help and connect with people. So we must keep her photo inside,” Ali said.
The club was registered in 2014-15, and started getting the government’s grant from 2015. Ali said the club got Rs 5 lakh between 2016 and 2019.
The club was recommended to the government by former Trinamool MLA Naresh Chandra Bauri, who did not get a ticket for this year’s assembly elections.
Reins with politicians
On the trail of this scheme, ThePrint visited 30 clubs spread across Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, Alipurduar, Birbhum, South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas. Most of these received Rs 4 lakh to 5 lakh between 2015 and 2019.
Details of the exact sum received under the grant by the clubs visited were conveyed to ThePrint by their administrators.
Conversations with the secretaries or members of the clubs — as well as residents of the areas they are located — suggested that almost all the management committees of the clubs have the local MLA, the panchayat pradhan, or the block leader as conveners, chairpersons and patrons.
At eight clubs, the committee lists accessed by ThePrint have names of the local MLA, block Trinamool leader or the panchayat pradhan (or their spouse) as patron or president of the club. In this capacity, they would be privy to all the operations of the club, including the finances.
At Naxalbari’s Totaram Jote Youth Welfare Organisation, Mohammad Kalam, Trinamool’s anchal president, is the secretary. Similarly, Sheikh Sabur Ali, Trinamool’s anchal secretary and husband of the panchayat’s pradhan, is the president of Hatem Khan Pallymangal Samity.
In North 24 Parganas, Trinamool leader Debraj Chakrabarty is the chief adviser and local MLA Aditi Munshi is the chief patron of Chalantika Sporting Club. Both Chakrabarty and Munshi are members of the club’s executive committee.
At the “55-member” Young Athletic Club (described in the first section of this report), Sanjib Halder, former secretary and a senior member, said it had received full financial assistance of Rs 5 lakh from the government.
The LED TV and music system cost them around Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000, and the room with the flashy paint and marble floor cost them around a lakh, he added. The club runs a “free swimming class” using a nearby pond, he told ThePrint.
However, another senior member of the club, not wishing to be named, said the state of the club — including the empty liquor bottles — should not evoke shock.
“All these young Trinamool cadres come here for adda and party meetings,” the member added.
“The unsaid rule is giving around 70 per cent of the government grant to the ruling party leaders. If we do not affiliate with the Trinamool, then we will not get the grant. The standard rule is that the local youth have to work for the party, attend all meetings and work during the elections.”
When sports clubs ‘run temples’
Around 10 to 15 km away from Dakshin Parulia is the Madhabpur Citizen Club (S/2L/24487) in the Diamond Harbour Bazaar area, which was recommended for the grant by local MP Abhishek Banerjee.
The club is located in a dilapidated building that was locked when ThePrint visited.
Inside the gates, one could see heaps of bricks and broken sticks. Peering through the window, one saw some old trophies, apart from broken chairs, two wooden benches, a bed, and a life-sized poster of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, upside down. A sheet of tin served as the roof.
The club is attached to a temple. Local residents said the club runs the temple.
The treasurer of the club, who did not want to be named, said they had “requested Abhishek Banerjee to help the club financially”.
“We run the temple here too. It has three gods. He obliged us and recommended us to the sports department for the financial grant,” he added. He said the club participates in locally organised football matches.
Another club attached to a temple was found at Bolpur’s Surul village — Surul Tantipara Yuva Samity (S/2L/22143). It had its shutters down when ThePrint visited.
Secretary Debashish Das admitted the club doesn’t have much sporting equipment.
“The club runs the temple and organises blood donation camps. We do not have much sports equipment, because we did not get any from the government,” he added. “We received a financial grant of Rs 5 lakh that was spent on various programmes.”
The Chalantika Sporting Club was recommended to the government by former minister Purnendu Bose, who did not fight elections this year as the party assigned him organisational responsibilities.
Secretary Gour Mondal said the “club runs the local temple and cooks daily bhog (ritual offering of food), and this incurs a huge cost”.
“That is why the big utensils are here. We also organise blood donation camps annually,” he added.
Gour Mondal showed the first cheque of Rs 2 lakh the club got from the government in 2017 and said it had got Rs 4 lakh in total until 2019.
The club also received appreciation letters and Diwali greetings cards after Trinamool’s win in the area. Members showed ThePrint a greeting card with a printed signature by Abhishek Banerjee.
‘Spent the money on social work’
At the Joydevpur Matrimandal Club, Soumitra Mondal, who introduced himself as the “cashier” (read: treasurer), displayed the certificate that accompanied the first tranche of the grant — Rs 2 lakh in 2017. The club got another Rs 1 lakh each in 2018 and 2019, he said.
When asked about the sports activity or assets it invested the money in, Mandal said, “We spent the money on social work. We organise blood donation camps once a year, sprinkle bleaching powder in the neighbourhood (for dengue control) and participate in local football matches.”
Mondal could not state the exact amount the club spent on these activities, but said they need roughly Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 each. The club was recommended to the government by former Diamond Harbour MLA Dipak Haldar, who joined the BJP ahead of this year’s assembly elections.
At many clubs, doors shut
In north Bengal, the Kawakhali Janakalyan Sangha club (S/1L/89563) in Darjeeling’s Sushruta Nagar area was an under-construction or unfinished room, with villagers saying it always remains locked.
The Totaram Jote Youth Welfare Organisation (S/1L/60288) at Darjeeling’s Naxalbari was a dilapidated, under-construction structure located in a cramped market area.
Mohammad Kalam, club secretary and a Trinamool block-level member, said, “We bought some gym equipment and the money was exhausted. We run blood donation camps once a year.”
He added that he expected “more help from the government” because “we had given our party a lead of 650 votes in this booth, which was primarily dominated by the CPI(M) and then BJP earlier”.
The Thiknikata Sabuj Biplab Sangha (22670) in Siliguri was a one-room structure that had a carrom board, LED TV and a tin roof. The club was inaugurated in 2015 by former MLA and minister Gautam Deb, who had also recommended it for the grant. The club started getting funds from the same year.
This was open, but the members could not be traced, and the villagers said they didn’t know about their whereabouts.
In Coochbehar, the Jamaldaha Sarbajoyee Club (S/1L/37687) in the eponymous village stood locked. It had a tin roof.
The management at the Kawakhali Janakalyan Sangha and the Sarbajoyee Club could not be traced despite ThePrint’s efforts. The local villagers claimed that the clubs did not open regularly and they didn’t know about the members.
Rajganj’s Dashdarga Club (S/1L/52224) was a two-room structure that had a carrom board and a few chairs. Anirban De Sarkar, the club’s cultural secretary, said they organise “various functions and blood donation camps”.
In Coochbehar’s Debi Colony Tarun Sangha, Madan Mohan Sarkar, district Trinamool coordinator and club secretary, said the facility is “still under construction”.
“We will complete the work soon. We got the government money, but we need a little more to finish the construction,” he added.
The club got Rs 5 lakh between 2016 and 2019.
Talking about spending the government grant, he said, “We brought a singer from Kolkata for a jalsa. She charged Rs 1.44 lakh. We have spent the money from the government grant. This programme was organised for the entertainment of the villagers after the prolonged lockdown,” he said.
In Alipurduar’s Falakata, the Kunjanagar Kalyan Sangha Club (S/2L/6741), deep inside the forested village, had three walls of concrete and one made of tin.
“We got Rs 5 lakh, but a huge amount was spent in helping the villagers and migrant labourers who returned during the lockdown,” said club secretary Nitish Roy. “We will complete the construction soon. Now we use the club room for our evening gatherings.”
‘Party leaders take a cut’
In the western part of Bengal, Rising Club (S/67410) at Rajbati village in Birbhum’s Dubrajpur was a two-storey building with its own ground.
This was one of the 3 clubs visited by this reporter that had a ground and conducted sports training for local youths and children.
However, its secretary Sambhunath Banerjee said all was not well, claiming that he quit the Trinamool Congress last year because he “stood up against corruption”.
“The government’s grant that we get should be used for the local youths and kids and to promote sports. But the party leaders take a cut from it, and demand that the lion’s share go to the party fund,” he claimed. “I protested and that is why they threw me out of local committees. I quit the party then.”
‘Govt looking into it’
ThePrint reached the office of Abhishek Banerjee, who has recommended multiple clubs for the grant, for a comment, but was advised to mail a questionnaire. The questionnaire was mailed Tuesday and a response was still awaited by the time this report was published.
Rajganj MLA Khageswar Roy told ThePrint that he would order an inquiry into this.
“I did not know that they spend money on something else, and not on building infrastructure. It is my responsibility too to know what they have done with the government money,” he said.
Naresh Bauri also said he had “no idea what they have done with the money”. “I didn’t even get a ticket (nomination) this time. The party wanted us to recommend some local clubs and I did,” he said.
Dipak Haldar, former MLA of Diamond Harbour, refused comment on the issue. “I have done what my ex-party asked me to do. You can ask the clubs about that. I have no further comment to make on this issue.”
Multiple calls and texts to Sujit Bose, the Minister of State (MoS) for Fire and Emergency Services, went unanswered.
Purnendu Bose said he, “as the local MLA and a minister, received proposals from clubs”.
“I sanctioned those who submitted specific proposals like developing playgrounds or constructing buildings. I maintained a vigil on those. But, it is true that there were complaints against some and we stopped giving the grant to them,” he added. “But some clubs worked genuinely on developing infrastructure also.”
ThePrint reached former north Bengal development minister Gautam Deb, who lost the 2021 assembly elections, for his comment through calls and texts Thursday evening, but a response is awaited.
Efforts to contact MLA Aditi Munshi didn’t fructify because her secretary asked this reporter to call back after two months “as the MLA is busy campaigning for the upcoming Bidhannagar municipal election”.
Minister Manoj Tiwary said he had been “given charge [of the ministry] only seven months ago”.
“In fact, I was not here when the scheme was designed and floated. There is a senior minister who looks after everything. I will definitely take it to the senior minister and will inquire about the utilisation of the government money,” he added. “This is something we really need to look into. We will do everything that is needed to be done in this regard.”
Principal Secretary, Youth Services and Sports, Subrata Biswas said the alleged irregularities had been on their radar.
“The scheme was launched by the government almost six years ago, and it was meant for the clubs registered with the government. The stated objective for the scheme was to build sports infrastructure and assets, but after a survey conducted by the department through district officers, it was found that many clubs did not spend the money to build infrastructure related to sports,” he added.
“We also asked the clubs to submit an audited expenditure report to show on what account they spend the government grant.”
According to Biswas, “initially, around 40,000 clubs applied for the grant, of which 37,000 qualified as eligible”.
Biswas said they “are trying to weed out of the system” the clubs that are not honouring the requirements of the grant.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)