‘NREGA scams, allegations of widespread corruption, tribal uprisings, police firings, murdered activists, and an acknowledged Maoist presence. Narayanpatna Block in Koraput district is a land where fact is fiction and rumour is truth, yet the unsolved mystery involving the alleged murder of an activist reveals more than one can imagine.’
At Malda village in Koraput district of Orissa, a community theatre group from the IAEET performs a play on labour, exploitation and it logically leads up to the NREGA. In the first act, landless labourers are working for a cruel landlord, the ‘Sahukar’ as they call him. They’re all underpaid, abused and treated violently. In the second act, there is a small revolt, all the villagers decide to cease working until conditions improve. There is a showdown, violent arguments ensue and the hapless villagers cower. The landlord manages to reinstate the status quo – if you don’t work, you all will just die of starvation.
In the third act, the villagers are tricked by a scrupulous contractor to go to another state for higher wages and better working conditions. Most of them decide to go and they are never heard of again.
Towards the end of the play, the audience is involved, and questions are asked about labour. And then the NREGA is introduced. A villager complains that they don’t get paid promptly. The actor responds to him. That he must complain, that he shouldn’t keep quiet. Another villager complains that the villagers don’t understand the procedure or how the act works considering most of them are illiterate. The actor says that they should take someone educated to see the muster rolls, the cards, and ensure everything is accurate. A few ‘Sahukars’ are in the crowd, quietly watching the play. Later on, the co-ordinator would say how at times, he’s accosted by them and taunted about how everything he says doesn’t matter.
‘Then they just go say the opposite of everything we try to say,’ says Amaresh, co-ordinator for the community-based theatre group IAEET, ‘There are many problems with the NREGA and we like to talk about them as much as we can.’
A few years ago, Narayan Hareka, a local tribal and social worker with a NGO was raising his voice about corruption and the discrepancies in the implementations of the NREGA. On the 8th of May 2008, he was found dead, his body brutally disfigured a few kilometers from his in-law’s village of Dandabadi. Some say it was an accident, others say it was a clear murder case. The police registered it as an accident. Case closed. Everything else is conjecture.
Today, in Narayanpatna, discrepancies in the NREGA are still prevalent and are probably the only facts. Apart from allegations of massive siphoning of funds, card holders are barely guaranteed 100 days work, and many card holders don’t receive any work at all. Mandangi Limbe of Palaput village at Narayanpatna, card number OR-11-007-006-013/8972, claims to have done no work in the last four years. Her job card has no entries, yet online at the NREGS website, she has been noted to have worked 48 days in 2007 and 2008, and received Rs.3000.
Kondagiri Lachama of Sanapalmunda village in Bhandugaon, card number OR-11-006-005-010/2661, says he worked three days when his online entries claim he has worked around 24 days and received over Rs.1680.
In 2008, the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad had conducted a social audit on the NREGA in Orissa regarding these very kind of discrepancies. Their report was never made public yet a presentation by the NIRD was made available to the Express.
Sharanya Nayak of ActionAid who worked with the NIRD team on the social audit, quotes from the NIRD presentation that she acquired from the director, that, ‘The total wages paid to sample beneficiaries as per record is Rs.8104896/-, while the actual wages received by beneficiaries Rs.3388795/-; that out of total man days of 228038, in a sample of recorded man days of 115345, there were only 54860 actual man days. In other words, 53% of the man days are ghost days. They didn’t exist.’
Some wonder why the report wasn’t made public.
The Death of An Activist
I had decided to make some inquiries into details of Narayan Hareka’s case when I was at Narayanpatna, considering a villager told me something interesting when I started to ask him about the details of people killed by the Maoists over the last three years. The latest incident involved the killing of two non-tribals in the village of Kattulapet, Bandugaon in January, 2010. They allegedly refused to return adivasi land to the adivasis and were known moneylenders.
I would then ask him about Bhogi Ramesh of Kattulapet who was killed a long time ago. My source claimed he was a moneylender and liquor brewer who had gotten some indebted tribals beaten up by the police, and was thus killed for his ‘links’, by the Maoists.
‘He threatened them, he said he’d send the police to beat them all up.’ Said L, as he walked down the trail leading to one of the ‘interior’ villages of Narayanpatna, ‘Then the police did come one day, and they only beat up the villagers who were debtors. Then later the Maoists came and killed Ramesh.’
‘What about Patra Khosla of Bagaam village? They say the Maoists killed him too.’
‘He was involved in the killing of Narayan Hareka.’
‘And the Maoists killed him?’
‘How did they know he was involved?’
‘They did their own investigations.’
I decided to do my own. If I had to give any credibility to his story, I’d need some fact, some evidence or some acknowledgement from the Maoists themselves. I did not want to be left at an uncomfortable conjecture. The first thing I decided to do, was to locate the family, friends and colleagues of Narayan Hareka and see what I could find out from them. It seemed like an easy thing to do– to enter a block with a Maoist presence, where over the last few months, an adivasi uprising took place, hundreds of homes were broken down, the police fired into a crowd of tribals, mass arrests and combing operations became everyday events; and an all-India, all-women’s fact-finding team would be attacked by the locals with the alleged instigation of the police. Of course, everything gets all film noir, Red Corridor style.
Narayan Hareka, a Kondh tribal had two wives – the first wife Kantamani has allegedly gone underground as there is a warrant for her arrest. She used to work with him at the NGO Ankuran and would be closely associated to the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh in the coming future. His other younger wife Bando lives at a village called Kilmisi yet she’s being protected by her neighbours, who pretend to know nothing even though Hareka often worked in their village. The neighbours themselves only believe Narayan Hareka was killed in an accident. After some cross-questioning, they admit otherwise.
‘The Sondis say accident, the family people say he was murdered, we don’t know what to believe.’ Said one of the villagers, reticently, and it was obvious he didn’t want to say anything more – he didn’t know anything. They weren’t very happy to be talking to the press and they told us that we might fight Kantamani at Dandabadi. So we decided to go to Dandabadi.
Dandabadi is Narayan’s in-law’s native village and no one knows any Narayan Hareka. After some small-talk and some hesitation, we’re finally taken to their home. The door is latched. A few villagers smile to themselves. One of them knows his wife and says she has no idea where she is. I ask about Narayan Hareka’s oldest son. They don’t know his name.
A while later, I find his number from my contact. I call. The phone is switched off. I call everyday for a week. The phone is always switched off.
Then I decide to visit his old NGO Ankuran and hope to meet his colleagues. The building complex is known to be just a kilometre from the town of Narayanpatna. Here, I hope to find someone in Narayanpatna who knows Narayan Hareka, anyone. Yet we find an empty complex. There are around 10 buildings, decrepit, without a sign of habitation. Nothing remains. Even the electric sockets have been ripped out. A few old pamphlets, charts and posters lie on the floor.
A few tribals living nearby claim that the NGO left more than eight months ago, when the CMAS started to reclaim land from the non-tribals. A watchman claims that he wasn’t paid for the last two months he was there. We ask if there are any NGO workers nearby – we ask for Kantamani, and we ask about Narayan Hareka. We get nothing again. And it’s late. We don’t want to be caught at Narayanpatna overnight, we decide to return to Koraput after trying one more lead.
A day later, my contact-guide begins to receive phone calls.
‘Why are you asking about Narayan Hareka?’
‘What do you want to know about Ankuram?’
‘Why do you want to meet Kantamani?’
‘Who is asking about Kantamani?’
And we finally get a phone call from someone who calls herself Kantamani. She instantly screams at my contact. We tell her that we just want to know details about the life and death of her husband Narayan Hareka. She softens up, but says she’s another Kantamani.
The one we’re looking for has gone underground.
The Maoist Murders?
A day later, I called the Narayanpatna police station and speak to the Inspector-in-Charge about the details of the case of Patra Khosla. The inspector has only been there for a year and this is an old murder case. He calls someone else to inquire. He confirms that Patra Khosla was killed with a 9mm at 10 in the morning. There was no Maoist poster left next to the body. There may have been a letter but they don’t have it. His body was brought to the police station by family members but there’s no explicit proof that he was killed by the Maoists.
‘So tell me one thing,’ I asked the Inspector, ‘Would you by any chance have any phone numbers of the Maoists? Maybe I can just call them and ask them if they killed Patra Khosla.’
The inspector laughed. Thank God, he saw the joke.
But by this point, I was left at a dead-end. It was becoming more and more evident that the only way I can find out who killed Narayan Hareka and Patra Khosla would be to contact people who don’t want to be contacted, and trace down people who don’t want to be traced down. By this time, even L. who first told me about Patra Khosla had disappeared. All I had was one last piece of circumstantial evidence which I received from the Ankuran director Badalta, and a local reporter Subodhi.
‘Patra Khosla had some 17-20 lakhs in his bank account.’ They told me, ‘And he had no land, no job and no way to get so much money but from siphoning off from the SHGs he was handling.’ Said Badalta, ‘Narayan had warned him many times about it. He didn’t listen.’ Continued Badalta.
This was similar to what L. was telling me. But it didn’t matter. Murder doesn’t need to be a fact in Narayanpatna. It happens all the time.
As I was investigating this case, Mandangi Sahu Loknath was gunned down at the village of Nellawadi on the 10th of March, 2010. His family claims that the CMAS, in particular, the Bandugaon CMAS (distinct from Narayanpatna CMAS) was responsible for the attack. Adding to their suspicions, the CMAS Bandugaon had stuck posters condemning Loknath to death, implicating him in a gangrape over a year ago. Yet a few days later, the police claim a local journalist received a letter from the Maoists taking responsibility for the killing.
Did they really write the letter? I wonder. Yet I decided to leave Narayanpatna and on my way out, another sign of murder was being erased from the collective memory of the people of Narayanpatna.
An IED blast had taken place on the road to Narayanpatna a few weeks ago and a mangled corpse of a commander jeep lay on the side. Four civilians were killed, while all nine SOG personnel (Special Operations Group) who were sitting in the back had survived. The blast had torn through the front. One young child survived the blast but lost both his parents.
The remnants of the commander jeep lay on the side of the road for weeks later, a testament to just another simple act of murder, yet this time committed arbitrarily, without any fathomable just cause. Yet as I was leaving Narayanpatna, the jeep was gone. Taken away to the scrap yard I suppose. In the future, it probably never even happened.