On 18 July 2020, Kamlesh Bhagat, a Dalit sarpanch of Pochhal A-2 panchayat in the Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir, resigned from her post. In several letters to district officials, the lieutenant governor, and the president of India, written prior to and post her resignation, she complained about rampant corruption in the local administration and caste-based discrimination. Since April, Kamlesh had been fighting a battle to secure wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or MGNREGA, for Dalit and Muslim workers who she said had not been paid their full dues.
The MGNREGA guarantees 100 days of paid work in a financial year to rural workers, referred to as job card holders under the scheme. According to Kamlesh, Dalit and Muslim workers in four wards within her jurisdiction had been discriminated against because of their caste and religious identities. She said the junior engineer responsible for their payment was demanding a commission to release their full wages, and wrongfully marking the workers as absent. Kamlesh told me that when she complained about this corruption to senior officials, Suresh Sharma, the Kishtwar block development council chairman, insulted her with casteist abuses.
According to Kamlesh, the wages in Jammu and Kashmir under NREGA was Rs 189 per day of work for the financial year 2019-2020. She told me that Dalit and Muslim job card holders in four wards were assigned community work like the construction of cowsheds. She added that in addition to providing 100 days of labour for these projects, the workers also invested their own money for construction material and tools. “Apart from their Rs 18,900 dues for 100 days work under MGNERGA, the group head ended up spending nearly Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 for the assigned job from his pocket,” Kamlesh said, referring to one of the workers. “To everyone’s horror, they were paid Rs 4,000 or so per head.” Referring to Vijay Parihar, a junior engineer, Sheetal Sharma, the block development officer, and other members of the panchayat, she added, “The concerned JE falsely showed them to be absent for most of the days. I was even asked to sign on the fake or fraudulent bills by the Kishtwar BDO and some of the panches. I complained to the Kishtwar district development commissioner on 2 June in this regard.” Kamlesh added that on 15 April, she sent a memorandum “regarding the corrupt officials including the JE” to “various high ups, but to no avail.” In the 15 April memorandum, Kamlesh wrote that the JE had paid the job card holders for only 20 to 30 days of work. She added that those who provided him a commission were paid for the full hundred days.
Kamlesh noted that of the seven wards in Pochhal A-2, two wards are home to Rajput residents. She claimed that in those two wards Rs 14,000 was deposited against every job card holder’s account, while in the remaining wards where Dalit and Muslim residents live, workers received only around Rs 4,000 for 100 days of labour.