Caught in a debt trap after constructing toilets under Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat Mission (SMB), sarpanchs of eleven villages in Kanker district of tribal Bastar region have threatened to commit suicide if their payment is not released within a month.
Toilets had been built by the sarpranchs through loans on construction material, and manpower as they were promised to be paid back after getting the amount sanctioned from the district administration. Though their villages have been declared open-defecation-free (ODF) four-five months back, they are now facing crippling debts and threats from material suppliers and loan sharks.
"My village was declared ODF on April 7 and construction of 299 toilets were approved by administration. I was told by Janpad CEO that it was mandatory for each house to have a toilet. When I found there were 49 additional houses that needed toilets, I was told to arrange raw material for the same and payments would be made later. Now, I am burdened with loan of Rs 23 lakh for past one year," Mahar Singh Usendi, sarpanch of Dongarkatta village of Bhanupratappur block in Kanker was quoted saying to Times of India.
"I am fed up as every day labourers, traders and suppliers who have lent me money, raw material and manpower chase me. Eleven sarpanchs in this block are facing the same predicament. Do we have any other option but to commit suicide if we don't get money to pay off loans?" he asked.
Usendi said: "It's a shame for a sarpanch to face this humiliation. When we approach Janpad and Zilla panchayat, they say 'jab tak upar se paisa nahi ayega (until money doesn't trickle down from the top), we can't transfer any amount to your account.' Moreover, the toilets are made in so much hurry, that they are already getting damaged and villagers are still defecating in fields."
Usendi's story was also true for the sarpanchs of Bhaisakanhari, Dongargaon, Tilhathi, Sewari, Kacchhe, Atulkhar villages.
Another sarpanch Sewakram Gawde of Dongargaon, validated the story and said that in most villages across Chhattisgarh, sarpanchs were pressured to achieve the targets of ODF and haven't been paid.
"Our worry is that there is no written approval given for constructing additional toilets that we had built at our own risk. If someone of higher rank gets transferred we would be in deep trouble. We are anyway not left with any other option than ending lives. I am burdened with loan of Rs 37.16 lakh," Gawde said.
Kanker collector Shammi Abidi claimed that the administration had the situation under control. "Although no sarpanch has yet approached me directly, I just spoke to Zilla panchayat CEO, who confirmed that Rs 1 crore has just been sanctioned from state and the money would soon be released to the sarpanch concerned. I also asked him to visit the villages and find out the orders given for constructing toilets and how much money has been utilized. The CEO will counsel them and I would also ensure that no one takes any extreme step. Their problems will be addressed."