NREGA activists who paid with their lives Lalit Mehta (Jharkhand)

By A K Gupta
Published: Monday 30 June 2008

NREGA activists who paid with their lives Lalit Mehta (Jharkhand)

Lalit Mehta worked for Jharkha A palm-sized cd has become the prized possession of Jagdish Mehta, the father of social activist Lalit Mehta, who was brutally murdered in Kandra jungles of Palamu district in Jharkhand on May 14. His eyes gleam as he holds the cd in his hands. It contains a record of a damning social audit of an nregs project in Chhatarpur block, and the old man hopes it may one day nail the culprits. "My son died fighting corruption. He was brutally murdered. What can a father ask for except justice? We gave him the best of education and Lalit utilized it to end poverty and corruption," he says, tears welling up in his eyes.

A civil engineer by qualification, Lalit, 36, blew the lid off widespread corruption in nregs in Palamu.He had become a threat to the contractor lobby and corrupt government officials. Social audit of nregs he undertook under economist Jean Drze's supervision was proving to be the final nail in the coffin of the contractor lobby. But before that he was killed.

The Chhatarpur Police found his body at Kandaghati in Chhatarpur on May 15. His mutilated body and a belt around his neck suggested he was strangled and his face smashed to deform it beyond recognition. The police buried the body as unidentified the same day. It was later exhumed by his colleagues and taken to his native village, where his last rites were performed.

"The police made no effort to identify him. It was heart-rending to imagine the murder and to witness the way his body was humiliated. We identified Lalit by his slipper and shirt. That's the fate of social activists here," says Manoj Kumar Singh, president of the Vikash Sahyog Kendra, an ngo that was given the responsibility of carrying out social audit of nregs in Palamu.

Lalit first thwarted corrupt contractors and government officials in 1990 by developing a software to prevent overestimation of civil works under the Sukha Mukti Abhiyaan funded by the state government. The software made it near-impossible for contractors and a section of government officials to make money fraudulently. With the help of the community he built 125 check dams as part of a long-term strategy to overcome droughts in the district.

As secretary of the Vikash Sahyog Kendra, Lalit led volunteers in Chhatarpur to verify muster rolls and wage distribution among villagers. He came up with damaging facts about the Rs 5 lakh nregs project to build a pond in the block. These facts presented during the audit have been compiled in a cd. It reveals that the project was bogus. During the audit it was found that the roster contained names of 108 people but only eight of them were employed. Villagers' signatures on the payment register were forged. Job cards were made in the name of 10 villagers who had migrated long ago. In one case the card was issued in the name of a dead person.

Dreze was to join Lalit for another social audit in Daltonganj and it was in this connection that Lalit had left Chhatarpur on the night of May 13, but did not reach there the next day. "We thought he might have stayed back in Chhatarpur to complete pending work of the social audit. But a news item in a Hindi newspaper about the recovery of an unidentified body in the jungle of Kandra rang alarm bells in our head," say Manoj Singh and Jawahar Mehta, treasurers of the Vikash Sahyog Kendra.

Singh immediately called up Lalit on his cell phone. It was answered by an unknown person who tried to convince him that he was Lalit. But when they called Lalit the second time, it was switched off. "We rushed to the Kandra police station and our doubt was confirmed," Singh adds. But a leader like Lalit is not easily forgotten. People in Palamu have formed a society to seek justice for him, the Vikash Sahyog Kendra and Action Aid are demanding cbi inquiry into his death and Drze conducted a public hearing in Chhatarpur where details of social audit and the proof Lalit had gathered were made public.

"Being a civil engineer he would have easily got a decent job in a good city. Lalit refused to leave Palamu and had set himself a target that one day he will ensure that government-run schemes reach the poor. He was a person of strong will and despite social pressure he married a tribal girl Ashrita Tirkey," says Vyomkesh of Action Aid. Lalit is survived by his wife and two sons.

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