An Indian Muslim donates money to a beggar laying on the ground after Eid al-Adha prayers outside of a mosque in Agartala, the capital of northeastern state of Tripura, on August 22, 2018. Photo: AFP Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha (the feast of sacrifice), the second of two Islamic holidays celebrated worldwide marking the end of the annual pilgrimage or Hajj to the Saudi holy city of Mecca. / AFP PHOTO / Arindam DEY

It has been six months since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with the help of the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT), came to power for the first time in the northeast Indian state with a promise of building a new Tripura. However, it seems that all is not well in the state, especially in the tribal areas. There have been reports of a lack of work resulting in a food crisis in the state’s Dhalai district.

It is true that this hasn’t happened all of a sudden. The tribal areas were lagging behind in development during the Left era too, especially the remote areas. Although the previous Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, government tried to develop the region, its efforts were insufficient.

However, the Left government successfully implemented the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). Since the introduction of the program in 2006, the state’s performance record in job creation has been among the best in the country.

It was the MGNREGA that ensured the availability of employment in the state including the tribal areas. This year, Dhalai district, which has received 12 awards for its implementation of the scheme, produced 142,996 man-days of work as of August 31, so average man-days stood at only 11, which is very thin compared with last year’s performance. Yet even as recently as last year, Dhalai, along with South Tripura district, was recognized by the central government for its effective implementation of the scheme.

However, since the formation of the new state government, implementation of the program has stopped in many parts of the state, badly affecting the rural economy. Obviously, there were and are reports of corruption related to improper utilization of funds provided by the MGNREGA program. Therefore, the new government decided to apply strict measures in the block (subdistricts for rural development) levels. Because of this, according to reports, there have been new demands by officials for the verification of various documents to identify original job-card holders in the tribal blocks, resulting in the stoppage of funds to the elected village panchayats (councils) and committees. And this has badly affected the rural tribal economy in particular.

Since the formation of the new state government, implementation of the program has stopped in many parts of the state, badly affecting the rural economy

The state government reported in June that 1 million man-days under MGNREGA had been produced in just two months (April and May) and the figures were higher than for the first two months of the last financial year – only 649,000. The government also said that Dhalai district alone generated 266,000 man-days. However, this contradicts the figures stated in the reports mentioned above, which stated that 142,000 man-days were generated in the Dhalai district as of August.

According to a Management Information System (MIS) report published by the federal Ministry of Rural Development and the Department of Rural Development, a total of 12 village panchayats in Gomati district failed to create any employment under MGNREGA from April to June during the fiscal year 2018-19.

The Tripura government has always dismissed reports of a lack of jobs and a food crisis in the tribal areas as an effort by the opposition – mainly the CPM – to malign the new administration from the very first day this issue was raised by Jitendra Chowdhury, a Left member of the Lok Sabha (lower house of the Indian Parliament).

In July, the government announced the distribution of 20kg of free rice per family to 10 selected tribal blocks for two months to tide people over during the difficult monsoon season. However, reports by a notable daily in the state said the already functioning yearly rationing system in Dhalai district had collapsed. One main reason, as the paper reported, is the implementation of the biometric system (Aadhar) in the remote areas where Internet connections are very weak, resulting in delays in fingerprint identification.

Also, the irregular distribution of the required goods to the ration shops is causing problems. The report said that although rice arrives within the first week of the month, wheat and kerosene have started to arrive in the middle or sometimes at the end of the month because of administrative failures. As a result, people have to visit the ration shops three or four times a month.

The situation is getting more miserable day by day, with hardly any work under MGNREGA, on which most of the remote tribal areas are highly dependent. Those who used to sell vegetables are unable to do so because few people in the villages can afford them.

An astonishing fact, as reported by a major daily in the state, is that the Ganganagar tribal block of Dhalai district comprising seven village committees is not even listed by the state government for free distribution of 20kg of rice per family – despite the fact that it is one of the most deprived blocks in the state. The report says that the prevailing situation in the block is worsening day by day, with very limited food remaining in people’s homes, although the Tripura government rejected the reports published on the front page of the major daily. In addition to this, frequent power tussles in the tribal areas between the two ruling allies BJP and IPFT have only helped to worsen the situation.

It is also a fact that these reports are largely ignored by a section of the state media. Durga Puja, the largest festival of the state, is approaching and it is the season when markets are flooded with crowds. However, there are reports of smaller crowds in the markets in several parts of the state. It remains to be seen how the government will tackle the crisis, which is hitting the hilly tribal region especially hard, and if effective measures are not taken in time, the situation may get out of control.

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Sagarneel Sinha

The writer is an India-based commentator on politics, religion, culture and philosophy and tweets @sagarneelsinha.