Govind Bhoi of Brahmanipali village of Boud district got about Rs.6500 for working along with his family in the pond renovation work under National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in his village during May and June 2007. Getting a lumpsum of money for a short spell of work is new for him. So, instead of frittering it away, he invested in a bullock and seeds for cultivation.
Uma Kahanr, an old woman of Tarabha village of the same gram panchayat (GP), who also worked on the same NREGA work, got Rs. 1850 for working about 20 to 25 days (she cannot recall the exact number). From the earnings, she was able to repay some debts and meet some consumption expenditures. Because of this regular work, she did not need to collect and sell wood everyday - a practice that was her major source of livelihood. Happy with the compensation, she says, "If you get Rs.100 for 100 units of work (read 100 cubic feet), you can fill your stomach. By selling wood you barely manage to survive."
A renovated pond with check dam funded under NREGS in Brahmanipali village of Boud block/district. The work has become a durable asset for the village. Pic: Pradeep Baisakh.
The pond renovation work in Brahmanipali was completed in July 2007. Nearly 84 households have benefited from the tank and the check dam that were constructed as part of the project. "Previously the water would flow unchecked and was of no use for our agricultural land, but now because of the tank and the check dam, the water can be stored and channelised to our lands," says Budhadev Barik of the village. "We can bathe in the pond and during summer when the tube wells either go dry or have muddy water, we can use this tank water for domestic purposes," he adds. Another villager is optimistic that with the renovated pond, the ground water level will rise, preventing the tube wells from drying up in the coming summer.
This example shows how NREGA work has started contributing toward the betterment of people's lives and creating durable and useful infrastructure in villages. However such examples are few.
A survey on NREGA works was conducted at 30 worksites in GPs of six blocks randomly selected from three districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Boudh of Orissa by the G B Pant Social Science Institute of Allahabad University in October 2007. The students from Delhi University and local volunteers conducted the survey under the active guidance of renowned welfare economist and one of the chief architects of NREGA legislation Jean Drèze, economist and right to food activist Reetika Khera, and state advisor to Right to Food Commission of Supreme Court, Rajkishore Mishra.
The basis of the survey was cross-verifying the muster rolls (MRs) and Job Cards (JCs) with the versions of the people. The survey team also interacted with various stakeholders to ascertain the position of the flagship scheme and the difficulties on the ground level.
The health of NREGA in the state is discussed in this article that is based on the findings of the survey and on other sources like discussions in OREGS Watch Group - an e-group on NREGA issues in Orissa.
Vulnerability to corruption
The interim report of the aforesaid survey observes, "The verification of 30 sample worksites shows that only 60 per cent of the days of employment recorded in the MRs were confirmed by the respective labourers. The corresponding discrepancies in the wage payments may even be larger. However, this is hard to ascertain as the verification of wage payments poses considerable difficulties " ( See report.)
Job cards: not very useful
The JC has been conceived to be a primary document in safeguarding transparency under the act. However, its faulty design has rendered it of little use to its users. The main design lacuna is the absence of the column specifying the wages paid. In such a case, the payment of the worker cannot be ascertained. Moreover, the worker does not fill the JC him/herself; it is filled by the PEO or Village Level Leader (VLL) in presence of the worker. Also, the labourer's name and the name of the work are entered in a code format, mostly in English, so virtually no labourer can read it. During the survey, no worker was able to decipher the card.
Breakdown of transparency mechanism
The entire mechanism to ensure transparency in NREGA works seems to have broken down in the state. Two types of MRs are maintained by the VLL (who is the mate/contractor) - kaccha (unofficial) and pucca (official). The kaccha MR has the authentic figures, the pucca one is clandestinely manipulated, despite the rule being that the official MR must be maintained at all worksites, in front of the labourers. The collector of Boudh district Shalini Pandit says the mates consider the pucca MR sacrosanct, which is why they first make entries in the unofficial one and then enter the figures ("make them fair") in the official MR.
Rajkishore Mishra, social activist, disagrees. "Two rolls are maintained to allow manipulation of wage payments. The JCs are also often found with the sarpanch or the Village Level Worker (VLW, who is the Panchayat Executive Officer) and not the workers, providing ample scope for manipulated entries to remain hidden."
Of late, however, there has been some positive change in this area as the government has sought the expert help of the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad to conduct social audit, which in turn has roped in the CSOs and activists.
Infamous 'cuts' culture
The practice of officials taking 'cuts', rampant in all government systems, is evident in NREGA works too. A staff from a block details the percentage cuts taken by officials and political representatives in NREGA works. It must be noted here that there are two types of NREGA works - one done by blocks and another done by gram panchayats. In both, the 'cuts' culture exists.
In the works done by the block, the BDO claims two to three per cent, block chairman three per cent, junior engineer five per cent, the auditor takes one per cent, cashier one per cent, head clerk half a percent and the data entry operator half a percent. Over and above these, the sarpanch, panchayat secretary and the panchayat executive officers (PEO) also claim their shares. The total percentage of direct pilferage may work out to be nearly 20-22 per cent. The contractor has his/her share in terms of percentage and/or some share from the material cost.
In the panchayat works in Bolangir district, the surveyors have revealed the percentage system. BDO takes two per cent, junior engineer five per cent, assistant engineer three per cent, other block staff one per cent, PEO five per cent, GP secretary three per cent, miscellaneous three per cent. The total works out to be 22 per cent.
One BDO unofficially shares that the Zilla Parishad chairperson of his district sits over the approval of the annual district plan on NREGA so that his cadres get the work and he gets his cut. Jogendra Behera, an MLA from Titlagarh in Bolangir district, wrote to a BDO to grant NREGA works in favour of his contractors. Social activists say that the percentage system has an intricate relationship with the election process at the panchayat levels and above. A part of the percentage cuts goes as funding to election processes. Since the percentage cuts in NREGA also fill the coffers of the MLAs, they seem reluctant to raise the issue of lackadaisical implementation of NREGA in the state assembly or in other forums.
However, there is some good news. Almost all agents of implementation like the junior engineer, the VLW and the contractors agree that under NREGA managing percentage cuts has considerable risk, and eventually it will go down particularly after payment through banks and post offices, which has just begun, becomes fully operational. In this system, the payment amount is deposited in a labourer's account by cheque. Hence, there is no scope of manipulation by those distributing the payment as now there are two levels where the record of payment can be cross-checked -in the muster roll and in the bank account details.
Perpetuity of the contractor system
Even though the law strictly bans the involvement of contractors in NREGA works, they continue to be involved directly or indirectly. Jitendra Rath, social activist, says, "The mates are none other than the traditional contractors in disguise. They get themselves elected in the Palli Sabha meets, which in most cases are influenced by the feudal framework of the village constituting the sarpanch, contractors and other influential persons."
Other reasons contribute to the continuity of the contractor system such as the absence of provision of advance payment to the mates by the state. This prevents a lay person from taking up work. Inadequate staff is another contributing factor. A JE in Kalahandi explains that one JE has to cover nearly all the works in eight to nine GPs, which is physically almost impossible especially if the terrain is hilly. Therefore, to cope with the situation, he gets an expert (read contractor) to take charge of the work and he makes the payments accordingly.
Contractors turn goons
The prevalence of the contractor system has resulted in a mafia of sorts, sometimes in complicity with the panchayat, block level officers and even the police, targeting all those who press for banning the system. In October 2007 in the Tentulikhunti GP/Block of Navarangpur district, the BDO, owing to public and media pressure, agreed in writing to disburse unemployment allowance to eligible candidates. Immediately after, the contractors Ajoy and Bhima Panigrahi threatened the people of the area and the social activist working with them and forced them to write that they did not need the unemployment allowance. (It was only after the intervention of the Assembly Committee that they were given the allowance).
In December 2007 a social activist Trilochan Jaisingh in Tadema GP under Raygada block and district was allegedly beaten by the contractor's goons in the presence of the PEO. Later the Gram Panchayat Extension Officers and the BDO of the block, instead of taking action against the contractor and PEO, persuaded the activist to compromise. In Dombaguda village/Panchayat under Mohana block of Gajpati district, the people opposing the involvement of the contractor and rampant corruption in an NREGA roadwork were allegedly framed on false charges by the local police at the behest of the contractor and the sarpanch.
Provision of crèches: egg or chicken first?
The law provides for crèches at the worksite if there are five children below six years of the mothers working there. Only a handful of crèches are reported in the entire state; these too were provided only after enlightened villagers demanded them. The concept behind the crèches is that a mother with babies must be able to attend work and also the elder sibling (generally the sister) should not have to skip school to look after the baby.
Promodini Suna of Baguda village can go to work only in the morning when her elder daughter takes care of her younger sibling. In the second half, she has to remain at home as her daughter goes to school. Damati Chandan of Debripali village of the same GP cannot attend work as there is nobody at home to take care of her two-year-old son. It was not clear whether women did not report for work because of the absence of crèches or if there were no crèches because there weren't enough (five) children at a particular worksite.
The question remains: should crèches be provided first so women can attend work or should it be the other way round? "Crèche should be mandatory if five such women demand it. But it would also require more sensitisation," says Jean Drèze.
Grievance redressal mechanism in disarray
Under the NREGA law and the Orissa scheme an aggrieved individual can make a redressal request to the BDO, who must act within seven to 15 days. If not satisfied, the victim can approach the collector and then the State Employment Guarantee Council (SEGC), which must listen in a time-bound manner. The SEGC itself was to be constituted within six months of the enactment of the act. In a public seminar held at Bhubaneswar in November 2007, villagers alleged that many of their complaints had not been heard by the BDO and the collectors in their districts. They wanted to know who to approach, as the SEGC had yet to be constituted. Thus, the penalty provision for the violation of the act remains uninvoked.
The Monitoring and Information System (MIS), set up by the Orissa government, can help in achieving discipline and consistency in record-keeping. However, in this initial phase, the rigidities of the MIS have contributed to promoting 'adjustments' in the written records. For instance, a muster roll can accommodate a worker without job card, but the MIS cannot. Similarly, the MIS does not allow employment to be given to a household that has already secured 100 days of NREGA employment in the current financial year.
These hurdles are typically overcome by making 'adjustments', either in the written records or at the data entry stage (e.g. 'clubbing' two workers' wages in the same muster roll entry). Thus, instead of alerting users to possible inconsistencies and irregularities in record-keeping, the MIS often covers them up. (Observations of the interim survey report)
District collector of Boudh Shalini Pandit admits to adjustments being made in the MIS as many correct entries are not accepted by the existing MIS.
Shortage of adequate staff
"Haat pair band diye aur bolte ho ke daudo" (Our hands and legs are tied and we are being told to run), says a JE of Kalahandi district. He was expressing the inability to meet the demands of work measurements of many NREGA works due to shortage of adequate number of JEs. Similar problems are also faced by BDOs, PEOs and other such authorities, who have to implement other welfare schemes along with NREGA. Even though NREGA permits to spend four percent of the total allocation toward the salary cost of the officials to carry out the scheme, it's ironic that the state government has paid a deaf ear to the staff demand to carry out the work and manage a plethora of record keeping activities for the scheme.
Though many training programmes have been conducted by the State Institute for Rural Development (SIRD) for the officials and sarpanches, these have not been able to make the concerned staff properly aware about the act. The state government should consider outsourcing this task to the CSOs who have proved to be more efficient in training people.
Non-release of money for the current financial year
During the survey many people and mates complained of not being paid for months. Discussion with the authorities brought forth the fact that in some districts, the utilisation certificate (UC) of the expenditure of the last financial year (2006-07) had not been submitted to the centre leading to the withholding of funds in the current year (2007-08).
The latest situation in three such errant districts - Boudh, Kalahandi and Bolangir - is that Boudh district has recently submitted its UC, Kalahandi has received money after submission of UC and nothing is known of Bolangir. Since districts have been chosen by the centre as the unit for releasing money, responsibility must be fixed on the District Programme Coordinator (Collector) in the state for non-submission of the previous UC, though the concerned BDOs who have not done so should also own collective responsibility. In the meanwhile, why should the daily wage earners suffer for the delay?
Village feudal structure poses greatest challenge
The persistent feudal structure in villages often leads to discrimination, as one small section of society hoards the benefits of welfare schemes, often by conniving with the local bureaucracy. The case is no different in case of NREGA works. The panchayat and block representatives, officials, contractors constitute this feudal group, posing the most serious challenge for the successful implementation of NREGA. The percentage system and its linkage to funding the elections, hijacking of Palli Sabha and Gram Sabha meetings are the manifestation of this feudal character. Widespread illiteracy and silence of the marginalised sections have perpetuated the menace. It remains to be seen if in due course this legislation provides strength to the voiceless.
Second instance of unemployment allowance being paid
Following a relentless struggle, 63 people of Tentulikhunti block of Navrangpur district have been paid unemployment allowance for four days. This is the second instance in the country after Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh. In total 546 job card holders have received unemployment allowance amounting to Rs 1,04,355/- in three districts - Navrangpur, Kalahandi and Bolangir.
Says Jean Dreze, "No unemployment allowance has been given even in Maharastra where the employment guarantee act has existed for 30 years. Disbursement of the same in Orissa certainly exemplifies the strength of the NREGA legislation." However there are many other cases where eligible people have not received their due. Thuamulrampur GP under Jagannath Prasasad block of Ganjam district is a case in point where nearly 250 people applied for jobs in November 2006 and failing to get job within 15 days, applied for unemployment allowance, but to no avail.
The most significant aspect of NREGA is the increasing assertion of people who work under the scheme. The process of training and spreading awareness on the act by social activists and NGOs has created a situation wherein people are reported to be demanding their job cards, jobs, receipt of applications, etc. by way of staging dharnas, writing complaints and using the RTI Act.
Recently a group of people in Narla block of Kalahandi district staged a dharna in front of the BDO Nihar Dash's office to demand their unemployment allowance. The BDO had to accede. Both the GP and block level authorities of Ullunda block of Soanpur district denied receiving work applications from villagers. The applicants sat in a dharna in front of the block office till their applications were acknowledged and they were given dated receipt by the BDO.
OREGS Watch Group, a vibrant e-group
The e-group is intended for discussion on various aspects of the NREGA in Orissa its practice, adherence and violations. It has nearly 400 members - from government and non-government organisations, NREGA activists and members of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC). This mixed and learned membership urges the government to respond to postings on the e-group.
Stern action by authorities sets example
During the survey conducted by the G B Pant Institute, a fake muster roll was found in Badhigam Gram Panchayat of Boudh District - an attempt to siphon off money from NREGA funds. Taking note of it, the district magistrate Shalini Pandit recovered the embezzled money of Rs.10,480 from the VLW/PEO, put him under suspension and ordered an inquiry by the vigilance department - all in 24 hours. Such strict actions will go a long way in preventing officers from taking the legislation for granted.
Government wakes up after pressure from CEGC
The members of the CEGC visited the three districts of Kalahandi, Sundergarh and Mayurbhanj from 20 to 23 November 2007 and then interacted with chief minister, panchayati raj minister, chief secretary and the officers of the panchayati raj department. The focus was to bring about some systemic changes for better implementation of the scheme.
Following up on the demands, the government has taken the following vital decisions:
- There will be a column for 'wage payment' in the JC. Existing cards will not be replaced, but the remarks column in the card will be used for the purpose by putting a rubber stamp on it. In case of six districts, which will be included from 2008-09, the JCs will carry separate column for wage payment.
- The gram rojgar sevak will be responsible for distribution and maintenance of the JCs.
- Contractors will be banned in NREGA works. Saswat Mishra, additional secretary, department of panchayati raj, who is in charge of implementation of NREGA in the state says, "This is only a reiteration of already existing provision of the act. We have instructed the JE and VLWs, in whose names work orders are issued, to strictly abide by this provision and entrust the work to the VLLs selected by Palli Sabha, not to the contractors."
- Mates, who are able to make work measurements, will be appointed in line of the Andhra model. They will make measurements in lieu of the junior engineers. The government has announced the appointment of one lakh gaon sathis to help coordinate and assist in NREGA works along with helping JEs in work measurement.
- Social audits will be conducted in the state as conducted in Rajasthan. The government has requested the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), Hyderabad, to conduct 40 SAs in 19 districts (which were covered in the first phase of implementation) by the end of February 2008.
The government has also ordered an inquiry into the complaints of unemployment allowance of 2000 people from Kalahandi district submitted by Annie Raja, member of CEGC. The government has clarified that the entire amount will be paid from the salary of those officers found guilty of not providing work in 15 days, including that of BDOs of the district.
Other demands of the CEGC which are yet to be implemented by the state government are:
- Prompt action on complaints and putting in place effective grievance redressal mechanism.
- Use of single, uniform, numbered muster roll through out the state.
Clarifying the government's position on these demands, Saswat Mishra says, "A government order will soon be issued mentioning the time limit for various authorities to act on the complaints of the aggrieved public." On the issue of uniform muster roll he adds, "We have to wait till the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), GOI gives any order in that regard."
Complementary to the visit of the CEGC members, a state level public seminar on NREGA was conducted by the social activists of the state where people from various districts presented their cases and grievances. The seminar was attended by Annie Raja and Jean Drèze who were given the complaints. The compiled version of the complaints was sent to the state government on 14 December 2007. The government had promised to act within a month of submission, but that has not happened till date. Says Baidhar Biswal, additional secretary, department of panchayati raj, "Though we had promised to act within a month, the process has taken time. We have forwarded the complaints to the collectors; they will have to forward the same to the BDOs and then to the panchayats."
Despite many shortcomings in the implementation of the act, it has been proved beyond doubt that the NREGA is a classic legislation providing guaranteed entitlement to the rural folk. Even though it has not been able to check distressed migration from rural Orissa, in the long run, it can check the same as most of the migrant labourers said with conviction that if they got 100 days of assured employment in their villages they would not venture out of state.
"The fact that the whole state administration has been alerted to put NREGA in priority list is itself an achievement," say Jean Drèze. In fact the legislation has brought about a new ray of hope among the people and the civil society organisations. Comparing the initial period of implementation with the current position, the act has got a proper direction in the state and things have started falling in line.