Typically, in the weeks immediately before the monsoon, rural labourers have plenty of work to do. So, when in June an exceptionally high number of workers (1.4 lakhs) sought work under Maharashtra's Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) in Solapur district, the Collector Manisha Verma smelled a rat.
She also noticed that the payment put up to her for sanction against EGS work undertaken was exhorbitantly high. She did not recall ever having authorised work of this magnitude. Right away she started questioning her staff from the EGS department. The clerk, Manoj Nimbalkar soon sensed the trouble ahead and on July 1 confessed to the Deputy Collector and the officer in charge of the EGS, Ravindra Kulkarni, that he (Nimbalkar) has been fraudulently passing work orders. It was suspected he was either forging signatures or using the scanned signatures. Since the original documents are nowhere to be found, the possibility is also that the photocopy of signatures was being superimposed on the photocopy of the documents and there are no original documents at all.
However, Manisha Verma was informed about Nimbalkar's 'industriousness' only on July 11, 05 - a full ten days later. This delay allowed the culprit to remove the documentary evidence, and when the Collector ordered the sealing and inspection of Nimbalkar's office, there was no incriminating evidence left. Verma then ordered the reading of the muster roll - or Chavadi Vachan - to verify the claims of work conducted in villages. There was stiff resistance from the implementing agency - the Agriculture department - to this, however, and the muster rolls were not made available to her. And Verma found she could not overcome this resistance; with the size of this scam estimated at Rs.10 crores, and the likelihood of politicians from Maharashtra's ruling party involved at many levels, chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh verbally stayed the reading of the muster roll.
Solapur's local Marathi dailies, especially Dainik Lokmat - which is backed by politicans with high level connections to the Indian National Congress - mounted a frontal attack on the Collector holding her responsible for negligence of her duty in monitoring the work per EGS rules. The collector's transfer order too was issued (though withdrawn later). The entire administrative machinery resorted to a kind of non-cooperation, and Manisha Verma - highly respected as a rare upright IAS officer - was left alone to defend herself and answer the government's charge.
Then the Indian Express and its Marathi daily Loksatta took up the cudgels and came out with flyers saying the Chief Minister had stayed the muster roll reading to shield wrongdoers from his party. This irked the CM, who then made public statements that he had never ordered the stay on the reading. In fact, he had ordered secretarial inquiry sending EGS principal secretary Rameshchandra Kanade to Solapur district.
The delay offered by the Chief Minister's intervention had, however, given the Agriculture department time for a cover-up mission, and they now 'cooperated' with the investigation, sending 1100 reports of inspecting works taken up during the second fortnight of August 2005. The CM's 'no' to the reading of the muster rolls had provided enough time for a cover-up effort. Since the work orders were only on paper, they had to be matched with actual work. Ninety per cent of the work is compartment bunding (CB - which involves digging soil and piling it up for bunding individual farms). If the land had been dug and piled up in April-June, the photo in August should have shown grass grown on the bund and field, and also indicated where the soil was dug. However, the photos showed that the track along the bund looks freshly dug and that too with machines; it is not green at all, but fairly brown with plenty of soil exposed, as if it had never rained on this track. On such close scrutiny, many other loose ends in these 1100 inspection reports emerge making a farce of the inspection.
Although the Chief Minister now insists he never objected to the muster roll reading, the Agriculture department in Solapur is not giving the Collector the muster rolls. While it appears that as the EGS implementing agency, the Agriculture department has a significant role to play in siphoning the money meant for poor labourers, it flatly denies any role, instead squarely blaming the Revenue department and pointing out that the Collector is not taking any action against her own people. This isn't true; the Collector has in fact lodged a complaint against Manoj Nimbalkar, although she was initially thwarted by the police who at first refused to register her complaint. Such is the pressure on the entire governance system of the district that even the Collector is isolated and harassed.
The tahsildar gets the demand for work from the local labourers. The Revenue department then sends the details, and accordingly the Agricultural department takes up the survey, prepares a proposal and passes this on to the Taluka level officer, and the concerned Sub-divisional agricultural officer gives the technical sanction.
Then it goes to the Collector's office where again it is technically inspected and corrected for pitfalls. From here it goes to EGS department for sanction and is placed before the Collector for signature. By this route the proposal has gone through so many channels for verification that the Collector merely has to sign based on the trust on various departments that have gone through the proposal.
After the work order is passed by the tehsildar, and work is completed, a demand for funds is put up. All such demands are collected and sent up for release of the funds. The copies of orders are sent to revenue and agriculture department, where these should match before the release of funds.
Public audit unearths fraud
The Collector is also being blamed for stopping the work and payment to poor people, meanwhile. This too isn't true. Normally if such lapses take place, the poor people assemble at the local administrative offices and also send complaints to the Collector. But there is not a single postcard received complaining about lack of payment. It is only the MLAs and MPs who are crying horse that the poor people are starving. Why haven't these people turned up to receive their wages? Obviously many are bogus entries, and the people to collect the payments simply don't exist! This was witnessed during a field visit to Sonand village, where wages were being distributed; only 105 out of 188 workers came to receive the payments despite a well-announced wage distribution plan. This is as if poor people do not want their much-awaited wages!
There are also instances where 6-8 members from the same family are to receive wages, completely violating the scheme. The father of one such family was an old man who needed support to walk and help to put his thumb impression, and was oblivious of the money given to him. Can such a person ever do menial work? Even the younger lot, who did not appear to be illiterate, was using thumb impressions, arguing that the agriculture assistant disbursing the funds had insisted on thumb impressions only. Earlier a Talathi frankly admitted that one for every two entries in the payments list was a fake entry and the remaining thumb impressions are made using cotton gauge!
MKSS sent a fact finding team to tour Solapur district; its activists Dr. Bela Bhatia and Shankar Singh and others narrated their experiences of visits to some affected villages. As they got off the bus on the main road and were inquiring how to go to Chincholi village Chincholi, someone directed them to the Chincholi Sarpanch who was sitting nearby at a tea shop. The Sarpanch assured them that there is no problem in his village, and all EGS works are taking place and people getting paid for the work done. The MKSS group then proceeded to the village on its own, and headed for the dalit basti. Here the group engaged the locals in conversation. Slowly, the people opened up and revealed that some EGS work did take place but not through them - the local people - but workers were brought from outside for this. When asked whether work stated to be at a cost of Rs.26 lakh was really undertaken, the villagers couldn't confirm this. They believed only 30% of that claim was true. When MKSS member Girish took a measurement of one compartment bunding work, he found 100 cubic feet of difference between the claim and the data.
It appears that this malpractice has been going on for over 8-10 years, and in a way has become a regular practice - to produce fake work orders and get sanctions. Every year Solapur gets Rs. 200 crores worth of EGS work and this has become an 'industry' by itself attracting all kinds of robbers. During droughts, some departmental procedures were bypassed to speed the relief work, but later this became a regular practice to dodge the checks and balances in the system. While inspection, vigilance and quality control squads are to be in place in each district, this is not taken seriously, and regular reporting as per the rules laid down has not been taking place. Quite easily, therefore, the clerk Manoj Nimbalkar, in connivance with many others had been forging documents.
The works are often only on the paper. Even when the work takes place, often the muster contains 33-50 per cent bogus entries. The explanation given by K Shetty, leader of the Agriculture department employees union, is that as per the EGS rule, the wages cannot be more than Rs 45. However, in practice, it happens that a labourer ends up working for Rs.100 or more, and this has to be adjusted by making bogus entries of his/her family members. This may be true in some cases, but it also came out during the talks with the Talathi and workers that the money towards bogus entries is siphoned off, with fake thumb impressions.
During the wage distribution, the Sarpanch, the Police Patil, the Talathi, and the Gram Sevak have to remain present to inspect the wage distribution and identify the persons. But at Sonand, the Sarpanch and Gram Sevak were absent and the Police Patil and Talathi were somewhere in a corner. The EGS registered workers are given identity cards but without photos. None were asked to produce even this. So this identification also can be manipulated. Again the workers who are given work may not be those listed in the EGS register of that village. The Agriculture supervisor explains that even unregistered workers cannot be denied work if they seek it.
Solapur's local press sources, which have been very critical of the Collector, also admit that there is rampant corruption throughout the entire length of the administrative machinery. This is how the booty is shared - Rs.500 per work to the Sarpanch, 5% to the Agriculture assistant (to share with bosses in the agriculture department), 10% to the local MLA, 2% to the Zilla Parishad member. The work supervisor also takes 10 per cent from the workers. Then again the work is undertaken by the assistant, and the measurement of work is fudged. Often bulldozers are used and the workers exist only on paper. Scamsters are also said to have gifted Scorpios and Sumos to candidates from the last elections. The EGS has thus become a grazing ground for all kinds of crooks.
With the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme recently, the scam in Maharashtra is being pointed to as an example of how things might go wrong with the national scheme too. But Maharashtra's corruption, based on my observations, can be fixed. That would be the wiser course, rather than drawing back the national scheme because of failures in places like Solapur. A few simple recommendations:
EGS should be handled by someone with independent charge of the scheme. Solapur's Deputy Collector overseeng the EGS has additional charge of election, even though the Election Commission requires that the election-in-charge should not have other responsibilities.
The labourers should be given identification cards with photos; these can then be single identity cards for all other purposes too. The payments should be made only on producing these identity cards. The current identification cards are pieces of paper - mostly in tatters and illegible.
Presently 80 percent of the EGS work relates to the Agriculture department. These are compartment bunding, nala bunding, nala training, erecting farm ponds, etc. But even out of these, 90 per cent of the work is on compartment bunding alone, which is simply digging soil and piling up on the farm boundry. This breaks down every monsoon and again it is piled up. Earlier individual farmers used to take up this activity. Now EGS offers to do it for them. Thus mostly these recur every year, which is a waste of resources without creating a sustainable asset for the community. Obviously this is carried on just to source funds under the guise of creating employment. Hence the nature of work undertaken needs to be ascertained and scrutinized carefully, and also made more diverse. There are suggestions for going beyond agriculture-related works under EGS, and these may create social assets for community or improving social infrastructure - in health, education, skill development, marketing, etc.
Under the Right to Information Act, the list of EGS-registered labourers, the muster of all works, payments made, absentees, etc. could be made public; this transparency would cut down on the corruption greatly.