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The big hope: Transparency marks the NREGA in Dungarpur

By Anosh Malekar

A social audit across 800 villages in drought-prone Dungarpur district in Rajasthan is a shining example of how public vigilance and a proactive administration can combine to see that the rural employment guarantee Act is successfully implemented

Dungarpur, hitherto known as a drought-prone district in the desolate hills of southern Rajasthan, could prove the perfect test case for the new employment guarantee Act. It could change the face of rural India. But will it?

Everything here seemed dismally familiar: the sun-baked fields, the abandoned mud huts, and the tribals with sunken eyes standing under the shade of an isolated tree watching development pass them by. Dungarpur could be the pan-Indian story of large-scale migration to cities because of the utter neglect of rural areas during the past six decades. Except for the new hope in the form of the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) Act launched in 200 districts across the country on February 2, 2006. The new Act promises 100 days of manual work at a statutory minimum wage to adult members of rural households

On April 15, Dungarpur woke up to unusual slogans like "Har haat ko kaam mile, Kaam ka pura daam mile" (all hands should get work and minimum wages) and "Hamara paisa -- Hamara hisab" (our money -- our audit) raised as part of a mass social audit initiative of employment guarantee works by the Rajasthan-based Rozgar Evum Suchna Ka Adhikar Abhiyan.

The Abhiyan comprised 250 local activists drawn from various parts of Rajasthan along with 658 other participants representing 13 states of the country and two other countries (Bangladesh and United States). The participants formed 31 teams that trekked to 800 villages in 237 panchayats of the district in the course of 10 days.

"This is something new and it feels good. All our lives were spent toiling on the land and what we got in return was abject poverty," said Halia Gameti, an elderly tribal. "The government should now ensure that we get fair wages."

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (MKSS) activist Nikhil Dey said the NREG Act had rekindled hope among scores of tribals in Dungarpur, most of whom were known to search for employment outside because their land is highly degraded and drought-prone.

Drought relief works have been a reality here for the past several decades. But survival has been difficult because of limited opportunities for work and the virtual absence of minimum wages. "The concept of the right to work for a minimum wage is new and revolutionary, and the people are just beginning to taste it," said Nikhil.

Chhapi was a small village in Bichiwada panchayat with a population of less than 1,000. It practised single-crop, rain-fed agriculture, and survival after the monsoons was an uphill task. "People want work round the year," said Sarpanch Maganlal Gameti. "We have issued nearly 150 job cards this year and have big hopes from the NREG Act."

The picture was the same across Dungarpur district: 2,37,228 families had registered for employment guarantee works and 2,26,407 had been issued job cards by the district administration; by mid-April some 1.5 lakh persons had been employed on worksites. The available reports from nearly 300 worksites visited by the Abhiyan showed that nearly 73% of the labourers were women. Out of the nearly 30,000 labourers with whom activists interacted only 145 had complaints related to work. Musters rolls, treated as a secret document by local officials over the years, were available for public scrutiny at 98% of the worksites. All worksites were under the supervision of gram panchayat officials and not private contractors. There was an incident or two of roughing up and abuse of the 'padyatris' by local mischief-mongers but by and large the local elected representatives and officials were cooperative. "Dungarpur clearly emerged as an example of how public vigilance and a proactive administration can combine to see that the NREG Act is successfully implemented," said social activist Aruna Roy at the concluding ceremony of the Abhiyan.

However, Dungarpur also presented serious issues related to minimum wages. The move by the central government to supersede the state-specific minimum wages and set a uniform wage rate of Rs 60 per day under the Act was widely condemned. "People from across the country including social activists, academicians, journalists and farmers, have pledged to oppose the move," said Bhanwar Singh Chandana, coordinator of the Abhiyan. Talking to the labourers, particularly women, it was found that there was a strong demand for partial wage payment in foodgrain, specifically wheat. This had to do with the spiralling prices of wheat in the open market and the widespread alcoholism among men. It was found at the worksites visited that wages actually paid were usually somewhere between Rs 40 and Rs 60 per day, and sometimes as low as Rs 20-25 per day. There were very few cases of anyone earning the state's statutory minimum wage of Rs 73 per day in Dungarpur.

There were delays in wage payment at many worksites, apparently because of cash-flow problems and lack of sufficient staff at the district level.

The transparency provisions prescribed for wage payments were only partially followed. In the absence of proper technical measurement of individual work by the mate/junior engineer and lack of proper communication about work norms, beneficiaries do not know how their work compares with the prescribed task linked to the minimum wage.

K S Raju, principal secretary, rural development, Andhra Pradesh, who participated in the Abhiyan, observed that a labourer in Rajasthan had to dig 61 cubic feet to earn a minimum wage of Rs 73, compared to a labourer in Andhra Pradesh who had to dig only 44 cubic feet and still got a higher wage of Rs 80. The Abhiyan demanded that specified tasks be reformulated in dialogue with people involved in the Abhiyan. It also demanded that the practice of group measurement be done away with since even people doing full work are not able to earn the minimum wage.

Instead, the Abhiyan demanded that individual measurement or at least measurement of work in very small groups be adopted and the mates/panchayat officials receive training on measurement of works and maintenance of records as well as on the provisions of the Act.

"We are hoping this campaign percolates to the grassroots and people begin to resolve their wage issues. There is a lot of social conflict involved in mass social audit because basically you are pressurising the system, including the local power structure, to deliver," said Dey.

Aruna Roy said, "The right to know and the right to live have got interlinked in the entire process. Suo moto transparency of government functioning is now mandatory. This will take a little time to percolate but the beginning has been made." A careful verification of the muster rolls at the worksites uncovered fewer irregularities. Large-scale fudging of muster rolls, so common in the past, was reduced to a large extent during the Abhiyan. "No bureaucracy is going to deliver unless there is pressure. The NREGA is a democratic process in which people understand and learn how to put pressure on the bureaucratic system to deliver," said Aruna Roy She said that all the pessimism and fears of the past had been washed away by her experience during the Abhiyan in Dungarpur. "This huge workshop should hold important lessons for participants from different parts of the country."

The participants were upbeat on the future course of the social audit process and resolved to return to Dungarpur within a year for a similar monitoring exercise. They also passed a unanimous resolution that the historic NREG Act should be extended to all the districts of Rajasthan and the entire country.

(Anosh Malekar is a Pune-based journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, May 2006