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NREGA: Where is the people's participation?

By Jamal Kidwai and Juhi Tyagi

The gram sabha is supposed to decide on the works to be undertaken under NREGS. But most people in the villages surveyed in Bihar recently had no clue how the work or worksite in their village was determined. This is in complete violation of the principles of decentralisation and local participation, which are as central to the objectives of NREGA as economic and political empowerment

Two sets of surveys were conducted by the authors on the status of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in Jehanabad and Arwal districts of Bihar (the findings of the survey were earlier reported on infochangeindia). One survey covered ten villages in the two districts and was conducted in September 2007. Another six villages were covered in March 2008.

The neighbouring districts of Jehanabad and Arwal are situated in the south-eastern region of Bihar, also known as the Magadh region. Arwal was carved out of the district of Jehanabad in 2001. According to the 2001 census, the total population of the two districts is around 17 lakh, with almost 18% belonging to scheduled tribes. The region is known for several brutal caste massacres carried out by paramilitaries of upper caste groups and the Maoists. The infamous jail break by the Maoists in November 2005 is considered to be a watershed in the Maoist movement.

Bihar was the first state in India where NREGA was implemented in all 38 districts. Jehanabad was amongst the 22 districts where the programme was initiated by the central government, while Arwal was one of the 16 districts where NREGA was funded by the Bihar government under its State Rural Employment Guarantee Act (SREGA).

According to government sources, from 2006-08 Jehanabad was allocated Rs 4614.54 lakh under NREGA and Arwal, Rs 4875.18 lakh. Information about muster roles, task estimates and workplans related to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) in villages that were surveyed was sought from the district authorities of both districts under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The information was given to us five months after it was requested, requiring numerous visits to district and block offices. It also meant dealing with threats from elected representatives such as mukhiyas from several of the villages from which information was requested. We had to take the help of the State Information Commission to finally access the data.

The survey revealed that for NREGP schemes to become corruption-free and encourage peoples’ participation at the grassroots level, there must be reform in the existing bureaucracy that is responsible for implementing government schemes at the village level. More importantly, structural changes have to be brought about for local-level elected representatives and government institutions to function in harmony. Such reforms will help in democratising other government schemes also meant for empowering the rural poor.

The vast literature that is available on NREGP surveys and social audits carried out by social movements and NGOs in different parts of India shows that many of the concerns we encountered in Bihar are common to other states. We highlight them before moving on to discuss some of the larger complexities and challenges that NREGP faces.

People’s participation missing

Take the issue of how a decision is arrived at about the nature of work that is to be undertaken under NREGA and the site on which it is to be implemented.

According to the statutes laid down in the Act, this is to be decided by the village general body or the Gram Sabha (GS). In the six villages surveyed, only in village Saristabad in district Jehanabad were villagers aware of a GS in which a decision was taken to construct a check dam-cum-canal and a pond. However, even in this case, though endorsed by the people, the check dam was a political decision aimed at protecting the land of the new mukhiya on the one hand, and on the other, submerging the land of the former mukhiya. The latter is accused of murdering a family member of the present mukhiya because he was bitter at the strong competition he faced in the panchayat elections.

At the other extreme, in village Malhi Patti in Jehanabad district, the decision to make an embankment on the river Son was made by a mukhiya who had visited the village only a handful of times.

Such issues of contestation also raise the question of cost-benefit and the related political and social implications of any development project, however small and local. Most people in the villages surveyed did not know how the nature of the work and the site on which it was to be carried out was decided, which means the choice of projects was imposed from above. Bypassing the GS in making such decisions is in complete violation of the principles of decentralisation and local participation, a spirit that is central to the objectives of NREGA, along with economic and political empowerment.

Subverting the rules

NREGA is rightly seen as a landmark legislation because it has inbuilt systems of transparency and accountability, amongst several other progressive features. Detailed documentation of each aspect of the job performed, estimation and payment of wages are to be done in such a way that they can be cross-checked to ensure that there has been no denial of just wages to the beneficiaries. This has been done not only to discourage corrupt practices but to also encourage beneficiaries to participate in governance of the Act at all stages of implementation.

The vast gap between rules on paper and their actual implementation on the ground came out quite starkly in our survey. Entries of the two most important documents -- job cards and the muster roles -- were mismanaged. Records of the job performed by each beneficiary and the payment he/she is entitled to receive are to be recorded in the muster rolls and job cards. The muster rolls are to be maintained and kept by the mate who supervises the job on the work site on a daily basis, and who gets an additional ten rupees for the extra duties he performs. The job cards are like bank passbooks that have entries of the work done and should be kept in the custody of each beneficiary.

Our survey revealed that none of the muster rolls were ever updated on the work site. Worse still, the muster rolls were mostly in the possession of the mukhiya, and the beneficiaries were made to sign on blank muster rolls on the days they received their payments. The mukhiyas later matched and filled the same figures into both the muster rolls and the job cards.

Take for example village Parasi in Arwal district. The village is located just a kilometre-and-a-half from Laxmanpur Bathe where more than 50 dalits were massacred in 1997 by the upper caste paramilitary, the Ranvir Sena. Every year, more than 200 to 300 young men migrate for work to other states like Gujarat and Delhi. Of more than 15 people interviewed in Parasi, only one beneficiary had his card with him; all the others stated that their cards were lying with the mukhiya. We were witness to the payment for the recently completed work in Parasi being made by the mukhiya. We found that the mukhiya was making the beneficiaries sign on blank muster rolls. When confronted, he said he was doing the job for the Rozgar Sevak who had fallen ill. Though he refused to take responsibility for the muster rolls being empty, he said it was because payments could not be made at the work site as it was unsafe for the Rozgar Sevak to carry large amounts of money to the work site.

Task estimates (number of labourers required to construct a particular project, expenditure on wages, on materials and other such estimates) are drawn up either by the Panchayat Technical Assistant, Junior Engineer, Assistant Engineer or the Executive Engineer, depending on the size of the project. We visited the worksite in Sikaria village in Jehanabad with a Junior Engineer (JE) in charge of that region. Each block is sanctioned one JE who draws or approves task estimates, visits worksites for measurement and subsequently fills measurement books. Sikaria village is known to be an active Maoist base. For this reason the village was chosen by the district magistrate of Jehanabad to be developed as one of the model villages. This means all activities of the village and interactions of the elected representatives from the village are directly monitored by the district office. As a result, the village is regularly visited by the district magistrate.

During our visit with the JE to the construction of an irrigation channel, an NREGP worksite in Sikaria, we were told that the work was being carried out on an already existing irrigation channel, which has been functional since the time of the British Raj. The JE admitted that he drew up the task estimates without visiting the worksite. The reason, he said, was that it would take two to three days to do that, and he did not have the time. As a JE of the entire block, he is at the moment monitoring 30 projects.

There can be serious implications for not visiting the worksite before drawing task estimates, such as sanctioning far greater money than the project requires. This allows scope for corruption. However, it also raises micro and macro issues such as monitoring, budgeting and human resources on NREGA worksites. Given the number of sites that one JE is in charge of -- in the case of Bihar, at least 30 sites -- it is impossible for a JE to visit every site on a regular basis. A JE is only paid Rs 8,000 a month, with no travel or other daily allowances. In Bihar, the road connectivity and public transport system is dismal. A JE cannot be expected to spend money from his pocket to hire a private vehicle to visit worksites on a regular basis. The JE we travelled with candidly admitted that to visit a worksite he has to “depend on a lift”, and is often “offered gifts…”

Bad planning

Analysis of some of the NREG programmes surveyed in the two districts revealed that they were inconsistent with the objective for which they were being constructed, or were a result of simple bad planning which raised the cost and time of the project. For instance, in village Parasi in Arwal district, the project was meant to create a landfill over a dumpyard, but mud was being dug from an adjacent spot, which created another big crater. Since this pit is right beside the landfill, rains will eventually cause some of the sand to move back into this pit, eroding the landfill and nullifying the work as a whole.

Similarly, in village Kudrasi in the same district, a canal was being constructed, the depth of which was no more than 1.5 feet. People in the village complained about the function and durability of such a shallow canal. The officials in charge of implementing this project, like the Rozgar Sewak, were well aware of the limitations but refused to take action because the project was already underway. In village Malhi Patti in Jehanabad district mentioned earlier, an embankment was constructed along the Son river to prevent the water of the river entering the village. However, the embankment soon became a hazard as it blocked the natural outlet of the rainwater from the village to the river and was breached during the first monsoon.

Saristabad village in Jehanabad is another example of bad planning. The construction of a much needed lake was started in May 2007. The rains soon followed and then came the rice-cutting and wheat-sowing periods. For five months work was stalled and the lake silted up. In March 2008, the villagers wanted to restart work on thelake but could not do so because the money allocated for the project lapsed in March with the end of the financial year. Given the state of the Indian bureaucracy, carrying forward un-utilised money from one financial year to another can be a bigger project than any NREGP. Similar cases, where projects were stalled during the rains and now remain incomplete and abandoned, were seen in many villages.

Complicated wage calculation

The NREGA has an innovative clause for estimation of wages. The wages paid are based on several factors like minimum wages, gender, the kind of soil that has to be dug, the depth of the digging and the distance the beneficiary has to walk to throw the soil from the site of work. In Bihar, if a man digs 80 Cft of soft soil he should be paid a minimum wage of Rs 87. A woman has to dig 68 Cft to receive the same minimum wages. The amount of digging decreases if a man/woman has to dig more than five feet or has to walk a distance of more than 50 metres to throw the mud. In other words, they are paid more for the same amount of work depending on relative hardships at the worksite.

Our survey found that let alone the beneficiaries, in most cases even government officials in charge of supervising NREGA sites were not aware of how wages were to be calculated for different quantity or quality of work. It should be appreciated that policymakers have designed seemingly complex structures for calculation of wages and job done in order to ensure that the definition of work takes into account the social, cultural and geographical diversity and inequalities prevalent in a vast country like India. However, as we have seen in the above cases, certain sections of the bureaucracy and elected representatives can exploit these complexities to indulge in corrupt practices. And the beneficiaries can be exploited because of their ignorance, illiteracy and caste discrimination.

This problem is compounded by lack of communication between the state and block-level authorities. In all the villages surveyed, wages were calculated on the baseline of a minimum wage of Rs 81, even though the State Rural Development Department quotes the new minimum wage at Rs 87, a change made three months ago. The Block Development Officers (BDO) and the Junior Engineer of Jehanabad district interviewed in the survey, said they were aware of the increase in wages only to Rs 82, according to a notice from the state government they received in the last week of February 2008. Even earlier, when the minimum wage was raised from Rs 77 to Rs 81, there was similar miscommunication or delayed communication. None of the villagers were ever paid the backlog that was due to them during the last increase of the minimum wage, and they don’t expect to be paid now either.

The problem has significant administrative implications other than the issue of just wages. For any NREGA work, wages constitute the maximum share of budget allocation. A significant delay between the release of funds and making the payment allows excess funds to accumulate in the hands of district and block-level officials. Such access to funds allows and encourages corruption. Another implication of such lack of communication is on the drawing up of task estimates. They are drawn on a certain minimum wage, but with the revision of minimum wages, new task estimates must be drawn up which, the JE informed us, rarely happens.

Caste and NREGP

An interesting feature of NREGA is that though it is an employment-generation scheme, it does not have any reservations for dalits, other backward castes (OBCs) or minorities. Many commentators see this as a major flaw in the scheme. Without getting into the debate on reservation and NREGA, we would like to state that the beneficiaries who were interviewed during the survey almost all belonged to the dalit or OBC community. This suggests that the issue of caste and class in Bihar are closely intertwined. A majority of landless agricultural labourers in Bihar belong to the dalit community, as is the case in almost all the other states of India. However, a significant finding of the survey was how the caste subdivision amongst the dalits was reflected in the allocation of work in NREGP.

Take the case of village Parasi again. A Dom family was hired under the NREGP to clean and repair the sewer in the village. Within the dalits, the Dom sub-caste belongs to the lowest in the caste hierarchy who traditionally perform the job of scavengers. They also perform rituals during Hindu cremations, rear pigs and make bamboo products to earn a livelihood. Typically, any village in Bihar has only a couple of Dom families. Surendra Dom and three members of his family worked four days on the above-mentioned NREGP site. Surendra was quite conscious that no other family would have taken up such a “dirty” job and it was natural that the authorities recruited him to clean the sewer. But more importantly, according to Surendra, he and his family were refused a job when the canal was being constructed under the NREGA in the same village.

Ignorant, underpaid and overworked functionaries

Finally, the functionaries recruited by the government for the implementation of NREGP at the grassroot level, like the JEs and the Rozgar Sewaks (RSs), suffer from administrative constraints and sometimes a hostile political environment. They are underpaid and overburdened with work. They do not have sufficient knowledge of the clauses of the Act. As a result they fail to appreciate the social empowerment spirit of NREGA. All the JEs and RSs we met were people who belonged to other districts of the state. Several JEs and RSs complained that they found it difficult to confront and check corrupt local political representatives like the mukhiya who wielded much more political clout than these JEs and RSs who did not belong to the area.

An innovative Act like the NREGA faces many political, social and administrative challenges. For the benefits of the Act to reach the poor, the government has to bring about structural and administrative changes. If the Act is successfully implemented it will not only benefit the poor but also reap rich political dividends for the existing state governments. On the other hand, if the Act fails, it will add to the already widespread cynicism amongst the rural poor.

For more information, contact
AMAN Trust
O-63 IInd Floor, Lajpat Nagar II
New Delhi-110024
Website: www.amanpanchayat.org

(The authors are with Aman Trust)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008