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The potential for transformation through MGNREGS

By Siraj Dutta

In Kuira, effective people’s planning and monitoring at the panchayat level has ensured the completion of several useful public works under MGNREGS, quick payment of wages, and a substantial fall in distress migration from the village

Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme

Nirasho Gope, a landless labourer, and her daughter have worked for 70 days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) this year. At one time Nirasho used to detest working under the MGNREGS because payments were always delayed. Now her top priority is to finish her 100 days of work by March, which is a right under the MGNREG Act. The Rs 8,400 she has earned thus far has helped her family steer clear of the abject poverty cycle. Like Nirasho, there are many people in Kuira who see the scheme as a way to earn money and improve conditions in their village.

Although the present state of the MGNREGS, a massive social welfare scheme from the government, is not very encouraging in Jharkhand, a slow and steady revolution has been taking place in the tribal village of Kuira in Jaipur panchayat, Hatgamharia block, West Singbhum district.

Corruption in MGNREGA implementation is a stark reality in Jharkhand. Lack of accountability at all levels of governance and implementation has resulted in so much cynicism that people have stopped questioning the system. Years of exploitation of tribals has taken away their voice. Middlemen (bichaulias) are an integral part of the system and everyone, including the people of Kuira, had got used to the nexus of middlemen and corrupt bureaucrats. They knew that work would never be completed and that they would not get their wages on time. They also knew that to get any work they had to hand over their job cards to the middlemen. No one questioned the bichaulias and mates about discrepancies in wages or lack of worksite facilities. “NREGA toh marega,” was how they dismissed the scheme. To them, it was just another government scheme for the creation of large ponds, wells and kutcha roads.

In the absence of any panchayati raj institution in Jharkhand, planning and implementation were carried out by the local bureaucracy. The entire process was top-down.

Then, in 2010, Jharkhand witnessed panchayat elections after a gap of 30 years. The biggest challenge was to decentralise the decision-making and financial authority. Indeed, the devolution of decision-making powers from the local bureaucracy to panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) has not been smooth.

The MGNREGA aims to make asset-creation demand-driven and to strengthen decentralisation. The gram panchayat is the pivotal body for implementation at the village level. Following an awareness campaign by the NGO PRADAN, the people of Kuira realised that they had the power and right to decide the nature of MGNREGS works undertaken in their village. Participatory planning by people around the available land and water resources led to the formation of a comprehensive village-level plan.

The villagers of Kuira have come a long way since then. Indeed, equations have completely changed in the village. People now have the confidence to seek accountability from the system. If workers do not get entitlements such as a first-aid kit at the worksite, they confront the mate or the rozgar sewak. Similarly, if there is a delay in issuing cheques by the panchayat, mates immediately ask the mukhiya for reasons. All mates are questioned about expenditure and work progress at monthly gram sabha meetings. “Na lok sabha, na rajya sabha, sabse upar hai gram sabha!” says village dakua Arjun Pan at the start of every gram sabha meeting.

One of the major reasons for the poor state of the MGNREGS in Jharkhand has been the absence of strong gram sabhas. Kuira’s gram sabha is attended by a large audience of labourers, mates, landowners and other villagers. Extension workers and PRI representatives also attend meetings. Mates maintain ledgers to track the weekly expenditure of MGNREGS works, and present work and financial reports to everyone present at the meet. Strong monitoring and supervision by the gram sabha has ensured optimum utilisation of funds at the grassroots level.

Kuira is showing the way to panchayats and villages that complain of small numbers of labourers at MGNREGS works. A hundred or so people have been working on various schemes, on a regular basis, in the village. The local bureaucracy and PRI representatives have worked hard at mobilising people and creating awareness about the scheme. It is not uncommon here to see the BDO, mukhiya and rozgar sewak conducting regular tola sabhas around the MGNREGS.

Kuira is the only village in West Singbhum that boasts a series of completed MGNREGS works. The expenditure vs completion ratio is pretty skewed for the district as a whole. In the last five years, only 40% of all works have been completed, with 70% of sanctioned funds spent. Completion of most water-harvesting structures exists only on paper. In Kuira, on the other hand, 90% of water-harvesting structures started after the monsoons last year have been completed. The key has been a healthy collaboration between the local bureaucracy, PRI and villagers. A strong platform for the three has been built, which meets weekly to ensure smooth implementation.

Steady work and regular payments have helped reduce distress migration. There has, in fact, been an almost 40% drop in the number of people migrating to cities in search of work. “If we keep getting regular work and payment in the village, why would we go outside for work? I used to migrate to Chhattisgarh for work in the tower line. But now I can earn Rs 12,000 in the village itself,” says Chunnu Pan who works at one of the many MGNREGS worksites in Kuira.

Earlier, middlemen used to withdraw money from the bank and distribute it to the workers as wages after taking their share. Many labourers did not even know about the existence of these bank accounts. Embezzlement has been a critical issue in MGNREGS implementation. Although recently, the district has allowed cash payments for all panchayats that are at a distance of 3 km or more from the nearest bank or post office to avoid delays, the people of Kuira prefer payment through banks. Withdrawing wages from the bank has been a new experience for many men and women here, giving them a sense of empowerment and confidence that no one can take their entitlement away from them.

Surja Purti, a physically-challenged man, had lost all hope of getting unskilled work in the village. After becoming aware of his rights under the MGNREGA, however, he wrote out a job application and asked the panchayat for work. He was given the task of providing drinking water to workers, and monitoring the on-site crèche. He became the first disabled man in the entire block to have asked for work under the MGNREGA, and got it.

The villagers have now started viewing the MGNREGS as a rights-based government scheme, not just another asset-creation scheme. Workers get in touch with mates or the rozgar sewak and demand work. A comprehensive shelf of work ensures that everyone gets something when they need it.

The MGNREGS has traditionally been male-dominated, with local contractors and bichaulias ruling the system. For the first time in this district, self-help groups (SHGs) have been involved in implementation and supervision of schemes in Kuira (they are implemented by SHG representatives who have been selected as mates by the gram sabha). This was a totally new concept in West Singbhum district, causing immediate unrest among male mates and bichaulias. Despite repeated attempts to intimidate the women mates, however, the SHGs and villagers remained united. Now, thanks to tremendous improvements in quality and timeliness of implementation, the middlemen have been driven out of the system.

MGNREGS implementation depends greatly on extension workers like the rozgar sewak. An area of concern in West Singbhum was the irresponsible attitude of many extension workers towards their duties. Today, the people of Kuira are aware of each person’s role and responsibilities. This has brought about upward pressure on the system to deliver. It is not uncommon to see the rozgar sewak of this panchayat busy at the worksite, issuing job cards to new labourers. In the words of the rozgar sewak: “Agar sarkari tantra zameeni star par kaam kare, toh koi bhi kaam ho sakta hai”.

Kuira has also streamlined muster roll-wage workflow. The women mates measure the work at the end of each day, filling in the daily measuring book and muster roll. At the end of the sixth day, they complete the muster roll and get it signed by workers at the worksite itself or in a public place like a school, etc. This is then submitted to the rozgar sewak who checks it and forwards it to the panchayat mukhiya/secretary the next day. A cheque is issued the very same day and deposited at the local bank. Labourers get their wages at the bank within 10-12 days.
The impact of the MGNREGA in Kuira can be seen at multiple levels, the most important being the safety net it provides to wage labourers. The scheme has helped many families tide over the lean agricultural season. And distress migration, which is at its peak at this time, has visibly reduced. A major focus of the Act is the creation of land-based assets for families and the village. As village plans are made taking an integrated natural resource management approach, created structures will help harvest rainwater and check soil erosion. Families will be able to shift from mono-cropping to double-cropping, along with crop diversification. Another major visible impact has been the empowerment of villagers, and strengthening of the gram sabha.

Kuira has demonstrated that healthy collaboration between the bureaucracy, the PRI and aware citizens around the MGNREGA can turn the fortunes of a village around. If Kuira can do it, other villages in Jharkhand surely can.

(Siraj Dutta is with the NGO PRADAN whose work is described in this story)

Infochange News & Features, March 2012