Scheme in place but few seem to eye work

Public hearing in Sheragada block throws up some problems in implementation of job guarantee scheme at the grassroots level

sarthak

Sarthak Ray | January 4, 2013


Block and district officials at  public hearing on MNREGS
Block and district officials at public hearing on MNREGS

As far as public hearings go, the one at Sheragada block office on December 26, regarding grievances with implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREG) scheme, wasn’t stellar. Barring possibly the fact that it was an exercise in accountability initiated by the government itself (by no means a paradigm if one thinks of governance in India).

For a start, of nearly 100 people in attendance — including the sub-collector who presided over the meeting, the block development officer, engineers and block and village-level panchayat members — the number of job cardholders could be counted on fingertips.

“There’s no job cardholder from my panchayat here,” admitted Pitambar Das, the sarpanch of Dhanantar, one of the 22 village panchayats in Sheragada. The panchayat functionaries had been asked to inform villagers about the hearing three days before the scheduled date. While on the face of it, it seemed the information had not trickled down (“We didn’t know this was scheduled,” a Pitala villager later told Governance Now), the block development officer, Manoj Kumar Swain, reasoned that the ongoing harvest season could be a major factor behind the less-than-expected turnout. “Most beneficiaries will be working on the fields,” Swain said.

However, the public hearing did expose a concern that seems no one in the assembly brought up in front of the officials. “Most people you see here are villagers who make money from projects as labour and/or material contractors,” a gram rozgar sevak told Governance Now on conditions of anonymity.

While NREGS mandates a policy of ‘no contractual labour supply’, it is allegedly being subverted here. That no one is ready to speak openly on the issues suggests it is occurring widely and is being overlooked by field-level functionaries. A gram sathi (village-level functionary, appointed under a directive of the state panchayati raj department to oversee implementation of projects under the scheme) from a village in Dhanantar panchayat, said: “It (flouting of MNREG rule) is happening but no one is complaining openly. If everyone is involved at the village, at the panchayat levels, who will point fingers, and at whom?”

Another functionary from Dhabalpur panchayat offered an insight on why the arrangement has gained such ground: “There is no labour. The beneficiaries are not ready to work for the minimum wage because they get better wages as migrants. (Job) cardholders work in Surat (Gujarat) or Andhra Pradesh and come back only for the cropping season to work in fields when NREGS work is stopped for the rains.

“So arranging labour for the projects is difficult (and) anyone who can organise labour is becoming a labour contractor,” he said.

The figures reveal a chronic unavailability of labour. Kabiraj Goud, the gram sathi of Lanjiapalli village, said only one person had got 100 days of employment in his village last year, while the figure was two the year before.

At the public hearing, the only demand from the beneficiaries’ perspective, was on an issue infamous here as ‘zero mass’. A banking correspondent model had been tried out in Sheragada where an organization, Zero Mass, was made the link between the local branch State Bank of India (holding the block administration’s account for NREGS funds) and the beneficiaries. The disbursal of wages on field was being managed by Zero Mass.

“The payments, however, were not made regularly, as the organisation had internal issues. They could not attract enough field-level banking correspondents and, consequently, there were several complaints from the beneficiaries about delayed payments,” Swain said. “But now the bank has terminated services of the organisation and all pending payments have been cleared.”

Clarifying the new mode of payment, the BDO told the assembly that beneficiaries will now be paid through accounts in banks with core-banking system for all future work under the scheme. “The next slot of projects will be finalised and started in the next 15-20 days,” he said. “All payments will be made through CBS bank accounts.”

The more persistent demand, raised by a few panchayat members and field functionaries, was for new road projects. The BDO, while clarifying that roads came third on the works’ list of NREGS after water conservation and harvesting projects and land development, assured that the proposals after they are passed by palli sabha (village-level meetings) will be presented to the district administration, which has discretionary powers in sanctioning such projects. The demand itself, however, is sign that the rot is spreading, the gram rozgar sevak, who did not want to named, insisted. “It is easy to make money off road work. The road is to nobody’s direct benefit, unlike a pond or a check-dam. So who will complain?” he asked.

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