Where MNREGS takes a back seat

Villagers in Ganjam prefer to migrate for better wages and sustained employment

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | December 7, 2012


A half-constructed structure under MNREGS in Ganjam
Prasanna

On the condition of confidentiality, a sarpanch of Sheragada block in Odisha’s Ganjam district shared some secrets about the MNREGS works.

He said over a period of two months ending in June this year he got a pond renovated under the employment guarantee scheme which provided work to about 140 to 160 people. Most of those engaged for the job were from a neighbouring panchayat. But on paper, all the names were from his own panchayat. In all, Rs 2.40 lakh were paid to the workers on the spot, not by the government but by him. He drew money from the village fund (called ‘gaan kotha’) for the purpose. Not all the listed beneficiaries have received their official payment. As and when they do, the village fund is replenished.

The sarpanch was trying to impress how difficult it is to get MNREGS work done in his area because most people are just not interested in a low-paid job. When challenged, he pointed to a villager listening to the conversation and said, ask him. The villager (who too will remain unnamed for confidentiality) said: “Payment comes after three months. How will I, a daily wager, and my family survive for so long? Besides, I get Rs 150 a day doing other work. Why will I take MNREGS work for Rs 100?” (Though minimum wage under MNREGS is Rs 126 in Odisha, it is linked to the actual output and so could be less.)

The grama rozgar sevak (GRS), who supervises all MNREGS work in a panchayat, said he was forced to give Rs 150, instead of the minimum wage of Rs 126, because people were reluctant. “How do I adjust the difference except by making fake entries?” When asked how he could get away with it, he said those who received Rs 150 suggested the names of the job card holders for fake listing.

He had another issue. If less number of people showed up for a work, and they could all be given work only for 100 days each, what would happen if the work wasn’t completed in those many days? He would have to make them work for more days and make fake entries in the muster rolls.

Quite clearly, there is a conspiracy of silence at work that keeps the wrap on such wrong doings.

A special social audit conducted in this panchayat in June this year by Omega – a joint initiative between the state government and UK-based funding agency, DFID – confirmed that “people feel that MNREGS works are low paid and un-remunerative”. It, however, failed to detect the fake entries in the muster rolls.

The GRS said the root cause of corruption was fixing of a target for MNREGS works. He said the previous BDO (the current one took charge in May this year) had told him to carry out works worth Rs 16 lakh if he wanted the salaries of all five panchayat functionaries, which come to about Rs 35,000 a month, released in time. The salaries are paid out of six per cent administrative cost earmarked for the purpose. (Senior officials contacted later said the target could have been given to ensure adequate works were taken up.) The new BDO, Manoj Swain, had not given any such target, he said.

Inquiries in this panchayat had earlier revealed that a 72-year-old villager had received 77 days of work in 2011-12. But the old man said he had not gone for work in the last one-and-a-half year. When confronted with official documents by Governance Now, he said he didn’t know how his name got listed in the muster rolls.

There was another entry against a person whose family couldn’t be found in the village at the time but the villagers said he was a 10-year-old boy. He was shown to have got 100 days of work in the same year.

In fact, it was these findings and the official document that forced the self-indicting disclosures from the sarpanch and GRS.

A few more examples are in order, which show how the scheme is working at the ground level.

In Gopa Palli village of Bandhaguda panchayat, villagers assembled for the October 2 palli sabha said that there had been no MNREGS works for the second year in running. This was in response to a question. There was no demand. There was indifference. The panchayat officials said a pond was to be renovated (dug dipper and cleared of muck) this year but since it didn’t dry up, it wasn’t taken up. Then the mandatory period of stoppage of work (because of rains) set in – from June 15 to October 15.

Similarly, in Subaliapalli village in Dhanantara panchayat, no work was taken up after 2010-11 because there was simply no proposal. One proposal was made in February this year but it was rejected by the officials because it was too late in the day and the panchayat elections were due (held in February-March). In earlier two years, two projects had been taken up. A 12ft wide and 400m long road was laid over two years at a cost of Rs 5 lakh. It has now reduced to 2-3 ft wide ‘pagdandi’. A pond was also renovated and now holds sufficient water.

In Dhavalapur panchayat, there are 559 job card holders and yet there is no proposal for work even after the gram sabha meeting of October 17-18. A panchayat official said a lot of work needed to be done in the area, but there was little demand.

Low demand is reflected in the fact that of 4.4 lakh job card holders in the district, only 1.03 lakh have demanded and got the job this year, as on October 5.

It is also reflected in the panchayati raj (that runs MNREGS in the state) department’s letter of September 17 to all district project directors expressing concern that the “demand for employment and expenditure are not up to the (proposed) work”.

Low demand is primarily because of a tradition of migration for work. Most of the able-bodied individuals work in Surat, Mumbai, Bhubaneswar and elsewhere, where they get better wages – Rs 150 to 250 a day. They find regular work in textile, embroidery and diamond cutting units. Or at construction site.

Historically speaking, the origin of the phenomenon (in this southern and western part of Odisha) is traced to the devastating famine of 1866 – known to Odias as the ‘na anka durvikhya’ that wiped out a million lives, almost one-third of the state’s population at the time, and sparked a massive migration that has endured. Besides, farming is largely rain-fed. Land holdings are low, most of the people being small and marginal farmers or landless. All these add to the pressure to look for job elsewhere.

There are no official statistics but the collector, Dr Krishan Kumar, says anywhere between 2 and 3 lakh people (of 37 lakh in the district) move out in search of work. He concedes that MNREGS has not made substantial impact on migration, though the agriculture wage has tripled in a matter of few years – from about Rs 50-60 in 2009 to Rs 150 now.

The collector says the last financial year was particularly bad for the district because of a CBI inquiry. The apex court had ordered it following a petition by an NGO which alleged massive embezzlement of funds in the infamous KBK region (Kalahandi, Koraput and Balangir districts that now have been divided into eight). Though Ganjam didn’t figure, “there was a general decline in the MNREGS works in the state and Ganjam mirrored that”.

Besides, the panchayat elections were due in February 2012 and in this politically sensitive district (home to the chief minister, revenue minister and several MPs) both the sarpanchs and BDOs backed out. They were reluctant to take up new projects. Thus, as against a total expenditure of around Rs 90 crore in 2007-8 (at its peak), only Rs 55 crore were spent in 2011-12. He says things are looking up with Rs 50.09 crore already spent until October this year.

Costly land and insufficient government land are the other issues he listed to account for less work.

Infusing new life
The panchayati raj department is trying to stem the rot through a slew of new initiatives. The first is to energise the panchayats and get the villagers to do their planning. For this, for the first time in anywhere in the country, a state-wide campaign was launched to hold palli sabha and gram sabha to prepare five-year perspective plan and annual action plan between October 2 and 18. The officials expect to complete the rest of the formalities (Gram sabha’s proposal will be cleared by panchayat samiti and then the zila parishad) and issue the entire year’s work orders on April 1.

New panchayati raj secretary Aparajita Sarangi has taken several other measures too. She has made it almost impossible to take up road connectivity projects that cause much of the wasteful expenditure. She told Governance Now: “We received a lot of complaints that machines are being used for road constructions. There is possibility of siphoning off funds in this. Besides, durable roads can be made under other schemes. Somewhere down the line, mud roads are a waste of money.” Durable roads with higher material component can be built under the cement-concrete road and gram poanchayat road schemes of the state, MPLAD, MLALAD, BRGF (backward region grant fund), PMGSY, Integrated Action Plan for Maoist-hit districts etc.

A mud road can still be built but only with a district collector’s special permission.

Digging up and renovation of ponds, the other major cause of wasteful expenditure, haven’t been stopped though. She explained that the state was focusing more on “mo pokhari” (‘my pond’ scheme started in 2009) – a state government scheme that promotes integrated development by providing additional fund and resources for pisciculture in those ponds and plantation of fruit trees on the banks. Under this scheme, a grant of up to Rs 2 lakh is provided to an individual. All small and marginal farmers are eligible for the grant.

Incidentally, renovation of ponds accounts for a maximum of Rs 22.6 crore of Rs 50 crore spent on MNREGS this year in the district. Water conservation/harvesting and rural connectivity come second and third with Rs 11.75 crore and Rs 9.5 crore of expenditure respectively.

Another significant initiative is to identify “potential pockets” where MNREGS works could be taken up on a massive scale. The criteria for identifying such panchayats are: poverty, SC/ST population, non-availability of works, less payment of wages, non-industrial area, non-irrigated area and away from urban area. These have been spelt out in her directive to the districts. So far, 3,500 gram panchayats, out of a total 6,236 in the state, have been identified for the purpose.

As for Sheragada block, the BDO, Manoj Swain, has identified 14 of 22 panchayats as potential ones in which, he says, maximum importance will be given to soil and water conservation and water harvesting and individual projects. Besides, at least two community projects would be taken up every year in every village.

Sheragada seems to have taken to building check dams in a big way. There is one to be found anywhere there is a stream or water flow. Such is the administration’s enthusiasm that in Krushna Sahi panchayat for example, the gram sabha had proposed four mud roads and renovation of four ponds for this financial year but five check dams were built instead (roads are out in any case). Pond renovation is quite common too. Emphasis on water harvesting is quite keeping with the need of this rain-fed area.

Interestingly, Sheragada is the first block to take up e-muster rolls and e-payment (through electronic fund management system), which started last year to prevent leakages and ensure timely payment. The BDO says the block is the first one in the country to do so. But the problem remains. The BDO says that is because there were some glitches with the SBI’s business correspondent model, called Zero Mass, which held up payments. Now the state has now banned Zero Mass and the SBI has been directed to transfer the money directly to the beneficiaries’ accounts. When MNREGS work resume, after the annual break for rains, he assures, payment will be quick. He also says that following the example of Sheragada, the entire state will now be following e-muster and e-payment from now onwards. That surely will be good news for those who would like to stay put and work in their villages but don’t because of delayed payment and other issues. “MNREGS can provide work only for 100 days. Thereafter what will we do?” That question remains unanswered for now.

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