Walking with a purpose

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

A mass social audit initiative of employment guarantee works in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan produces encouraging results.

THE National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is barely three months old on the ground. This is precisely why the mass social audit of the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) in Dungarpur district in southern Rajasthan in April held enormous implications for the way this ambitious piece of legislation could take root across the 200 districts in the country where it has been implemented.

When the Rajasthan Employment Guarantee Scheme under the NREGA was launched on February 2 in Karauli, Sirohi, Dungarpur, Udaipur, Banswara and Jhalawar districts, activist groups and individuals in the State wasted no time in coming together under the banner of the "Rozgar Evum Suchna Ka Adhikar Abhiyan" and taking up one district to develop a model of public monitoring of the EGS.

"Dungarpur was chosen as it falls in the poor tribal belt of southern Rajasthan where heavy labour out-migration occurs every year. It is also a `compact' district, manageable for such an initiative. Also, on February 2, we found that the response was good and the district administration was relatively better geared up to implement this scheme," said Nikhil Dey of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).

Many factors worked to make this mass social audit a reality. Rajasthan, a State that is conditioned to handling drought and relief work and is the birth place of the Right to Information movement, has had activist groups in at least certain pockets keeping a keen vigil over the huge sums of public money spent on drought relief and this has effectively reduced corruption.

Secondly, in Rajasthan, where the demands for minimum wages and the right to work emerged from the grassroots, the NREGA is not just an abstract legal document but the just outcome of a long and relentless struggle that those who took part in it will guard at any cost. Finally, although the EGS and drought relief works share some common objectives, they crucially differ on many aspects. Significant among them are the provisions on transparency (Section 23) and public monitoring (Section 17) in the NREGA, incorporating for the first time explicitly the process of social audit at every step, from planning to implementation to stock-taking of EGS works (as outlined in Chapter 11 of the NREGA Operational Guidelines).

Men and women, young and old, illiterates and PhDs, labourers and activists, all descended upon this sleepy town, two hours from Udaipur, the headquarters of the neighbouring district, from April 15 onwards. In all, 658 participants from 13 States and 165 organisations joined in the venture, besides 250 from Dungarpur district itself. A group of 10 from Bangladesh and two residents of the United States had traversed a long way to take part in the padayatra.

But as undeniable as their diverse horizons was that one common aim they had all come with - to spread awareness about the EGS in the 237 panchayats of Dungarpur, where 1.5 lakh labourers were employed at 1,700 worksites. They planned to do this by walking across the district and identifying the problems in the implementation of the EGS through a process of social audit involving a verification of the different provisions of the NREGA. For many, this was an opportunity to learn and hopefully replicate its lessons in their own work areas.

After a two-day orientation in communication through folk art, song, dance and puppetry, and a basic training in the process of social audit, the padayatra kicked off to an exuberant start to the symbolic beating of the dol (a large drum). Wearing multi-coloured bandanas, brandishing puppets and banners, and armed with mikes and a bagful of muster rolls and social audit formats, the participants divided into 31 groups of about 20 each. Over the course of a week, they spread out across the five blocks of Dungarpur - Aspur, Bichiwada, Dungarpur, Sagwada and Simalwada - visiting every panchayat and work site where the EGS was ongoing.

While every single padayatri would have an insightful story to share, it is important to present upfront some of the broader findings of this 10-day exercise, extremely revealing to both proponents and critics of the NREGA.

To start with, around 1.5 lakh persons were employed on this scheme in this district at the time of the padayatra. If one considers that there are totally 2.37 lakh rural households in Dungarpur (as per the household count of Below Poverty Line families done under Census 2001), this number represents roughly half of all families having one member employed under the EGS. Said Malavika Pawar, Rural Development Secretary, Rajasthan, who visited the padayatra on April 18: "Five lakh labourers are now employed in the six EGA districts, while a similar number are employed in 22 districts on drought relief. By May 1, eight lakh labourers are expected to be on EGS works." The figures speak for the demand for such an employment guarantee.

Of the 237 panchayats, 800-odd villages and 1,000-odd work sites that the padayatra covered, only 15 complaints on corruption came to light. These involved fake names in muster rolls, labourers marked present when they were absent, and discrepancies between payments shown on the muster rolls and those actually received by labourers. The complaints involved only some 185 workers.

Contrasting the findings of the current social audit with the record of past works in Valota panchayat, Dungarpur block, where irregularities amounting to Rs.6 lakhs were unearthed, social activist and National Advisory Council member Aruna Roy said at a public hearing on April 25: "It has been proven that when there is public monitoring of ongoing works, frauds happen to a much smaller extent than if checks are made annually... . It is heartening to know that there is very little corruption in the ongoing EGS works (less than 2-3 per cent)."

At 98.9 per cent of the work sites, muster rolls were available - an unheard-of phenomenon in drought relief works in the past. Of course, the fact that the social audit was undertaken with the full cooperation of the district administration played a huge role in this. But this reasoning only reinforced the proposition that if people were willing to monitor the scheme from the start, and the administration was supportive, such positive outcomes were not unattainable. In this instance, the argument that corruption would ruin the scheme stood totally unfounded. The important thing that this social audit established was that such an instance was possible and real for those willing to go beyond armchair criticism.

Critics had also challenged the NREGA on the grounds that even if it met the objective of employment generation, the nature and quality of assets created would be highly questionable. The padayatra found that in Dungarpur, water-harvesting structures were being built or repaired extensively as the first priority. "This reflects the demand of the people since this is a highly drought-prone area," said Maan Singh Sisodia of the Dungarpur-based Wagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan, one of the key organisers of the event.

"But each panchayat will have to think seriously of building assets in the long term, which will stop migration and ensure food security. For example, digging a pond may generate employment for those 100 days for a family, but if the pond can be linked to the farmer's field by building a channel, his livelihood in the long term will be ensured," he said.

At a panel discussion to present the findings of the audit, Dungarpur Collector Manju Rajpal emphasised the importance of planning the works. She said: "Before the monsoon, water-harvesting works must be stressed. In the next two months, work related to soil conservation, water harvesting and afforestation shall be undertaken."

With a responsive administration and enough funds, awareness among the people and their participation held the key to the choice of works and their execution. "In one panchayat in Aspur block, people came to us and said they would prefer to have roads built in their panchayat. We informed them of their legal entitlement; that they should go to the gram sabha and put forth their demands - something they were not aware of," said a padayatri. "As of now, the gram sabha decides all the works, but the prioritisation is still done by the sarpanch, sachiv and a few others," said Maan Singh.

A highly significant finding of the padayatra was that 70-80 per cent and sometimes all of the labourers working at the EGS sites were women. This could be explained by the fact that Dungarpur has traditionally seen a huge male out-migration to neighbouring cities in Gujarat (Ahmedabad is just 150 km away) in the agricultural off-season. "Families consider the 100 days under EGS as an additional source of income, but this has not stopped migration since the earnings are still inadequate. So the men continue to migrate, while the women come to work under this scheme," said Maan Singh.

The work is back-breaking and creche facilities are woefully lacking. "But," Mann Singh said, "for the first time, women are earning hard cash for their efforts, in such amounts. This might lead to some empowerment and financial independence among rural women, with important repercussions on how the money is spent within the household."

The social audit also brought out some crucial inadequacies of the scheme in its practical nitty-gritties. The most common and justifiable complaint that surfaced was with regard to the "task" a mazdoor had to complete in order to earn the daily minimum wage of Rs.73 (and now with the Centre's move, a possible reduction to Rs.60). Unlike drought works, under the EGS labourers are paid a wage that is linked to the task they perform. So it becomes crucial that these norms are fixed fairly and implemented properly. But there are problems aplenty.

First, an across-the-board complaint from labourers was that the prescribed task (as per the BSR matrix) was too much. K.S. Raju, Principal Secretary, Rural Development, Andhra Pradesh, pointed out: "A labourer in Andhra Pradesh has to dig 44 cubic feet to earn Rs.80, in Rajasthan she has to dig 62 cubic feet for Rs.73."

In reality, the problem is worse, as BSR-specified tasks are not being followed carefully. "The `mate', a manager of sorts of the labourers at a work site, is not trained at the site and has no knowledge of the prescribed task in different types of soil. Labourers are not allotted a specific task and daily work done by them is not measured by the mate," said Gireesh Bhugra, Centre for Equity Studies, Jaipur, and a key member of the audit team.

Crucially, work is measured group-wise instead of individually, so free-riders or the less efficient end up pushing down the wage rate for the group. But a daily individual measurement is difficult given the gross understaffing (there are only 18 Junior Engineers in the entire district), reasoned the administration. "Training of mates, systematic measurement and transparent recording of work done daily, time-motion studies and creating awareness among labourers as to what are their prescribed tasks can address these problems to a large extent," felt Gireesh.

Delayed payments to labourers since the district had not received funds; poor awareness about the need to set up vigilance committees under the Act; and the lack of medical facilities, shades and creches at work sites were other important problems that came to light during the audit.

On the final day of this exercise, it seemed that neither the heat nor the threats received by some of the padayatris, nor the tough conditions they faced had touched their spirit. On the contrary, the initial exuberance appeared to have given way to a firmer resolve to carry this forward, far and wide. The effects of the Abhiyan have already shown up in Dungarpur district and, thanks to a responsive administration, many initiatives are in the pipeline.

"The visible impact was getting the first instalment, worth Rs.50 crores, released for this financial year, and task reduction for the next two critical months when we expect much higher demand for employment," said Manju Rajpal. As for the `intangible' effects, she said: "It was for the first time in the district's history that about 850 participants of this audit, from every possible walk of life, were among tribal people, without any expectation, any complaint, any bias, any mental block or hidden agenda.... Just to make them feel the strength of their rights and the power of social audit while work is in progress.... I feel the labour is more focussed and oriented after this exercise."

But the challenges in taking this forward are very real, and in States like Bihar extremely difficult to surmount. Even in Udaipur, said social activist R.D. Vyas of the Udaipur-based Astha Sansthan, such an exercise would prove to be a much tougher tightrope-walk. He said: "Udaipur is a much larger district. Politicians in this district command greater clout at the higher echelons of power and there are stronger vested interests here. While this district has the highest number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the State, it will also require a coming together - not just in name, but in true spirit - of all these groups to achieve something like what has been done in Dungarpur."

The key to how the process spreads lies in how intensively civil society groups are able to empower people with information and awareness and to what extent people will ultimately own up and drive the process independent of any backing, for it to sustain itself in the long run.

Sowmya Kerbart Sivakumar is with Research for People, Jaipur.

Voices on the walk

"This exercise is one of the best I have seen for awareness generation. The communication methods, commitment and spirit of the people are highly appreciated. This is sure to have a demonstration effect... but to sustain it, it will have to be taken up in a more focussed, area-specific manner."

K.P. Kumaran,Associate Professor, National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad, who was in Dungarpur for four days.

"I am struck by the extent of poverty in Rajasthan and the fact that so many have applied for work, mostly women, young and old... working in this hot sun for this rate. This shows beyond doubt the critical need for the EGS."

Karuna Muthiah, of the Association for India's Development, Chennai, and the lone representative from Tamil Nadu on the padayatra.

"The extent of corruption in Rajasthan and Bihar is hugely different. In the 51 villages that we traversed in Sagwada block, corruption in the EGS was almost non-existent. In Bihar it is rampant from top to bottom, so it is difficult to decide where to start. The problem is, if I or any ordinary person starts to do this without any power backing, we will either get killed or be pushed back."

Akilesh Manjhi, of the Patna-based Pragati Gramin Vikas Samiti working with the Mushahar community.

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