Question of survival

Published : May 29, 2013 12:30 IST

A drain in Ghasna village in Haryana, near the catchment area of the Ghaggar river, which was desilted using manual labour under the MGNREGS. Desilting work was discontinued, leading to the drain getting blocked by weeds once again.

A drain in Ghasna village in Haryana, near the catchment area of the Ghaggar river, which was desilted using manual labour under the MGNREGS. Desilting work was discontinued, leading to the drain getting blocked by weeds once again.

CONTRARY to general opinion, demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is high in Haryana. Contrary also to the views in recent discussion papers, one of them commissioned by the Commission for Agricultural Cost and Prices in April 2013 which suggests that farm wages are rising because of overall growth of employment in non-agricultural activities and under the MGNREGS, the reality is that people are not getting work either under the scheme or in non-agricultural sectors.

The supply of jobs has been largely contingent on two factors: how persistent the demand for work is, which itself has been an outcome of an organised effort by agricultural workers and their unions, and the response from the administration. In some cases, it has been a combination of both.

The MGNREGS is now being questioned on grounds of efficacy. Notwithstanding the corruption that plagues the scheme at various levels, some of which had been noted in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the fundamental reasons that made the scheme necessary still persist.

Ram Avatar Sulchaini, State president of the All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU), is confident that agricultural wages have gone up as a result of MGNREGS work. He says that in Hisar district, there is not a single panchayat where work under this scheme has not been commissioned. And this is not solely because of the efforts of the administration, which conducted awareness campaigns about the scheme, much to the dislike of entrenched landed interests and big farmers. But Sulchaini says that villages families have been given less than 50 days’ work, instead of the guaranteed work for 100 days.

“The CAG report is right. There is difficulty in getting work. The mates interfere; the job cards, instead of being with the workers, are either kept with them or lie with the sarpanch,” he says. Delayed payments are also common. Sulchaini says that it is wrong to assume that the demand for work was low as other options are available. The problem, he says, is that much of the agricultural work is being done by harvesters, and manual agricultural work has shrunk to 40 days in a year on an average. “With little options elsewhere, people are heavily dependent on the NREGS work,” he said. This was the case even in agriculturally prosperous districts such as Hisar. He feels that there is a deliberate propaganda against the NREGS, and sections within the government, too, believe that people do not want to work under this scheme as it is less remunerative.

social and economic dividend “Violence against agricultural workers has come down owing to decreased dependence on the landed. But where there is no work, there is more repression. We visited Medina village in Rohtak where two young Dalit boys had been shot dead in April. There are around 400 Scheduled Caste families there and all of them are dependent on the landed for work. There is no NREGS work in that village,” Sulchaini says.

At Hisar, the AIAWU took up the non-implementation of the scheme in a big way. In 2011-12, nearly 23 sarpanches were suspended following corruption charges, and inquiries against 173 sarpanches were under way. Reacting to the inquiries faced by them, 250 sarpanches formed an association declaring that they would not implement the scheme. The banks also played foul, Sulchaini says. There were occasions when banks deducted money taken as loans from the NREGS deposits made into the account of the worker. “That is illegal. We had to intervene and prevent them from doing so,” he says. The other direct benefit of the scheme was that the overall dependence on the village hierarchy had come down. “We are able to get clothes for our children and pay the school fees without depending on the moneylender or the landowner now. It is a relationship between the panchayat and the worker. The latter believes it is a matter of right and that he/she is working for the government,” he says. But the sarpanches continued to be difficult.

As noted in the CAG report, rozgar sahayak s were not employed in several places. The sarpanches thought the sahayaks were useless. Work was given to women very reluctantly. Women workers Frontline spoke to said that the mates and the sarpanches would deny them work on the grounds that they would find it difficult to work with the kassi , a local term for spade.

Kamlesh, a woman agricultural worker, said that when she approached the sarpanch in her village for work, he said there was none. He only made their job cards after workers held a meeting and threatened to sit in protest. “Earlier, if a zamindar called a worker to his fields, the latter could never refuse. Today, if the same zamindar tells us to come for picking cotton and stop doing MNREGS work, the workers demand better rates for picking cotton,” she said. Frauds in job cards were very common, she said. Before the AIAWU got into the act, rich farmers used to get job cards made with the connivance of the sarpanch, pay a lump sum of Rs.2,000 to the worker, and then get all the work done by the worker. The remainder of the payment used to go into the pockets of the farmer.

Ashok Kumar Garg, Additional Deputy Commissioner, Hisar, explained how there was progress because of personal monitoring of the scheme. He told Frontline that there was tremendous resistance from the farmers. During the awareness campaigns, sarpanches used to ask. “Why are you teaching them about their legal rights? Why are you encouraging them?” Another argument was that the scheme had made workers lazy. At a village meeting, a farmer said, “What work do they do?” To this, the women workers responded by saying that they dug earth with spades in the hot sun. “Why don’t you join us?” one of them asked.

The expenditure under the scheme is rising steadily. In 2011-12, the district administration spent Rs.63 crore; in the subsequent year, it rose to Rs.90 crore, the highest disbursed in the State. While 22 per cent of the population of the district was Dalit, nearly 76 per cent of those enrolling for job cards under the scheme were Dalits.

Rural distress: Flawed policies Unemployment is rampant in the rural areas. Local officials of the administration Frontline spoke to admitted that there was great demand for work for at least eight months of the year. A section of the bureaucracy, however, also believed that there was no demand as people did not want to work. There was a dearth of works permitted under the MNREGS. Even the work that was permitted was often done by earth excavation machines. An official recounted his experience in Jhajjar district where the landed sections insisted that there was no work and that excavation machines could be used. Poor families in this district were migrating to Delhi for work. “If in Haryana there can be so much demand for work, one can only imagine the situation in other States. The showcasing of the State as a role model of rural prosperity is not correct,” said an official on condition of anonymity. But Central policies were equally flawed. Instead of expanding the level of permissible works, the desilting and cleaning of canals was removed from the list of works under NREGS though this activity benefited farmers and had resulted in the acceptance of the scheme by a section that was earlier hostile to it. “What is the harm in sanctioning this work? Water was reaching the tail end because of the cleaning process.

At least twice a year, canals need to be cleaned. It has been decided by the Centre that no repetitive work would be commissioned. We don’t have projects. There is no logic. School playgrounds, land development in government schools all have been taken off the list. Laying of pipelines for drinking water is not permissible. Irrigation works are permissible but not an activity that allows drinking water for human beings,” said the official.

Fatehabad: Demand for work all the year round Fatehabad is the district in Haryana with the highest proportion of Dalits and the largest number of landless people. The area is irrigated by the river Ghaggar and has huge tracts of fertile land. The demand for work under the NREGS is as high in Fatehbad as anywhere else in the State. Here, farmers having one or two acres of land were also demanding work under the scheme. As in Hisar, where the workers got themselves organised, the expenditure under the scheme has been equally high. It was learnt that women domestic workers had taken to working under the scheme. Ram Chander, the Zila Parishad member from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told Frontline that the dominant feeling among other political parties, including the ruling Congress, was that the work under the NREGS was a waste. “We fought hard. First for work and then for the release of wages,” he said. There were roadblocks everywhere, from delays in sending the proposals for work, to delays in sending utilisation certificates, understaffed banks, long delays in the transfer of cheques, harassment by private banks and inadequate number of gram sahayaks. Every department, he said, had its own independent yardstick for getting work done, and that was creating confusion.

“There should be separate staff for NREGS. One junior engineer is in charge of one block, which may have 50 to 60 villages. It is too much work to monitor. With the rising crisis in agriculture, there is a demand for work in towns as well,” he said. The team from the CAG visited Fatehabad too, he said, and he told its members what was happening on the ground. He said that the AIAWU insisted that muster rolls should be read out to the workers and their thumb impressions taken. “The SDM [the subdivisional magistrate] asked us for help to nab the fraudulent job card holders. I told him to look at the list received by the bank and to match it with the muster roll prepared by the gram panchayat,” he said. The mates, who were meant to supervise the work allotted by the junior engineer, were overburdened. They had to open bank accounts and prepare muster rolls and job cards, all for some Rs.4 extra. While the scheme envisaged one mate for every 50 workers, the norm was one mate allotted to every 100 workers. In Fatehabad, the AIAWU had ensured that a mate was often an NREGS worker himself/herself and not a family member of the sarpanch.

Ram Chander wants desilting work to be included in the list of permissible works. He showed Frontline a part of a drain on the Ghaggar in Ghasna village, where he did not allow machines to be deployed. “It was in my ward. I got Rs.4 crore worth of work done by 309 workers. But in another part of the drain, machines were used, thus depriving people of work,” he said. There was no advance planning of the kind of work required. In Yerwa village, there were families like that of Maya Devi who had built homes from incomes generated under the scheme. Her entire family was involved in some work or the other under the scheme; the educated youngsters were employed as mates.

There is no doubt there is a demand for work, any work. There is a need to bring wages under the NREGS on a par with the minimum wages in States, a demand that the Central government has been reluctant to concede. Whether NREGS work can be used to make agriculture more productive is a larger issue; at the moment, it is a question of basic survival for those working under the scheme.

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