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Corruption and patronage mars NREGS implementation in Biharrk NREGS implementation in Bihar

Feb, 2008

By Juhi Tyagi

A survey of the NREGA by AMAN Trust in Jehanabad and Arwal districts of Bihar reveals that 50% of eligible households do not have access to the benefits of the scheme. Awareness of the scheme is low, only 16.5% of the beneficiaries are women, and caste/class hierarchies dominate

Bihar has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country -- 47.53%, 12% less than the national average. According to the World Bank (1999), child malnutrition stands at a high 54.4%, almost 8% more than the national average. Bihar also has the lowest per capita income in India.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has caught the imagination of many in Bihar. It enables the poor to at least negotiate basic survival. When the Government of Bihar (Rural Development Department) states it has created a commendable 50 million person-days of work in the 23 districts, by our calculation this amounts to labour being richer by Rs 448 crore. This figure is calculated on the basis of the earlier stipulated minimum wage of Rs 75 in Bihar. The present minimum wage is Rs 81.

Jehanabad and Arwal districts are not only characterised by dismal social and economic indicators, they also have a history of violent caste-based repression. Massacres have occurred here between armed factions of the Maoists and the upper castes.

A part of Gaya district, Jehanabad was separated in 1986 and then further split to form the two distinctive districts of Jehanabad and Arwal, in 2001. In more recent times, Jehanabad is remembered for the jail break of November 13, 2005, where 137 convicts were freed by Naxalites in an act considered by many to be a landmark in the Maoist movement in Bihar. Together, the two districts account for 16.45 lakh people (Census of India, 2001).

Therefore, the NREGA came as a ray of hope to the two districts. Jehanabad, along with 22 other districts in Bihar, was chosen by the central government to initiate the programme. Arwal, on the other hand, was part of a group of 14 other districts that were funded by the state government (State Rural Employment Guarantee Act [SREGA]). Bihar became the first state to cover all 38 of its districts under the Act.

Although the programme started late in Bihar due to panchayat elections in mid-2005 and subsequently state assembly elections for the year 2006-2007, the central government allocated an impressive Rs 1,159 crore to Bihar (rural development department, Bihar) for implementation of the NREGA.

But how does the NREGA play out on the ground?

AMAN Trust carried out a detailed survey of 10 villages in Jehanabad and Arwal. The villages had an average population of 2,000 people; around 20-30% of the men in these villages aged 14-26 had migrated in search of jobs and fair wages. Remaining in their villages meant feeding the family from a meagre three kilos of rice earned for an entire day of manual work. The men were also given a meal; the women's pay was restricted to rice. Considering the villages' large dalit population, landholding patterns were minimal or absent and cattle (a preferred way of earning additional income) were an unaffordable luxury. Of the 10 villages covered in the survey, six did not have a primary healthcare centre and the four that did never saw a doctor. Instead, health centres became storage houses and large kitchens for village festivals. People walked an average of 5.8 km for medical assistance. Of the 10 schools surveyed, only three served midday meals; of the 10 anganwadis, none gave the prescribed quantity of food. Clean drinking water is scarce and people are dependent on the few public handpumps in densely populated lower caste tolas of the village.

The survey put the literacy rate in the 10 villages at an average of 29.29%. It is significant to note that over 70% of the population of Jehanabad and Arwal constitutes agricultural labour and marginal farmers. The former is characterised by landless labour, the latter get less than six months of work in a year.

Findings

In villages in Arwal and Jehanabad (of which the poorest were picked), every one in two households had a job card, implying that the other 50% of households do not have access to the benefits of the scheme. This, despite the fact that the NREGS (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) was launched over two years ago. Some villages were even worse off.

Consider Ward Number 12 in Parasi village in Arwal. The ward has around 150 dalit households, many of which belong to the Dom (traditionally scavengers) jati or caste. Only seven of these households were provided job cards. Seventy-five per cent of men from this ward migrate for more than six months of the year to states like Punjab in search of work. Fifteen per cent of people in this ward work as bonded labour.

In the village of Kemdar Chack, also in Arwal district, no job cards have been given at all. According to the people of this panchayat, job cards were distributed in the block at a mela, but they were given only to sympathisers of a dominant political party in the region. Kinari village in Jehanabad is another example where job cards were issued only to villagers belonging to the upper caste Bhoomihar and Rajput castes. People we interviewed asked why those belonging to the upper castes were issued job cards when they would never agree to do manual work anyway!

Most job cards were found to be incomplete, that is they did not carry a photograph or the official's signature. Those who did have photographs paid for them themselves. In only one village did the job card also have a woman's name on it.

The villagers were informed about the NREGS via radio or by the mukhiya (panchayat head). But our inquiries showed that the mukhiyas themselves knew very little about the scheme. Considering the Rs 400 crore that the Bihar government spent on training and awareness on the NREGS in April 2006 and an almost equal amount again in November 2006, it's surprising that the villagers do not have even basic information about the scheme. The panchayat sevaks (responsible for issuing job cards, accepting job applications and ensuring work) were even less aware.

To a large extent this is a result of the longstanding feudal system where mukhiyas are upper caste powerful men running their own system. In Bihar the mukhiya has, in fact, become de facto implementer of the NREGA. Ask the mukhiya of Chowhar panchayat in Arwal district, for instance, how much he knows about the Act and he says: "Kya pata sarkar ne sikhaya hai ki nahin; main to jail me tha (I am not aware of any training that the government conducted; I was in jail)." The village panchayat sevak was only too happy that the mukhiya was out of jail and supervising things because it was the mukhiya who had made him panchayat sevak in the first place.

This system of patronage extends to the work site as well. In the village of Sikaria, for example, the mukhiya's brother-in-law was chosen as the mate (or supervisor) for all three projects started in the village. The mukhiya of the village is a woman called Shanti Devi whose husband handles everything related to work; she handles things at home. We discovered that Shanti Devi was herself a victim of physical abuse by her mother-in-law, sister-in-law and brother-in-law (the mate).

The survey showed that most people in the villages who stood to benefit from the NREGA had not even applied for work because they were unaware of the procedures to be followed. Gram sabhas (village general body meetings) rarely take place, which is a violation of the stipulations and spirit of the NREGA where decisions about work to be undertaken must be collectively made. In some villages, the launch of the NREGS was announced by the beating of a drum, and in three other villages surveyed it was the mukhiya who informed the villagers about the scheme.

In many instances, people from other villages were brought in to work. In Kudrasi, for example, when no one reported for work at a lake reconstruction site, job card holders from the neighbouring village were called in. Residents of Kudrasi claim they came to know about the work only when they saw people working at the site. In Kinari village, a canal in the harijan tola was built by labour from the beldar jati(mud-cutting community); no other caste was allowed at the work site. It was the same story in Bhaik where all projects were executed by the mud-cutting community.

Women are not allowed to work at certain sites. Their capabilities were defined by the prevalent stereotypes of their position within their caste and society. For example in the village of Bhaik, women were physically stopped from visiting the work site where a canal was under construction. The women worked several days without pay before the dalal(middleman) was convinced of their ability. Women also faced wage discrimination. In Alagana village men received Rs 75 a day, but women got only Rs 68. In Sheikpora, a widow was not allowed at the work site despite possessing a job card. Figures from the Bihar rural development department show that employment given to women is 16.5% of total employment given under the NREGS. This must be compared to the national average, where 40.7% of women have benefited from the NREGS.

The NREGA stipulates that facilities like a shed for rest, creche, first-aid box, and clean drinking water must be made available at all work sites. However, the AMAN Trust survey showed that no such facilities were available in any of the 10 villages studied. The workers did not even have their own job cards; they were kept in the custody of officials ranging from the mate, panchayat sevak, ward member and panchayat samiti. In the case of Saristabad, in Jehanabad district -- a fairly large village of 3,000 people, with a majority of Manjhi (traditional rat-eating community) households -- job cards were in the possession of a zilla parishad member and her advocate husband. Construction of a canal undertaken in the village was completed three months earlier but the cards had still not been returned to their owners. Nor had they received any wages. Workers visited the zilla parishad member several times demanding their job cards and wages, but they received neither. They cannot apply for more work under the NREGS unless they get their job cards back.

The survey showed that in every single case wages were lower than the minimum stipulated wage (at the time) of Rs 77. The average wage in the villages was Rs 63. In some it was as low as Rs 50. In nine of the 10 cases, a junior engineer had never visited the work site. Measurement became the responsibility of the mate who, instead of being elected by the people of the villages, was given the position by the zilla parishad, mukhiya or panchayat samiti. Measurement is a crucial part of the Act because most work is paid for on the basis of cubic feet of mud cut. Each work site is also supposed to have a board stating the scheme under which work is being carried out, money sanctioned, measurement of work, wages entitled, and other relevant details. The purpose is to give the worker at the work site an overall picture of the project he/she is working on. But the boards were largely absent and, in the case of Algana village, was found to be in the mukhiya's cybercafe, many kilometres from the village! Far from summarising the project, many boards only had the name of the implementing agency and the project. As a result, the workers were kept in the dark about work and wage-related information.

Conclusion

Corruption is not new to Bihar. To become an anganwadi sevika, women in the villages have paid bribes ranging from Rs 16,000 to Rs 80,000; they have given Rs 200 for old age pensions; Rs 1 lakh to become a government teacher; Rs 5,000 to become an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist).

Despite the NREGA being one of the best ways to challenge oppression, Bihar is descending deeper into corruption and nepotism as has been the case in a number of progressive government schemes launched in the past. If this continues to happen, people will become alienated and lose faith in the government. In caste-ridden areas like Jehanabad and Arwal, where landlessness and feudal oppression are still dominant, it won't be surprising if people resort to extreme violence as a means of seeking justice.

(Juhi Tyagi works for AMAN Trust, Delhi. This article is based on AMAN's ongoing research in Bihar)

Source: InfoChange News & Features, February 2008

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