06 December 2010

NREGA In West Bengal: How To Ruin A Working Class Programme

[Press release of February 2, 2009] 

On 2nd February 2006, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) finally became operational. It was the fruit of three decades of struggle by unions, political parties and people’s organisations all over the country. It was thus with a lot of hope that many of us viewed NREGA.

There were many who thought that a Left Government would take to a programme meant for rural workers like a duck to water. Unfortunately even after three years, West Bengal’s performance remains dismal. A comparison with the national average makes this clear. In 2006-07, West Bengal could create only 14 days of employment while the national average was 43 days. The best performing state, Rajasthan, created 85 days of work. In the second year, last year or 2007-08, West Bengal created 25 days of work, an improvement, but still behind the national average of 42 days and the best performing state of Tamil Nadu which created 82 days.

We seem to be headed for a hat trick – the third year of NREGA also promises to be one of bad performance. The national average is 40 days and one of the best performing states, Rajasthan, has already created 60 days of work. The state level figures till mid January 2009 show that West Bengal had created less than half the national average and only one-third of Rajasthan at 19 days of employment.  With only two and a half months before the year ends, it is doubtful whether there will be any great progress this year in West Bengal. Rural workers in West Bengal are bound to get little work again this year from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

What underlies the recurring poor performance in NREGA? In over thirty years of Left rule, the people of West Bengal have always been told about the neglect of the Centre. Is that true of NREGA also? Has that terrible ogre at the Centre deprived the disfavoured Left Front of its just entitlements? Facts however disprove this myth. On 23rd January, as per the nrega.nic.in website, the State of West Bengal had funds available of Rs. 96946 lakhs, Central funds sanctioned of Rs. 61684.72 lakhs, and an expenditure of Rs.52212.679 lakhs, amounting to an unspent balance of Rs. 106418.1 lakhs. Thus, more than two-thirds of the funds available remain unspent in January 2009- with only two and half years of the financial year left!

NREGA is a demand driven scheme. The more work the people demand, the more is the employment that has to be generated; or, the better you perform, the more is the money available for you. Improper fund flow from the centre to the Panchayats, the main implementing bodies was one of the teething problems that NREGA had, but since last year each Panchayat has with it a ready sum of money to spend. Still very little employment is being created. Certain Panchayats continue to create not even one day of work. In Bilkumari GP in Nakashipara block of Nadia, a district where NREGA started in 2007-08, there are still households that have not been given their job cards so far- let alone work- though the scheme has been functional for 21 months. It seems we have a Government that is not able to spend money that it has its disposal, but it still keeps cribbing about lack of funds.

What actually underlies the non-performance of West Bengal in NREGA is the class character of the Government that we have. The Left Front may call itself a working class government; it has however become a government of the rich and powerful (as has been obvious in their actions and the sides they have taken during the struggles against displacement at Nandigram, Singur, Katwa, Deganga, Bhangur, Haripur, Kulpi,  – an endless list!). It has also, in spite of being in power for thirty years and in spite of controlling all major unions of Government employees, been unable to change the mentality of Government employees who treat rural workers as if they were sub-human. What is even more worrying is that even after a change in the party in power in some places, those who have been newly elected are finding it difficult to change this anti rural worker trend. Sometimes even the newly elected seem to be as anti worker as those whom they have ousted.

Most elected representatives and the bureaucrats (with few notable exceptions here and there) have therefore tried to spike the NREGA. Just the simple receipt of an application for work has become a gigantic task for rural workers. In Nadia... applicants were forced to sit in a dharna for … hours to get just a work application received. A very common complaint is that even after applying for work, people do not receive work. Or they are given work which is very far away. Applicants from Dobandi village in Singur block of Hooghly were given work in Tarkeswar block. Under the Scheme, workers would have received Rs. 7.50 as travelling allowance in addition to their wages, but it would have cost them Rs.25-30 per day to go to work and come back.

While the Act clearly states that applicants must apply for 14 days of work, in reality people are given work orders for just a few days - even a day. Workers often waste a precious workday, when they reach the work site to find that there is no one to tell them their task- though every scheme formulated under the Act has provision of a Supervisor. The supervisor is generally a party cadre who takes his wages under the scheme, but does no work. 

Wage payments are delayed sometimes for months. The Act entitles workers to compensation for late payment of wages. However, not a single worker has been awarded such compensation. The Act says that if work is not provided within 15 days of application, workers must be provided with unemployment allowance. Except for 7 persons in Namkhana block and 38 persons from Barida village in Egra block, no one has received unemployment allowance in West Bengal so far- though thousands of people have applied for unemployment allowance, after not receiving work. The award of unemployment allowance to these 45 persons also seems totally ad hoc as there are many others who applied under exactly the same circumstances, but who have received neither unemployment allowance, nor an explanation for refusal.

An inherent part of NREGA is the ad hoc treatment of wages. In Keshabpur village under Lakhanpur GP in Hura block, workers have not been paid wages for 24 days of work for over two months now. The workers started a dharna in front of the Panchayat office in protest. After staying there overnight, on the next day, they were informed that wages would be paid immediately – at the rate of Rs.22 per day for 8 hours of hard labour! When the workers refused to take such low payment, a revision took place – they were offered Rs.48 per day. On speaking to the BDO of the block, we were told that the increase had taken place because the Sub Assistant Engineer of the block had not counted a great number of the pits dug by the workers the first time he had measured the work! It seems even qualified engineers forget how to count when it comes to giving wages to agricultural workers! The workers have still refused to take these low wages and have asked for a third count- in their presence. Women workers in Asharu GP have been asked to dig 70 cu. ft. of earth per day which is giving them wages of Rs.35-45 per day. The reason- the engineer there is using a rate which is meant for soft soil, when the soil is actually hard.

The women found that people who worked on the same team were receiving different wages, that even number of days worked differed from one person to the other. When they asked for the muster roll to understand why the differences were taking place, they were shown a long print out pasted on a wall of the Panchayat, which they will now have to copy manually to check the calculations. The Act says clearly that workers rates must be fixed in such a way as to ensure that workers get minimum wages (Rs.81 at present in West Bengal) for a full day’s work; an issued by the Principal Secretary on October 16th 2006 repeats this. Yet, Panchayat representatives (often irrespective of party affiliation) and bureaucrats are using ways of ensuring that workers do not get the minimum wage.

Delays in payment of wages and low wages are due to the callousness of a set of people who receive their monthly pay packets dot on time and who are paid no matter what their output. Yet, they try very hard to find ways to deprive rural workers of wages that can often mean the difference between starvation and survival for them and their families.

For a rural worker, who generally needs money to buy food on a daily basis, delays in allotment of work and payment of wages or low wages for a day of hard work mean that workers are forced to go in for migration and other forms of precarious work rather than rely on Government employment in the much safer village environment. Nur Mohammed and 20 other workers from Belpukur GP in Kulpi block are at present in Gangapur village in Cachar district in Assam. A labour contractor from Kakdwip took them to work for the ONGC. The contractor has run away with their wages. They have no food to eat and no money to come home. Nur Mohammed’s departure for work in Assam was preceded by an unsuccessful attempt for more than a year to get work from the Panchayat and block. 93 girls and women from almost every second house in Jeliakhali in Sandeshkhali in North 24 Parganas had been taken by unscrupulous agents to Delhi to work as domestic servants. In 2008, fifteen months after NREGS was started in the district, we found that none of their families knew about NREGA. None of them had a job card.  Many of the girls and women who had gone to Delhi had disappeared, many were in situations of bondage unable to return home, and all had been cheated of their wages. In 2006, while investigating reports of starvation deaths in Bamandihi in Belpahari block of Paschim Midnapore, we found that not a single day of work under NREGA had been created in the affected villages.

The relation between starvation, precarious work, forced migration and bondage is crystal clear. The reluctance of most officials and elected representatives to actually implement this law is also equally clear. The enthusiasm that one sees from Government officials and elected representatives for programmes involving large contracts (and large cutbacks) is totally missing in NREGA. That is not to say that there is no corruption in NREGA. To give only one example, in Puncha block, there is a road which has been made once, but has been shown thrice in three different muster rolls. The problem is that even stealing in NREGA requires an effort and it is obviously not worth the effort.

After the 2006 Assembly elections, the Hindu (April 16th 2006) gave an analysis of vote shares, which showed that the only economic group amongst which the Left Front had shown a loss of vote share in West Bengal was that of rural workers. The 2008 Panchayat vote has shown an erosion of base once again amongst rural voters for the Left Front – many say a result of their anti-poor stand during the land struggles. The recent Assembly elections in 5 states have shown victories for Ramen Singh or Chawal Baba in Chattisgarh and for the BJP and the Congress in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi- analysts say these are results of their good performance on cheap food and other kinds of pro-poor schemes. These are all signs that the performance and delivery of rights and benefits to the poor are becoming important factors in elections. Let all beware- Left, Right and Centre. The non-performance on NREGA may become factor that determines whom rural workers vote for in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

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