It's a balmy morning in Jaipur, the desert sun a tamer version of its usual self. But Seema Sahariya, in her twenties, is already weary squatting at the Statue Circle grounds with husband Prakash Sahariya, 30, and their two-year-old son. Every few minutes, her eyes well up with helplessness as she sobs out her story to anyone who would care to listen.
"Hum dus saal se bandhua hain, na job card hai na voter card, aur na ration card (We have been bonded labourers for 10 years, with neither a job card, nor a voter card, nor a ration card)," says Seema, a member of Rajasthan's only primitive tribe, the Sahariyas, and one of India's 400 million officially poor.
"The master," she adds, "makes us work all day, and in return, he gives us Rs. 200 and 20 kilos of wheat every month." Seema and her family have trudged all the way to the state capital from a remote village in Rajasthan's Baran district in the hope of getting a job card — her constitutional right under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), the world's largest jobs programme.
"That (job card) would have fetched around Rs. 2,000 a month," she says. "I could feed my children a little more than the roti made of wild grass and the chutney that I can afford right now."
At least that is what she hopes. But thousands of destitute villagers with MNREGA job cards, even in her own state, would tell her not to be so sure.
The scheme promises 100 days of work annually to at least one member of every rural household. Launched about five years ago, it claims to have provided employment for 52.5 million households, or 260 million people, and transformed the lives of the rural poor in 619 of India's 626 districts. In the current financial year, a budget of nearly Rs40,000 crore has been allocated to the programme.
There is, indeed, little doubt that MNREGA has touched lives, particularly in a state like Rajasthan. In 2007-08, the state was ranked no. 1 by the Union rural development ministry for effective implementation of the scheme. Since then, it has continued to be among the top performers, creating more jobs and cornering a large chunk of the MNREGA budget.
But from beneath the veneer of these numbers, stories like Seema's surface from time to time to show that all is not well with the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government's flagship social welfare programme.
Even as activists and experts like Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze—both members of the National Advisory Council that sets the government's social agenda—want the government to bring MNREGA salaries in tune with the minimum wages prescribed in the Constitution, corruption and lack of transparency in executing the scheme are denying poor villagers even the benefits that should already accrue to them.
A rupee a day
Last August, for instance, news that MNREGA workers in Tonk district were being paid Re1 for a day of hard labour, instead of the stipulated Rs100, made national headlines.
Some activists joked this was a new world record. If it was, it didn't last long—broken just one month later with a case of zero payment in the village of Rampur-Bharoli 300 km from Tonk.
Rajesh Kirar, 30, says he would walk 3 km every day in the scorching sun to an MNREGA site to dig a pond. Some months later, when he and fellow workers went to the bank to collect their payment, they found their accounts empty.
"If the work was not good, then why were we not told earlier, when they were monitoring the site," fumes Kirar, a landless labourer who makes about Rs. 2,000 a month in the peak farming season. "It's very hard to make any money once the harvest season is over."
Even getting work under MNREGA is hard enough for some. At the village of Agar, young men stand outside the office of the Rozgar Sahayak, who is supposed to accept job applications—but doesn't. It was only when some local activists and this reporter intervened that the official started doing so.
About 30% of MNREGA funds—or three rupees out of every 10—leak out of the system through holes made by corruption and misappropriation and do not reach their intended beneficiaries, says a CLSA Asia Pacific markets report.
In Rajasthan, even small leakages can count for a lot. "Corruption in Rajasthan is much lower than states such as Jharkhand, where 92% of the work exists only on paper," says former bureaucrat and Planning Commission member NC Saxena. "However, Rajasthan's share is huge, so even a small percentage of leakage translates into a huge amount."
A social audit conducted last year found leakages worth Rs. 6 crore in villages under just 30 panchayats, or village councils.
Investigations by Roy's Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) using the Right To Information (RTI) Act last year revealed some more examples of how money meant for the poor is embezzled: Dungarpur collector Arushi Malik bought computers and printers worth Rs. 35 lakh, while Karauli collector Neeraj K Pavan bought plants worth Rs. 51 lakh.
Policymakers did envisage such problems and provided MNREGA an inbuilt mechanism that they hoped would check corruption. For instance, every village is supposed to have a wall painting that lists workers' names, wages paid and various other details to ensure the process remains transparent. But with nobody to enforce it, many of these details are not to be found in paintings across villages.
The provision of social audit allows the gram sabha—which includes all adult residents of a village—to monitor payment of wages, purchase of material and other aspects of MNREGA's execution. A social audit of 11 panchayats of Bhilwara — Union minister CP Joshi's constituency — in October 2009 showed nearly Rs. 2 crore had been embezzled.
But Roy says amendments made by the rural development ministry have restricted the audit to the panchayat, which is also the implementing agency of MNREGA, clearing the ground for manipulation.
"It is evident that enforcement mechanisms are not being followed. The errant are seldom penalised, though there are provisions in the Act to do so," says Roy. "By succumbing to the pressure of sarpanches (panchayat chiefs) in Rajasthan, the state has abrogated its responsibility to prevent corruption."
Villagers say that audits happen only on paper. "No one speaks against the sarpanch. It is understood that the honour of the village has to be maintained," says a villager in Tonk who did not want to be named.
The people of Rajasthan are trying hard to get things on track. A 45-day protest rally in Jaipur ended in November after the state government promised to look at issues such as offering unemployment benefits stipulated under MNREGA, redressal for the one-rupee wage workers and formation of MNREGA workers' unions. The sit-in also pushed Roy and Dreze to demand constitutional minimum wages for MNREGA workers.
"Rajasthan is better at implementation, but not perfect," says Roy. If mechanisms such as social audits are augmented by accountability, the job programme could achieve a lot more, she adds.
Roy would also like to see MNREGA offer a wider range of labour-intensive work, such as cooking for mid-day meals at schools and work at aanganwadis, or child-care and mother-care centres—two other government-sponsored social welfare programmes.
But as Seema and her family's march from Baran to Jaipur for a simple job card shows, it's going to be a long-drawn struggle.
Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Hindustan Times and Mint to track and understand policy reforms that could, if successful, transform India's efforts at inclusive growth.
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