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Mahatma Gandhi urged us, in our moments of doubt, to recall the face of the poorest person we may have seen and ask ourselves whether the step we are contemplating is likely be of any use to him or her.
It is in this spirit that Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) was launched. It is perhaps the most ambitious social security and public works programme in the world,’’ is how Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Rural Development prefaced a foreword he wrote for an anthology the ministry brought out.
An HT investigation has established that the scheme – launched in 2006 – and named after the father of the nation, is now leading to suicides amongst the ‘most vulnerable’, the precise target audience it was aimed at protecting. HT visited seven homes across Maharashtra and Jharkhand to track families whose members have, in desperation, either hanged themselves, set themselves afire, or consumed poison.
The flagship scheme that helped the UPA return to power in 2009 is now marked with death and delay. Five daily-wage unskilled labourers migrated with their families from the district of Buldhana to Aurangabad in Maharashtra in the hope that the employment guarantor will help them sustain two meals a day.
Similarly, in Palamu and Hazaribagh in Jharkhand, two families are grappling to make ends meet after two MGNREGA-related suicides due to delay in receiving wages. The UPA government is now looking at increasing wages under this welfare scheme but the backlog of delayed payments needs urgent attention: one crore of four crore daily wage labourers were awaiting payments for the year 2012-2013 according to the rural development ministry website.
According to the scheme, payments must be made within 15 days of work being completed. Of these, 25 lakh had not been paid for more than 90 days. Says social activist Nikhil Dey of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), “This is terrible and needs to be looked at very seriously so that others who are on the edge can be saved.”
Workers who enroll under the scheme are generally landless and are completely dependent on wages. Ironically, contractors and district-level functionaries joined hands to feast on the poorest of the poor, by siphoning money into fake accounts, thus depriving the unskilled labourers of amounts that finally forced them to take their lives.
Aurangabad Collector Vikram Kumar confirmed to HT that they had taken action “against 19 gram sevaks, 19 sarpanchs and a few engineers. There were irregularities and based on the findings of a police investigation, we will take further action.” With payments stuck in red tape, seven families have now turned their backs on the scheme. Their stories:
‘He set himself on fire’
Tapas Soren, 34
Birakhap Village, Hazaribagh, Jharkhand
Suicide: July 8, 2008
Tapas Soren set himself ablaze at Charhi Chowk in Hazaribagh on July 2, 2008. He gave up after he failed to get his MGNREGA dues.
Soren and his brother were ecstatic when the scheme first came to Birakhap, a village with no road connectivity. Leaving home was a task for they had to cross a river to reach the nearest road. In Birakhap, Soren and his brother used to cultivate a single crop which would last them for about four months.
When the employment guarantee scheme was introduced in Birakhap, many like Soren chose to stay on, rather than migrate in search of work.
In 2008, Soren was given the task of digging a well and he became in-charge of the project in which he was joined by his brother and eight other labourers. Collecting payments and disbursing them were his responsibility, but the money wasn’t paid. “The labourers blamed Tapas. He couldn’t take the pressure,’’ Soren’s wife Dasmitudoo, 30, told HT.
Soren would regularly go to the bank, hopeful that the money would finally have been deposited. On the day of his suicide also, he visited the bank, the panchayat sevak and the block development officer. “I don’t know what happened there, but he came back, took a can of kerosene and went to Charhi Chowk where he burnt himself,” said Soren’s brother, Dilip. He died six days after he had set himself on fire.
Jharkhand rural development Secretary Arun Kumar confirmed to HT that Tapas Soren had committed suicide due to delay in payment of wages. He further said that the family was compensated and the officials involved were punished.
‘My wife had just had a baby’
Changunabai Dakore, 29
Titvi village, Buldhana, Maharashtra
Suicide: December 24, 2012
There was too much tension at home when we returned from Sillod in 2012. We had no money and some loans to repay,” said 34-year-old Gajanand Dakore, husband of Changunabai Dakore who burnt herself on December, 24, 2012.
Gajanand now works as a daily wage labourer and lives in Titvi village of Buldhana district. “My wife had just delivered a baby and we were worried about the baby’s future. We would always be in tension. One day she committed suicide,” said Gajanand, who is still in a state of shock.
In December 2008, a local contractor got in touch with Gajanand and promised him work under the MGNREGA scheme in Auranagabad district. Seeing this as an opportunity, the couple migrated.
In 2009, 2010 and 2011, they worked rigorously, but got only `200 every week as ‘bazaar kharch’ or money meant to buy food. Apart from this, they did not get any other wages.
The affidavit given by Gajanand Changunabai mentions that he and his wife worked in Ghatnandra, Kohanna and Aandharwadi among other villages and were involved in nalla kaam (laying of a drain).
After many workers, including Gajanand and Changunabai, protested and complained to district authorities, a committee was set up under Additional CEO, Aurangabad which found that there was corruption in the implementation of the scheme.
The committee found that labourers who had toiled had been deprived of wages, while money had simply been deposited into fake accounts.
'Spoke of money he owed to other workers'
Jaggu Bhuiyan, 49
Karma Tand Village, Palamu, Jharkhand
Suicide: January 6, 2012
Jaggu Bhuiyan hanged himself because he could not pay wages to the workers working under him and had to sell his bull...,” concluded a report submitted by Jharkhand’s MGNREGA council. Jaggu Bhuiyan, a resident of Karma Tand Village, hails from Palamu district, considered one of the worst Naxal-affected areas in Jharkhand. In this remote village – the nearest pucca road is 10 kms away – the rural employment scheme had once brought some joy.
Bhuiyan enrolled quickly and was hired to construct a well under the MGNREGA scheme in March 2011. But within a year, he hanged himself from a tree near the well on January 6, 2012.
In April 2011, when the work started, 10 labourers worked continuously till June. “Out of the `1, 81,951 allocated, only `14,280 was paid to the workers who worked before the rainy season in 2011,” said the council report. Jaggu then sold his bull and distributed some money to the labourers. But still wages were pending. Even while the construction of the well was half done, the district administration denied him money for more than seven months.
“He was not able to pay money to the workers. The workers used to often blame him for not paying them,” said Kabutari Devi 45, wife of Bhuiyan. During that time, payments were given to the person who had got the work sanctioned, who in turn paid other workers.
“Before the suicide, Bhuiyan remained tense and talked about the money he owed the other workers. He kept going back to the block office for money before he finally killed himself one day,’’ his wife Kabutri told HT. Shivshankar Prasad, Lokpal, Palamu in 2012 and the person in charge of looking into complaints related to implementation of MGNREGA confirmed to HT that “Bhuiyan had killed himself after he was denied wages.”
‘We took Rs 1.5 lakh as loan’
Datta Maghade, 50
Titvi Village, Buldhana, Maharashtra
Suicide: July 7, 2013
Iwill never go for MGNREGA work again. The scheme has killed my husband,” says Parvati Devi 45, widow of Datta Maghade who killed himself in July this year in Titvi village of Buldhana district. As per the post mortem report, Datta went to the fields early in the morning of July 7, 2013 and hanged himself.
Maghade along with wife Parvati and two sons – Gajanand Datta Maghade, 25 and Namdev Maghade, 22 - worked in Sillod Tehsil of Aurangabad district under the employment scheme for the years 2009, 2010 and 2011. The family has no land and was completely dependent on wages for survival.
They worked for almost eight months in the year but did not get their wages. A committee was set up under Additional CEO, Aurangabad which found irregularities in the implementation of the scheme in the district. “It is suspected that several workers who worked were not paid their wages,” the report has said.
“We must get at-least Rs 3 lakh for the entire family. If we get the money we can pay all our debts,” said Parvati, who breaks down while speaking.
“Because of this we took loans totalling Rs 1.5 lakhs. My husband could not take the humiliation of not being able to repay them and one day he hanged himself,” Parvati added.
After not getting their wages in Sillod, they returned to Titvi village. The tragedy is that Datta and Parvati worked under MGNREGA even in their own village for about a month but the wages for that weren’t paid to them either. “This triggered the suicide,” said Parvati.
‘The govt owes us Rs 80,000'
Madhav Sonaji Raut, 44
Gotra Village, Buldhana, Maharashtra
Suicide: June 1, 2012
Ihave so many mouths to feed and I don’t get work on most days. Even I feel like committing suicide,” says Vimal Madhav Sonaji Raut, 40, wife of Madhav Raut who now resides in Gotra village of Buldhana district.
Raut, an Andh tribal who killed himself by consuming poison was also a victim of the MGNREGA scheme. A contractor had offered work to many including Raut in 2009 under the scheme.
Seeing this as an opportunity, the family migrated to Aurangabad. Vimal says that for the work she, Madhav and her elder son Ganesh did, the government owes them at least Rs. 80,000. “Between 2009 and 2011, we worked for more than 7-8 months in the hope that we will get our due one day. But clearly we were fools,” says Vimal.
An affidavit given by them before the inquiry committee set up to investigate the irregularities mentions the various villages in Sillod Tehsil such as Aandharwadi and Takli where they have worked.
HT has a postal department document which suggests that Rs 6.6 lakh is lying idle in fake accounts of workers who were enrolled in the scheme during that period in villages mentioned by Raut in his affidavit. While the police is investigating the matter and has filed an FIR, no payment has been made to Vimal. Before the suicide, Raut could only think of how he would repay the loan of Rs 90,000 he had taken, says his wife.
The scheme has killed my husband’
Amruta Gore, 39
Gotra Village, Buldhana, Maharashtra
Suicide: August 28, 2011
Iam ready to work as a bonded labourer but will never opt for MGNREGA again. At-least food is guaranteed when we work for private contractors. The scheme has killed my husband,” said Anjana Gore, wife of Amruta Gore, a worker who committed suicide on August 28, 2011.
Anjana and Amruta had worked for more than two years (2009- 2011) in different villages of Sillod Tehsil in Aurangabad district of Maharashtra, but got no more than `200 per week. Their elder son Piraje Gore, 24 and Rameshwar Gore, 22 and their wives were all enrolled as MGNREGA workers. Some contractors enrolled many like Anjana and Amruta, in connivance with district officials and then opened bank accounts in other people’s names.
A committee headed by Additional CEO, Aurangabad found irregularities in the implementation of the scheme in the district. Based on the report, action has been taken against 19 gram sevaks, 19 sarpanchs’ and a few engineers. Aurangabad Collector, Vikram Singh confirmed the irregularities to HT, promising ‘’further action.’’ Since Amruta was representing a group of workers, the blame for non-payment to all was put on him.
‘Difficult to feed my kids’
Prahlad Kokate, 38
Titvi village, Buldhana, Maharashtra
Suicide: October 14, 2012
If my father was alive, I would have never left my studies. I have to work now so that I can feed my family,’’ said Lakshmi, only 13 years old. She works as a daily wage labourer, so her brother Subhash, 11 and two sisters Ashamati, 9 and Pooja, 6 can study. Lakshmi was forced to drop out of class six after her father committed suicide by consuming poison on October 14, 2012.
Now, Lakshmi and her mother Sangeeta toil all day in cotton fields so that they can earn enough to feed the other family members. Sangeeta, however, worries about how she will feed her family after the cotton plucking season ends this month. Typically, the season starts in October and lasts for three months.
“I don’t know what I will do after that. I am not sure how I will feed my children,” lamented Sangeeta who is also worried about how she is going to pay the approximately Rs 1.1 lakh loan that she and her husband has taken over the years. Prahlad and Sangeeta used to borrow money because they were not paid wages due to them under MGNREGA. They claim that the contractor owes them Rs 1 lakh for three years of work. They were working in Sillod Tehsil in Aurangabad district for three years but were merely paid Rs 150 every week per family.
Ishu Sindhu, Superintendent of Police, Aurangabad, who has filed two FIRs and is investigating the matter concedes, “There were irregularities in the implementation of the scheme in the district. We are investigating the matter.”