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In Andhra, a unique reality check

Ever heard of the money being returned to people it was intended for? That is exactly what is happening across dusty, backward villages of Andhra Pradesh, reports Chitrangada Choudhury.

india Updated: Mar 24, 2008 01:38 IST
Chitrangada Choudhury

In a country where stories of siphoned public funds abound, ever heard of the money being returned to people it was intended for? Or the loot making its way back to the exchequer? That is exactly what is happening across dusty, impoverished villages of Andhra Pradesh.

Here, a specially designed software, dedicated muckrakers, and lots of political will, have recovered over Rs 1 crore from countless government officials and grass root politicians. They had pocketed allocations meant for the state’s poorest villagers under its Rs 2000 crore National Rural Employment Guarantee Program (NREGA).

In one of several such cases, on February 13, G Thimanna, a government engineer in the state’s poorest district of Mahabubnagar, returned Rs 24,000 to auditors, after a social audit revealed he had falsely claimed to pay the money as NREGA wages to villagers for building a road.

The money might not seem like much in middle-income and affluent India. But in drought-stricken villages like Uparpalli — just 80 kilometres south of bustling Hyderabad — for each of the 420 crowbar-wielding maize farmers and landless labourers desilting a water tank under a fierce afternoon sun, Rs 24,000 equals 300 days of such back-breaking work. Or an entire year’s income for the state’s 29 lakh families who still live under the poverty line.

Most on this afternoon like Chandra Rao, 55, were from the disadvantaged Mahadiga caste. Waving dusty, calloused hands over the landscape, the small farmer explained why NREGA could seem like a boon: “There is no work in villages, no water for my farm. This program gives me work, pays me 90-100 rupees per day.”

The NREGA, says Rural Development secretary K Raju, is “an unprecedented challenge”.

He is referring to its scale of course: starting April, it must be rolled out in every Indian district. But more worringly, the program—and even its strongest supporters admit this—can be easily bled by the hundreds of officials entrusted with it.

On paper, it is meant to be a safety net by guaranteeing wages to distressed rural households in return for giving them a maximum of 100 days of work on labour-intensive public works annually. In practice, as a team of engineers and retired officials under Tata Consultancy Services’s Social Sector head, S Rao found in 2006, things unfold quite differently.

Through their 6-month long study into Maharashtra’s 3-decade-old rural job guarantee program — the blueprint for the Rs 40,000 crore national program passed months later by Parliament — Rao’s team found officials and politicians inflating work bills, faking wages and pocketing funds.

He says, “The scheme is essentially a series of human transactions, each racked by corruption.” Since the people it was meant to help were marginalized, and often unable to read or write, they could rarely demand accountability.

Rao’s team created the resultant software that today helps tracks every detail in AP’s NREGA program. He says, “In every transaction, we attempted to replace the human being with the computer.”

Today, computers placed in every mandal, and not officials, issue job cards to families, throw up work estimates for close to 70 different types of works on the basis of a pre-fed set of parameters, and generate each worker’s pay slip.

By placing all this online (www.nrega.ap.gov.in), battling authorities for information is unnecessary.

Payments are being made into postal accounts created for lakhs of villagers. The state had under 6 lakh accounts till 2005. Today the number touches 70 lakh, and authorities are being forced to strengthen the postal infrastructure so that it can take on its new job.

The attempt at transparency has its logical end in the current social audits by a specially designated and independent unit. Findings culminate in public meetings, which special government orders say, local officials and politicians must attend, and respond to.

Since taking off last August, all these measures have coalesced to recover over Rs 1 crore. “It is under half of what has actually been siphoned off”, says NREGA Director A Murali. “But it is a start.”