“I am ready to work as a bonded labourer but will never work for MGNREGA again. At least, food is guaranteed when we work for private contractors. MGNREGA has killed my husband,” said Anjana Gore, wife of Amruta Gore, a worker who committed suicide on August 28, 2011.
Like Amruta, several poorest of the poor employed under the UPA government’s flagship job scheme MGNREGA—Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act—have committed suicide because they didn’t get the wages for months, even years in some cases, an HT investigation has established.
Money owed to the daily-wage labourers is also being siphoned by a powerful contractor-babu nexus.
The scheme, started in 2006 to “ensure social protection for the most vulnerable’’ has been hailed by rural development minister Jairam Ramesh as “the largest and the most ambitious social security and public works programme in the world”.
It ensures 100 work days for unskilled labourers in rural areas and requires the wages to be paid within 15 days of the completion of the work.
But rural development ministry data for 2012-13 show more than 1 crore workers (out of the total 4 crore enrolled) didn’t get wages on time—25 lakh of them had to wait for more than three months.
The delay has driven some to suicide, HT found during a visit to seven families in Maharashtra and Jharkhand. While one labourer consumed poison, another hanged himself to death and a third immolated himself.
In the Congress-ruled Maharashtra, which has seen a large number of farmers suicides, five workers—Madhav Sonaji Raut, Amruta Gore, Datta Maghade, Prahlad Kokate and Changunabai Dakore—ended their lives as they were not paid wages for more than three years.
A huge outcry led to the setting up of an eight-member inquiry committee headed by the additional zilla parishad CEO, Aurangabad, which found irregularities in the implementation of the scheme in the district.
“The names of workers who actually worked on ground were not registered in the attendance list; instead, names of local villagers were registered,” the July 2012 report said. The committee also found money had been illegally withdrawn.
Despite the committee’s damning report, the families of the dead workers are yet to receive payments.
As the wages didn’t come by, the workers took loans from moneylenders and relatives but couldn’t repay, their families said.
In each case the loan taken was in excess of Rs 1 lakh. Ironically, Rs 1 crore is lying idle in fake accounts, a post office document dated November 11, 2013 confirms.
The affidavits given by these workers and their families to the inquiry committee in 2012 describe in detail the works they performed in various villages of Sillod tehsil in Aurangabad district and the amount of pending wages.
Residents of Buldhana and Jalan districts, they had all migrated to Aurangabad in search of work. The contractor owes more than Rs 1 lakh each to the families of the workers.
Aurangabad collector Vikram Kumar said, “I have seen their affidavits. FIRs have been registered and the police will find out whether these workers were working there and whether the suicides are linked to it.”
Vikram said action has been taken against 19 gram sevaks, 19 sarpanchs and a few engineers because there were irregularities, indicating the scale of the nexus.
“Based on the findings of the police investigation, we will take further action,” Vikram said.
Superintendent of police Ishu Sindhu said, “We have filed two FIRs… I can say that definitely there were irregularities.”
In Jharkhand, where HT tracked two suicides, apathy marks the bureaucratic response.
“We are looking into delayed payments. I am aware of Tapas Soren’s suicide and we have compensated his family and punished the officials. I am not aware of Jaggu Bhuiyan’s suicide,” state rural development secretary Arun Kumar said.
HT is in possession of the state’s MGNREGA council report, which concludes “Jaggu Bhuiyan hanged himself because he could not pay wages to the workers working under him and had to sell his bull...”
The suicides cast a shadow over UPA’s vote-winning employment scheme that helped it return to power in 2009.