Thinking out of the box isn’t always a prerequisite for the impossible.
Going by the book, sometimes, works just as well.
Purna Chandra Kishan, collector of the tribal Dungarpur district in Rajasthan, had quite the task on hand: Battling the corruption undermining the Union government’s flagship welfare programme—the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or MGNREGS.
The scheme guarantees 100 days of employment a year to one member in every poor rural household.
In October, activist Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan had unearthed large-scale corruption in the scheme in Rajasthan through special audits. The first audit in Bhilwara, the constituency of Union panchayati raj and rural development minister C.P. Joshi, revealed irregularities to the tune of R1.3 crore.
Village heads and secretaries—or sarpanches and gram sachivs—were embezzling crores of rupees allocated for the scheme with fake job cards, purchase bills and entries in the muster rolls, and diverting payments. But no action was taken against them, not until Kishan decided to play it by the book.
“I merely implemented the government directions regarding work groups, work site boards, job cards, works, etc,” he says.
Rajasthan received nearly a fifth of the funds released by the Centre for the scheme last year. According to the rural development ministry, the state got R5,942 crore of the total R31,149 crore spent on the scheme in the year till March.
A group of villagers in Dungarpur says the overall situation has improved. Shankar Lal, 55, a farmer in Valota, says the head of his village was fined
R4.82 lakh for irregularities related to the employment scheme.
The country’s first social audit was held in Valota in 2006 by the Soochna Evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan—a right to information and employment campaign by a group of not-for-profit bodies and the government. Since then, gram sabhas in the district have become animated affairs, with people asking questions of the elected heads and demanding quality work.
“When we check the work in the presence of villagers and officials, it becomes a kind of social audit,” says Kishan. “Poor people come forward to lodge complaints and corrupt sarpanches, secretaries and junior engineers are publicly embarrassed. The work automatically improves.”
Dungarpur district, bordering Gujarat and nestled in the lap of the Aravalli mountain range, has some of the poorest socio-economic indicators in Rajasthan. So, implementation of welfare schemes is critical.
But during the monsoon, “influential people in the village want NREGS work stopped so they can get cheap labour for their fields,” says Kishan. This year, he has ensured MGNREGS work continues through the rain.
Some 70,000 to 100,000 people migrate from Dungarpur every year in search of jobs, he adds. No official data is available on this, but Kishan expects the migration to decrease by about 40 per cent as a result of the employment scheme.
Even the usually skeptical non-profit bodies approve of Kishan's work. “He has pulled up officials and controlled corruption in material. Sarpanches and ‘mates’ (site supervisors) have been blacklisted, work site boards have been put up,” says Hari Om Soni, an activist who works to improve livelihoods and the local governance system.
Mansingh Sisodia of Vagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan, a body representing workers and farmers in Dungarpur, adds, “All those hangers-on who did no work and got money have been thrown out.”
Kishan also organised a workshop on constructing gravel roads. “We constructed a stretch of 100m of quality gravel road as per specifications in one day in Jaisela panchayat,” he says, adding that the people who claimed quality gravel roads could not be constructed by gram panchayats and NREGS labourers were proved wrong.
He says the problems in the scheme arose mainly because the projects are not decided by the labourers, as required under the Act. He has now passed an order that for illiterate labourers, the application entry should read 100 days or maximum.
“In seven panchayats, where sachivs were regular offenders, I personally filled up job application forms for average 500 labourers for 100 days in each panchayat,” says Kishan. “I told the secretaries that if they failed to provide employment, I would process unemployment allowance. They forgot all netagiri (politicking) and fell in line.”