A great lottery has just been won in villages across UP. A landmark law that guarantees employment to rural citizens is bringing prosperity to households across the state — but only in homes of village heads, who are busy funding political careers out of the Rs 1,000 crore sanctioned by the Centre last year. Gleaming new cars outside the houses of many village heads and pucca houses that stick out like sore thumbs amid mud-and-thatch homes corroborate this fact. It is a tragic story of how funds sanctioned for the showpiece National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) are being embezzled in UP.
The law guarantees 100 days of employment per year to one member from each family irrespective of his or her economic status. Policymakers feel that this kind of job opportunity will halt migration to cities, contain the spiralling rise of poverty and reduce the pressure on urban resources. In UP, the scheme covers 39 out of the 70 districts. According to the Rural Development Ministry, people from 26 lakh households sought employment last year, of whom 25 lakh were given employment, totalling 822 lakh days of employment, including 136 lakh days for women.
But as I travelled across central and eastern UP last week, I could barely find that the state was employing millions of rural citizens. In village after village, a huge scandal unfolded at several levels. There are two documents at the heart of the NREGA programme — job cards, which keep a record of the number of days a person works, and muster rolls, a daily attendance register with signatures or thumb impressions of workers.
According to the law, job cards should be with the workers and muster rolls must be displayed at the work site for scrutiny. But, in reality, neither was the case. Audits by activists show that pradhans or local village officials seize these documents and manipulate numbers, names, signatures and thumb impressions.
The type of project to be carried out to provide employment — like digging a pond, or a drain, or constructing a road — is to be decided by the panchayat in consultation with the villagers, at least four times a year. Villagers, of course, are never involved, and even the members of many panchayats say that decisions were taken by headmen without consulting them. A third of all workers should be women under the law. But women are not even registered as workers or given job cards, and in many places projects were shelved when women insisted on getting their share of employment.
All this happens because there is a nexus among village headmen, the secretary and the Block Development Officer — with the patronage of politicians. Pradhans sell their loyalties to the highest bidders before elections and, in turn, are responsible for ‘ensuring’ that villagers vote for a particular party. This kind of loyalty decides whether villagers get job cards, or certificates crucial for jobs, or are able to protect their lands from unscrupulous revenue officials.
Political loyalties also decide how caste groups get favours. In UP, thousands of Dalit students did not get scholarships last year, while most Other Backward Classes students did. It is no coincidence that the party in power gets its support from OBCs, not Dalits. This is at the behest of politically motivated pradhans. The first step, therefore, should be to ban them from indulging in politics and arrest the corrupt. There should also be external scrutiny at the village or the block level, with the help of NGOs, to verify, every quarter, the work done and how it was done. A very good example of this kind of scrutiny is in Hardoi, where pradhans regard a validation by Asha Pariwar, an NGO, as their version of an ISO certification.
Apart from implementation, there are many other flaws in the law. First, it bans machines with the motive of encouraging maximum possible labour. The ban on machines has meant that there is only a limited number of things workers can build, and the sole priority is on getting people something to do — whether it is of any use or not. Second, the wage in UP under NREGA is Rs 58 per day, a disincentive because it is much lower than the Rs 80 to Rs 100 a worker can get otherwise.
So why can’t the NREGA workers be integrated into, say the pm’s roads project, where they can be a force multiplier for machine-aided projects? Otherwise, there will be cases like the one at Arsaliya in Hardoi, where the headman decided to dig a pond though the villagers didn’t need it. So none of them have job cards with them, and none of them got to work for 100 days. The job cards are with the village officials. I called up the pradhan. He said the truth was that the villagers were lazy and they did not want to work. Then he excused himself. He had an election meeting to organise, he said.