by T.Venkat & Mathivanan
For the past year and half, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or colloquially called the ‘100 days employment scheme’ has been in great demand in rural Tamil Nadu. While it had already proved its value as an anti-poverty measure across rural India, its popularity has only multiplied during the economic depression that followed Covid lockdowns.
In this two part series for Covid Response Watch T. Venkat and Mathivanan examine the benefits and pitfalls of the scheme, that needs to be expanded and strengthened across the entire country in this period of great economic distress for both the rural and urban poor.
While the 100 days work guarantee scheme has had tremendous popularity among the people during the aftermath of the Covid lockdowns, those who are actively following its progression fear the pitfalls ahead.
“There is a lot of corruption in the record keeping. Even after digitization, the muster rolls are fixed and people who did not show up for work get paid if they are willing to offer commissions to local officials However it is difficult to prove it because we don’t have easy access to these records” says Gunasekaran, activist with the All India Agricultural and Rural Labour Association (AIARLA) from Myladuthurai district.
Amirthalingam from All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU) from Thanjavur concurs that corruption is rampant in NREGS.
“There are bogus lists of workers made. Relatives and friends are listed even though they have not worked. There is no way we can get to know this unless we are checking the lists on a daily basis” he adds.
A worker who did not want to disclose his identity said that he gets attendance for days that he did not work if he can pay a commission to the supervisor.
“I have to pay him half of the wages I get for the week. Even If I am unable to be at work, my card will be listed” he said.
Apart from the corruption through muster rolls, there is also concern that funds could be siphoned off on purchase of materials and machinery.
“Earlier the work allocated through NREGS was only earth work that was labour intensive. But in 2015-16, the central government permitted over 275 types of work that involved lot of construction work. These tend to be machine intensive and material intensive. It increases the scope for corruption” says Amirthalingam. A recent article in Indian Express too has reported the missing millions.
But as far as the workers are concerned, the direct bank transfer enabled through digital filing has reduced the scope for corruption.
“Earlier we would not know the actual wage that was due to us. We would receive a cash payment from our panchayat supervisor on a weekly basis. There would also be lot of delay and disputes over the actual wage. But with the digital process, our wage is transferred to the bank account. The scope for corruption has come down” said Poongudi.
But the flip side of digitization is that it has put these workers, especially elderly women workers vulnerable to fraud at the hands of supervisors and facilitators who access their bank accounts online and even withdraw money. Obviously, it has also led to disputes and allegations of misuse.
Even with digitization, the bureaucratic red tape has remained a major stumbling block to establish transparency. While the Act was devised to be a ‘rights’ based scheme, with greater decision making for the ‘gram sabhas’, in practice, the state and central governments tend to have a veto over these proposals.
“They don’t even open the website for us to upload our proposals. Everything gets delayed” says Raja, the panchayat chairperson of Arangur village in Cuddalore.
He is a young organizer with Thanaatchi (Self Rule), a civil society group. He successfully contested the local body elections and has been working to improve the governance at the local level.
Nandakumar Siva, General Secretary of Thanaatchi, recollects how the scheme worked well in the initial years.
“At first, the gram sabhas actively discussed the projects and decided the work that needs to be undertaken on merit. But with time the local party leaders began to influence these decisions and people lost interest. That’s when both corruption and the lack of enthusiasm for the work became endemic.”
Need for public participation
Apart from the corruption and lack of transparency at village level, the biggest concern activists express is the indifference among the public for the scheme.
“People need to be made aware about their rights within the scheme. They need to know how they are being paid for their work” says Amirthalingam. Madhavi and Muthurakku have also faced very similar issues when they tried to organize workers to demand for more work.
On the other end of the spectrum, Raja and Nandakumar Siva, noted the tendency of the workers to avoid active work.
“Nobody wants to work. A culture of avoidance has been created over the years. They work for a couple of hours maximum and take rest. If we push them to complete the work they tend to get annoyed with us and complain that while other village admins are going easy, we are forcing them with work. We are having to demonstrate to them the value of the work they do for the community and the village” says Raja, who has taken great pains to get canals dug and embankments maintained.
He added “what the workers don’t understand is that they are getting paid less by the overseers because of incomplete work”.
But others have argued that manual labour cannot be done at the same pace as work in climate controlled shop floors and office rooms. AIARLA members who refuted the ‘delinquent workers’ claim said that “this work requires flexibility of time, we should have the right to choose the time of work.”
However, the lack of effective work participation has become a trope among critics to beat down this scheme. They have blamed the increasing cost of farm labour on the attitude of the state to give away ‘free money’ through this scheme.
The poor quality of work and the excess cost of doing it through NREGS could also make the scheme unviable for expansion in the long term.
Fixing the leaks
The state and the bureaucracy are not interested in fixing the scheme. To fix the scheme would invariably lead to empowering the villages and the village workers. It would greatly reduce the discretionary power of the lower level bureaucrats while also increasing their work.
However there are many credible ideas that emerge from the grassroot organizers. Gunasekaran from AIARLA says he is working with his comrades to set up village level monitoring committees to check the muster roll, work allotment and wage payments.
“Wage payments have definitely become regular since digitization but we don’t know if what we get is accurately assessed. It is hard for a worker to earn Rs 200 a day even while the minimum daily wage is set at Rs 276. If we can prevent muster roll corruption we will greatly aid in better distribution of wages” he argues.
Muthurakku and her comrades in Madurai region have already begun to organize the workers. Apart from demanding the increase of wages under NREGS and also the total number of days of work, they are also fighting against corruption in NREGS and have led protests against mismanagement. Poongudi, who works with Muthurakku said that they have about 50 workers, who are landless labourers, organized under their banner.
Amirthalingam (AIAWU) believes that the DMK government can greatly improve the scheme if it can increase the number of overseers and supervisors. While the site supervisors are appointed from within the NREGS job card holders, the Overseers are either permanent employees of Revenue or the Rural Development departments. Overseers have the required qualification to be able to assess and apportion work.
However, there are between 1 or 2 Overseers for the entire block in which scores of projects would be running at any time. This puts an unviable burden on them to check all projects on a daily basis. Until the number of Overseers per block is increased manifold or another optimal solution is designed to evaluate project progress, the method to decide the quantum of work done and thereby the wage paid, will remain arbitrary.
“They have to give an assessment the same day or the very next day of the work. this will allow workers to know how much they have earned that day and also help in improving work culture. Today no one knows when they come for a visit and on what criteria they assess the value of work. Workers only see that they have been paid less that Rs 200 a day.”
Amirthalingam also highlighted the need to move towards hour rate rather than ‘volume based’ payments. Volume based payment is a process in which wages are linked to work done rather than hours of work for which the worker was engaged.
They also added that “When were introduced, the then Deputy CM, M.K Stalin had said ‘wage according to work, is feasible only if you work’. But now even when we meet targets we don’t get the guaranteed wage. So now workers recognize that they will never be paid in full under the volume system.”
Countering the criticisms against expanding the work to 150 days or more he said, “It’s not the number of days, but at what season the work is allotted. If the timing is done optimally, it will improve farm productivity and also provide more jobs. The work they do through NREGS is necessary for agriculture. It’s not properly coordinated with the farming season due to delays in sanctioning.”
Raja, the chairperson of a village panchayat had his goal fixed. “We have to make the people understand the importance of this work and stop them from whiling away their time during the work. Only a demonstration of the value of the village assets they have created will change their attitude. But to do that the villages should have a greater flexibility in deciding the work to be undertaken and the time to complete the work. This is facing a hurdle because of the current sanctioning process that authorises the state and central government to prioritise work.”
Nandakumar Siva, had similar views on improving the scheme. “ The gram sabhas, in their annual meeting have to debate and decide the work they want to undertake for the year. The sanctioning has to happen on a yearly basis so that adequate funds can be released on time and work planned. This will allow the village panchayats and the district administration to also apportion work equitably in the village. We can make it even more inclusive by allocating overseer work, and support work like child care, water supply etc. to physically challenged or aged workers.”
MGNREGS has clearly become a very important tool of the fading welfare state to mitigate the acute distress in rural India, hastened by Covid. As rural economic depression seeps into the urban areas, there is increasing demand and recognition for a ‘job guarantee scheme’ for the semi-skilled urban workers also.
While a possible third wave of Covid induced lockdown might spur the State to improve allocation and enhance wages for the short term, long term solutions will require the workers and workers organizations to advocate for systemic changes that move this scheme from being a sustenance support to a credible method to improve community assets and rural productivity.
T. Venkat is a volunteer journalist with Thozhilalar Koodam; Mathivanan is the State Committee Member of CPIML (Liberation)