The green leaves of the mango trees glisten in daylight, almost matching the smile on the Sameer Toppo’s face. A farmer in Jharkhand's Chipadohar village in Latehar district, Toppo has been removing the stills that supported the three-year-old trees that are now strong enough to stand on their own. The rest will be off in a few more months, he says, standing inside his mango orchard. Another year, and Toppo hopes to reap the first harvest.
When the state administration proposed mango plantations to generate jobs and create assets in the villages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), Toppo was one of the first few farmers who spared more than an acre of his fertile 17-acre holding for the rural job plan.
He clubbed his field with those of three other farmers and within days, 10 to 15 labourers from Chipadohar received work for 100 man-days to dig pits and plant 800 saplings on the combined five acres.
Toppo regularly checks for pests, termites and wild animals. Once the fruiting starts, he can have mangoes at home and can even sell them at the market, adding to his income.
Since its inception in 2005, MGNREGS focused on building community assets such as roads, wells, ponds and check-dams. Among all the works done under MGNREGS, wells were the only individual assets getting created. But in 2016, the Jharkhand government expanded the scheme to create more individual assets. It introduced animal sheds, ponds (called dobhas), trench-cum-bunds in fields and mango farms. Wells, in high demand, continued to be in the revised works list.
The change has been dramatic. Data shows that Jharkhand completed 68,387 works under MGNREGS in 2015-16. In 2018-19, the number zoomed to 4,04,396. Close to nine lakh works were completed just between 2016 and 2019. Mango farms, farm ponds, animal sheds and trench-cum-bunds were the assets that drove up the figures, explain the state MGNREGA officials.
With 99 percent timely payments for MGNREGA works against the national average of 85 percent, Jharkhand has been the best performing state during the April-June 2019 period this fiscal.
However, while the increase in the number of assets looks impressive on paper, the effect on tangible income is yet to be seen at many places.
This re-framing of the world’s largest rural job programme, in keeping with local needs and to fight poverty, was especially important in Jharkhand. The state has been witnessing deaths allegedly linked to starvation since 2017, indicating that the plethora of welfare schemes have failed to reach the poor. Hence, the question: have MGNREGS assets brought any real change in the state’s rural economy?
Community versus Individual
Soon after taking over as the Jharkhand MGNREGA commissioner in 2016, Siddharth Tripathi launched departmental inquiry against 47 percent block development officers, dismissed 34 percent rozgar sevaks and corrupt block mukhiyas.
"We wanted to send a strong message," says Tripathi. "Once the ground machinery was ready, the state needed to show results."
Tripathi’s biggest decision was to shift focus from community to individual assets. He argues that with community assets, the villagers only getting wages, which are the lowest in Jharkhand at Rs 171. This money does not add to any household asset creation. But if money is invested in individual assets, it gives a family a resource that can have long-term value. Also, the maintenance and care of individual assets is better, he says.
Since the sense of ownership is weak for community assets, there was huge pilferage. "Check dams were made in areas where there was no collection of water. Contractors who had no connection with the community were taking up work and siphoning off money. And, projects were taking too long to complete," says Tripathi.
Studies back Tripathi’s claims. A 2015 study by the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR) shows that assets created on private lands under MGNREGS were considered more useful than those on common lands. The study also found "a strong correlation between the perceived usefulness of an asset and the extent to which the person responding played a role in decision-making". Where the community felt it had a role in decision-making, it found the asset to be more useful in improving its lives.
How a functional asset can transform lives can be seen in the household of Santosh Urea and Poonam Devi.
In 2014-15, a well was sanctioned on their land. Today, that well which has water through the year allows the family of 10 to grow three crops on their 4.6 acre land. They grow tomato, cauliflower, chillies, okra, chickpeas, peas, gourd, pomegranate, guava, sunflower and mustard in their kitchen garden and do not buy vegetables from the market. This year, they even sold vegetables worth Rs 7,000.
"There is now more food for the children," says Poonam, nursing her youngest son.
In the nearby Lidgain village, Ram Chander Oraon’s well has been useful for 10 other villagers as well, covering the surrounding 15 acre land since 2012. Like Urea, Oraon also started using the water to grow vegetables and makes an additional Rs 8,000 by selling the surplus.
A 2012 study to assess the usefulness of wells dug under MGNREGS shows that with the source of water close to their fields, farmers were growing up to three crops a year along with vegetables. This led to an increase in almost 50 percent annual profits. The families also reported that they were eating better with vegetables growing on their land. The IGIDR study also supports these findings.
"We realised that if we have to pull people out of poverty, we need to create individual assets," says Tripathi. And that is why mango plantation — a resource that can give long-term income — was given a push under MGNREGS.
In July 2014, the Centre started a pilot project of Cluster Facilitation Teams (CFTs), which are civil society workers assisting in implementation of projects linking MGNREGS with the National Rural Livelihood Mission. The CFTs, with a social mobiliser and a technical adviser, began work in 76 blocks in Jharkhand and were the launchpads for mango plantations.
The CFTs eased the process of demanding work and ensured timely payments, explaining to farmers how faulty saplings would be replaced and money would be provided for pesticides and fencing.
From 2013-14 to 2017-18, in blocks where CFTs were working, households receiving employment increased from 3.54 lakh to 4.39 lakh. In the same period, person-days increased from 1.21 crore to 1.70 crore. On-time wage payments increased from 68.7 percent to 94 percent and 257 workers received unemployment allowance worth Rs 4.77 lakh.
From seven blocks, the mango plantations went up to 43 blocks, covering 1,400 acres, and benefiting 1,900 households in 2017-18. In 2018-19, the area increased to 2,000 acres across 70 blocks. Also, 28,207 complaints were filed from these blocks with the help of the CFTs.
In 2014, social audits started in Jharkhand for MGNREGS. The public naming and shaming gave the villagers the courage to question the panchayat representatives. Out of 4,400 panchayats in Jharkhand, 2,200 have been audited and the remaining will be audited this year.
"More than Rs 30 crore has been recovered for bogus works in 2018 from 2,200 panchayats. Inspections are now happening and people are getting aware of their rights," says Ujjwal Pahurkar, social development specialist, social audit unit, Jharkhand.
He says once the social audits started, the number of works dropped, indicating that bogus works for which fake muster rolls were created were now down.
Not as fruitful as it sounds
Of the 800 saplings Toppo was nurturing, only 370 survive today. “The hardest part has been irrigating the saplings,” says Toppo. The only source of irrigation is a hand pump. The other farmers, he says, have stopped caring for the plants on their lands, as the saplings have to be watered on time, failing which plants can wilt and die.
Besides, the money for fencing to protect plantation from wild animals, has not reached many farmers. The inter-cropping, which Toppo did, was eaten away by deer and pigs.
A few kilometres away, all 77 saplings planted on Ram Oraon’s one acre land in 2018 have died due to termite. Oraon started the project with the help of CFTs, but now his field lies fallow.
There were reports of how stems wrapped in mud were provided by the suppliers and these eventually died. At the state MGNREGS office, Tripathi says the process of blacklisting the faulty dealers is on. He adds that as per the social audit reports of the mango plantations, the survival rate is above 90 percent. Of the 6,000 plantation sites, only 114 have no trees.
"In the first year of plantation, because the quantity needed was small, the quality of saplings was good. Over the years, as the scheme expanded and the demand exploded, poor quality plants were supplied," explains Vinod Kumar, member of Ranchi CFT.
CFT members also say that MGNREGA was hit by funds crisis which delayed the wages and the suppliers were paid almost after a year. "That is why good suppliers stopped coming forward,” says Kumar.
The civil-society groups in Jharkand allege that the mango-farming plan pushed all other works aside. In 2015-16, villagers made plans based on their needs under the Yojna Banao Abhiyan but those were scrapped after they were given the go-ahead. Instead, works like mango plantations and dobhas, which were the ideas of the state department, were pushed.
“In April 2016, special gram sabha happened and people were asked to demand only dobhas. Suddenly, the government said one lakh dobhas will be made. Much of the work was done by the soil conservation department using machinery. People felt they were misled,” says James Herenj, convenor, Jharkhand NREGA Watch, a non-profit.
In the rush to meet targets, the CFT members claim, dobhas were made on highlands where water doesn’t stop. As a result, many of the dobhas have never had any water. “They started making dobhas everywhere. People didn’t even want to give their agricultural land for it, but the government wanted to complete targets,” says Vijay Ram, a farmer from Chipadohar panchayat.
Animal sheds, another individual asset, were constructed at a great pace, but no animals have been provided nor any training to rear them. Also, the social audit team found that the trench-cum-bundhs were constructed without proper inlets and outlets, leading to flooding of the fields during rain.
The contract for CFTs, which were MGNREGS’ ground support for the mango plantations, stopped in May. The teams are waiting for the government to tell them whether they will continue the work or not.
Despite the state support promised under mango plantations, Oraon is unsure if he will receive compensation or new plants.
While Oraon and Toppo, landed farmers, could afford a long gestation period till the mango saplings grow into trees, the scheme does little for the landless farmers. This shift in asset creation has neither led to a wage increase under MGNREGS, nor has it addressed migration. How this shift will transform rural livelihoods in Jharkhand is yet to be seen.
The author is a 2019 Promise of Commons Media fellow
Updated Date: Jul 09, 2019 17:32:10 IST