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MGNREGA, once world's largest source of rural livelihood, now a tale of decay and digital delay

Have women living in rural India benefitted from the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGA)? MNREGA was introduced in 2006 and has emerged as the largest programme in the world for providing employment to the rural poor.

 MGNREGA, once worlds largest source of rural livelihood, now a tale of decay and digital delay

File image of MGNREGA workers. Reuters

While there is no doubt that MNREGA in a short span of ten years did help generate 20 billion person-days of employment benefitting 276 million workers from which more than half were women. Women admit that in the initial years, it did help provide employment up to almost 60 days per household in 2009-10 but the numbers have plummeted to 30-40 days per household in 2014-15 and the graph is only declining.

Middle-aged Mandu from Araria district of Bihar expresses this popular sentiment when she said, "Today I consider myself lucky if I can get 30 days of employment in a year. Unfortunately, since payments are being delayed by six months and more, the men have no choice but to migrate to larger cities in search of work."

Sunburnt and wearing a dark green sari, Mandu who is the mother of three girls and two boys, said, "At present all work in MNREGA has been stopped in our district because of the floods in our state. Being a BPL card holder, I was given five kilos of rice by the state government. My biggest complaint is that when I ask the village mukhiya (chief) for work, he prefers to give it to people of his own caste and community."

Mandu has been associated with MNREGA from 2009. She believes that work under this scheme definitely helped in the creation of assets for the village. "We helped build roads, ponds and toilets. In the initial years, it stopped menfolk from migrating to larger town since men preferred to stay back and work from their homes. Now, the entire village has emptied out and there are no men folk left, only young boys and old men," said Mandu.

Ram Beti of Alipur village in Sitapur district of Uttar Pradesh has been associated with MGREGA from 2006. Ram Beti is extremely upset by the new technological initiatives in which their payments have been linked to bank accounts and Aadhar cards.

"Many of us are illiterate and we do daily mazdoori (labour). Hamare haath ghiste rahte hain(We work with our bare hands). So we believe our fingerprints can and do change. Using them to provide proof of our identity is a mistake because if there is the slightest change in our thumb or fingerprint, these do not tally with our earlier thumb impressions," said Ram Beti.

Her other complaint relates to internet connectivity. "Six times out of ten, when I reach the bank, they are facing a connectivity issue. There are seven members in my family, two boys, two girls, and my aged father-in-law and I have all the household responsibilities on my shoulders. I leave my work and go to the bank and there I am told, I will have to come some other time," she said.

Ram Beti believes the drive towards over-centralisation of MNREGA has worked against the workers. "The district and village panchayats are helpless since all decisions emanate from Delhi. Earlier, if we faced problems, they would be resolved at the local level. Now, in the name of corruption, they have only succeeded in creating greater harassment for us," she said.

She cites several examples of how villagers in her own district have had their Aadhar numbers wrongly entered in the bank and although they have worked in the MGREGA programme, their money has been wrongly transferred into another workers account.

Since she is part of the Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan, Ram Beti points out that she is in a more advantageous position than most other women. "The association has 400 members and we monitor different project and hold regular strikes. The district administration gives members of our association work under MGREGA but other village women are not so fortunate. The cutting of funds in MGREGA has created a situation where there is no work available for most villagers," said Ram Beti.

"The main thrust of the MGREGA is on bhumi savaar (soil improvement). We work to improve the soil. Dalit fields which were barren are now green with crops around the year," she said.

Kulwant Kaur of Karim Nagar village in Amritsar district has been associated with MGREGA for the last seven years. She belongs to the SC category and is a mother of two boys and two girls.

Her biggest complaint against MGREGA is the long delay in payment. "So far, I have managed to get around 50 days of work in a year under this scheme although the law lays down that I am entitled to 100 days. Unfortunately, the payments are now taking more than six months to come and that creates a huge financial squeeze for me," said Kaur.

She works in digging and cleaning a network of canals around her district. "It is hard work and I have to remove tree trunks with my bare hands. Since there is no other work available in our village, elderly men and women are partaking in this scheme," she said.

Her biggest complaint against her panchayat members is how BPL cards are being siphoned off by the well-to-do members after paying them large sums of money.

White-haired Norti Bai of village Harmura in Ajmer Zilla has been associated with MGREGA from 2006. "In those days we received payment within 15 days. Then our local administration gave orders for us to open bank accounts and that was the beginning of our problems. Earlier, we monitored everything and could put pressure on the panchayats to ensure proper entries were made in our muster rolls but who do we take our complaints to today," she said.

With everything being computerised, we are completely excluded from any kind of monitoring. The menfolk in our village cannot wait indefinitely to get work and they are all migrating to work in stone quarries and other places. The entire scheme has been handed over to old people and women," said Norti Bai.

"At present I get work for 50 out of 100 days in a year. Payments are slow in coming in and I have not received payment for the last ten months. But I must emphasise there are a large number of workers who have not yet got Aadhar cards because the computer link is down for weeks on end in our village," she said.

Middle-aged Krishna Priya Mishra from Cuttack regrets that the entire MGREGA problem has come to a halt.

"There is no money for the implementation of this scheme. I cannot say whether it is because of corruption or because the funds for the state budget have been slashed or because of corruption. All I can say is that the situation at the ground level is very bad and people have no work at all," said Mishra.

Neeta from Banas Kantha district in Gujarat points out that the entire emphasis in her state has been on the construction of toilets.

"With the state government wanting toilets to be constructed in every village, our focus has been on constructing toilets. But we have not been paid for this work and that is very demoralising," said Neeta.

"Villagers want the creation of more assets in their village like bigger work sites, better drinking facilities and creation of ponds wherever possible. That is being ignored," she said.

Villagers in the states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh are also facing major problems in receiving payments.

Mariam who works intermittently on this programme in Ranchi district regrets that receiving payments has become a huge scam.

"Payments come through the banks. To collect those payments, we have to travel to the district headquarters which is located more than 40 km away. Very often, when I reach the bank counter they tell me the money has not come or sometimes I am informed that there is no link. Then I have to catch a bus and return all the way to my village. The whole exercise takes me a couple of hours. On top of it, there is load shedding and there is no electricity in the bank," said Mariam.

James Herenj who has been associated with MNREGA in Jharkhand from the start of this programme points out that one of the major shortcomings is that there is no complaint redressal mechanism in place.

"The state government has created Pragya Kendras in some villages but the officials here in connivance with the bank officials will take the finger prints of the fore and middle finger of the worker and put their own thumb impression. The thumb impression is used to collect the money and these poor workers get fleeced especially since most of them have not been given pass books either," said Herenj.

He further stated that the average number of work days in MGREGA has come down to 40 days in his state.

Five states have finished their budget for MNREGA for the current fiscal year. These include Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Forty-year-old Kavita Sheet of Achinta Nagar in 24 Pargannas has been associated with MGREGA for the last six years.

She said, "I am presently getting 20 to 30 days of work in a year. Unfortunately, payments are being delayed by many months and that is creating a great problem for us."

Anuradha Talwar, an active member of the Pachim Banga Khet Majoor Samiti points out that the success of MGREGA can be gauged from the fact that in the early years of its implementation, distress migration had stopped in the Purulia district of West Bengal.

"Today both men and women are migrating, sometimes four times a year from Purulia district especially during the harvest period. Men are also going to Kerala and Tamil Nadu to work since they receive higher wages there," Talwar said.

The women interviewed, along with many others, had travelled to the capital to protest non-payment of their dues under the aegis of the MNREGA Sangharsh Morcha. They also believed these technological initiatives were causing hardship to workers. The topdown approach is going against the whole principle of decentralisation and absence of payment guarantees is forcing millions of women workers to lose faith in this scheme.

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Updated Date: Sep 20, 2017 21:58:28 IST

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