Baghiya Birjiyan is one of the last surviving members from her family of eight in the Mahuadanr village of Jharkhand's Latehar district. "I am also dying," Baghiya, who is almost 50, said while underlining the complete breakdown of welfare schemes for food security and employment guarantee in the state where elections are on.
While the cause behind the deaths of most of her family members is unknown, Baghiya's mother Budhni died on 1 January 2019 due to starvation making her one of the 23 cases of such deaths in the state since September 2017.
Eighty-year-old Budhni, who belonged to the Birijiya tribe, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), had gone hungry for five days because she didn't have a ration card required to avail the stipulated 35 kilograms of rice per month under the Public Distribution System (PDS).
Her grandson, Sashtu, said that the family had submitted multiple applications for a ration card but there had been no update on the process since November 2018. The family also said that Budhni, who couldn't physically move after an injury to her leg, was not suffering from any illness but succumbed to starvation and the biting cold weather.
While issues in the PDS scheme have affected people across Jharkhand, activists pointed to another factor that has contributed to the spate of starvation deaths - loopholes in implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA or NREGA), and the lack of accountability for its failure in the state.
Without any land or availability of labour work, Baghiya gets by on Rs 50-100 a day that she earns by working as a domestic help in her neighbourhood. Stating that for the past three months she and her husband have been surviving on salt, potato and rice, Baghiya said, "Usually we don't have even five paise for food. If not weakness and death, what else will be there?"
Supply doesn't match demand for work under NREGA
Afsana Khatun, a worker with the local NREGA Sahayata Kendra, is never off-duty.
Whether it is during her official shift or while travelling to villages for field work, she is constantly approached by locals for guidance in navigating the complicated and intimidating process involved in receiving payment under NREGA.
NREGA Sahayata Kendras are help centres run by independent facilitators, which have been set up by activists in almost all districts in Jharkhand. Its primary objective is to guide locals in securing their rights by "helping to translate legal guarantees into meaningful entitlements for those it is intended for."
According to the Act, every person is entitled to 100 days' worth of employment at a fixed rate per day. If work is not provided within 15 days of the application asking for the same, an 'unemployment allowance'.
However, the scheme is plagued with bureaucratic mismanagement and government apathy.
Afsana said that even though the people in the Mahuadanr block rely only on agriculture and daily-wage labour for their income, NREGA is almost non-existent in a large number of villages.
Of a cluster of 106 villages in the block, work under NREGA is only made available to 15-20 blocks, and even that doesn't satisfy the 100-day requirement, she explained. "Additionally, in the villages that get about 80-85 days of work, the rate under NREGA is Rs 171 as compared to Rs 200 a day that private contractors pay. Another problem is delayed payments. Sometimes payment is delayed by a month and sometimes more. This year alone, payments were delayed at least four times. Usually they say it's because the funds are over," Afsana said. Demand for work is definitely more than the supply, she added.
A 2017 report in Down to Earth noted, "The budget for the programme has steadily declined in real terms over the years, despite the false claims of the finance minister of "highest ever" allocations. This also leads to wages being more and more delayed, as the financial year progresses and funds dry up."
Labourer pays the price of a clerical error: Rs 50,000
Benedik Ekka, a 60-year-old farmer, arrives in the NREGA Sahayata Kendra office at around 10 am. He has come to submit the necessary forms to claim reimbursement (under NREGA) for the well that he built in his farms. He employed at least eight labourers.
"I decided to dig a well for my 2.5 acre farm so that I can grow vegetables along with rice," he said. While he is owed Rs 3 lakh for the project which took three years to complete, Ekka said he has received only Rs 10,000 since he completed the project in May this year.
The pending amount notwithstanding, Ekka has had to come to terms with losing Rs 50,000 due to a clerical mistake by the 'NREGA sevak' in the block office, who is in charge of all the paperwork related to the scheme.
Afsana said that about a year ago, the official registered someone else's name as the leaser of the project, because of which the fund got transferred to the other person's account instead of Ekka's. "Now he (the official) doesn't remember whose name he had written, so there is no way to track the money. It's all but lost for good," she said.
She added that there is no scope for the official to be held accountable for the mistake which is just one of the many problems that crop up for those regularly dealing with NREGA.
'People are sent far off for work to discourage demand'
According to Afsana, instead of allocating resources smartly, officials often bungle up by sending villagers to far off work sites, usually on foot and without extra pay, which discourages most of them to even take up such daily wage labour.
"Instead of commissioning and assigning work to people from the same village or block, officials will send villagers from far-off places for these assignments. If you have to walk 10 to 12 kilometres for work which does not pay great, why would they ask for work again," said Afsana, who has been raising the issue in the block offices.
This is the situation despite agriculture being the only other option of employment, Afsana's colleage, Aamna Bibi said.
Highlighting the issue of lack of coordination among officials Aamna said, "Pokhardi is one of the most marginalised villages in the Mahuadanr block. In February, 40 people had submitted applications for work but not a single person was given any work. So, we appealed for the unemployment allowance and got them work, but not only the village that they were given work in was very far, but the project that they were assigned to was already completed in 2017."
Starvation and NREGA
James Herenj, convener of the Jharkhand NREGA Watch, explained the cultural angle behind starvation deaths, vis-à-vis the employment guarantee scheme.
The Adivasi community has a custom of helping neighbouring families who need help in form of food or anything else. Often, residents of a village get together to provide food and other resources to a struggling family. But in the absence of an effective implementation of NREGA, the other families are also reeling under unemployment and are on the verge of starvation, Herenj said. "So, the crucial traditional support system has broken down too," Herenj added.
His explanation is illustrated by the case of Ramcharan Munda, a 65-year-old who reportedly died of starvation in the Lurgumi village of the block. While the family initially claimed that it was death due to hunger and then retracted it after he passed away in June 2019, a fact-finding team of independent researchers found that no food had been cooked in the house for three days.
Additionally, the whole village had been denied ration for three months as the dealer was not able to distribute grains in the absence of internet connectivity. The team also found that despite repeated requests by the dealer and locals for an offline delivery system, there had been no change.
Several locals, who didn't wished to be named, said that they had applied for job cards under NREGA five months ago, but had not received it yet. "When the officials came to our village to investigate Ramcharan's death, I handed over my documents directly to the mukhiya (sarpanch). But nothing has happened yet," a woman said on the condition of anonymity.
The security net of NREGA has been taken away from Jharkhand's most needy due to faulty implementation and complex protocols. This mismanagement is one of the factors that has acted as a catalyst for the spate of starvation deaths in Jharkhand since 2017.
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Updated Date: Dec 08, 2019 22:28:15 IST