Broken promises

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Photos:  Mithlesh Kumar

THE NATIONAL Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) ensures every rural household 100 days of work in a year; if work is not provided within 15 days of applying for it, applicants are entitled to an unemployment allowance. However, they have a tough time submitting their applications to authorities. More often than not, their applications are ignored or refused.

Activists Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera recently brought a case of nonpayment of unemployment allowance in two Gram Panchayats of Manika Block (Latehar) in Jharkhand to the attention of Justice MY Eqbal, Executive Chairman, Jharkhand Legal Services Authority (JHALSA). According to them, “The JHALSA not only took up the matter but decided to turn the Lok Adalat into a pioneering experiment for the whole country, by sending out a public appeal for complaints related to NREGA.”

In response, over 20,000 complaints were submitted. The large number of complaints was partly the result of a wrong impression created in the area that job-card holders who had been unemployed under NREGA would get the unemployment allowance — even if they had not applied for work. On February 7, the audience at the hearing clearly demonstrated that there was a huge demand for work under NREGA in Latehar and that people had placed big hopes on the Lok Adalat. However, one hour into the event, we realised that the Lok Adalat wasn’t going to succeed as envisaged. People were neither given a copy of the award nor receipts for applications.

Hoping for change JHALSA officials at work (above). Villagers attend the Lok Adalat in Jharkhand

Long queues had formed in front of the 20 Lok Adalat benches spread across the venue. I observed one such bench and found that the only task being conducted was the return to the complainant a copy of the form they had earlier filed. On it was scribbled that applicant should be given work within 15 days. This form had the signature of the concerned JHALSA and NREGA officials. When we pointed out to the bench that this form was inadequate for work to be assigned, some NREGA officials started allotting work right away to the complainants by writing the name of the work on their form.

A good example of the disappointment people faced is the case of Somvati Devi. She was among the thousands who made three trips to the Lok Adalat: first to file her complaint, then for the preliminary proceedings, and then again on February 7. We met her as she was leaving the stadium. All she had in her hand was a small paper with her case identification number. On asking her what had happened, she was clueless. We decided to investigate further, and with the help of her son identified the bench that had heard her case. When the papers corresponding to her case identification number were pulled out, they turned out to be someone else’s.

In the commotion the only people who seemed to have no problems were JHALSA officials. The visiting dignitaries had come mainly to deliver speeches and get credit for arranging such a massive Lok Adalat. Drèze and Khera, who were also present on the dais, were clearly very disturbed and eventually walked off.

THE FORMAL function ended around 1:30 pm. And we started discussing what we could do. Most people were still inside the venue and slowly realising that their effort of coming to the Lok Adalat had resulted in nothing concrete. After a brief discussion, a consensus was reached that we must protest. So activists from Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (a local organisation involved in monitoring the Lok Adalat) and those who had come in solidarity from other places went to the exit of the stadium. They started talking to people about what had happened. Soon, all of us were busy organising a rally to protest the betrayal of people’s demands.

People who were exiting the venue were tired and in a hurry to go home, but were also very disappointed and angry. “There is no one to listen to us,’ said Ramji Yadav. He had worked on an NREGA worksite for 24 days, but an inflated entry of 72 days was entered on his job card. Further, he was paid only Rs 50 per day instead of Rs 90 which was his due. The idea of marching in protest immediately caught the imagination of people like Ramji Yadav. We soon had between two to three thousand people marching with us on the streets of Latehar. A chakka jam resulted when the rally was stopped from going to the Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) residence. The blockade was lifted on assurances from the Sub Divisional Officer, Latehar, that the DC would listen to our demands, and the congregation moved to the DC’s office. The negotiations with the DC failed.

The ordeal of the people and activists didn’t stop there. The brunt of the retaliation was faced by Bhukhan Singh and Niyamat Ansari, who played a leading role in the recent struggle for payment of unemployment allowances in Manika. This led to the payment of the unemployment allowance in two Gram Panchayats (Kope and Jerua), and a fine on the local Block Development Officer. The two were arrested on false charges on February 15, and sent to jail on February 16, for allegedly attacking Forest Department officials in Jerua village on February 3. But Drèze and Khera claim they were with them on that day to participate in the Lok Adalat. Both were released on bail on February 21.

Yet, I feel that the event even with all its broken promises achieved a few things:

 It created pressure on the administration to open works under NREGA. There are plans to start more works and for some Blocks a list of works is ready.

 With the rally and the protest, people made it clear to the administration that their demand for work can’t be ignored.

 The events of the day pointed out the problems and limitations of the Lok Adalat.

Ranjan teaches at at Birla Institute of Technology, Patna