NREGA lines pockets. Not of the poor

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Captive job cards. Fake bank accounts. Coercion by pradhans. In Uttar Pradesh, ingenious methods are employed to deprive the poor of MGNREGA benefits, reports Abhishek Bhalla

 A half-dug pond that was later abandoned
Project undone A half-dug pond that was later abandoned
Photo: Shashibhushan Pandey

JANGU, 40, a Dalit labourer in Paraspur village in Gonda district, 120 km northeast of Lucknow, displays his job card in complete disbelief. “My job card was made three years ago and shows three payments. But I was never given any work, so how was the payment made?” he asks, puzzled. The first entry shows a payment of Rs 1,400 but he received a paltry Rs 100. He never went to the bank, but the money was withdrawn. “I have complained to the authorities but nobody knows where the money is,” he says.

 Activist Pandey hears the villagers’ woes
Finding a voice Activist Pandey hears the villagers’ woes
Photo: Nitin Sharma

Workers employed by contractors
Interlopers Workers employed by contractors
Photo: Nitin Sharma

Suresh Kumar has been trying to get a job card for five years
Unemployed Suresh Kumar has been trying to get a job card for five years
Photo: Nitin Sharma

 Mewalal, a small-time farmer is a victim of hybrid seeds scheme
Against the grain Mewalal, a small-time farmer is a victim of hybrid seeds scheme
Photo: Shashibhushan Pandey

 Asghar Ali is fighting a legal battle to get his dues under MGNREGA
Desperate Asghar Ali is fighting a legal battle to get his dues under MGNREGA
Photo: Shashibhushan Pandey

Shatruhan
Long wait Shatruhan is fighting for his dues
Photo: Shashibhushan Pandey

Jangu is just one of lakhs of jobless villagers who have been cheated. They have been robbed of the right to work promised to them under the scheme that guarantees work for 100 days a year — the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). But in Uttar Pradesh, it has become a tool for officials to exploit villagers living in abject poverty. State quality and national-level monitoring reports are evidence of how officials of the state machinery have siphoned off crores meant for the scheme.

TEHELKA’s in-depth investigation into the menace of corruption showed money has been embezzled with the connivance of officials and village pradhans (heads). Pradhans, in turn, are mere puppets in the hands of state officials. Some of the pradhans, on condition of anonymity, made startling revelations that the money trail goes right to the top.

“We have to pay officials to get any work done under MGNREGA,” says a former pradhan from Gonda district. “There is immense pressure from the higher-ups. There is too much interference from officials at the district level when it comes to the use of funds. We have to do exactly what they tell us,” he says.

Another pradhan says, “To sanction any budget for a project, we have to go to the officials. From the block development officer to the chief development officer in the district, everybody wants a cut. Perhaps the money reaches their bosses in Lucknow as well. They are also under pressure like us to meet the demands of the higher-ups. This is a chain.”

“But please don’t reveal my identity,” he pleads, “or I’ll be killed.”

On the ground, the investment is certainly not visible, though Uttar Pradesh has been granted close to Rs 25,000 crore in the past 4-5 years. “Not more than 50 percent of the money sanctioned by the Central government has reached the people. If scrutinised, the scam is worth at least Rs 12,000 crore,” says Sanjay Dixit, member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council, who has been following the situation on the ground across the state.

Perhaps, this is the reason why Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh has sent a warning to the state saying if serious action is not initiated against the erring officials by 10 December, no more money will be sanctioned to UP.

Reacting to this, Uttar Pradesh Principal Secretary, Rural Development, NS Ravi told TEHELKA, “It’s not a threat or warning of any kind. There is nothing to hide. Action has been taken against officials. We have mechanisms in place to check corruption at the ground level. The Economic Offences Wing has been asked to investigate the financial irregularities in some of the districts.”

BUT ON the ground, the modus operandi of exploitation seems well organised. “I filled a form for MGNREGA and my job card was made,” says Shyam Babu Soni, 30, a daily wager of Parsapur village, who supports a family of 11 in Gonda district. “What surprised me is that I have never gone to the bank, but a savings account exists. I have never got any work and my card is always with the pradhan.”

In neighbouring Paska village in Gonda district, villagers complained of fictitious people getting jobs under the scheme. Bachchan Singh, 44, desperately needs to get work to sustain his family of 10, including his ailing parents, but despite repeated attempts has failed to get a job card made. “There are people who don’t live in the village but records show they are working under MGNREGA,” says Singh.

To verify Singh’s claims, TEHELKA visited a site where work under MGNREGA was being carried out. Workers there did not have job cards but claimed they were working under MGNREGA. “The Act says no work should be given to a contractor but that is exactly what is happening,” says Brijesh Pandey, an activist who has been working in northeastern Uttar Pradesh.

“There are people with two job cards while the needy are given the runaround,” he explains. “Job cards are issued in the name of fictitious people. Complaints are made to the district administration but nothing happens. Corruption under MGNREGA is on the rise,” he concludes.

A former pradhan from Gonda district described another malpractice. “When I was the pradhan, senior officers gave me a list of people to be employed in the district,” he says. “I had to obey orders, I had no choice.”

He also explains why pradhans keep the job cards of labourers. “Job cards are used to withdraw money in the name of the labourer. The money obviously is used to pay off officials,” he adds.

HERE IS another example of senior officers of the state machinery being hand-inglove in the scam. In 2007-08, officials at the district level in Gonda transferred more than 4 crore to the gram panchayat arbitrarily by taking a commission. TEHELKA is in possession of documents that show the money was transferred illegally. Despite the block development officer’s adverse report, no penal action was taken.

“These things are happening in 90 percent of the blocks in the state,” says Pandey. “Senior officers are being protected because they are part of the money trail that reaches the top rung in Lucknow. How can an officer at the bottom rung take decisions involving huge amounts of money unless he has protection?”

‘I have never been to the bank but a bank account exists. My card is always with the pradhan’
Shyam Soni, 30, Daily wager

One example of a senior officer being protected is a former chief development officer of Gonda. “Despite the chief minister announcing at a press conference that he will be suspended because of irregularities, he still enjoys all the powers and is presently the CDO, Ghazipur,” adds Pandey.

There are other anomalies. The number of families with less than 15 days work is also the highest across the country — close to 21.7 lakh. Then, over 50,000 families have been provided work for more than 100 days.

“This is an alarming figure. Almost 90 percent of these households have got payment without doing any work. There should be a national-level monitoring team to establish the money trail to identify the beneficiary officials. I have written to the Union rural development minister apprising him of this situation in 30 districts,” says Dixit. Other states are in far better stead compared to Uttar Pradesh.

Ironically, Mayawati has announced that if she comes to power at the Centre she will provide employment for 365 days. “This is such a paradox because in the past five years, on an average, not more than 40 days of employment has been given in the state,” adds Dixit.

In Karanpur Nibha, a Muslim-dominated village in Lakhimpur Kheri district, the scheme has proven to be a nightmare for the villagers. Instead of getting jobs, they are caught up in a legal battle.

Asghar Ali, 40, was thrilled when he got a job card three years ago. He was aware it came with a promise of 100 days of employment in a year and that too in his own village. 120 per day was good money for him to sustain his family of six. Ironically, till date Ali is jobless and is fighting a long legal battle to get his dues under MGNREGA. “My mother is old and ailing. I can’t leave her and go to the city. I don’t even have land to bury her when she dies,” says Ali, his eyes welling up, unable to make eye contact with his teenage daughters who looked embarrassed as their father spoke to TEHELKA.

A widow and mother of two, Shanti Devi, 30, desperately needs work to make ends meet. “I hoped to make some money by working under MGNREGA but never got any. Whenever we go to court, the judge is not there. The pradhan and other officials threaten us,” she says with anger.

Ali and Shanti are not alone; almost the entire village is contesting a case in the sub-divisional magistrate’s court for the past 3-4 years. In all, there are 67 labourers who had to resort to legal recourse because they did not get work under MGNREGA. And when they demanded unemployment allowance, their right under the Act, they were denied that as well.

‘My mother is old and ailing. I don’t even have money to buy land to bury her when she dies’Asghar Ali, 40, Unemployed

Report CardJOB CARDS NOT ISSUED
UP: 2,59,032
Bihar: 0 
Gujarat: 4,201 
MP: 5,483
Maharashtra: 1,77,237 
Rajasthan: 4,012 
Karnataka: 16,531EMPLOYMENT OF FAMILIES FOR LESS THAN 15 DAYS
UP: 21,69,385 
Bihar: 2,40,472
Gujarat: 2,08,871
MP: 8,23,231 
Maharshtra: 2,51,429
Rajasthan: 7,26,870
Karnataka: 2,92,687

Vijay Kumar Mishra, lawyer for these villagers says, “Proceedings are not moving forward because for the past three years, none of the officials have replied to our notices, leave alone appearing in court.”

About 50 km from the industrial town of Kanpur, home to lakhs of industrial workers, villagers of Kanpur dehat (rural) area are without any jobs despite MGNREGA. In Ramabai Nagar, there is a bizarre form of cheating. The district administration distributed hybrid vegetable seeds to farmers. Instead, the idea turned into a moneymaking machine for the officials. The seeds procured at inflated prices — almost three times the market price — from private companies are of poor quality.

“I was given tomato seeds but they did not grow. We were also promised Rs 1,400 but I did not receive the entire amount and had to use money from my own pocket for cultivation. But there was no crop. That was the last time I got any work under MGNREGA. For the past two years or so there has been no work,” says Mewalal, 50, a small-time farmer.

There were farmers who were chosen under the scheme but not given any seeds. According to the state quality monitor report in TEHELKA’s possession, one Shankar Dayal of Mohana village was never given any seeds, he had to buy them. The report also mentions that farmers without land were given seeds. “The quality of seeds given by government is suspect. The selection of farmers was not done properly. Irrigation facilities were not provided. There is no transparency in distribution of seeds,” says the quality control report.

Ramabai Nagar Chief Development Officer NS Pandey adds, “To the best of my knowledge, the deputy director (horticulture) was suspended. This policy of distributing hybrid seeds was discontinued once I took over.”

WITH UNION minister Ramesh sending three reminders to the Mayawati government about irregularities in the scheme and asking the chief minister to initiate a CBI investigation, a political storm has been brewing in the state ahead of the 2012 Assembly elections. While Ramesh is taking every opportunity to tell the chief minister that action against errant officials has not been taken, Mayawati maintains that funds for the scheme have not been misused by the state and wherever necessary, action has been taken.

‘For the past three years, no official has replied to our notices, leave alone appearing in court’
Vijay K Mishra, 35, Lawyer

Ramesh accused her of protecting those involved in alleged irregularities in the implementation of MGNREGA in some districts while providing names of corrupt officials. He cited instances of alleged irregularities and corruption in the implementation of the scheme.

In a press conference, UP Cabinet Secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh refuted the allegations, “The CM has expressed her anguish over Ramesh’s statement. His comments are misleading and aimed at spreading confusion. Twelve people, including senior officials of the health department, have been sent to jail; 56 chargesheets have been filed in connection with the complaints of irregularity.”

While reading out Mayawati’s statement, Singh added, “the chief minister has asked whether any other state was being harassed like this and whether such an environment was being created deliberately.”

Ahead of the 2012 Assembly elections, as the political parties prepare their agendas to take their rivals head-on, the MGNREGA scheme with all its fallouts across the state may prove to be the Achilles’ heel for the Mayawati government, which won by a clear majority in 2007 leaving all Opposition hapless.

abhishek.bhalla@tehelka.com

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