By Debmalya Nandy
National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) functionaries were recently out of duty for nearly two-and-a-half months, as they were protesting and demanding for better remuneration and facilities. The result was, its implementation across the state came to a standstill during a period which happened to be the major working time after the paddy harvesting was over.
In the absence of work, many migrated to different townships and cities in search for work. Prior to this, many mukhias in Jharkhand went for a one-month-long “pen down” strike as the second installment of the Fourteenth Finance Commission funds were not provided to 17 districts. Meanwhile, there were constant agitation and demonstration by people’s representatives and their frontline functionaries against this state of affairs.
The state government’s inability in dealing with administrative issues, thus, once again failed the rural workers, who were forced to resort to distress migration to towns and cities in search of work. However, to their dismay, most of them found that the scope of employment across sectors in the entire country had reduced drastically. Hence many of them returned to their villages empty handed.
In the absence of cash, many faced hunger and extreme destitution. In a state where hunger and malnutrition have caused many fatalities in the recent past, such mismanagement in implementing the rural jobs scheme goes to show how unprepared the government is in dealing with the issues of the poor.
The jolt is indeed huge. Official data show that, during 2018-19, the state could only achieve 76% of the approved persondays of the labour budget. This was even less than the previous financial year (2017-18), when the state achieved 85% of the total approved labour budget.
A decline of 9% in persondays generation should be a major cause of concern. While several media reports have claimed that the demand for NREGS work was the maximum in 2018-19 compared to the last few years, Jharkhand’s poor show is a sign of failure of the state government.
Rural households of Jharkhand, deprived of year-round food security and availability of alternative employment, have to significantly depend on NREGS work. But due to the mismanaged implementation, a larger section of the workers has lost faith in it. While across the nation, in the absence of other employment opportunities, people did opt for NREGS, in Jharkhand, official figures show that works further dried up under the scheme.
According to the GoI’s official website, 19.08 lakh workers from 14.45 lakh households worked in NREGS in the year 2017-18, while in 2018-19 there has been much less participation in the scheme — 16.24 lakh workers from 12.73 lakh families. While the number of participating households declined by 12%, the number of workers reduced by 15%.
The total number of works taken up, including new work and spillover work, declined by 11.43%, while total number of on-going works at the end of the year saw a decrease of 35% in 2018-19. Furthermore, it is the general practice to close the scheme randomly on MIS (Management Information System) while the works are physically incomplete and the payments to the workers are yet to be made. Therefore, the data on “completed works” on MIS cannot be believed.
Also, the number of people who had completed 100 days of employment was 29% less than the previous year.
For Jharkhand, the most disturbing figure is about the participation of tribal people in NREGS works. Their participation has been constantly going down over the years. Thus, while in 2018-19, it went down by 2%, there was a 12% decline – from 38% to mere 26% –over the last four years.
More surprising is the fact that the downfall is much more in tribal-dominated areas where tribal participation in NREGS is generally high. The belts of Santhal Pargana and West Singhbhum are the worst affected. In some blocks the reduction is in the range of 10-22%.
This needs a detailed study, analysis and introspection. While there is no clear reason or evidence of scheduled tribes (STs) prospering and coming out of their vicious poverty circle, the declining figures appear to indicate disinterest among the workers and growing corruption in these areas.
There could be broadly three reasons why the official website shows a drastic decline in tribal participation:
- Disinterest and lack of faith among the workers caused by uncertainties linked to NREGS payments, due mainly to ridiculous wage rates.
- The local nexus predominantly controlled by the non-tribals operating in full swing, and money being siphoned off through forged muster rolls, thereby showing a higher non-tribal percentage on MIS.
- STs work under non-tribal contractors and middlemen under the latters’ job cards instead of their own. This is an old practice where contractors make people work on their job cards and get the money in their bank accounts, and the real workers get a share of the payments by cash. The immediate cash makes life easy for the labourers, who hardly complain about the non-payment of full wages.
In any case, bank payments are not popular among tribal workers. Due to fragile rural banking systems with inadequate infrastructure and resources, people find that they end up spending a lot of time and money to withdraw their wages. Thus, such a contractor-based exploitative system continues unabated.
There is a view that tribals are coming out of NREGS works by choice. However, one can completely rule this out, as during the last few years the economic conditions of the farmers in general and government service delivery to the rural households in particular has worsened. The tribal population has neither found an alternate source of income, nor has it got full entitlements out of government schemes.
In fact, there have been constant media reports of starvation deaths in Jharkhand, and several fact- finding teams have repeatedly emphasized that no NREGS works were going on in the villages, mostly dominated by tribals, where the incidents of hunger deaths took place.
In such a scenario, the reduction of tribal participation in NREGS works should be a warning bell for the administration and the government. Yet the BJP-led state government seems to be absolutely blind about the whole thing. While the government’s own data demand immediate attention and action, unfortunately those at the top are, as usual, in a denial mode.
Also, in terms of average employment provided to participating households, there has been no improvement this year. On an average, 42 days of employment was provided to each of the job card holding families who worked under NREGS in 2018-19. The figure was 41 days in 2017-18.
In 2015-16, which was also the year when Jharkhand had carried out its ambitious people’s planning campaign i.e Yojna Banao Abhiyan, the average days of employment provided per household was 52 days, and while the next year this figure declined to 40.6 days, Jharkhand also observed a record 707 lakhs persondays generation, surpassing the approved labour budget of 700 lakh persondays.
Furthermore, it is a matter of concern that, while Jharkhand has 23 lakh active job cards holders and 29 lakh active workers, only 16 lakh workers from 12 lakh families were working in 2018-19. There is a need to ponder as to why the rest of the inactive job card holding families were staying away from NREGS works.