The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), the Union government's flagship poverty alleviation scheme, is in danger of floundering in Jharkhand. Significant delays in the payment of wages to workers were noticed here owing to administrative apathy, a team of researchers who have been following its fortunes in different districts of the State have found.
The team was part of the NREGA Sahayata Kendra, or help centre, in Khunti, set up by researchers associated with the Centre for Development Economics at the Delhi School of Economics, in collaboration with the district administration, to provide assistance to NREGA workers.
A Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan was launched on May 1, International Labour Day, in Khunti district to activate the NREGA in the district. Preliminary field visits in Khunti and Murhu blocks showed there was hardly any NREGA work undertaken in the area and that wages were due to be paid for work done months, in some cases even years, ago.
As part of this Abhiyan, teams of students from Delhi University, Bombay University, Bangalore University and NALSAR Hyderabad surveyed 10 gram panchayats in Khunti and Murhu blocks from May 4 to 10. In these 10 panchayats they found more than 30 worksites where payments were due. These include sites in Jikki (Siladon gram panchayat) and Chikor (Bhandra) where more than 50 workers had not been paid for work done two years ago.
An officer's promise
On May 11, the teams submitted their findings to the Deputy Commissioner. They also presented to her a set of complaints for each panchayat, and a list of sites where payments were due in the 10 panchayats. The officer assured them that action would be taken on all the complaints and all pending payments made by May 18.
On May 20, the teams returned to the panchayats, but the reports from the field were disappointing. In Chikor, for instance, no worker had been paid. In the same panchayat, the team visited Jilinga village where they learnt of three other worksites where payments were due: one pond and two wells, of which one was sanctioned two years ago.
Similar reports were received from the other teams.It was the same story in Murhu block: in Murhu panchayat, labourers were going to collect their wages from the post office, but they had not yet received their job cards from the "munshi".
When Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera, part of the Sahayata Kendra, visited the Murhu block office on May 20 at 10.30 a.m., not one official concerned with NREGA was present. The block programme officers were unable to provide a list of the villages where payments had been made in May, though they had told the Deputy Commissioner that Rs. 12 lakh had been paid.
Professor Dreze and Dr. Khera said they had written to the Department of Rural Development asking for compensation of at least Rs. 1,500, under the Payment of Wages Act, 1936, for each worker whose wages have been delayed. They were also demanding that a fine of Rs. 1,000 be imposed on all the officials responsible, under Section 25 of the NREGA.
The Hindu / 23 May 2009