Scheming Locally

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Most of the central sponsored schemes devised by Delhi face serious challenges in Kashmir at the implementation level. So the officials at ground zero compromise rules to achieve the objective. Zafar Aafaq explains MGNREGA’s J&K version

On a usual morning in mid May, group of villagers assemble at a shop front for a usual chatter in a dusky neighbourhood of Tapper village in Baramulla. Altaf Ahmad, 38, carrying a file of papers, is on way to block development office. Fortunate, his Village Level Worker (VLW) appears on the scene. His neighbour, VLW’s signatures are important for his file. He sees the file but suggests him to see him in his office. Altaf is dejected. He tells the people why VLW did not sign.

Under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)or simply NREGA, Development Department is creating a protection wall for Altaf’s paddy fields. As a “NREGA Thekedar (contractor)”, Altaf has implemented various MGNREGA works. He says, no NREGA work gets billed without bribery.

MGNREGA lacks contract systems but contractors do exist. These “contractors” earn from MGNREGA works by putting in money from their pockets. “The real mess crops up at the time of receiving the bill from the BDO,” says Mohammad Yousuf, another ‘contractor’.

Explains Altaf: “In construction of protection wall, I have put seven names with ten days of work each which means the work will get 70 man-days in total on paper. But on ground I will hire four-five workers including skilled and they will complete the work in ten days which mean the total number of man-days is 40-50.”

Rulebook?

“These (central) schemes are designed at the central level. In case of J&K, the nutritional calorific schemes don’t really work very well because we have a different diet pattern,” Haseeb Drabu told in an interview to Kashmir Life last December. He was commenting on Anganwadi scheme but this holds true of MGNREGA as well. Once the scheme reaches Kashmir it is twirled unofficially to meet the demands on ground.

The people associated with MGNREGA say that if rules are not broken then this scheme can not be implemented because the rules go against the deep rooted “socio-economic setting” of Kashmir.

MGNREGA is a labour oriented scheme as it is aimed at providing labour to the villagers who do not find any work. Muster roll is a document with a file that lists the labourers who are job card holders but in most cases these are not the real people who put in their labour for the work. Muster rolls list women labourers but in Kashmir women seldom do labour work. “We have a lot of work here but we have dearth of labourers so we write names of whoever is registered with MGNREGA from our neighbourhood to fill the muster roll as is required,” says Altaf.

MGNREGA rates fixed by government for labourers are much less than the prevalent market rates. The current rate as per the scheme is Rs 173, per day but the market rate is Rs 400-Rs 500. “If we go by the rule then we will be at loss, always,” says Yousuf.

Rules suggest there should be minimum involvement of machines to maximize the labour component but it is being implemented in reverse. “We often use machines like cement mixers, loaders, tractors, so that construction is completed quickly,” Yousuf quips.  “This helps us save time and money on labour that is otherwise not available.”

NREGA works in a Panchayat have to be overseen by Panchayat secretary. MGNREGA follows the participatory approach where in the Gram Sabha organised by locals decides the development requirements of the Panchayat. The plan is formulated by BDO only after inputs from the Sarpanchas and Panchs.  Once the plan is approved, the Panchayat secretaries are asked to carry-out the construction works. As per the rule they have to make sure that the people who are in demand of livelihood are given the chance to work.

However, J&K has indigenised the system. They allot works to those who are willing to invest. These people become MGNREGA contractors. They take responsibility for construction. “Unlike other states of India, NREGA in Kashmir works like Public Works Department,” says a middle rung employee at Directorate of Rural Development Department.  “The contractor puts in money and then he retrieves it from the job card holders whose names figure in the muster roll.”

Initially, payments were  made through bank cheques. Then the system changed to Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) to the bank accounts of the workers. This transformation has come as a bane for the contractor.

“Now we have to get our money from the job card holders after they receive payment from the department,” says Yousuf. Retrieving our money is not always an easy task. “We pay bribes at each stage while processing the file. During execution, engineers throw tantrums and even computer operators avoid uploading the file on internet, the GRS (Gram rozgar Saveks) and the VLW will not sign the file.”

The job card holders who list on muster roll get money from department directly into their accounts and then they pay that money to the contractors.  “Sometimes some are reluctant as they think it is their money that the government has transferred into their accounts,” Yousuf says.

MGNREGA is a major game changing flagship programme. It carries huge devolutions, directly to the districts. Centre offers almost everything excepting 25 percent of the funds required for material purchase. In fiscal 2016-17, last fiscal, J&K government booked an expenditure of Rs 1122 crore on the labour and the material component of MGNREGA.

MGNREGA’s impact on development is fairly visible in rural Kashmir. This scheme led to the construction of footpaths, irrigation wells, protection walls, drains in last many years. The funds allocated for most of the construction works under NREGA does not exceed beyond two lakh rupees.  Off late, MGNREGA has also undertaken the development of village sports grounds entailing funds exceeding Rs 2 lakh.

’Contractors’ often complain that they do not make good profit which has led many people to quit dealing with MGNREGA. “I gave up doing NREGA contracts last year after I ran into loss in many works as funds allocated for a work were lesser than required,” says Muneer Ahmad, resident of Budgam village who now runs a grocery shop in his village. “Most of time the officials would release funds after many months of the work completion.”

The lesser funds and delayed release impacts the construction work. “Most contractors use low grade and lesser than required material as they are more interested in making more profit,” says a labourer in Budgam.  “They pay bribe to VLWs and engineers to get the documents approved.”

Sometimes top officials may declare a work as illegal for compromising norms. In that case, contactor loses everything including his right to go to the court. A contractor from Pulwama village recently lost Rs 80,000 after the assistant commissioner development declared a culvert as illegal under MGNREGA norms for it was constructed to benefit one family only. The contractor says that Block officials allocated the work. “I started construction only after getting authority letter from BDO, how can the department deny me my payments,” the contractor said. “The officials should be held responsible for flouting rules.”

Employee issues

Nearly 70% Rural Development Department works are conducted under MGNREGA. It has an entirely dedicated staff for NREGA includes Gram Rozgar Sevaks (GRS), Draftsmen, Junior Engineers, MIS operators, Program officers, funded by MGNREGA. They are recruited on contractual basis which are extended year after year.

Earlier this year the MGNREGA employees held week long protests demanding hike in pay and a formulation of proper job policy for them. “We are paid peanuts despite putting in lot of work,” an MIS operator said.  “Sometimes we work for nights but no one values our efforts.” They also carry out the work of digitization of Swach Bharat Mission. “Sometimes we are paid but most of the times we don’t get our dues for doing extra work.”

“The low wages is one of the reasons that staffers seek bribe because we can’t meet the home expenses with the salary we get,” one operator alleged.

The demands are yet to be met despite the promises made by Rural Development Department minister Abdul Haq Khan. In March he told media the issues of MGNREGA employees will be resolved once the code of conduct is over. While the code of conduct is over, there have not been any changes in the conduct of NREGA or the staffers who run and overrun it.

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