Ward 4 of Akathethara Panchayat was the second ward in Kerala to conduct its social audit of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. As the year ended, saar and I went to a meeting at which the team read out its findings on which aspects of the scheme were running smoothly and which required tinkering.

The meeting started two hours after the stated time, just when it seemed that saar’s leonine yawns would bring down the roof. In a candid and detailed report, the team pulled up the implementers of the scheme for flaws ranging from incomplete applications to lack of planning in construction projects.

(Illustration by: Jayachandran / Mint)

But, the team’s main concern was that more people should have joined the scheme. Of the 418 families in the ward who were eligible, only 142 had signed up, and only 72 of those actually worked. Partly, the auditors said, some eligible poor felt physical labour was beneath them, but perhaps the scheme had not been publicized so as to attract them, especially the men. The wage of Rs125 was acceptable to a male farm hand, but was too low to attract skilled workers.

We all thought about these findings, over paruppu vada and tea with a waft of wood smoke, and then the meeting broke up into discussions among members of the self-help organization Kudumbashree, who keep the registers, supervize crews, and dole out payments.

Since that meeting, we have eyed the groups of workers along the panchayat roads with curiosity. There may be some inefficiency in the way they operate. Often, two women scoop out sludge from the drains, while eight others seem to do nothing but watch. But, to us, it seems much less wasteful than, say, theperpetual tiling and retiling of railway platforms.

But, if men are not joining the scheme in droves, what happened to our local unemployed? For two months, we searched for a tree-climber to trim branches, pluck the high pepper, and shake down a few mangoes. A few months ago, there were unemployed loaders who would take up anything.

Now, those who have any construction skills are away, on distant sites. Sharavanan and Sukumaran came with a borrowed axe for one day, then found construction work. Ramesh, and Other Ramesh promised to come but got busy. Now, Tulasidas says he may spare an hour or two some day when he’s not driving his carrier auto, but we’re not hopeful. A few of the unskilled men have joined the panchayat’s crews. There are still some layabouts living off their wives and mothers, but they don’t climb trees.

Women’s wages are up. One neighbour bought a machine to clear weeds because she could not find women to scythe them at any wage. My solution was to plant buffalo grass, which grows flat and never has to be scythed, but it will take a while to elbow out the weeds. Other neighbours have given up whatever gardening they can’t manage on their own.

Small-holding paddy farmers could not find hands to help sow and harvest last season. Now, the panchayat tells farm labourers to tend the farms and simply report later in the season for their 100 days.

The scheme is reshaping the landscape as well. Drains are clear of garbage, the roadsides are free of weeds, saplings have been planted, and irrigation channels and canals are cleaner. We hope all that will spare us another crop of epidemics this monsoon.

We ourselves were recently unexpected beneficiaries of the scheme. When saar was out walking one evening, Tulasidas asked whether we wanted some of the red soil that was being dug out of the roadside channels. We bought two loads at Rs160 each and now I can refresh my flowerbeds. Thangamani, who had come to de-seed our silk cotton, was shocked at the price. It’s just free soil lying on the road, she said—why should anyone charge more than Rs100 for loading, and transport it less than a kilometre?

But that was precisely the USP of that soil, in my view. I could buy soil by the lorry load at any time but it would be dug out of someone else’s land, and tainted with eco-guilt. This soil was washed down from our neighbourhood in the first place, and we were virtuously restoring it. And Tulasidas went home with a bit more in his pocket, so I guess we all cleaned up.

This is part of a continuing series on life in Akathethara in Kerala.

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