Playing by the rules, and winning

Playing by the rules, and winning

Dungarpur, Rajasthan: Thinking out of the box isn’t always a prerequisite for attempting the impossible. Going by the book, sometimes, works just as well.

Purna Chandra Kishan, collector of the tribal Dungarpur district in Rajasthan, had quite the task on hand: battling the corruption undermining the Union government’s flagship welfare programme—the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or MGNREGS.

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The scheme guarantees 100 days of employment a year to one member of every poor rural household.

In October, activist Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan had unearthed large-scale corruption in the scheme in Rajasthan through special audits. The first audit in Bhilwara, the constituency of Union panchayati raj and rural development minister C.P. Joshi, revealed irregularities to the tune of Rs1.3 crore.

Village heads and secretaries—or sarpanchs and gram sachivs—were embezzling crores of rupees allocated for the scheme with fake job cards, purchase bills and entries in the muster rolls, apart from diverting payments. But no action was taken against them, not until Kishan decided to play by the book.

“I merely implemented the government directions regarding work groups, work site boards, job cards, works, etc," he says. “This improved transparency and enhanced demand from (the) public to take action against corruption in MGNREGS."

Rajasthan received nearly one-fifth of the funds released by the Centre for the scheme last year. According to the rural development ministry, the state got Rs5,942 crore of the total Rs31,149 crore spent on the scheme in the year to March.

A group of villagers in Dungarpur say the overall situation has improved, although there’s still the problem of delayed payments.

Shankar Lal, 55, a farmer in Valota, says the head of his village was fined Rs4.82 lakh for irregularities related to the employment scheme and that panchayat members are now less inclined to be corrupt. “Works being done under MGNREGS like building of roads is also helping the villagers," he said.

The country’s first social audit was held in Valota in 2006 by the Soochna Evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan—a right to information and employment campaign by a group of not-for-profit bodies and the government. The audit had revealed irregularities and recoveries were made. The then collector of Dungarpur, Manju Rajpal, won an award for her implementation of the scheme.

Since then, gram sabhas—village assemblies that double up as a forum for social audits—in the district have become animated affairs with people asking questions of the elected heads and demanding quality work. The villagers decide what work is to be done under MGNREGS. The panchayat is answerable to the village assembly.

“When we check the work in the presence of villagers and officials, it becomes a kind of social audit," says Kishan. “Poor people come forward to lodge complaints and corrupt sarpanchs, secretaries and junior engineers are publicly embarrassed. The work automatically improves."

Dungarpur district, bordering Gujarat and nestled in the lap of the Aravalli mountain range, is arid for most of the year except during the monsoon. That’s when the chiefly agrarian tribal communities grow their annual crop of corn, tur dal and urad dal. Around 65% of the population is tribal—Meenas and Bhils along with sub-groups such as Damor, Garasia and Seharia.

The district has some of the poorest socio-economic indicators in Rajasthan. In terms of human development levels, it’s ranks 32 out of the 33 districts in the state. The literacy rate here is 48%, per capita income in 2004-05 was Rs12,474, and the average land holding is a mere 1.3 hectares.

Given this state of affairs, proper implementation of government welfare schemes is critical. Even with all the irregularities, MGNREGS has played an important role in providing alternative employment to the tribals, who are otherwise forced to migrate to cities and neighbouring Gujarat in search of jobs.

During the monsoon, “influential people in the village want MGNREGS work stopped so they can get cheap labour for their fields," says Kishan. This year, he has ensured MGNREGS work continue through the rain.

Some 70,000 to 100,000 people migrate from Dungarpur every year in search of jobs, he adds. No official data is available on this, but Kishan expects migration to decrease by around 40% as a result of the employment scheme. Still, at least 20,000 people will migrate because 100 days of guaranteed employment may fall short of meeting their needs, he says.

Even the usually sceptical non-profit bodies approve of Kishan’s work. “He has pulled up officials and controlled corruption in material. Sarpanchs and mates have been blacklisted, work site boards have been put up," says Hari Om Soni, an activist with Aastha, a body in Udaipur that works to improve livelihoods and panchayati raj, the local governance system.

Mansingh Sisodia of Vagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan, a body representing workers and farmers in Dungarpur, says with group-based work being implemented, proper remuneration is being paid.

“All those hangers-on who did no work and got money have been thrown out. The average rate (wage) has gone up from Rs60 earlier to Rs80."

Earlier, Kishan says, those with political connections people in the district would have their names entered into the muster rolls for the scheme and get paid without actually doing any work, which pushed down average wages for tasks done by a group. So far, around 105 so-called mates—mandated with the task of measuring the work done under MGNREGS—have been blacklisted and almost Rs3 crore recovered from 47 panchayats.