Et tu, NREGA?

Sela bai belongs to a tribe called the Bhil. She is 35, but like most mal-nourished and downtrodden citizens of India she looks 55 plus. She lives in Karanjali — Lat: 21°19'15"N   Long: 74°0'32"E — a non-descript village in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra. And she has an interesting life. She violates the law of the land almost every day. She cuts and sells Wood.

Sela bai gets up at 4 am in the morning and heads for the government owned forest adjoining the village. She chops 35-40 kg of Wood, ties it up in a bundle and carries it home. She takes care of the animals, cooks food, eats and reloads the bundle on her head and trudges another 3 miles to Khandbara, a railway station on the Surat-Bhusaval line. She has to reach Khandbara by 11 am at all costs.

The scene at Khandbara railway station is riveting. On any good day there would be close to 200-250 wood-sellers from villages surrounding the railway station, lining up both sides of the track with their wood-stacks, waiting for the train that will take them to the district headquarters, Nandurbar, four stations down the line. The train arrives. Sela bai and her likes wait politely for passengers to alight before they stack their bundles in the door ways. The driver also co-operates, by delaying the start if required. Sela bai takes the 4 pm return-train after having sold her bundle for 40-45 rupees (less than 1 dollar).

12-13 hours of toil and a dollar!

Every good weather day Sela bai earns these badly needed 40-45 rupees, by stealing and selling a major forest produce. She could be land up in jail for violating the law. Sela bai is also responsible for degrading the environment. She is conscious of her act. She takes the risk because that is the only way, poor families like hers can make ends meet. At times the Bhils and other tribals in the area have had to beat up forest officials in order to keep this livelihood activity going on.

Reinforce the state machinery, clamp down on Sela bai and her colleagues — save the law; protect the environment. That definitely is no way any liberal worth his/her salt would want to resolve the problem. If the bureaucrat’s fiat and the law-guardian’s truncheon are no solutions to a social problem, then what is the solution? Maybe India’s ‘Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act’ (MGNREGA) should have been the answer. Unfortunately it is not.

“Why do you have 250 wood-cutters, rather smugglers, waiting at the railway station and not working on NREGA work-sites?” the question was posed squarely to Mr. H. N. Salunke, the Range Forest Officer (RFO) at Khandbara-1.

“Sir, these Tribals are habituated to stealing wood, they do not want to do hard work at NREGA sites …” was the expected stereotyped response in the beginning.

“Beg your pardon, why would any sane human being forgo 105 rupees for eight hours of work, for 40 rupees of twelve hour work?! Secondly no self-respecting person wants to be branded a criminal; and these Bhils happen to be among the most self-respecting people in the country. Why aren’t they working on NREGA sites?” — Persistent struggle over the issue forced an analysis of the situation.

Putting aside delays due to corruption, the earliest that a worker at a NREGA work-site can expect to get paid is after a fortnight. Operating at its efficient best, the district administration takes at least that long to dole out the money. Poor Bhils need cash on a daily basis. If the NREGA cannot pay a worker before the sweat on her back has dried, she will inevitably break the law and degrade the environment. She has no options. Sheer survival at the bottom rungs of the social ladder demands cash-in-hand at the end of the day. Interactions with wood-cutters/sellers in Karanjali revealed that though the stipulated amount does get paid, actual payments for NREGA work take at least two months. Lethargy and corruption make life even more wretched; end result — the noble medicine fails to heal.

The “relief law” is in place, the money is there for use; can the gap between work and payments be bridged? Analysis with Mr. H.N. Salunke revealed “Yes, it can be done”.

RFO Salunke has four beats under his command. Forest upkeep and development demands various kinds of works such as Gully Plugging, Earth Plugging, Continuous Contour Trenching etc. throughout the year. Fifty workers can be employed on any work day in each of his beats. At a wage rate of Rs. 105 per worker, the calculation works out to be 21,000 Rs./day or 126,000 Rs./week [ 4 beats X 50 workers X 105 rupees X 6 days = 126,000 rupees/week ].

RFO Salunke and his subordinates do not stay at distant Nandurbar, they stay at/near the work-sites. If the government was willing to advance RFO Salunke Rs. 252,000 [126K + 126K], the formal fortnightly gap can be bridged. He would be in a position to ensure payments the next morning for the previous day's work. And these payments can even be made through the local bank, provided the officer in-charge of the NREGA work and the manger of the bank are are ordered to synchronize their paper-work with the completion of the labor-work at the site each evening. Checking and clearance of bills at the district administration level does not necessarily have to precede payment of wages. Advances spent by government officers can also be, and do get, monitored and audited!

This certainly is not a big deal. A government can obviously trust its officers with petty sums of Rs. 2.5-3.0 lakhs. There is also nothing ingenious about such a trifling improvement in the way money is managed under the NREGA. Why hasn’t something like this been done so far? The question was posed to Shafqaut a UNICEF consultant in Nandurbar district. His reply is striking — “The vested interests of the landed gentry prevent NREGA from becoming a viable livelihood scheme. If rural workers actually start getting Rs. 100/day in the district regularly and without delays, present agrarian wages cannot remain at 50-55 rupee levels”.

Shafqaut stuns the investigator with his ironic reply. Inadvertently he has posed the bigger question: What is the scope for reforms, within the framework of existing agrarian relations, at this juncture in India’s history?

One cannot but agree that NREGA is no red revolutionary program. It is a compromise; merely an attempt to provide relief to the poverty stricken masses without upsetting the existing property relations. NREGA can in no way disposes the landed gentry of their land or of any other productive assets; therefore it logically should not be getting stalled because of class antagonisms. On the other hand it is a massive relief program — a whopping 40,100 crore rupees to be spent in the current financial year; employing close to 6 million persons on an average day! Despite the huge scale if it could only generate employment @ 16 person-days per rural household (or 22 person-days per job-card holder) in the financial year 2008-09, although it guaranteed 100 days of work to each needy rural household, something is seriously wrong somewhere. That something warrants a serious think. There appears to be nothing inherently flawed in NREGA per se. In all probability that something is an organic mix of bureaucratic lethargy, apathy of the ruling elite to the plight of the masses, rampant corruption … coupled with neo-liberal economic policies, which prevent the best of relief programs from taking off.

Even in the unlikely event that the Indian government starts acting in an overtly pro-poor manner and NREGA does start generating 100 work-days/year for every rural family in need, the problem still does not get resolved. Sela bai would still be chopping India’s trees and breaking the law in order to live the remaining 265 days of the year. She has no choice. She cannot let her children starve today in order to ward of environmental catastrophe tomorrow. She cannot be expected to sacrifice her family for a development model that does not care for her. This poignant relation that hardworking citizens like her have with their country chokes the very throat of India’s growth story.

No relief program comparable to MGNREGA has ever been attempted. It is extremely well thought out in its design and astounding in its size. Yet it fails to deliver.

India needs something far more fundamental and bigger to solve its problems.


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