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Implementing NREGA in letter and spirit

Jan 06, 2009

Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), a local organisation working for tribal land rights in central India has set an example in ensuring the rural employment scheme. The villagers are not only aware of their rights and entitlements but also actively engage in planning and monitoring the programme.

Once covered with lush teak forests, Pati block in Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh now has a depressing lunar landscape of denuded hills, where only subsistence agriculture is possible. Most rural households there survive on wage labour and seasonal migration.

The Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan (JADS), an unregistered organisation with a membership of 3,500 families, has worked there for many years on issues concerning tribal land rights.

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Since the NREGA was launched in 2006, the JADS has struggled for workers’ entitlements under the Act: employment on demand, minimum wages, timely wage payments, and disbursal of unemployment allowance, among others. This organisational work has achieved important results.

As far as the NREGA is concerned, Pati block is an oasis compared with the other survey areas. Most sample workers were aware of their entitlements under the Act and also how to claim them.

For example, more than 90 per cent of the sample workers in Pati had got employment in response to written applications for work. In most of the other sample districts, the work application process was not in place (fewer than one-fifth of the sample workers had made written applications), defeating the whole principle of demand-driven employment.

Fruits of labour

Similarly, rural workers in Pati are aware of – and strive for – their entitlement to 100 days of employment over the year. Nearly half of the sample workers there had worked for a full 100 days in the preceding 12 months. Average NREGA employment per sample household over the year was as high 85 days, much higher than in other survey areas.

This sort of confidence is rare among NREGA labourers elsewhere

The most heartening aspect of the JADS’ work in Pati is the sense of empowerment that is evident among its members. Malubhai is apprehensive of the move to route NREGA wages through banks but defends the JADS when he was asked why it allowed this to happen.

“We thought we’d try it out; if it doesn’t work, we’ll just protest and make them revert to cash payments,” he said. This sort of confidence is rare among NREGA labourers elsewhere.

An important episode in this empowerment process was the five-month struggle by the JADS, from June to October 2006, for unemployment allowance. The fruits of that struggle were easy to see during the current survey.

In 2006, when the residents of Pati block were offered work without applying, they insisted on applying. They made collective applications for work and demanded receipts while submitting them.

Many JADS members went through the entire process of applying for job cards, then for work, and finally for unemployment allowance (in cases where work was not provided). On June 7, 2006, the unemployment allowance became due to more than 2,000 labourers of Pati.

If work is not provided within 15 days of an application being made, applicants are entitled to an unemployment allowance. The cost is borne by the State government, in contrast with employment costs, which are borne mainly by the Central government.

Thus, one role of the unemployment allowance is to act as a “fine” on the State government for failing to implement the guarantee. In this respect, payment of the unemployment allowance plays a key role in the realisation of the work guarantee.

Paying the unemployed

Faced with this demand, the Madhya Pradesh government tried various tactics to avoid paying the unemployment allowance. But the JADS did not give up even in the face of threats of violence and false cases against its members.

Finally, in October 2006, unemployment allowance was paid to 1,574 labourers of eight gram panchayats of Pati block. This was the first instance of payment of such unemployment allowance in the country.

“The struggle for the enactment of the NREGA was associated with a larger vision”

This victory seems to have turned the channel of accountability on its head. Often one finds that the panchayat secretary (also known as the sevak) feels accountable only to block-level officials. In Pati, for the first time it seemed that the panchayat sevak was actually a “sevak” of the people.

On April 8, 2008, more than 1,000 workers in Ubdagarh village put in a group application for work under the NREGA. They were demanding 30 days of work on cattle prevention trenches (CPT) in their village, which the authorities concerned were able to initiate within 15 days. When Virendra Patel, the panchayat sevak, spoke about this episode, he seemed to feel that he did not have any alternative – if he had not provided work, he would have had to arrange for unemployment allowance.

The successful implementation of the NREGA in Pati block goes beyond the ability of its residents to claim their rights. It is also evident in their active engagement with the programme in terms of planning, implementation and monitoring.

Madhuri Krishnaswamy (who has been associated with the JADS from the beginning) says: “The struggle for the enactment of the NREGA was associated with a larger vision”.

Apart from offering a form of social security for the rural poor, the NREGA was seen as a tool for the activation of gram sabhas, the empowerment of women and the development of rural areas. In this sense, the JADS has fully imbibed the spirit of the NREGA.

Source : Frontline
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