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A tool of empowerment only enables more exploitation

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in India

Kathyayini CHAMARAJ

10 / 2009

Rigorous and frequent social audits are the only way to make the NREGA effective, as these audits in two gram panchayats in Karnataka showed. The audits revealed that elected officials fool or bully beneficiaries into signing away their rights and monies, refuse them work they are entitled to, and threaten NGOs who are seen to be on the ‘side’ of the villagers.

The Labourers’ Forum, Davangere District, the NGO network and the Right to Food Campaign -Karnataka launched an indefinite strike from October 8, 2009 in front of the zilla panchayat office of Davanagere district, Karnataka, demanding employment and unemployment wages, as per the NREGA Act.

A letter was also written, citing this article and demanding action on the points raised, to the CEO Davangere district, with copies to the minister for rural development & panchayati raj (RD&PR), the secretary, RD&PR, director (NREGA) of the government of Karnataka, and the deputy commissioner of Davangere district, by the Budakattu Janti Kriya Vedhike (Tribals’ Joint Action Forum), Uttara Kannada district. Spoorthi also asked for support from the media, individuals and organisations for building pressure on the state government for effective implementation of NREGA.

On October 12, 2009, the CEO finally agreed to the demands of the striking labourers and activists and the strike was called off.

NREGA and development

The spectre of drought, floods and climate change is increasingly haunting the world. All a result of the misplaced faith in empty GDP growth in the name of ‘development’ which comes from plundering the earth of its minerals, forests, fossil fuels and other resources. In contrast, programmes under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) give back to the earth its ability to sustain life. Instead of spewing poisons into the soil, water and air, the works under NREGA regenerate these natural resources.

Also, contrary to the notion that the only way to remove rural poverty is to bring most of the 65% population engaged in agriculture to cities and make them also part of the plundering brigade, NREGA work provides sustainable livelihoods in rural areas for these millions, as there is enough earth regeneration work that is crying out to be done.

Contrary to the belief that NREGA is a dole given to “dig holes and fill them back”, it is a means of increasing the GDP through wholesome growth without devastating the earth. The tasks of building percolation pits to recharge ground water, and check dams to retain rain water, de-silting tanks, afforesting degenerated lands etc, will help to raise stagnant agricultural productivity and create real wealth.

Despite these noble goals, how far is NREGA succeeding? A recent social audit of NREGA works in two gram panchayats in Karnataka undertaken by the Right to Food Campaign–Karnataka under the leadership of the NGO Spoorthi, shows gross misuse of funds and denial of rights of villagers. It points out that the empowering tool of NREGA is being used by vested interests to further exploit innocent villagers and also threaten those conducting social audits.

Social audits in Davangere district

It is a pleasant and smooth ride to the district headquarters of Davangere on NH4, the three-lane Bangalore-Pune highway, lined on one side with multi-hued bougainvillea on the median and green fields of jowar and maize on the other. The contrast is stark as we reach Honnali, a taluk headquarters, with its squelchy roads and drains full of a mélange of plastic, abandoned slippers and rotting garbage. It is dusk as we approach the small shamiana put up before the gram panchayat office of H Kadadakatte, where a social audit of NREGA works is in progress. The CEO of the district is present along with the EO of the taluk and the gram panchayat president.

Members of the Right to Food Campaign–Karnataka conducting the social audit, led by Spoorthi, report that Rs 34,000 has been spent on a fence and park for the school situated right behind the gram panchayat building. But no fence or park is visible. The EO promises to check who has certified the work in the Measurement Book and says he will make him do the work again.

A visibly upset Somakka (some names have been changed) complains that no work had been given to her though she had applied for it more than three months ago. A gram panchayat official points out that she has put her thumb print on a paper which says that she was offered work but did not appear for it. Somakka contests this hotly and says that the secretary of the gram panchayat asked her to sign the paper which allegedly stated that no work could be provided in April/May due to the Election Code of Conduct.

Ten others raise their hands and say they were not offered work during April/May. Sharadamma says that they did not know what they were signing for. But the Spoorthi team points out that money has been drawn by the panchayat for work done in the very same month. An agitated Venkatesh takes hold of the mike and with pointing fingers accuses the officials of having forged documents. Roopa Naik, head of Spoorthi, asks the CEO to provide the villagers with unemployment allowance since no work was provided to them.

The CEO asks the villagers, “How many days’ unemployment allowance do you want to claim? You were unemployed only before the rains. Once the rains came all of you had work in your own fields. You are people with self-respect who, I know, will not want to claim money when you have not worked. You decide and tell me by September 10, otherwise I will decide how much to pay you. You know that paying unemployment allowance is a penalty on the state government.” It is almost as if what is being said is: “Do you really want your good and caring state government, which is looking after all of you so well, to be penalised?”

There are three works worth Rs 47,000 for planting pongamia (bio-fuel) trees on three farmers’ fields. Only seven trees are found on one farmer’s field and none on the others’. The muster roll shows that 57 workers were employed to do this but there are no signatures against any of the names. The social forestry officer immediately pipes up and says, “I am not responsible for this. It has happened before my time”.

Seventy-six persons have not received job cards. The job cards of 15 persons are with the neeraganti (water-man). It appears that the neeraganti’s wife is a member of the gram panchayat. The pass-book of Nagaraja, a villager, shows that Rs 3,936 was credited to his account, and on the very next day, Rs 3,936 was withdrawn. Nagaraja says that he never worked on any project. But he was told that money had been deposited in his account and that he should come and ‘release’ it. He was paid Rs 100 for his effort, while officials/gram panchayat members pocketed the money he had ‘released’.

There is commotion and a group, supposedly planted by opponents of the social audit, shouts, “We don’t need these people to come and do any audits here. Let officials deal directly with us and solve our problems.” Roopa Naik clarifies, “We have created a platform not for confrontation, but for dialogue. We only want to follow-up on the commitments of the officials.”

The CEO laments that no work has been undertaken in 23 gram panchayats of Honnali taluk during the financial year 2009-10 as the gram panchayat secretary claims that no one is coming forward to work. The villagers reply that the secretary should first of all announce that there are jobs. The CEO then orders that all should get job cards and pass-books by September 5 and that a report should be given on the discrepancies in works by September 10. He says that NREGA has nothing to do with elections; and that action should be taken against the neeraganti. The gram panchayat president asks the villagers to list the works that they would like to be taken up.

In Hanumasagara

Early next day we travel to Hanumasagara, a village overrun by cattle, goats and chickens. The roof of the panchayat office is patterned with rain leaks and peeling paint. The social audit teams ask for some files. A panchayat official mutters, “You have come to mislead the villagers.” Heated arguments follow. “Explain what you mean by ‘misleading the villagers’,” demands Ramu Jogihalli, convenor of the Right to Food Campaign-Karnataka. When tempers cool down somewhat, the panchayat officials agree to part with the files.

One social audit team visits members of Sri Chaitanya Self-Help Group (SHG) and Poornachandra SHG. Members of all the SHGs complain that they have received no work. B. Manjappa bin Tirlappa shows letters written by him on behalf of 25 workers. They applied for jobs on December 18, 2008, applied for unemployment allowance on February 16, 2009, wrote a reminder letter to the taluk panchayat on March 25, 2009, and another reminder to the zilla parishad on June 8, 2009. None have got any response. But at the same time, the files show that works for building rubble checks or levelling of land under NREGA on the lands of three farmers were taken up in the village during the same period. Though all the three pieces of land are of different dimensions, the same estimate of Rs 57,306, with identical dimensions and quantities, has been made for all of them.

During the public hearing in the afternoon, only one member of the gram panchayat is present along with the EO. The team from Hanumasagara reports that all members of the family of Dasappa have been shown to have worked on levelling his field, including two school-going children less than 14 years of age. Villagers dispute that the children ever worked. Mala, whose name figures as a beneficiary, claims that she never worked on this farm. The Work Monitoring Committee and gram panchayat members have all certified that the work, worth more than Rs 50,000, has been done. There is an uproar, and the EO orders that if anyone has used child labour, that person shall be punished. He orders an enquiry into the case and asks for a report within 15 days.

As the record of works and muster rolls is read out, a disheartened Thimmappa climbs atop a tempo and with outstretched arms declares, “None of us is aware of these works having been sanctioned and done in our village. Why were we not informed?” An angry Kumarappa walks up to the dais and gesticulating at the EO says, “The gram panchayat members sit in hotels and pubs in Honnali enjoying themselves every day. If we try to ask them anything at the office, they never have time for us and always ask us to ‘come tomorrow’.” The EO asks the gram panchayat secretary to print pamphlets explaining NREGA and distribute them to every house in the village.

Villagers narrate how they are being asked to bring their own photographs, which costs them Rs 30, and are asked to pay another Rs 50 to get a job card. They alleged that the panchayat members keep all the job cards, yet accounts are opened in their names. Several other irregularities were highlighted: how Rs 500 is being asked to provide jobs; how several villagers are called to banks to ‘release’ thousands of rupees that have come into their accounts even though they have not worked, while they are sent home with only Rs 100-200 while officials or panchayat members pocket the rest; how some families have three job cards and three accounts; how several job cards were found in a garbage pit; how machines and contractors are being used to carry out work; how works are never decided in gram sabhas or public meetings and how no gram sabha has been called in five years.

A day later, staff members of Spoorthi receive calls from henchmen of an elected representative of the area threatening them with dire consequences if they don’t stop their social audits.

It seems that the NREGA, meant to empower the villagers, is being used by old, vested interests to continue their exploitation of the villagers in new ways and forms. Social audits seem to be the only answer. But will these forces allow social audits also to survive?


développement rural, lutte contre la corruption, audit, gouvernance, médiation non gouvernementale

, Inde


This sheet is also available in French: Un outil d’émancipation qui renforce l’exploitation


Articles et dossiers

Kathyayini Chamaraj, « A tool of empowerment only enables more exploitation », InfoChange News & Features, October 2009

InfoChange (News and analysis on social justice and development issues in India) - Centre for Communication and Development Studies (CCDS) C/12, Gera Greens, NIBM Road, Kondhwa, Pune-411 048, INDIA - Inde - - infochangeindia (@)

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