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Fewer Working Days, Late Payments, Corruption: What Ails MGNREGA In Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia

“The government is not displaying the political will required to protect the legal entitlement of millions of rural workers."

Forty-four-year-old Kulpati Devi, who owns two acres of agricultural land, is barely able to feed her family of five. She tells NewsCentral24x7, “I was hoping to get some work on MGNREGA because my land is not enough to feed our family, but since last November I have not gotten any work”.

Kulpati is among the 2,35,20,437 job-card holders under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

Kulpati Devi

She lives in the Tirnai Khurd village, sixty kilometres away from Ballia, and gets paid Rs 181 for eight hours of work. In October-November 2018, she participated in the construction of a road that connects her village to the market. She said, “This road has reduced the labour of walking four kilometres to reach the market; now the main road is just a few steps away,” adding, “But we don’t get more than thirty to thirty-five days of work in a year.”

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The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was enacted in September 2005. The act aims to enhance livelihood security in rural areas. It promises up to 100 days of employment per rural household to all adults at minimum wage in a financial year. Any adult living in rural areas could demand work and be entitled to get it within 15 days of asking. If work is not provided, applicants are entitled to an unemployment allowance.

Kulpati and her husband both have job-cards. She said, “Last year when the monsoons failed, our field dried up. Our crops were destroyed. The debt burdened me. Along with my husband, I was hoping for MGNREGA to bail us out. But I was disappointed as I could not make more than the Rs 4,300 in a whole year. Even that money was paid very late.”

She added with melancholy, “The lack of work in the village forced my husband to migrate into the city.”

According to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, Uttar Pradesh’s unemployment rate is 8.1 per cent as against the national average of 6.7 per cent. The labour participation rate in Uttar Pradesh is 39 per cent, as against the national average of 42.81 per cent.

Thirty-nine-year-old Manbhavti Devi, a mother of three in the neighbouring village, has been working under MGNREGA for three years. She is still waiting for her job-card. Most MGNREGA workers in the village have not been issued a card. For the ones who have, the Gram Pradhan has kept their card. She said, “I do work under MGNREGA whenever it’s provided, but this year I hardly got any work.”

According to a report published by the Centre for Policy Research, in the last five years, employment has decreased. The report says the average person-days of work generated in 2015-16 was just 49 and continued to decline in 2017-18. In 2018-19, only 41 people per days of work per rural household had been created until December 31, 2018.

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The worst performing states include Odisha, which generated 40 average person-days of work; Uttar Pradesh, which produced 37 average person-days of work; Bihar, which created 36 average person-days of work; Punjab, which produced 34 average person-days of work; and Haryana, which generated 33 average person-days of work. Against this, a few other states like Rajasthan, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh created more than 50 person-days of work per household under the employment guarantee scheme.

Manbhavti Devi said, “I have stopped sending our daughter to school. I do not have many options. Our income does not allow us to educate our child.”

Manbhavti Devi

Her husband is a daily labourer. She told NewsCentral24x7, “As there is no regular work for him. We can eat only when we get work. Our situation is terrible.” She added, “I wish MGNREGA has been implemented properly; it would have helped us a lot.” However, she too complained about the late payment in MGNREGA.

Despite making tall claims of allocating a lot of funds to MGNREGA, under the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, the backlog of pending payments continues to rise. According to a report in IndiaSpend, delayed wages accounted for 56 per cent of all MGNREGA wage payments in 2016-17 up from 39 per cent in 2012-13.

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Many job-card holders in the village said that wages under MGNREGA are meagre. Sukai Parjapati told NewsCentral24x7, “We are offered 170-180 rupees for a day; how can we survive on such a low rate?”

He said that when the MGNREGA was initiated, wages under the program was almost equal to the private wages. “But now, while we get Rs 350 a day in private work, under MGNREGA we’re still offered Rs 170. The price of all essential goods has seen a rise in recent years. Despite this, the government has increased just 8-10 rupees after three years in the wage,” he said.

Fifty-six-year-old Suraj Yadav, whose eyesight has become weak because of cataracts, has the responsibility of looking after his family. For him, work provided under the scheme has been the lifeline. He told NewsCentral24x7, “We work to get two square meals. I’m looking for some work as I can not migrate from my village”.

Job-card of Suraj Yadav

He said that the subsidised food received through the Public Distribution System (PDS) is not enough to feed the whole family. His only hope is to guaranteed wages from MGNREGA. He complained about the unpaid wages for work done under the program. He has not received the salary of last November’s work. He said, “They owe me Rs 4,600.”

Provisional Director for Ballia Devnandan Dubey, who is also in charge of Deputy Collector of MGNREGA, said that even 30-35 days of work per household is a significant number. He told NewsCentral24x7, “People do not need work. They want free food. We do have work for them, but they choose not to work under MGNREGA.”

A gram pradhan too, contrary to workers’ claim, said that MGNREGA is a demand-driven program. “If the workers will demand work, I’ll employ them. He said that no male workers want to work on such low wages, and we hesitate to give work to the women.” He feels that women are not efficient at tasks; their body doesn’t allow them to work in the scorching heat.

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A government employee told NewsCentral24x7 on condition of anonymity that gram pradhans, government officials and local politicians take away all the funds. He said that the contractor works on behalf of MGNREGA workers with the help of machinery, but on paper, they show that job-card holders had done the work. They withdraw money from the bank account of the job-card holder. They give 100-200 rupees to the workers and take away all the money. He said, “Despite knowing all these villagers are fearful of raising voice against the nexus.”

When NewsCentral24x7 approached the BJP MLA from Belthara Vidhan Sabha constituency, Dhananjay Kannoujia, with questions regarding late payments and possible corruption, he maintained ignorance. Kannoujia said, “I don’t know the ground realities of the programme, so I can not say anything right now. If there is a grain of truth in what you’re saying, I’ll try my best to fix it. I’ll look personally into the matter.”

Speaking to NewsCentral24x7, Richa Singh of the Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan said that lack of funds and over-centralisation of the programme are the reason behind the decline of work generated per household under the MGNREGA. She said that the BJP government wants to kill the programme. She said, “Late payment has discouraged the workers. Most of the workers who work under MGNREGA are from low-income families. They can not afford to wait so long for their wages. The government is not showing the strong political will to protect the legal entitlement of millions of rural workers.”

She added, “If there were adequate funds and payments were made on time, lakhs of more workers would demand employment.”

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