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Women Allege Corruption and Gender Discrimination in MNREGA

MNREGA officials take signatures on blank sheets, leaving women workers in the dark about their records and payment.

“We are made to sign on blank pages of the muster roll,” says Rupali, a worker under the government’s rural employment guarantee scheme. “‘Go home, I’ll fill it up later,’ the supervisor tells us. We don’t know what he fills in there.”

Like Rupali, 14 MNREGA workers at the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Nursery in Veer village in Pune claim that they have been made to work overtime and irregularly without fair compensation since October 2016. They chalk this up to gender discrimination.

MNREGA or the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2005) is one of the government’s flagship programmes that acts as a social safety net. The act is supposed to guarantee 100 days of paid employment a year to at least one member of each rural household. The work is aimed at the creation of public infrastructure in the villages. Hailed as the world’s largest public works programme, MNREGA has 18.2 crore beneficiaries on its rolls, according to 2014 figures. However, the scheme is rife with problems at different stages from accessing job cards, to being assigned work, to being paid and more, as documented by our Community Correspondents.

Therefore Rupali’s experience though not isolated, requires particular attention because of the power dynamics it exposes. A hierarchy is in place at her workplace; she reports to the nursery supervisor, who reports to a block officer, who reports to a district officer and so forth. The supervisor claims to have been honest in following MNREGA rules and his superiors’ instructions. The workers question this but have few ways to safeguard their rights if their complaints are met with silence or even denial. MNREGA particularly aims to benefit those historically marginalised– women account for more than half of those employed, members of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities are also represented at higher rates than national averages. However, if these groups are to benefit, a hierarchy laden with power discrepancies prevents workers from demanding their lawful rights. With that in mind, MNREGA includes thorough guidelines for externally conducted social audits at least every month that require first-hand verification from workers. However, those audits have not been taking place, and the workers continue to be under-compensated, prompting one worker to reach out to Community Correspondent Rohini Pawar. Moreover, even with technological measures such as direct payments through Aadhaar cards, if power differences aren’t rectified officials can continue to exploit workers.

Thus, Rohini was cautious in approaching the block or district officer: “Jobs are scarce in this locality and the women were afraid to lose whatever compensation they are currently receiving if they took up matters,” she shares. “Therefore, I decided that it was better to first make a video.” Rohini’s actions align with research on corruption conducted by economist Sandip Sukhtankar: “Responses to community monitoring across India provide a cautionary tale. It seems as though the punishment for exposing corruption is worse than the punishment for being found to be corrupt: an activist who showed up fraud in MNREGA was murdered in Jharkhand while the worst punishment meted out to perpetrators seems to be having to return the money and be suspended from their jobs.”

Through Rohini’s video report, the workers can together apply bottom up pressure on authorities while having factual evidence in an attempt to protect themselves. To ensure that the women are paid their dues, call the Sub-Director, Social Forestry Division, Valse Patil at 020-24333119 and tell him of the 15 nursery workers’ demand for fair compensation.

Article by Abhishek Shah

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