The Cooch Behar district administration has been felicitated for their commendable MNREGA work, but workers’ rights find no place in the celebration.
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, widely considered to be the world’s largest poverty alleviation scheme, currently has over 11 crore active workers and has created almost 3.5 crore public assets till date. According to government data, West Bengal ranks fifth out of the 29 states and seven Union Territories in the creation of such assets, and in Cooch Behar, 51,000 assets have been created by around 2000 workers.
While the district administration has been felicitated by the Centre for achieving this feat, the 2000 odd workers languish, waiting for payment for up to three years of work. From submitting applications to visiting officials to holding rallies, they have done it all, but so far, the administration seems to have turned a blind eye.
Many workers have post office bank accounts, and after an inquiry, they found out that between 45,000 to 60,000 rupees, the remuneration for up to three years, had been deposited in individual accounts.
“The Panchayat (village council) kept telling us that a bill would be sanctioned in our names. When I went to the Post Office, I learnt that although a bill had been sanctioned, the amount had already been withdrawn”, says Bachhu Barman, who has not been paid for 300 days of work.
It turned out that the Pradhan (village head) had siphoned off all the money, and despite several complaints, he continues to roam scot-free in the village. Meanwhile, the workers have to borrow money from local moneylenders and they now face pressure to pay back the money. Instead of a social security system, the scheme is now acting as a double trap for its intended beneficiaries.
Corruption, unfortunately, has plagued the scheme for a long time, as have problems of implementation. In Cooch Behar, it is clearly the former, with the irony being that the district has been recognised for its “commendable” work by the Centre.
Delayed payment is the most widespread problem with MNREGA, and corruption is possibly one of the biggest reasons behind it. More often than not, complaints only result in blame games and false promises of investigations. Why does the government ensure such limited accountability?
The answer may lie in the parameters the government has set to assess the efficiency of schemes like MNREGA. Once a fund transfer order (FTO) has been raised at the block or panchayat levels, the payment is considered made; the delays after this step are not accounted for. An independent study found that if the order is not raised within 15 days, the average time taken for the actual payment to be made is 52 days. Under the scheme, workers must be paid within 15 days of completion of the work.
One of the government’s proposed ideas to address corruption in the scheme is to make direct transfers to the workers’ accounts instead of having the payment pass through so many levels. But data suggests that many workers, over one crore in some states, do not even have bank accounts. However, what happened in Cooch Behar could not have been avoided even through this system.
In Cooch Behar, the workers had bank accounts and the money was unscrupulously withdrawn from their accounts by the Pradhan at the final stage of the payment. The least the government can now do is hold the Pradhan accountable and compensate the workers with their due wages and the stipulated delay compensation amount.
The workers are now raising these demands, and Community Correspondent Bikash Barman has also visited the district police officials and asked them to investigate; officials say that an investigation is underway. Meanwhile, the aggrieved workers are ready to go on a hunger strike to ensure that they are rightly remunerated for up to 300 days of back-breaking work.
Support their demand for wage payment and action against the Pradhan by calling the District Magistrate of Cooch Behar, Kaushik Saha, on +91-3582227101, and apprising him of this long-standing issue.
Video by Community Correspondent Bikash Barman
Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team