After two months of work under the MGNREGA, villagers in Bahar Tola have not received any wage.
Himmat Bai has been working for the last two months under the burning sun of the northern state of Chhattisgarh. She has been relentlessly digging ponds and carrying stones on the top of her head to construct roads in the area. She does not know whether her work will prove useful to the community, but what matters is that she desperately needs the money she is earning. Like Himmat Bai, over 2000 people from the village of Bahar Tola, in Chhattisgarh, have taken up unskilled – often grueling – manual labor, under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). This scheme, started in 2005, grants all adult members of rural households 100 days of work per financial year, paid at the rate of Rs 128 a day. Men and women are equally eligible for the benefits of the scheme. If the local authorities do not provide work within 15 days of application, unemployment benefits must to be provided. Further, the act states that payment of wages has to be made within 15 days as well. But after two months of toil, none of the workers in Bahar Tola have been paid.
Soon, schools will reopen and the agricultural season will start. All these bring costs, and the villagers despairingly rely on their wages to meet these needs. Their aspirations are not high: buying books and stationary for the children, acquiring compost to make the land more fertile and improve the crop, and being able to buy food in sufficient quantity to eat one’s fill. The villagers work to live with only the most minimal comfort and dignity. But the wages are not paid and the workers continue to visit the banks, hoping to receive the money due to them. They are repeatedly turned away without pay. Perhaps they, like workers in so many other states, are victims of corruption at the hands of local officials. Still, the workers prefer to continue working, even without getting paid, with the hope their rights will eventually be granted.
While waiting for their salaries to be paid, the workers are left with no choice but to take loans from local money lenders, often at high interest rates, which they will certainly struggle to repay later. As a result, a scheme that originally aimed at alleviating the lot of India’s rural poor, ultimately exacerbates their difficulties.
Regrettably, the condition of Bahar tola villagers is not an isolated case. Although MGNREGA was a highly ambitious scheme, designed to reach the twin goals of rural development and employment, it has failed to deliver its promises in most parts of India – with the remarkable exception of Rajasthan. A survey performed to assess the scheme has revealed the endemic corruption that has characterized the implementation of the program. Frauds in issuing job cards, illegal charges for photographs, refusal to receive work application, refusal to provide work, denial of work to women and payments lower than the required minimum wage have been frequently reported.
These significant issues expose the limitations of a scheme that has been acclaimed even at the international level. In fact, in 2008, Mr. Juan Somavi, the Director General of international Labour Organisation praised the scheme at the Asia-Pacific Conference on Social Security Issues, declaring “India is making a determined effort to extend basic social security coverage and a number of important measures have been initiated, especially in the informal economy”. The reality is altogether different. Rather than improving the economic situation of the rural poor, MGNREGA has exposed the lack of transparency and accountability that still characterize rural governance, and has revealed the ongoing exploitation of rural poor’s vulnerability.