Untangling the web of Government’s failures in Lachha Bita by Vibhore Vardhan

Lachha, which means tangled in Hindi, is an apt description for the current state of affairs in Lachha Bita, a group of remote habitations in Parihari gram panchayat of Raniganj block in Araria district. Even in the era of improved connectivity, Lachha Bita remains inaccessible from the outside world for 3-4 months during the monsoon season. There are no roads, mud or otherwise, and the only access for two of the hamlets is through the fields. Maybe this remoteness is Government’s excuse for repeatedly failing to stand-up and provide support to a community of hard working but shockingly marginalized community of mahadalits and adivasis.

Where does one start to untangle the web of failures around Lachha Bita? How about the fact that even six years after getting job cards under MGNREGA, most wage seekers in Rami Rishidev ka tola and mandal tola in ward number 14 have not been able to get work and paid as provisioned under the law. The constant shift of policies around MGNREGA has made it a very unstable system. First, it was cash payments at the Gram Panchayats, followed by the drive to open and pay through post office accounts. This was quickly updated to provide work and payment only to the account holder, in conjunction with the push for online demand entry and e-muster roll. And finally the recent push for payment through bank accounts. In their efforts to stem corruption through increased digitization, both the central and state governments have forgotten about the countless workers in Lachha Bita’s of India that still don’t have post office accounts, thereby taking away their right to work.

Lachha Bita’s problems can be traced to its feudal history. Here the tiny but powerful landlord class also took control over the elected panchayats and effectively controlled all Government schemes. Until last year, all work under MGNREGA in Parihari was overseen by the ward members and the middlemen belonging to the ruling classes. Most workers were never made aware of their rights or informed that job cards and post office accounts had been opened in their names. They were forced to work for cash payments as contractual labor on MGNREGA projects. These and many more practices started changing only after the intervention of Jan Jagaran Shakti Jangathan (JJSS), a trade union of unorganized-sector workers based in Araria.

When JJSS was made aware of the non-availability of post office accounts for a majority of Lachha Bita workers in October 2012, it promptly brought the same to Raniganj Program Officer’s attention. But before any remedial action could be taken (partly delayed due to the month long PRS strike), the state Government carried-out the advertisement in local newspaper informing all about the switch-to bank accounts on Feb 1st 2013. This advertisement became an excuse for the local post master to start deferring opening of new accounts. When the Feb 1st deadline was not met, the state government carried out another such advertisement announcing June 1st 2013 deadline for entirely switching to bank accounts, and now August 1st, 2013. One has to ask whether the state government is living in denial of the rate of opening of bank accounts, which is averaging under 3% as reported on Bihar’s NREGA portal? Maybe they should wake up to the fact that in three years after introducing post office payments, only 37% of the registered households and 24% of the individual wage seekers have been able to open post office accounts.

There are fewer than 50 banks in Araria district; nearest one for Parihari being one-hour and sixty rupees roundtrip-fare away. So the responsibility of making payments to workers of Lachha Bitha has been off-loaded to micro or ultra-small branches (USBs). These are often run by local middlemen who were in the money lending business. For Parihari, there are two USBs operated by Allahabad Bank on paper, but they have not done a single transaction in over nine months of their existence. The local staff (CSVs) said that they have submitted over 1000 account opening applications, but have received only 25 banking cards till date. Upon following-up with the bank officials in Raniganj, it was found that a private company based in Bangalore is responsible for providing the equipment, cards, and training to the CSVs. When the PO Raniganj and PRS could not get any definite answers about account opening, illiterate workers have reasons to be less optimistic about the situation.

But it is not only the payments that are hard for the Lachha Bita workers. To get their demand for work registered into the system, Arun Rishidev had to give written work demand on four different occasions. Even his name kept being dropped for over one month, as his job card and most others that have been opened after 2011 have not been entered into the MIS system. Finally, when his demand was entered with PO Ranigunj’s help, Arun did not get assigned to the project that he was running as a mate. This situation is not limited to Parihari GP or Raniganj block. Online job card register for most GPs of Araria and other districts show very few entries after 2011. And the complaints of names being dropped or being switched between projects are very commonly heard by JJSS.

These problems can be attributed to the elaborate online process of giving work through NREGASoft. First, demand has to be entered, but full 100 days demand cannot be entered at once as it ties the worker to a specific project. Then, work has to be allocated to the group of workers whose demand has been entered. Finally, an eMuster-Roll has to be generated and printed for the allocated project. These four steps have to happen in tandem or it leads to incorrect work assignment. And given the state of network connectivity and electricity in Araria, expecting continuous online sessions is quite unrealistic. It is not an uncommon sight at Raniganj program office to see the printer being physically carried to a nearby office with better voltage phase for printing eMusters!

But the need for employment in Lachha Bita is so high that all workers are willing to put-up with these systemic issues. For the first time, they are working on a project (bhutakan kamat se mitti bharai karya) led by one of their own. But the state Government seems to have other plans. In has recently passed an order that spells out 10 point selection process for mates and an elaborate list of 25 different responsibilities for them, while removing the higher wage rate that used to be offered in the past! Only the landless laborers are expected to do more for less…

Recently, Arun has been asked to furnish passbook account numbers of all wage seekers as a large percentage of online entries have been found to be incorrect requiring extremely time consuming and often impossible changes to the pay advice. But with the recent push for eWagelist, which added two more steps to the online process, the window of making these corrections closes after e-Wagelist generation. There is no clarity or training provided on how these changes, which are bound to crop-up, can be made in the system. It is not the computerization that is the primary issue here, it is the absolute lack of infrastructure and training that is grounding NREGA’s e-flight before it can even take-off.

As for the workers in Lachha Bita, they have already worked for over one and half months without getting a single rupee as payment. Maybe the new Panchayat Technical Assistant (PTA) can untangle one knot by recording the Measurement Book with measurements that he carried-out nearly three weeks ago. And then, hopefully the muster rolls would get entered into the system with correct post office account numbers without any further delays. Meanwhile, maybe the policy makers in Patna can stop issuing these unrealistic deadlines and decide on a reasonable timeline for opening worker’s bank accounts, while providing adequate training to the NREGA data-entry operators. One can only hope that someone will take the responsibility and untangle the web of Government’s failure around Lachha Bita…

Vibhore Vardhan is a volunteer with the JJSS. This article is based on his experience in a remote village (parihari) of Raniganj block in Araria.

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