Summer is the most active period for NREGA as lack of agricultural work makes employment provided through NREGA as the sole means of sustenance for majority of our members. Thus, a large portion of our time is spent in ensuring proper functioning of the scheme, including demand registration, opening of works to cater to this demand, tracking and resolving payment issues. Here is a summary of these activities:
1. Padyatras for creating awareness
Active saathis of the sangathan, including whole timers took the responsibility of reaching out to unorganized workers in new areas through padyatras. During these, workers were informed about NREGA, the entitlements provided by the law, and applications for job card and demand registration were filled on the spot. In the padyatras we reached out to workers in over 30 Gram Panchayats, and written demand registration was done for over 5500 workers. A summary table of the same can be found here.
Getting started in Purnia district!
We have been trying to expand our activities in neighboring Purnia district. After conducting 2-3 meetings, and explaining the process of getting employment through NREGA, we were able to submit demand application. But no work got opened. So, we met the P.O. (Srinagar) regarding opening of new works. A new problem showed up after work was opened, when many first time NREGA workers without job cards and passbooks came to the worksite. Some of them even worked for a week before it was realized that they didn’t have the requisite documents. Again, we convinced the P.R.S. to accept job card applications on site, and once the paper trail was complete, 156 workers got their first 2 weeks of employment under NREGA. The next padyatra in Purnea is planned in the second week of December.
2. Getting workers their dues
While demand registration and opening of new works is a constant struggle, it is the delayed or non-payment of wages that remains the most highlighted issue. In Choukta GP, Jokihat, 37 workers had worked for 6 days in May, but only got paid last week, a delay of over 6 months, after repeated intervention from JJSS. What is bothering about such situations is the continued apathy of concerned Government employees. In this case, Programme Officer (P.O.), Jokihat continued to give misinformation regarding the payment status to both JJSS and the District Magistrate (DM) Araria, who ultimately decided he had enough, and dismissed the P.O. from service on grounds of non-performance. But the story does not end here under pressure the mukhiya has been making payments and has already paid 14 workers, but has kept the payment of the rest pending.
Like the Choukta mukhiya there are also other elected representatives who are responsible for payment issues. One such story came out during the summer survey in Kharhat GP, Raniganj, where it was found that the ward member, Kulanand Rishidev, had withheld partial payments from workers. It was decided to have an open meeting on June 25th, 2012, where over Rs. 14,000 of withheld payments was distributed to 18 workers in presence of the P.R.S., elected representatives, and JJSS members. Interestingly Kulanand has been a saathi of the JJSS and had even been to the Shillong convention of the NCPRI, with the JJSS team, but has been defaulting since he became a ward member.
3. The Katihar Protest (July 19th, 2012)
Non-availability of works, pending payments, and hearing without redress were some of the reasons that drove thousands of workers on the streets of Katihar on 19th July 2012. For a long time, Katihar had not seen such a large street protest. Upon seeing thousands of workers march through the streets of Katihar, visual media commented “why this maha-ralla?” We have little support in the town of Katihar and our work is primarily identified with the villages around the city. And so, when one of our saathis went to find out which was the designated place to protest outside the DMs office, she was told by the local tent-house that “all protests involve 100-200 people and sit outside the DM’s gate”. When we reached, we were over 2500 people, so we walked right through the gates, and waited for the DM to come out. But the magistrate had no time to meet the so few of us.
The DM ignored thousands of workers who demanded his time, but obliged those who pleaded for his time in the junta durbar.
Despite a heavy downpour, all of us stuck together and waited for the delegation to come back, and only left after assurance of action was given. Some action resulted from the protest (hundreds of workers’ wages were paid), but the most important thing was that we were able to assert our fundamental right of collective protest in a public space. This space has been shrinking across India, especially in the small towns, as can be seen when the DM didn’t deem it fit to come and meet the protestors. In a lighter vain, we want to share a phrase that we coined at the protest: “DM hum se sharmata hai, milne se ghabrata hai.” This is different from the usual slogan: “DM hum se darta ha, police ko aage karta hai”. But there were no armed forces in preventing us from entering the premises.
Fall-out – Jariban in Jail!
Marangi’s mukhia is much feared in the area, but one women saathi, Jariban Khatun, had the courage to invite the sangathan to her tola during the mobilization for the protest. She fearlessly mobilized for the protest and vocally stated that mukhia and his middlemen had kept the passbooks and withheld payments for a long time. On the day of the protest rally, she was one of the vocal leaders, and gave a written statement which implicated the mukhia. Soon after the protest, Jariban was framed in a false criminal case of abetment of a rape. Jariban has been denied bail from the district court and has been in jail for the past one month. We are helping her fight for bail in the Patna High court.
4. Speaking-up against the landlords
Parihari is like one of those nondescript villages shown in the movies. It belongs to a different era. A Brahmin zamindaar turned mukhia lords over the majority dalit population in this interior village (which takes an hour to get there from Ranigunj block). The recent buzz around sangathan activities (see section 2.3) didn’t get unnoticed by the local power structures, and they exerted their control by threatening JJSS members. “Tumhe tumhare baap ki tarah goli maar denge” and “tumhara doosra haath bhi tod ke Punjab bhej denge” – Bablu Jha, mukhia’s middleman, tried to scare away Subodh Yadav and Parmanand Rishidev, two of the active members. The P.O. Ranigunj was immediately informed and asked to attend the public meeting in Parihari on Oct 16. There, in addition to the above threats, several other issues of delayed and withheld payments, job cards without passbooks, and ward member acting as implementing agency were highlighted by the hundred strong crowd. P.O. has assured resolution of these complaints, but this battle for changing existing power equations and entering a new era, is just getting started.
5. Late payment survey
Three padyatras and a late payment survey were conducted this summer by JJSS members and student volunteers. The survey covered 7 panchayats. Muster rolls and pay advices for about 36 works were first collected from the P.O. at the block. Volunteers then visited the households of sample of workers from each pay advice and verified payment against their statements and entries in their passbooks. To calculate delays at various stages, date of completion of muster roll, date of submission of advice, date of credit in workers’ accounts and date of payment according to workers were compared to track the flow of final wage payments to beneficiaries. These are some of the preliminary findings:
- It takes about 37 days to make payments as opposed to the 15 day limit stipulated in the Act.
- The main delay is in the preparation of the Payment Advice which takes 26 days on an average
- The Post Office takes about a week to process payments
Pay advices for bunched muster rolls i.e. more than one muster roll typically take a week longer. However, the post offices seem to work considerably faster on these musters thereby cutting down the difference between bunched and non-bunched musters to a negligible 3 days. In 40% of the cases muster rolls were bunched. Delayed wage payment compensation has been filed for Mansahi Chittoriya and Mohanpur GPs in Katihar district; Baghnagar, Chatar, Jamua, Sharanpur, and Choukta GPs in Araria district.
6. Phone radio to going online: strengthening communication via technology
As part of NREGA, each state is required to maintain its expenditure records online. These contain valuable information about wages paid, ongoing project expenses etc., but are not practically accessible by the rural population who are the main stakeholders in NREGA. JJSS is partnering on a research project initiated by LibTech at Stanford University to make such information accessible to the workers over mobile phones using voice and text based mediums. The system will also be designed to receive feedback from the worker. As part of the initial pilot, Vibhore, who also happens to be an active JJSS volunteer, provided hardcopies of printed reports to sangathan members. The same were received quite enthusiastically by the members.
Another technology trial involved using Awaaz.De based voice messaging system over mobile to improve the information flow within the sangathan. The ability to have their voice message broadcasted to 300 numbers simultaneously really excited our saathis, and they have used the system to record meeting notifications, updates, feedback, and more. In the future, we hope to roll out the system to all our members. Click here to listen to a broadcasted message from Ranjit ji on meeting update.
Using IT to get a road made!
When the printout of ongoing works was given to the unit members of Rampur Kodarkatti, Araria, they immediately pointed out that no RCC soling was done on the road between Prasad Singh’s and Navin Singh’s house (RC/340), even though an expense of Rs. 3.78 lakhs for bricks was shown in the list. Upon contacting the PRS, he admitted to the mistake and promised to start the RCC soling immediately. We also met the new mukhiya who was quick to call the PRS and get his name cleared (the money was withdrawn before his term). Within few weeks of raising the issue, the PRS got the bricks delivered and the RCC soling completed!
7. Making Gram Sabhas work
Individual asset creation has been made a focus for NREGA 2.0. For 2012-13, new projects like toilets, animal shelters, vermi-composting, and poultry were added to the approved list of works. Since there was hardly any awareness about these changes, including at the P.R.S. level, we made it our responsibility to create awareness before the 2nd October, Gram Sabha. Using brochures, discussions in meetings, and mobile radio messages, we informed a large percentage of our members about these schemes. When Gram Sabhas in the entire state were reconvened on Nov 22nd to complete necessary paperwork, we ensured that information about the same reached out to the GPs, and followed it up by personally monitoring some of them. The gram sabhas made us so clearly realise how many sangathan members could not apply for individual works in NREGA, because saathis own little or no land, has been one of the reasons for the land survey going on in GP Sharanpur (since 8th Dec., 2012), with the help of student volunteers Chandan and Sambodhi (from DU).
8. Mobilizing beyond NREGA
There are no easy pickings in the life of a landless laborer. Every bit, from health to education to employment to social security is a constant struggle, with land ownership being the most cherished and elusive. Having mobilized our members to get their entitlements under NREGA, we’ve started doing the same for these other issues.
In Koshkapur Uttar, Raniganj, 29 families were given patta (title) for 8 decimals of land about 5 years ago. But possession of the land remained elusive as the concerned officials were unwilling to measure and identify their piece of land. So, we met with the Deputy Collector Land Reforms (DCLR), Circle Officer (C.O.), Circle Inspector (C.I.) or Siyahi, Karamchari, and Ameen to resolve the problem. After repeated follow-ups during the last six months, 20 families were given their piece of land, and the remaining 9 families will get it soon. In addition, 94 families have been given 3 decimal land pattas.
Similarly, concerted effort on resolving other problems like non-payment of pension, obtaining certificates under RTPS, disabled benefits, and legal cases was done from our end. And there are many more battles to fight!
Reclaiming the lost land of Baidyanathpur School!
Our saathis in Araria found that the land belonging to a school in their own ward was getting encroached, and decided to vigorously pursue this case with the local administration. Even though the school had been donated 120 decimals of land, its possession was limited to just 30 decimals as the rest was being cultivated by the donor’s family. After repeated complaints and follow-up with the administration, the DM finally issued an order to the concerned officials to identify and measure the land. There is still some way to go before the school gets its rightful share.