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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Missing workers, dodgy rolls, wage diversion: NREG audit in Jharkhand

Department of Jharkhand in its latest concurrent audit of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) -- a key initiative that has ensured at least a trickle of income to rural households amid the looming distress caused by the pandemic.

Written by Abhishek Angad | Ranchi |
Updated: January 14, 2022 7:07:23 am
Workers on rolls for building this shed never turned up, says its owner’s son in East Singhbhum district. (Express Photo)

*In Dumka district, an audit of 869 work sites found 774 people at work although 7,712 were listed on the rolls.

*In East Singhbhum, records listed 2,798 workers at 688 sites but only 1,253 were found to be at work.

*In Dhanbad, 7,859 people were on the rolls for 1,348 schemes that were audited but only 421 workers — a mere 5% — were found at the spot.

*Over 1.59 lakh workers listed on records but around 75 per cent missing from work sites; machines used for work meant to generate jobs for people; beneficiaries striking deals with contractors to use their names on muster rolls in return for a cut from direct money transfers; contractors using contract labour instead of local work-seekers.

These are the key discrepancies found by the Social Audit Unit (SAU) of the Rural Development

Department of Jharkhand in its latest concurrent audit of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) — a key initiative that has ensured at least a trickle of income to rural households amid the looming distress caused by the pandemic.

The Indian Express accessed the report to track down illustrative examples of irregularity.

For instance, in East Singhbhum, a 31-year-old man who had lost his job as a field worker with an NGO last year was not on the roll for work sanctioned by the panchayat to construct a cattle shed for his mother. The contractor’s list, he alleged, included the names of people who never turned up to work, including a person based in Jamshedpur, about 50 km away.

Pointing to 36 work sites in six districts where “evidence” of use of machines was found, the SAU report said the “low presence of workers in respect to those named in MR (muster rolls) indicates a large number of use of machines and contractors, which are against the letter and spirit of the Act”.

Among “various serious issues”, the report also listed “delay (in) payment, no attendance entered in muster roll at worksite, no material supply despite payment made to vendor, wage payment done without work” and “work not found on ground despite shown completed”.

Asked about the findings, James Herenj, a steering committee member of the audit unit, said: “The report has been sent to the state government. Only 25 per cent of workers were found working, which is appalling for a state like Jharkhand that claims to rely on NREGA for social protection.”

According to officials, the audit was conducted in two phases in October in 1,118 of the state’s 4,331 panchayats. In the 26,000 work sites that were audited, audit teams found only 40,629 workers from the 1.59 lakh whose names were on the rolls generated online.

Muster rolls are attendance sheets generated by block resource persons after they receive demand for work from designated rozgar sevaks, panchayat secretaries or mukhiyas. The mandate under NREGA is to provide demand-based 100 days of guaranteed rural employment to every household for creation of assets, such as ponds, cow sheds, playgrounds, check dams, toilets and roads.

The audit findings come at a time when Chief Minister Hemant Soren has hailed NREGA as a “saviour” during the pandemic with over 10 lakh migrant workers returning in the past two years. Under NREGA, Jharkhand generated 9.34 crore persondays of work, employing 27.97 lakh individuals, and spent Rs 2,637.60 crore in this financial year alone, till January 12, according to the scheme’s dashboard.

Jharkhand’s MGNREGA commissioner Rajeshwari B did not respond to calls and messages. But the audit findings highlight the yawning gap between intent and implementation.

‘Contract labour used’

In Dumka district, records of Jama block in Dodhali panchayat show that 10 labourers were to work between September 21 and October 4 on building an irrigation well at an estimated cost of Rs 4.51 lakh. But the audit team found the work had “been completed” days earlier for Rs 2.4 lakh.

“We found this alarming because none of the workers listed were present on the three days that we visited the site. The work being completed with half the money is not possible without the involvement of a third party. The contractor seems to have completed the construction with the help of contracted labour, which goes against the basic spirit of the scheme,” an official, who was part of the audit, said.

“We suspect that the muster roll was generated with the connivance of local officials, who are sometimes the beneficiaries and earn about 20-25 per cent from the scheme,” the official said.

When contacted, Dumka Deputy Development Commissioner Sanjay Singh said: “I can’t comment on specific issues until they are brought to us officially. But wherever there is any misappropriation, we recover the money.”

‘None of them worked on my shed’

The work on the cow shed in East Singhbhum’s Dhalbumgarh block shows how the spirit of the rural job scheme has been subverted. “The labourers were called from other villages, it was a contract system,” said Subodh Ree, speaking about his mother Joshna Ree’s shed in Swargachhira village under the Pawra Narsinghgarh panchayat.

“Work was to be done between October and December. I was not allotted any work and the rolls had the names of people I knew. One of them works in Jamshedpur, the other is preparing for a competitive examination, and the third can’t walk and has had her eyes operated upon thrice,” Subodh said.

Officials involved with the audit say this is a clear case of people with names on the rolls “getting money in their accounts for not doing any work, and handing the entire amount over to a contractor or agent in return for a cut”.

The Indian Express could not reach two of the three persons named by Subodh. The third, Balajee Karmakar, said he was attending a lecture and could not speak in detail. Asked whether he had ever worked under NREGA, Karmakar said: “Sometimes.”

Deputy Development Commissioner (East Singhbhum) Parmeshwar Bhagat said: “Multiple issues come out during the social audit after which they are disposed of at the panchayat, block, district or the state level.”

A recurring pattern

In Garhwa, out of 2,886 work sites audited with 20,995 people on the rolls, officials found only 4,120 at work. It is in this district that sources in the audit team said they came across a video of a woman purportedly admitting that she had received NREGA wages in her account, “without working for a day”, and handed the money over to the village mukhiya. The Indian Express could not reach the woman to corroborate the contents of the video.

Deputy Development Commissioner (Garhwa) Satendra Narayan Upadhyay said: “I can’t comment without reading the report.”

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