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Benami contractors flourishing under Plan Campaign

By Our Staff Reporter

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, JUNE 2. Benami contractors continue to thrive under beneficiary committees implementing projects taken up by local bodies under the People's Plan Campaign. This was one of the key findings of a baseline information study recently conducted by the Socio Economic Unit Foundation in 21 panchayats in seven districts.

The study which was carried out in collaboration with the Department of Local Self-Government, Government of Kerala observed that the benami contract system had assumed a new face under cover of beneficiary committees implementing construction works under the decentralised programme in many panchayats. The finding contradicts the claims made by the Planning Board that the Plan Campaign had succeeded in eliminating the bane of benami contractors.

The study which covered Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Malappuram and Kozhikode districts revealed that benami contracts existed in different forms. In some cases, the convener of the beneficiary committee was the contractor while in others, the convener appointed a contractor without the knowledge of the committee. In a few other cases, the ward member was found to intervene to secure the contract for someone of his choice.

The study which was supported by the Department for International Development, Government of U.K. and the Water Engineering Development Centre, U.K. points to several drawbacks in the implementation of the Plan Campaign. The survey noted that the lack of technical know how at the beneficiary committee level had affected the quality of construction works with good public participation.

In some panchayats, contractors were awarded work without any process of competition, affecting the quality of work and leading to cost escalation. The study notes that the use of sub contracts made it difficult to monitor the work. It also noted discrepancies in procedures and rates for procurement of materials, lack of accountability in sanctioning.

Interestingly, some works failed to serve the purpose even when the quality of construction was found to be good. In some cases, the work was found to have been planned outside the beneficiary committee. The extent of participation in construction works was found to vary for various projects with good cases showing that roles and responsibilities were very clear and beneficiaries committees understanding what was happening and why. Where participation was low, it was found that traditional problems associated with contractor- based works were prevalent.

A second study on the social aspects of projects under the Plan Campaign revealed key concerns like inadequate safety measures, absence of social security cover and gender disparity in wages for volunteers involved in construction activities.

The study observed that there was no provision for insurance cover or reimbursement of medical expenses in the event of an accident for a volunteer working under a beneficiary committee. There were no first aid boxes on site and workers did not have protective clothing. The study found that there was no awareness about safety standards among the volunteers. Most of the volunteers were unskilled workers.

Many labourers were not registered with the Construction Workers Welfare Fund board and hence were not eligible for benefits. Those who were registered with welfare boards could not transfer their contributions to the schemes implemented by beneficiary committees.

The study also noted that wage disparity between men and women was institutionalised despite the Equal Remuneration Act. It said the gender disparity was accepted socially and by trade unions.

Another major finding was that monitoring committees were not fulfilling their role effectively. Overtime allowance was not common. Payment, though higher than PWD rates was found to be arbitrary. The study found that there was no instance of child labour in any of the panchayats surveyed.

A workshop which was held to mark the conclusion of the study recommended some kind of group insurance scheme by panchayats to cover workers employed in accident- prone activities. It also suggested means to apply health and safety regulations for labourers to improve their quality of life.

The SEUF study was part of a global survey which also covered Bangladesh, Zambia and Ghana. The SEUF executive director, Dr. K.N. Panikker, said the findings of the survey would be used to prepare a set of recommendations. He said the recommendations would be submitted to the government for corrective action.

The DFID and WEDC officials who participated in the study said the findings of the survey would be incorporated with those of the investigations in Zambia, Ghana and Bangladesh to evolve a global model for development.

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