Bottlenecks at every stage in the implementation of MGNREGA in Atra village in Chhattisgarh are making the villagers disillusioned.

On a rainy day in September, Bir Singh Malekar, 45, rues his decision to stay back in Atra village in Chhattisgarh's Rajnandgaon district this summer, instead of leaving in search of work. “I usually go to Chennai between January and June,” he said, “This year I stayed back for MGNREGA work. It's been four months and I still haven't been paid.”

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 promises a hundred days of paid work a year for any willing villager; work is trickling in, but as Malekar's case shows, the system is far from perfect and the scheme beneficiaries are losing faith.

The NREGA mandates workers be paid within 15 days of rendering their labour, failing which the labourer may approach a labour court and is entitled to up to Rs. 3,000 as compensation. According to the NREGA website, to date, more than three lakh farmers in Chhattisgarh received delayed payments for work done under the scheme, but not a single case has come up before a labour court.

Government officials caution against taking the information on the website seriously, even as they concede they have no better data of their own. “We are in the process of monitoring delays,” said a senior official in the administration, “We have stopped updating information as there are problems with [delayed] payment data.”

Case study

According to state government figures, Chhattisgarh's implementation of the NREGA is consistent with the national average: In 2009-10, for instance, Chhattisgarh generated 51 working days on average for those seeking employment, compared to a national average of 54; 56 per cent of NREGA work in Chhattisgarh were completed in comparison with a national average of 46 per cent. Ninety-nine per cent of Chhattisgarh's payments are now made directly to workers' postal accounts, making the state an ideal case study for the implementation of the NREGA and the problems faced by computerisation.

“Delayed payment is one of NREGA's biggest drawbacks,” says Samir Garg, Advisor to Commissioner of Supreme Court (Food Security). “Tribals cannot afford to wait months for wages. If payment is unreliable, the poorest and the most vulnerable opt out of the system and migrate in search of work.”

Under NREGA, Panchayats must hold village level meetings to draw up a list of works, which is sanctioned by the district Panchayats. Samir Garg explains that many villages are unable to come up with a continuous list of projects and so the planning process usually works in reverse. Worried of being hauled up for non-performance, district and block level authorities draw up work lists and foist them upon villagers.

In Atra, top-down planning has meant that the district has sanctioned the construction of three roads in the village, but the project has been held up as no villager is ready to surrender land for the road. As a result, Atra has received only 27 days of work for field improvement so far this year, the payment for which is still pending.

Once work is underway, a village-level official, called the Sachiv, is expected to maintain regular muster-rolls of villagers and submit them every week to a sub-engineer who verifies that the work has actually been done.

Atra's Sachiv, Hemant Sinha, is a harried man. Tasked with preparing the muster-rolls for three villages, Sinha explains that the new computerised system doesn't tolerate any errors. “If there is even one mistake, we have to start all over again,” says Sinha.

To avoid mistakes, Sinha first prepares “rough” muster-rolls for all the villages and, once the work is completed, prepares fair versions of the same; doubling the time taken and efforts expended. He admits that weekly muster-roll preparation is beyond his abilities and aims to complete the rolls at least once a month.

“I'm thinking of leaving this job…it is just not worth the effort,” says Sinha, who is paid Rs. 2,000 a month, “everyone keeps demanding their money, they refuse to understand that it is beyond my control.”

Work verification is another major bottleneck. In Chhattisgarh, 62 per cent of the posts intended for verifying officers are vacant. “The government is in the process of recruiting more engineers,” says K. Subramanium, Chhattisgarh Commissioner for NREGA. In an effort to improve recruitment of verifiers, the state government has broadened the job qualifications from engineering graduates to those who have graduated with a degree in science with mathematics.

Practical difficulties

Once the muster-rolls are verified, the Sachiv must take them to the block headquarters at Ambagarh Chowki and wait in line for the data to be fed into computers. In the best of times, the process takes at least an entire day. “We have a shortage of data entry staff,” says M.S. Dhruv, Block officer at Ambagarh Chowki, “My men are working as hard as they can but if, for instance, the electricity fails, work stops till it returns.”

Dhruv is also struggling to find data operators comfortable with the computer systems used by the MGNREGA. Chhattisgarh needs at least 146 assistant programmers to run its NREGA network; not a single post has been filled. Officials say recruitment is underway.

The NREGA uses a standardised software application called MIS or Management Information System that, operators say, is still a work in progress. MIS 5, the latest version, is a vast improvement on prior avatars, but false entries are still a problem and the reason that Chhattisgarh officials are wary of data uploaded on the NREGA website.

Data entry completed, the system allocates payments that are automatically directed to every worker's individual post office account. The worker is issued a payment slip and may go to the post office and claim her money. However, most village post offices in remote areas handle several villages and are unable to handle cash transactions beyond Rs. five lakh, which means they cannot disburse money to villagers in need.

Back in Atra, the delay in MGNREGA payments forced Chekh Ram, 65, to take a Rs. 5,000 loan from another farmer to buy fertilizer and pesticides. Two successive crop failures mean that he already owes Rs. 4,000 to another bank. The MGNREGA wages would have in some ways reduced his liabilities. A crop failure this year will wipe him out…

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012