Assignment of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) raises questions about possible misuse of the national programme aimed at enhancing livelihood security of people in rural areas.
The practice of many panchayats allowing job card holders under the scheme to work in homesteads and private holdings to ensure higher utilisation of funds under the scheme has raised concern about the drain on the exchequer as work is found to be done by flouting norms of the scheme, primarily meant for the rural poor.
As per the guidelines, work can be allowed in private holdings and homesteads if the family that owns the land is issued job card on request. The only condition is that the physical extent of land of that family should not exceed five acres.
Many panchayats are distributing job card application forms to even financially sound households and issuing them job cards. Instances of local bodies approving work in homesteads and private gardens, such as clearing undergrowth, is seen as a misuse of the scheme.
There are even cases where work is being done in private holdings much to the surprise of their owners who can otherwise afford to engage workers to do the job.
An owner of a homestead at Madayi grama panchayat here, who does not want to be identified, said that over 40 workers reached the household a few days ago to clear the undergrowth, a work normally done by two or three workers.
A resident in Koodali grama panchayat also had similar experience of MGNREGS workers clearing the shrub in her plot.
In both cases, the residents were given job card application forms to secure their signatures. When a family in Ramanthali grama panchayat refused to sign the form, it was told that it cannot avail itself of ‘free labour’ next time without applying for the job card.
When contacted, Koodali panchayat president B. Seena denied that there was any violation of norms in assigning MGNREGS work in her panchayat. She said that as per the guidelines, the panchayat was carrying out the work in holdings owned by small and nominal farmers with less than five acres of land, who have job cards and are willing to join the work. The work includes digging pits around coconut palms, scooping earth with spade, and clearing post-monsoon undergrowth, among others, she said, adding that work was being assigned after preparing an action plan and muster roll of job applicants with job cards.
In reality, the residents of financially sound households, who were provided unsolicited labour in their homesteads, often gave tea and snacks for the workers, thus ‘joining’ the work done by MGNREGS beneficiaries.
When contacted, District Poverty Alleviation Unit Project Director P.V. Thomas said work in private holdings and homesteads not exceeding five acres each can be allowed only as a ‘one-time intervention.’ Though job cards can be issued to any family regardless of its financial background, execution of work on a private land is allowed only once, he said, adding that any violation, if found, would attract action.
A few cases of violation of the norms have been brought to the notice of the authorities. A few months ago, The district Ombudsman for MGNREGS ordered Cherupuzha panchayat here to collect from private landowners Rs.91,240 spent for work done in their holdings under the scheme in 2012-13.