MGNREGA records manipulated; workers’ wages siphoned off from accounts

At noon on Tuesday last, a dozen men gathered on the banks of the Auranga near Rankikalan village in Latehar district. As they performed the dashmi rites, the wailing from the huts in the village continued. Bhuiatoli village had lost 23 men, women and children when the truck in which they were returning to the village after working on landlords’ farms in Bihar overturned and crushed them under the grain sacks they had earned after working for three months.

In 2001, Latehar was carved out of Palamu district, identified as one of India’s poorest 100 districts in 1997 by the government. For years, landlessness and graft in public schemes forced the villagers to migrate for a few months to work on landowners’ farms in Bihar in exchange for grains. Gains from funds allotted to the district under special schemes for the Left-Wing Extremism-affected areas seem to have also passed these families by.

Accident survivors say that like every year they left their village in November for landlords’ farms in Bihar’s Bhabhua district. For every 12 heaps of paddy each family harvested, they got to keep one. No one got any wages.

“My wife Bimli, my daughter, my son and his wife and I earned 16 bori [sacks] of paddy after working three months. The rate has remained the same since eight years. Before we left, the landowner deducted 80 kg from this as the share we ate while working on his farm,” says Awdesh Bhuia, mukhiya of Bhuiatoli, a hamlet of Dalit households built at some distance from the upper-caste houses in the village.

On January 8, the families pooled in Rs. 350 each and hired a truck to carry the grains they had earned back to their village. At 1 a.m., sitting on top of the sacks as they tried to protect themselves and their children from the bitter chill of the night, they heard a loud sound before the truck swerved and overturned on NH 139 in Aurangabad. Of the 40 workers in the truck, 25 died, including 10 children. “We could not move, the children suffocated under the sacks. The police and some villagers took us to a hospital two hours later. My father’s spine was injured,” says Phool Kumari.

Over the 150 Dalit families in Bhuiatoli, only a third have ration cards. Those with Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration cards, entitled to 35 kg of subsidised grains every month say they get 29-30 kg once in two months.

District officials say 10 ponds were sanctioned as public works for the panchayat under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. A few of the families say they have MGNREGA cards, but do not have the job-cards with them. Among those who do, there are no entries in the job-cards.

Anarwa Kunwar, 80, lost 11 of her family members in the accident, including her two daughters and eight grandchildren. She is so frail she needs assistance with household chores, but MGNREGA records show she worked 66 days digging a pond last year. Budhan Bhuia, who died in the accident, is also shown to have worked 66 days in the same scheme, though his family denies this.

Collusion

“In 2011 too, wages were siphoned off from 23 workers’ accounts in this panchayat. We found that the former Block Development Officer, the Panchayat Sewak and the postmaster siphoned off wages in collusion with the contractors,” recounts James Herenj, who works at the MGNREGA Sahayata Kendra at Manika in association with economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera.

In 2011, activists at the kendra exposed a Rs. 2.5 lakh-scam in MGNREGA in Rankikalan. After an enquiry, an FIR was lodged against the BDO and Panchayat Sewak on March 1, 2011. A day later, Mr. Herenj’s colleague and MGNREGA activist Niyamat Ansari was murdered. South Latehar sub-zonal committee of the CPI (Maoist) claimed responsibility for the murder, saying he was a police informer. Social activists had then accused the area’s Maoists to be in collusion with the local contractor Shankar Dubey whose son was an accused in the MGNREGA scam.

“We ensure that the families’ compensation is paid through bank accounts since the postoffice seems complicit in the corruption here. We plan to include these families in the Public Distribution System as ‘additional BPL’ families,” said District Collector Arudhana Patnaik.

Jharkhand MGNREGA Commissioner Shri Arun said he was not aware of the incident.

(The reporter is Media Fellow, National Foundation for India)