The termination of the proposed social audits of works carried out under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in 16 panchayats -- one each from an equal number of districts -- in Rajasthan this past week has come as a rude shock to the social activists who pioneered the job scheme.

Coming as it does from the Congress Government in the NREGS flagship State of Rajasthan, the development has put the United Progressive Alliance Government’s claim of transparency in implementation of NREGS under a cloud, they say.

The State Government, seemingly buckling under pressure from groups of gram sewaks and sarpanchs to not allow social audits by “outsiders”, had called off the much publicised exercise in a huff on November 27. Though a noisy campaign against the social audit process was there only in about half a dozen districts such as Alwar, Barmer, Jaisalmer, Chittorgarh, Rajsamand and Udaipur the authorities chose to call off the process in all 16 districts.

Despite claims of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on “zero tolerance” to corruption, the Government also did not allow activist groups to attend the gram sabhas held on November 28, succumbing to the pressure from the sarpanchs and gram sewaks not to allow “outsiders” in the gathering of villagers. Simultaneously the authorities transferred Rajendra Bhanawat, the State’s proactive Commissioner of NREGS, allowing the existing team of committed bureaucrats to break up.

“We have no choice now but to take on the State Government heads on,” asserts Magsaysay Award winner Aruna Roy, pioneer of the campaign for transparency and right to employment in the country. “The Government cannot allow this kind of corruption to take place. The Chief Minister had a good opportunity at hand to send out a strong message across against corruption. We feel he missed it,” she says. “They needed to be firm in 16 panchayats only. The process would have come as a model to the rest.”

‘A case of double-speak’

“The Government and the Chief Minister made statements re-assuring the people that there would be zero tolerance to corruption. But members of the State Cabinet and other important leaders and government officials were seen working against this process, which was a live example of zero tolerance to corruption. It is clear that there is a gap between statement and action,” points out Nikhil Dey, NREGS activist and member of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.

The fact remains that the activist groups were invited by the State Government to carry out the social audit which is mandatory under the NREGS. Though many feathers were ruffled after the social audit held in Bhilwara -- the district represented in the Lok Sabha by Union Rural Development Minister C. P. Joshi -- in September the State Government, which wanted to pursue the “Andhra Pradesh model” in social audits had promised all support to NGOs for the audit.

The activists point out that in Andhra the same set of officers has been in place for five years and more looking after NREGS. “In Rajasthan, however, the officers who have come and learnt about processes have been moved from their job and with every move there is a lack of stability in the implementation of the programme,” says Mr. Dey.

In Andhra, during the late Chief Minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s regime social audits were declared to be like elections where there is no stalling or preventing them from being held. If anyone tried to stop the process they were booked under the law which proceeds against those who prevent a public officer from doing his/her duty. “The entire programme was planned by us after discussing the details with Mr. Gehlot and Rural Development Minister Bharat Singh,” Ms. Roy notes. “The Government failed to provide adequate protection to the activists who went around the villages. Lal Singh, a senior member of MKSS, was roughed up by miscreants in Bhim tehsil while in the process of social audit survey. This has never happened any time in the past in Rajasmand district where MKSS has its headquarters as well,” she points out.