This Thursday, the government of Chhattisgarh finally decided to pay Pitvasu Boi the Rs. 10,000 it owed him for his labour. But the money came too late to help Boi's son Santosh who died two weeks ago at the Mission Hospital in Ambikapur.
“We didn't have money to buy four bottles of blood for his transfusion,” said Boi over the telephone, “It took me two days to find people willing to donate blood. But he died. The hospital asked for Rs. 7000 just to release his body.”
A manual labourer from Pampapur village in Surguja district, Boi worked for 100 days last year building a village road under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS), which guarantees job cards holders 100 days of paid work in a year, but it took the government nine months to process his payment.
“I broke my leg three years ago, when I was knocked down by a motorcycle,” said Boi.
“Since then I was unable to find regular work as I cannot carry heavy loads.” When the district administration offered work under the MNREGS, Boi and his wife signed on. “I dug the earth with my shovel, while she carried the loads on her head,” Boi said, explaining that his family had few other means of support.
A recent study by the Right to Food Campaign notes that delayed payments are the biggest challenge facing the MNREGS in Chhattisgarh. While the Act stipulates that all payments be made within 15 days of completing work, the study reveals that only 3 per cent of workers in Surguja and 4 per cent of workers in Chhattisgarh received their payments on time. Almost 70 per cent of workers in Chhattisgarh are paid more than a month late.
Samir Garg, one of the contributors to the study and an advisor to the Commissioner of Supreme Court (Food Security), explains that the poor and the vulnerable are the worst affected by payment uncertainties.
“The poor cannot afford to wait,” he explains, “Delayed payments mean that the very people who need the MNREGS might lose faith in it.”
Gangaram Paikra, an activist with the Right to Food campaign in Surguja, explains that while computerisation of payments has reduced the opportunities to siphon wages intended for labourers, the banking system in Surguja is notoriously slow and opaque. To access their accounts, villagers from Pampapur must travel more than ten km to the Grameen Bank at Darima. Paikra points out that it is difficult for villagers to keep travelling to town just to see if their money has arrived.
“Very often, officials say that the money has been sent to your account, but the banks say it hasn't come,” said Paikra, “Boi had no way of finding out if and when the money was sent to his account.”
For instance, bank records show that a payment of about Rs. 1,800 was authorised for Boi's account on December 28 last year, and another payment was authorised for January 8 this year.
The payments were delayed, but may have helped save his son, Santosh's life.
Boi says he finally got his money on January 20, after the local press raised the issue.
Dhanjay Devangan, Chief Executive Officer of the Surguja District Panchayat, sought to draw a distinction between the death of Boi's son, and the delay in the payment of his wages.
“These are two very unfortunate, but separate incidents,” he said, attributing the delay to procedural issues.