The Bhilwara social audit team repeatedly came up against resistance. Yet the coming together of civil society and government in Rajasthan augurs well for the future of NREGA.

For watchers of India’s grassroots democracy, the place to be in recently was Bhilwara in Rajasthan; the town and the countryside were decked out in carnival colours for an audit exercise that saw thousands come together — social rights activists led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan’s stalwart campaigners Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, NGOs, State government officials and Ministers, and observers from the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

The project under the scanner was India’s showpiece Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and the purpose of the social audit was to assess how the programme worked, if it worked at all. Naturally, it was democracy, warts and all, in exhibition, with commitment and dedication battling entrenched vested interests at every step.

First, the positives. The most striking thing about the campaign was its unflagging spirit. For close to a fortnight starting October 1, bands of social audit activists, among them farmers, labourers and schoolteachers, ate, breathed, slept and walked — yes walked — NREGA. A total of 125 tolis (groups) set out on foot across 375 panchayats, poring over muster rolls, job cards, cash books, technical sanctions and other NREGA documents. They carried out spot inspections, gathered feedback from beneficiaries, and took complaints right down to where it mattered — to the local post office that blocked payment of wages and to the sarpanch who, villagers fearfully whispered, had siphoned off NREGA funds.

The padayatris drew no stipend, not taking even a food allowance, and quite gamely let on that “we were told we wouldn’t get a paisa, and must ask for food from the villagers.”

For those of us in the media who had descended on Bhilwara straight from the elitist environs of Delhi, there was something unreal about so many young men and women toiling hard without expectations of a reward. Yet how could anyone miss the commitment of a people who trudged from village to village in the hot afternoon sun, singing and shouting NREGA slogans? Sona chandi main nahi maanga; gadi, bangla, main nahi maanga; Limca, Shimca, Pepsi Cola, main nahi maanga; rozi roti, purna padhaiyee, photocopy; desh ka kharcha, kharcha ka hisab, main ne maanga (I don’t want gold and silver; car and bungalow; nor do I want Limca and Pepsi Cola; But I do want food, full literacy, photocopies and an account of public spending).

A bigger surprise was the Rajasthan government’s drive and enthusiasm. The young District Collector of Bhilwara, Manju Rajpal, was on the job 24x7, making surprise checks, holding meetings late into the night, examining complaints and booking FIRs against errant panchayat staff. Banna Lal, the State government’s newly appointed director of social audit, came with a formidable reputation, having unearthed a huge scandal in a food-for-work programme in Janawad in Rajsamand district. Also in Bhilwara for the audit was the State Commissioner for NREGA, Rajendra Bhanawat — again a tough taskmaster judging by the steel he displayed at a meeting with zilla parishad Chief Executive Officers. When a CEO quoted a village sarpanch as saying he needed to share his bribes with “people on top,” Mr. Bhanawat shot back: “Who are the people on top? I want the names.”

But this was not all. The Rajasthan Minister for Panchayati Raj and Rural Development Bharat Singh sat through five hours of a jan sunwai (public hearing) on the social audit, and the final day saw the organisers debate the outcome of the audit in the presence of Union Minister for Rural Development C.P. Joshi. Mr. Joshi, of course, was brought by a personal reason to Bhilwara: It is his parliamentary constituency.

Prima facie it all seemed too good to be true. As a hack remarked, the selfless MKSS activists, the earnest Collector, a government that would go the extra mile to facilitate the audit, all recalled a 1970s feel-good Doordarshan documentary more than real-time India with its conflicts and confrontations.

Obviously, the Bhilwara project was not quite the glitchless, seamless mass movement it appeared to first-time observers. Behind the impressive grand finale was a history of struggle for accountability in public spending. The MKSS had met with resistance in all its previous social audits in Rajasthan. In 2008 in Jhalawar, MKSS audit members were brutally set upon by village officials. The Bhilwara audit was itself preceded by days of dharna by sarpanchs (village heads) who feared being held to account. And though they came around eventually, the truce turned out to be fragile. In a lot of places, the records had to be wrested from reluctant panchayat officials. There were also showdowns between the sarpanchs and the auditors at many of the jan sunwais held on the penultimate day. In Baran village, a young woman auditor who reported irregularities in NREGA work was heckled by sarpanchs who told her plainly that she was a busybody. In Taswaria, the village heads insisted on being spared punishment for wrongdoings, unmindful of the presence of Minister Bharat Singh.

The social auditors confronted irregularities almost everywhere, and these went well beyond the expected complaints around delayed and stalled payment of wages. Job cards, required by law to be in the beneficiaries’ possession, were routinely withheld by the panchayat staff, resulting in NREGA workers not being able to claim what they earned. NREGA is premised on simple transparency, an example being the use of village walls to display work and payment details so that these become public knowledge. Yet the auditors repeatedly found fake muster rolls, bare walls and misplaced job cards. The material used in construction work was substandard and record books showed inflated figures against usage.

In the villages in Panchayat Samiti Hurda, the auditors were stonewalled by a vexing collusion between the panchayat staff and a powerful section of villagers for the use of JCB earthmovers for digging trenches. NREGA’s cost components are just two, labour and material, with asset creation being the end product. Yet because the programme’s primary objective is labour employment, machines, which would speed up asset creation, are excluded from it unless justified by impossibly difficult terrain. Even in such a situation, machines must be separately accounted for and not adjusted against material costs.

The sarpanch-villager collusion worked like this: The sarpanch and his acolytes would hire the JCB machine to cut down time and labour, yet fudge the record books to show full employment and extended periods of work, thus earning huge sums of money for no labour at all. Obviously, the conspiracy excluded the bulk of the workers in whose names the wages were drawn. When social auditors brought up this point at the Taswaria public hearing, they were shouted down by the sarpanchs and their supporters, all insisting that they were not up to doing tough NREGA labour. One villager challenged MKSS functionary Shanker Singh to do the labour himself.

Mr. Singh tried reasoning with the angry gathering. Using limericks and humour, he argued that the JCB was not an innocent machine but a precursor to big corporate giants eyeing the NREGA’s vast funds. “Mind you, the minute corporates come in, NREGA goes out,” Mr. Singh said, comparing the situation to the story of the mouse and the fat man. The man was unperturbed when the rat ran over his belly but in reality the rodent had shown the way to snakes and scorpions that would surely follow. As Mr. Singh explained to The Hindu, in Rajasthan alone, an estimated Rs. 9,500 crore will be spent on NREGA in 2009, making the programme lucrative for big corporates. If they came in, the NREGA would cease to be a wage employment programme.

The roadblocks that the Bhilwara social audit teams faced cannot however detract from the achievements of the exercise, which for the first time ever united two sections conventionally at loggerheads: civil society and government. And obviously the irregularities we witnessed in Bhilwara were nothing compared to the situation in other States where NREGA was struggling to get off the ground.

Reluctant as the Bhilwara sarpanchs were, they produced the account books in the end, enabling the audit teams to understand how the system worked and plan for future improvements.

As Ms Roy explained, “Yes, there are irregularities but I would think these form a small proportion of NREGA work. More to the point, through years of struggle we have institutionalised a system of transparency in Rajasthan which ensures against big scams.” Mr. Dey saw the audit as a prototype for NREGA assessment elsewhere in the country. “We have shown that given political will, resistance can be beaten down.”

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