The office of district-level Ombudsman under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has started making an impact on the programme

According to the 17 Ombudsmen from 14 districts (three districts have two each) in the State, who met here for a two-day stock-taking, the office was making a positive contribution to the quality of the schemes undertaken and addressing the workers’ grievances.

The MGNREGS is an ambitious multi-billion rupee programme aimed to ensure at least 100 days of paid work for each eligible rural household a year with a view to making a dent on rural poverty. The Central government had in 2009 evolved the mechanism of independent Ombudsmen to address the workers’ grievances and also complaints regarding execution of schemes. The Ombudsmen were chosen from among well-known social workers, former judicial officers and retired government or public sector officials, professors and lawyers.

Kerala had dithered on the appointment of Ombudsmen, and about a year and a half after their selection, the Ombudsmen could start their work only four months ago. The Ombudsmen complained that many of them were yet to get office space at the respective collectorates, staff and car.

The Ombudsmen said their main task now was to create awareness among the government staff, particularly at the panchayat and block levels, as well as among the workers, of the role of the Ombudsman and their vast powers. They expressed surprise that though Kerala was supposed to be home to a workforce fully conscious of their rights, the MGNREGS workers were abysmally ignorant of their rights. There were workers who had not been paid their wages for months.

Panchayat secretaries often refused to give job cards to potential workers citing lack of identity proofs. Trade unions and political parties were not much concerned about the rights of the workers.

Many officials, the Ombudsmen said, looked at the programme as just another scheme for doling out government benefits, and hence had a very arrogant attitude.

The main task of the Ombudsmen now is to create awareness about their role and their powers.