Delays, debt and distress in West Bengal

The delay in payment of wages has pushed MGNREGS workers in West Bengal to the brink. Shiv Sahay Singh reports on the allegations of corruption against the State government, the Centre’s reluctance in releasing payments, and the plight of the workers caught in this tussle

Updated - September 03, 2022 03:28 pm IST

Published - September 03, 2022 03:15 am IST

Workers in Barabazar block of West Bengal’s Purulia district stand besides an unfinished pond. Since the women workers who worked at the site were not paid wages, they refused to work anymore and the pond remains incomplete.

Workers in Barabazar block of West Bengal’s Purulia district stand besides an unfinished pond. Since the women workers who worked at the site were not paid wages, they refused to work anymore and the pond remains incomplete. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

On July 25, nearly three hours after Droupadi Murmu took oath as the first tribal President of India, hundreds of women, mostly from tribal communities and Other Backward Classes, held a rally at Puncha block in West Bengal’s Purulia district, about 1,300 km from Delhi. Demanding that they be paid pending wages for work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the women shouted, “Keu khabe ar keu khabe na, ta hobe na, ta hobe na” (Some will eat, some will go hungry. That can’t happen.) Some of them were not wearing shoes, but they walked without wincing on a tarred road that sweltering afternoon. “Jaat dharm baad dao, bhuka pete bhaat dao” (Set aside caste and religion, give food to the hungry), they cried.

Entering the administrative complex of the block in Puncha town, the women gathered around a display sign of MGNREGS. It featured a photograph of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as well as details about who is entitled to work under MGNREGS and for how many days. The women said they had not been paid since December 2021.

Ranu Mahali had come to the rally with a nine-month-old child in her arms. She said she had worked for 14 days in the financial year 2022-23. Her husband, Dibakar Mahali, who had been unable to find work, had left for the neighbouring Bardhaman district to work in potato fields. On his way back home on April 4, Dibakar died in a road accident. Ranu was desperate for her pending wage of ₹2,982.

“She is struggling to make ends meet. She has three children to feed,” said Sadhana Mahato, pointing at Ranu. Sadhana had worked for 48 days in April and May and was waiting for her dues.

Somali Mahati and Sarati Mahato, who were walking barefoot, said they want to work but there was no work to be found. “We have to depend on others in the family. Nobody is willing to give us a loan,” said the two women who appeared to be in their mid-fifties. The people in Purulia, which is among the poorest districts of West Bengal, are the worst affected by the delay in payment of MGNREGS wages.

Brewing discontent

Not far from Puncha Block Development Office is Kultanr village, where the Sabar tribals live. The Sabars are a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Most of the 50 houses in the village have been constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. The announcement of the state’s contribution in building the houses is in bold letters on nearly every house. The children don't attend school. The older people in the community look perplexed when asked why July 25 was a historic day. Most of them had not even heard of Droupadi Murmu.

Sajani Sabar was cooking the evening meal of rice and leafy vegetables, which were grown in her backyard. The food, she said, was insufficient to feed her three children. Her situation had worsened compared to last year when there was guaranteed work for 100 days under MGNREGS. Sajani and her neighbours said they could now afford to cook only one meal a day.

The Sabars in Kultanr village in West Bengal’s Purulia district, who have not got work under MGNREGS in 2022-23, have been surviving by doing odd jobs and agricultural work.

The Sabars in Kultanr village in West Bengal’s Purulia district, who have not got work under MGNREGS in 2022-23, have been surviving by doing odd jobs and agricultural work. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

A fact-finding team, which was probing the impact of the delay in payment of MGNREGS wages, looked at the job cards of the Sabars. None of the members of the community had got any work in the financial year 2022-23, said Apurva Gupta, a member of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, who checked the job cards on the MGNREGS management information system (MIS). With no work under the scheme and no land of their own, the Sabars have been surviving on odd jobs and agricultural work.

Anindya Bhattacharya, the Block Development Officer of Puncha, who met the team, said work was available, but labourers could not be convinced to do the work as payments were pending. Speaking about the regular demonstrations at his office, he said he was aware that discontentment was brewing. He was worried that the anger would erupt and lead to a law-and-order situation.

Pradipta Biswas, the District Panchayat and Rural Development Officer of Purulia, said the district administration was unable to plant saplings or undertake water restoration projects because of the issue of pending wages. Biswas explained that the average number of people employed under the scheme for any given day in July 2021 was 80,000-90,000; this had now dropped to 5,000-6,000. The stoppage of 100-day work has not only pushed workers to the brink, but also impacted the creation of necessary physical infrastructure in Purulia, which faces water scarcity. The district had a yearly target of planting 20 lakh saplings but is now trying to meet a target of about 1.5 lakh, he said.

Biswas’s words rang true in Purulia’s Barabazar block, once a hub of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Rows of small pits, dug to plant saplings, were lying empty. At Tuima village, women assembled under a tree besides thatched mud houses that were beautifully decorated with tribal motifs. Most of them had worked for 10-14 days in the last few months under MGNREGS, but had not received wages. Their debt was surging. They were depending on daily work in agriculture to sustain themselves, but ₹150 a day was far lower than what they were earning under MGNREGS (₹223 a day). “We would repay loans, taken from self-help groups, with the money we got from 100 days of work. Now we have no means to repay the loans,” said Jaleshwari Hansda, who had worked for 16 days in February.

Also read | West Bengal spars with Centre over MGNREGA dues

The women, who are mostly in their forties and fifties, insisted on taking us to the water body where they were working. Thakurdas Mahato had about three bighas of land, which was surrounded by a guava orchard. The land had been dug for a pond, but the work had stopped. The pond was several feet deep. "But it is not deep enough to store water," said the women as they descended into the pit. A few kilometres away, there was another half-dug pond at Tumrasole village. Purulia is crucial to West Bengal’s ambitious ‘Usharmukti’ scheme, which aims to provide relief to people in drought-prone areas.

Allegations of corruption

In the last week of July, West Bengal was on the boil over the recovery of ₹50 crore cash, and jewellery worth ₹4.5 crore from an aide of former Minister Partha Chatterjee. The visit of a fact-finding team of activists and social workers to three districts of West Bengal — Purulia, South 24 Parganas and Nadia — coincided with the reports of the cash seized in Kolkata.

The Sabars, who have not got work in 2022-23, are facing food insecurity.

The Sabars, who have not got work in 2022-23, are facing food insecurity. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

After the visits, district representatives of the fact-finding teams met Partha Ghosh, Special Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development, in Kolkata. Ghosh appeared worried about the deadlock and said a flurry of letters had been exchanged between the State and Central governments over the non-payment of wages. He said several Central teams had come to West Bengal in the last few years and another team was expected soon.

Asked about the allegations of corruption, he said the Centre wanted action against erring officials and, in some cases, “full recovery” of the money spent for MGNREGS. Ghosh said the West Bengal government was lodging FIRs in some cases where allegations of corruption had come to the fore. But he admitted it would be difficult to recover the money.

James Heranj, an activist from Jharkhand who was part of the fact-finding team, asked why the State had not set up a buffer fund so that it could pay the workers before the Centre released the funds. Heranj gave the example of Jharkhand where the State government had set up a buffer fund of ₹500 crore.

The team also met the social audit director of West Bengal, who revealed that no budget had been sanctioned to conduct a social audit of MGNREGS for 2021-22 and 2022-23. A social audit helps to check corruption in MGNREGS.

The number of people affected by non-payment of MGNREGS wages in West Bengal can only be gauged by the figures in the MGNREGS MIS. The State has about 3.42 crore registered workers and 1.57 crore jobs cards (one family has one job card). In 2021-22, the number of man-days generated was 36.42 crore, the second highest in the country after Rajasthan. Women comprised almost half the workforce — 46.69% in 2021-22 and 48% in 2022-23. Due to non-payment of wages, the total man-days generated in 2022-23 till September 2 had dropped to 3.43 crore.

A major political issue

In response to a question by Trinamool Congress MP Jawhar Sircar on August 3, the Ministry of Rural Development informed the Rajya Sabha that West Bengal was the only State in the country that had received no funds for 2022-23 from the Centre under MGNREGS. In response to another question in the Rajya Sabha on July 20, the Ministry of Rural Development pointed out that the Centre had ₹3,989.58 crore pending liabilities for the wage component under MGNREGS and that it owed ₹2,605.82 crore (about 65%) to West Bengal. In response to Sircar’s question and several other questions in Parliament on why funds to West Bengal had been stopped, the Centre cited “non-compliance of directives of the Central Government" under Section 27 of the MGNREGA, 2005. Section 27 says the Central government may order stoppage of release of funds to the scheme and institute appropriate remedial measures for proper implementation within a reasonable period of time. “What is so 'reasonable' about withholding payments to workers for months for the back-breaking work they did,” Anuradha Talwar of Paschimbanga Khetmajoor Samity asked. A prominent voice on worker's rights, Talwar said allegations of corruption in MGNREGS in West Bengal “have a basis, but it is completely unjustified not to pay workers for no fault of theirs.”

Several other activists also admitted that there is rampant corruption in implementation of MGNREGS in West Bengal. There have been allegations of fake bills, panchayat functionaries withholding job cards of workers and siphoning off funds, forged master rolls of workers, and work done with earthmovers and machines being passed off as MGNREGS work. After Cyclone Amphan ravaged large parts of the Sundarbans two years ago, a substantial amount of MGNREGS funds was diverted for restoration of damaged houses. Plantation of saplings constitutes important work under the 100-day work scheme. The planting of trees has multiple benefits in regions such as Purulia, which are arid. And in the Sundarbans, mangrove plantations protect low-lying areas from frequent cyclones.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 6, the Leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, referred to specific instances of corruption in panchayats under Joynagar II block of Kultali Assembly in South 24 Parganas district. The BJP MLA alleged that individual beneficiaries, mostly from the ruling party, had been allocated funds but did not plant a single sapling. At the time of inspection, these beneficiaries claimed that the plants had been washed away in the Amphan and Yaas cyclones, he held.

“Despite allegations of corruption, the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) has not conducted any audit of the implementation of MGNREGS in West Bengal after 2011-12. Even the system of social audit is not working,” said Biswanath Goswami, a socio-legal researcher and RTI activist. In the past few months, there have been a few instances, including in Nadia and Malda districts, where block development officers have lodged complaints against panchayat functionaries for corruption. During a meeting in August, the State Panchayat Secretary directed District Magistrates to file FIRs and recover money for work where irregularities had surfaced. Instances of refunds of MGNREGS work were also being reported in some districts.

The Chief Minister has raised the issue of non-payment of MGNREGS wages on several occasions. She has written letters to the Prime Minister and met him on August 5. In a letter to the Prime Minister on August 5, she said there was “great distress” in rural areas because funds had not been released for schemes. On August 4, the West Bengal government denied permission to members of a fact-finding team to hold a gathering in Kolkata’s Esplanade area, but on July 22, during her party's Martyr’s Day rally, Banerjee called for protests in Delhi against non-payment of MGNREGS dues.

The Trinamool Congress has termed the issue of non-payment of wages as an act of vendetta by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre for the defeat the national party faced in the 2021 Assembly polls. The BJP leadership, including party president J.P. Nadda, said West Bengal did not submit details of how MGNREGS funds had been utilised over the past three years. The Left parties and the Congress have stressed on corruption, rather than highlighting the plight of the workers.

The fact-finding team made its report public on July 28. It pointed out that work under MGNREGS had almost come to a halt due to non-payment of wages. This had impacted food security, especially among single women. The report also stated that the imbroglio between the Centre and the State had increased migration, and the stoppage of work like building embankments and irrigation channels had an adverse impact on the livelihoods of communities and the environment.

No work on the embankments

Almost three weeks after the workers in Purulia held protests demanding work and wages, the villagers in South 24 Parganas’s coastal area braved back-to-back depressions in the Bay of Bengal. This is the district where the highest complaints of corruption of MGNREGS have surfaced. Large areas of Nagedrapur gram panchayat in Mathurapur II block of Sundarbans were submerged on August 14, when embankments were breached. The Sundarbans has a network of 3,500 km mud embankments, most of which are repaired under MGNREGS. Since there has been no repair of the embankments, fear of inundation looms large. There are a number of small huts in Jata Barodanagar on the embankments, just beside a water body that locals call river Moni. When it poured on a Friday afternoon in August, women, all of them barefoot, tried to keep their huts safe by covering them with tarpaulin sheets. The children of Samiran Mollah and Gauri Halder have migrated for work. Asked why they didn’t repair the embankments, the women replied: “We haven’t got any money. Why should we work?”

Arjina Gazi, pradhan of the gram panchayat, also expressed her helplessness. “The people have not been paid. How can I ask them to repair the embankments,” she said, opening the doors of her newly built and curtained two-storey house.

The rain poured for hours and the wind gathered pace, turning into a squall. As dusk descended, women fretted over how to cook dinner. The firewood was wet and none of them had an LPG cylinder which, they said, costs more than ₹1,000. “We don’t cut the mangrove trees we planted although that could have given us dry wood. Maybe we should have repaired the embankments before the monsoon,” rued Samiran and Gauri.

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