Every COVID-19 wave in India has brought us face to face with the dire precarity of life and livelihood for India’s vast numbers of unorganised workers, and the inadequate response of the state and society to their plight. The latest global OXFAM inequality report highlights how India’s billionaires have grown dramatically in numbers and wealth, while 84% have reduced income and 4.6 crore working people have plummeted into acute poverty. It provides damning indicators of how poor the state response has been in terms of relief and social sector expenditure during this period. The delivery systems of the meagre amounts that have been allocated by the Centre and State governments, therefore, become even more important. A massive public audit of a gratuitous relief scheme in Meghalaya for unorganised workers provides important lessons about the critical importance of transparency, public participation, and peoples monitoring for those who have had to bear the brunt of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
When the Government of Meghalaya announced relief for workers affected by the COVID-19 lockdown through the Chief Minister’s Relief Against Wage Loss (CRAWL) scheme, it was welcomed by many. But this announcement came without necessary details. There was no notification outlining the quantum of financial support. There was no published scheme, or guidelines with minimum norms for identifying beneficiaries, and verifying their eligibility. Nevertheless, the state of economic desperation led a large number of people to apply for the assistance.
RTI and response
Unfortunately, people had no way to check whether their application for support had been successful or not. Payments began trickling into the bank accounts of some of the applicants, but even they were confused about the amount of support they were supposed to get. Some unions of unorganised sector workers such as street vendors and domestic workers immediately brought this to the attention of the government, but not much was done. In October 2020, a local civil group, Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR), filed an RTI application asking for the list of unorganised workers to whom payments had been made. This information should have been mandatorily and proactively disclosed in the public domain by the State government as mandated under Section 4, RTI Act.
The response to the RTI was provided in December 2020 with details of around 1,60,000 people and transfers. The response also seemed to indicate that the scheme for financial assistance to unorganised workers facing a wage loss was worth ₹2,100, and to construction workers registered under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BoCW) Act was ₹5,000. The unions decided to widely disseminate this information over WhatsApp, community websites, and through local electronic news channels. The RTI response was subsequently also converted into a searchable digital database with the help of Graamvaani, a social tech company, via a dedicated site called hokmeghalaya.in. This enabled people to ascertain whether and how much money they had been transferred as per government’s records, with the option provided of filing a grievance with the Chief Minister’s Office if they contested the Government’s claim. Using IVRS, calls were also made to 1,35,617 people to inform them that as per the Government’s record, ₹2,100 or ₹5,000 had been transferred to their bank account.
What an audit showed
This virtual “public audit” and facilitation exercise was carefully planned and carried out by civil society groups and workers’ unions using digital technology at a time when COVID-19 restrictions made physical verification impossible. The results were an eye-opener. Out of 11,509 people who responded to the IVRS calls, only 13% stated that they received the full amount that was mentioned in the RTI response; 47% received nothing, in spite of the Government records showing ₹2,100 having been transferred to each of them. Nearly 8,000 people submitted individual grievances to the Chief Minister’s Office and the Labour Department. Thousands of others searched through the RTI data and submitted their grievances. This was a process that should have been carried out by the Government, which was far better resourced, and duty bound to check on whether the money had reached the beneficiary. Instead, the Government became defensive and refused to accept or even engage with the findings. Faced with a deadlock of mounting dissatisfaction among workers who had not received their benefit, and the Government’s attitude of denial and obfuscation, the unions and civil society groups organised a public hearing in Shillong on World Human Rights Day, in December 2021, to draw additional focus to the issue.
Need for responsibility
Chaired by Justice Madan B. Lokur, a former Judge of the Supreme Court of India, the four-hour public hearing was an example of the democratic potential and social ethos of Meghalaya and its people. Over 200 workers gave up another day’s wages, and came armed with their bank passbooks and labour cards to show that the money had not been credited in their bank accounts more than a year after it was due. The issue was about the need to get answers. Regrettably, as Justice Lokur noted, the Department of Labour boycotted the public hearing. Faced with such a situation, civil society groups have now approached the Legal Services Authority to pursue and enforce independent mechanisms of grievance redress and accountability.
This exercise has implications beyond Meghalaya. The Centre and various State governments have collected and spent thousands of crores, including the use of District Mineral Foundation Trust Funds, disaster relief funds, Compensatory Afforestation Management Funds Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds, etc. for “relief payments” with almost no disaggregated information in the public domain. Expenditures made by governments under these various funds for COVID-19 relief have not been subject to either statutory audits of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India or institutionalised social audits, and necessary grievance redress platforms are conspicuous in their absence.
This assertion, demanding transparency, and citizen-centric accountability cannot be seen as an isolated movement in a small State. Rajasthan too for instance has an ongoing movement and campaign demanding an accountability law, which is drawing support. This is a demand by marginalised groups to be acknowledged and heard, raising pointed questions that apply to all, and demanding precise answers in order to make democratic participation meaningful. The strong human assertion emerges from the pain and the ruins of a crisis, but it has creative implications for all. It is eventually about the power and the dignity of democratic citizenship — and once again, it is our most marginalised who are showing us the way.
Rakshita Swamy is with the Social Accountability Forum for Action and Research (SAFAR). Angela Rangad is with Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR)