MGNREGA snatched our livelihoods: villagers

Not so long ago, before the promise of guaranteed employment through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) reached the doorsteps of his village in Eastern Uttar Pradesh’s Bhadohi, Ram Saran was employed as a “permanent” staff in a carpet manufacturing unit. Today, he only has bitter words for the UPA-government’s flagship programme and blames it for “snatching” his livelihood.

In the market square of Bhadhoi, once famous for its hand knotted carpets, Ram Saran waits for work everyday with dozens of unskilled workers like him. The right to work programme that promises at least 100 days of guaranteed wage has been “taken over by the rich and the influential” he complains.

“We left the carpet unit, where we were not paid very well thinking that MNREGA would ensure good wages for at least 100 days and we can supplement our income by working as farmhands. But the contractors would put our names on a list, pay us a small amount and pocket the rest. We ended up losing our jobs and now are daily-wagers,” he says.

Now Ram Saran waits every morning for contractors to “pick” him for a dyeing job. On some days there is a work, on most days little money. The dyeing sector largely unorganised, allows contractors to hire workers like Saran for a pittance and for hours that flout the labour laws.

“There is no guarantee that we will find work, the contractors force us to work in hazardous conditions for as little as Rs. 180 for an entire day’s work. Once we go inside we cannot come out till they allow us to leave, you can say it is sort of bandhi mazdoori (bonded labour),” he says. Elsewhere in the Bhadhoi-Mirzapur corridor where the carpet weaving sector is struggling to stay afloat, workers are tight lipped about their working conditions in the privately run units, but the employment generation scheme draws extreme reactions from people.

“It [MNREGA] is full of corruption, it killed the carpet industry and left us worse off,” says Bhagat who work as a weaver in a rug manufacturing unit in Mirzapur. The claims of these residents are buttressed by the fact that in 2010 the Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh shot off a letter to the then Chief Minister Mayawati citing a huge scam in the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREGA) scheme in the State and recently, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered cases against the alleged misappropriation of funds during the tenure of the BSP government between 2007 and 2010. Migration to cities in Punjab, Haryana and West Bengal is the consequence of the shrinking jobs. “There is nothing left here…,” Bhagat says.