Here all’s not well

Well digging:An occupation under MGNREGS.Photo: Paul Noronha  

More than three years after the Jharkhand government ordered that 50 wells be built in each of its 4423 panchayats, with an aim to build over a lakh irrigation wells in the State under the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Scheme (MGNREGS), it has remained a unsuccessful project so far. At most sites, the wells have either collapsed or caved in or lie incomplete.

“I inspected 32 wells in Chainpur and found only eight were complete. The reason behind was that most beneficiaries did not receive the funds they were supposed to get under MGNREGS even after eight to 12 months. The few who had managed to complete building had done so by selling livestock or taking loans at the rate of 10 per cent interest,” said a senior official in the Rural Development Department who led one of the five teams that inspected such wells in Palamu district in March.

Before the government teams visited nine blocks in Palamu, a team of activists had found the condition of wells to be similar in other villages in the district. “We had applied under the Right to Information Act for a list of the completed wells. At most sites, either work had not been started or collapsed wells had been shown as completed. From a list of 500 wells in nine blocks, last December, we visited the site of 197 wells and found only 25 were complete. Even at the 25 sites where wells had been built, workers had not been paid wages,” says James Herenj, who works at the MGNREGA Sahayata Kendra in Palamu in association with economists Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera.

The MGNREGA empowers gram sabhas to collectively decide what public infrastructure — kachcha roads, water-harvesting structures, wells, ponds, etc. — will be built in the village under the scheme. Even after elections to gram panchayats were held in Jharkhand for the first time in over 32 years in 2010, panchayat bodies are still not functional in many districts and gram sabhas are not regularly held. The State received Rs. 1,420 crore under the MGNREGA in 2012.

While the MGNREGA specifies that workers must get paid within 15 days, it does not specify a time-limit for individual beneficiaries to reimburse the costs they incur on materials in individual schemes such as wells.

“The wells scheme was announced in early 2010; work started only by mid-April. In June, there were heavy rains and many wells sunk. Many workers got no payments. In 2011, again work started late. Many workers had not been paid from the previous year,” recollects Mr. Herenj.

In January 2012, from among those who had not been paid for the materials, Jaggu Bhuian, a Dalit farmer in Karmatand village under Hotai panchayat of Palamu, committed suicide. He had received only Rs. 14,400 against the cost of Rs. 181,700 incurred to build a well on his farm.

By April 2012, more than 9,000 wells had collapsed, and the Empowered Committee under MGNREGA in the Union Ministry of Rural Development asked the State to prioritise restoring the collapsed wells. According to minutes of the meeting of the Empowered Committee, Jharkhand was asked to set up a Directorate of Social Audit by October 2012 to support panchayats to carry out social audits in villages and monitor if funds were spent as shown in paper. This is yet to be set up.

The scheme has also run into an acute shortage of trained personnel who will measure the work done at sites before any more wages are disbursed. There are 914 sanctioned posts for Junior Engineers in Jharkhand but only 324 are filled; of 259 posts for Assistant Engineers, only 68 are filled in 24 districts.

“The wells did not collapse. In places where sand was predominant in the soil, some sand has fallen to the bottom of the well as the water percolated. I have visited several villages in Singhbhum and Santhal Pargana where marginal farmers are now able to grow more than one crop because of wells on their farms,” says the State’s MGNREGA Commissioner Arun Kumar. The Centre has now sent Rs. 129 crore to speed up paying marginal farmers who constructed wells under the scheme but did not receive wages on time, he adds.