The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is arguably the most progressive and radical legislation in the history of Independent India. If implemented in letter and spirit, this historic Act has the potential to transform the face of rural India. It would be a great tragedy if the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) ends up as another money minting machine for India's sarkari babus, i.e. the bureaucracy. Unfortunately, that is what has happened in the state of Orissa.

Adivasis of Pokharighat village, Bhawanipatna block, Kalahandi district in Orissa. They are showing their job cards with forged job entries. More than 90 per cent of NREGA funds in this village have been misappropriated by officials. Pic: Pramod Kumar.

Rupa Majhi, a poor Adivasi of Palsipada village in Kalahandi district, was actually given 21 days of employment and paid Rs.600 as wages during 2006-7. Majhi worked on a road construction project executed under the high-profile anti-poverty programme NREGS. But, on his job card, government officials falsely wrote that he had worked for 336 days. Majhi job card posted online on NREGS website has a third version of work and payment details. As per those entries, Majhi was given 102 days of wage employment and paid Rs.6310 as wages. So, out of Rs.6310, only Rs. 600 actually came in Majhi's hands. The remaining Rs.5710 which is more than 90 percent of the total wage payment has been siphoned off and misappropriated by the government officials.

Chandra Majhi of Palsipada village has not received any employment under rural job scheme. But, in his job card (hard copy), there is fake job entry of 126 days. On the NREGS website, 108 days of employment and Rs.5940 as wages have been falsely shown in his name. In this case, 100 per cent of the wages have been eaten up by the government officials.

In their names we partake

The stories of Rupa Majhi and Chandra Majhi are not isolated cases of financial bungling and misappropriation of NREGS funds in Orissa. This is the story of about 13 lakh poor households of Orissa who were 'supposedly' given wage employment under NREGS during 2006-7.

Orissa is one of the poorest states with a very high percentage of rural population living in abject poverty and chronic hunger. It is only logical to give top priority to this state in terms of fund allocation. Orissa was allocated Rs.890 crores under NREGS and the state was able to spend Rs.733 crore during 2006-7. As per the official records of the state government, it provided 799 lakh persondays of employment to 13,94,169 households during 2006-7 and no family was denied wage employment. In other words, every needy and demanding family in the state was given an average 57 days of wage employment during the year and not a single needy household was denied wage employment in 19 NREGS districts of the state. The Orissa government also claims that 1,54,118 families in the state completed 100 days of wage employment during 2006-7.

Government of Orissa's claim

Each of the needy households in 19 districts of the state was given on an average 57 days of wage employment during 2006-7. A total of 799 lakh persondays of employment have been provided, says the government.

Debunking the claim

The CEFS survey in 100 villages of Orissa revealed that over 90 per cent families in rural areas of Orissa are desperate for wage employment. This amounts to 39 lakh needy households.

Even assuming that the total of 799 lakh persondays of employment was true, and divided among 39 lakh needy households, the average days of employment per household comes to 20 days.

But out of the 799 lakh persondays of employment, only about 25 per cent has actually been given to the people, the remaining 75 per cent has been faked on the muster rolls, false job cards and forged official documents.

In other words only about 200 lakh persondays of employment has been given. Taking 39 lakh households, this amounts five days per household and not 57.

To put this in perspective, the NREGA promises 100 days of wage employment to every needy household, the Government of Orissa (with the highest per capita allocation of NREGA funds in the country) has delivered on an average only 5 days of employment to every needy family.

But a random survey in 100 villages of Orissa has revealed that all these claims are bogus and manufactured only in official records in order to siphon off NREGS funds. The survey conducted in Orissa's six poorest districts has uncovered that of Rs.733 crores, more than Rs.500 crores has been siphoned off and misappropriated by the government officials.

The Delhi-based Centre for Environment and Food Security (CEFS) conducted this survey in 100 villages from six districts of KBK (Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput) region - Bolangir, Nuapada, Kalahandi, Koraput, Nabarangpur and Rayagada. I was the principal investigator and writer of this survey report. Our back of the envelope calculations suggest that less than 200 lakh persondays of employment has been provided on the ground and more than around 600 lakh persondays of employment has been provided only in the pages of false job cards and fabricated muster rolls. Not more than 5 days of average employment has been given to each of the needy families in 19 NREGS districts of the state and large number of needy families were denied any employment.

We could not find a single family in the 100 sample villages who had actually got 100 days of wage employment. 37 villages out of 100 sample villages have got no wage employment whatsoever. More than 40 villages had on an average of four to five times fake job and wage entries than their actuals. We found very few families who had got 20-40 days of wage employment. The rest of the families, if at all they have got any employment, it is mostly between 5 to 21 days. However, online job cards of most of these households have job and wage entries for 111 days, 108 days, 104 days, 102 days, 100 days, 96 days, 90 days, 84 days, 72 days, 65 days, 60 days, 52 days and so on, which are evidently fabricated. This is the way Orissa has spent Rs.733 crore.

To put Rs.500 crores of siphoned NREGA funds in perspective, this amount of money would have given about 90 days of wage employment to about 10 lakh poor families of Orissa. In other words, each of these 10 lakh poorest families would have got Rs.5000 as wages. This amount of Rs.5000 in the context of these poor and hungry families would have given 4-6 months of two subsistence meals or one meal for the whole year. Therefore, it is not just another financial scam, but the Orissa bureaucracy has literally robbed 10 lakh hungry families of one meal for the whole year. It is not surprising that during last one month hundreds of Adivasis have died in Rayagada, Koraput and Kalahandi districts of Orissa due to disease, and hunger.

As a result, the current levels of hunger, poverty and deprivation in Orissa's KBK region is as deep, demeaning and dehumanising as ever. The Rural Employment Scheme has made virtually zero impact on the livelihood security of Orissa's rural poor. There is no let up in the level of distress migration of Adivasis and Dalits from Orissa's KBK reason in search of livelihood in other parts of the country. On the Human Development Index, many of the sub-Saharan villages would fare better than most of the KBK villages. Hunger and abject poverty are widespread in all the 100 villages of KBK region we visited. Large number of children in these villages are suffering from severe malnutrition. The hollowed cheeks, sunken eyes and distended bellies of the emaciated children tell this story.

Sidelining the panchayat system to avoid local oversight

The provision of social audit included in the NREGA looks like a fraud on the rural poor of Orissa. There has been no social audit whatsoever in any of the 100 villages visited by us. There is zero accountability, total absence of transparency in the administration of NREGS, and subversion of the grassroots democracy. Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) have been completely sidelined in the implementation of NREGS. For example, Sarpanches are asked by Village Level Workers (also called Panchayat Executive Officers in some states or PEOs) to sign on blank cheques and VLWs (Village Level Worker) decide everything.

The VLWs are the lowest rung in the chain of state bureaucracy, with the Chief Secretary of the state being at the apex. VLWs are appointed by the state governments and they are supposed to report to the Block Development Officer (BDO). As per the constitutional scheme, the role and relationship of the VLW with the Sarpanch should be similar to the role and relationship of a secretary/commissioner with the Minister of a Ministry or Department. The former is accountable to the later and not vice versa.

Out of 100 villages visited, we could not find a single panchayat office open. There was lockout on all the panchayat bhawans we visited. The villagers told us that these offices open only once or twice in a month. The VLWs, who are the only fulltime and salaried officials, normally stay in towns 40-50 kms away from the gram panchayats, and they go there only when it is 'absolutely necessary'. They do most of their official works from home. Even muster rolls and job cards of the NREGS are kept in the homes of VLWs, which is illegal.

Bright signboards of NREGA works at a single place on the road from Rayagada to Kashipur. The project villages are in the Laxmipur block, of Koraput district. 80-90 per cent of NREGA funds have been misappropriated by executing officials here. Adivasis were drying mango kernel to face the hunger during rainy season. Pic: Pramod Kumar.

In the panchayats we visited, VLWs are not sharing a single piece of information about the NREGS works with any of the elected representatives. Muster rolls are treated as more secret than the nuclear secrets of the country. We could not meet a single person in these 100 villages who had ever seen muster rolls of the NREGS works in his village. Muster rolls are always kept in the homes of VLWs and villagers who work in NREGS projects are made to sign on blank muster rolls. This is the flagrant violation of the NREGA law passed by Parliament. As per the NREGA, muster rolls are a public document and should be always available for public scrutiny by anyone.

It is a mockery of grassroots democracy and blatant violation of the 73rd amendment of the Indian constitution whereby gram panchayats have been given substantive executive, financial and monitoring powers with regard to implementation of all the development programmes and social welfare schemes pertaining. But the colonial work culture of Orissa's bureaucracy allows a VLW to behave as if the Sarpanch is accountable to him and not vice-versa. This inversion of role and relationship is the biggest hurdle in the way of real empowerment of PRIs.

The rot goes all the way to the top. Orissa's citizens and NGOs need the permission of the BDO to see muster rolls of NREGS and what's worse, citizens need the District Collector's permission to go to the block office or meet the BDO! The BDO of Nandapur Block (Koraput district) Jyoti Ranjan Mishra has instructed all the VLWs of the block not to show muster rolls of NREGS works to anyone without his permission. Since we had found massive financial bungling in many villages of Nandapur Block, we wanted to verify the muster rolls and job cards of the concerned panchayats which were lying with the respective VLWs. But, when we approached the VLW of Raisingh Gram Panchayat, Nagesh Choudhary, he gave us in writing that he needed the BDO's permission to show muster rolls to any body.

When we approached Mishra the next day, he bluntly refused to show any muster rolls to us unless we did get permission for the same from District Collector or some higher authority of Government of India. We then contacted the Secretary, Panchayati Raj, Orissa Government, Rabindra Nath Dash, and requested his intervention in the matter. Dash told us that he would immediately ask the BDO to show muster rolls to us. To our utter shock and disbelief, within half-an-hour we received a call from Dash's personal staff asking us whether we did have permission of the District Collector or any higher authority for meeting the concerned BDO.

If this could happen to a research team coming from Delhi, one shudders to imagine what could happen to a poor and illiterate Adivasi or Dalit of Orissa.

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When we asked why we needed this permission, he told us as how dare we go to the BDO's office without District Collector's permission. He asked us in stern voice to return from the block office and not to visit any village in the Block. We also got three telephone calls from APD (Additional Project Director, District Rural Development Agency-Koraput) asking us not to visit any village of Nandapur block. We had also sought intervention from the offices of District Collector (Koraput), Chief Secretary and Chief Minister of Orissa. Despite all these efforts, we did not succeed in seeing the muster rolls.

The experience in Nandapur block was highly demeaning and disgusting. The whole administrative machinery was pressed into service to cover up the financial bunglings in the block. If this could happen to a research team coming from Delhi, one shudders to imagine what could happen to a poor and illiterate Adivasi or Dalit of Orissa.

The sense of fear of bureaucracy among Orissa's Adivasis and Dalits is palpable, and also reminiscent of the British era's reign of terror unleashed by imperial bureaucracy.

There's more. Activists and NGOs spreading awareness about the NREGS among rural poor of the state are threatened with dire consequences and many have been terrorised into silence by BDOs and other executing officials. In Tentulikhunti block of Nabarangpur district, the BDO Gangaram Pradhan and other officials have threatened NGOs and activists. Some local activists who accompanied the CEFS research team during survey in Tentulikhunti block in last week of May are being threatened by the government officials and contractors who have misappropriated NREGS funds.

When CEFS sent some activists of Orissa to carry out field investigation in some villages of Khariar block (Nuapada district) during July 2007, many villagers refused to tell them as how many days of actual employment was given to them, because the BDO and other officials had threatened villagers to send them to jail if they told any one about their actual days of NREGS employment.

Unless transparency safeguards incorporated in the NREGS are implemented in letter and spirit, it appears that little can protect NREGS from the lust of Orissa's sarkari babus. If this radical scheme has to really achieve its stated objectives, it has to be liberated from the clutches of the self-serving bureaucracy and handed over into the custody of panchayat bodies themselves. This may warrant a few amendments in the law itself.