NREGS: look closer

BY Himanshu Upadhyaya| IN Media Practice | 15/03/2009
In reporting from the performance audit reports of Rural Employment Schemes the media should go into the details.
Depending on the summary statement can be misleading, stresses HIMANSHU UPADHAYAYA

The trend of reportage on NREGS, quoting the CAG audit report, has been to make much out of summary statements about the average days of employment per household. When one examines in detail the recently tabled Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report on Chhatisgarh, one comes across the dichotomy in the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that is concealed by the phrase in the summary: on an average 35 days of employment was provided per household. Hence, for those who wish to look at NREGS and the audit findings as a pointer to the extent of rural and agrarian stress, the erroneous summary, ‘on an average 35 days of employment was provided per household’ doesn’t serve the purpose of a barometer.

 

While proponents and opponents of the scheme may indulge in hair-splitting  arguments over summary statements contained in the CAG audit, the message that the audit report on Chhatisgarh drives home is how bottlenecks in basic record maintenance of such a well meaning scheme still remain. On February 20th, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s report was tabled in the assembly, and the news stories picked up certain details: PTI gave a short overview of the state’s fiscal health; The Telegraph reported that while the state cries foul for resources to fight Maoists, its officials failed to collect arms and ammunition from ordinance factories on time – having shown delays ranging from 63 to 308 days since 2004. The Economic Times highlighted undue benefits to companies costing the state Rs 185 crores thus making a strong indictment of Chhatisgarh State. IANS released two news items based on the report: one on diversion of Rs 22.7 lakh from Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan funds, and another on only 35 days of employment on an average per household under NREGS which was designed with a promise to provide 100 days of employment.

 

In January 2008, The Indian Express ran a four-part series putting stress on the statement on an average 18 days of employment was provided per household. Soon the audit report that was supposed to be in the public domain by mid-January 2008, as per a news story: CAG finds funds leak in UPA flagship NREGS in The Economic Times that quoted an official source without citing figures, was hushed up as ‘Draft’ Performance Audit on NREGS. If the media had really cared to engage with the CAG audit report on NREGS with any sincerity, they would have found much more to focus on.

 

In Chhatisgarh, this scheme was implemented in 11 out of 16 districts from March 2006 onwards – and four districts were added later from April 2007 – covering 8822 Gram Panchayats under 134 blocks, but the CAG auditors scrutinized the records of 40 Gram Panchayats under eight blocks from four districts. The variations of average employment days was in the range of 14 days (Raigarh) to 52 days (Dhamtari). Not only is there such a wide variation, the audit of the implementation of the year for 2006-’07 and 2007-’08 reveals that in Raigarh, the average employment days per household has come down from 38 days to 14 days, where as in Sarguja district the average employment days per household has gone up from 27 days to 48 days. The audit findings do not provide answers, but open up research questions such as: whether average employment days per household came down in Raigarh district due to better farm economy during 2007-’08 compared to 2006-’07, but went up in Sarguja district due to higher stress.

 

 The number of irregularities pointed out by CAG in basic registers are not a fall out of ignorance and deficiency, but actually reveal the gangrenous heart of India’s corrupt bureaucracy at the lowest layers. An indication of this is the reply given by the state government on why the figure of average employment days per household was not high. In January 2008, state government’s clarification of the audit comments was that employment was invariably given on demand and the figures of employment per household were not high due to inadequate demand. This explanation would have sounded a bit legitimate in case the test-checked 40 gram panchayats showed up proper maintenance of basic records.

 

This, however, is not the case since the audit scrutiny of 271 work files revealed that only 82 work files demand for work were attached, whereas 189 work files were not. Again, out of those 82 work files, only 23 had demand of works that were dated. It was therefore not possible to even ascertain whether employment was provided within 15 days. As per the provision of the NREG Act, employment needed to be provided within 15 days of demand, failing which unemployment allowance had to be paid. The Act had also stipulated that it was the responsibility of the Gram Panchayat/ Programme Officer to enter the date of demand of work in the Employment Register, and provide applicants with a dated receipt. Audit scrutiny also revealed that in a large number of cases, dates of demand and offer of work were not recorded, thereby depriving job-seekers the benefit of a progressive stipulation of the scheme. Further, the audit scrutiny also noticed deficiencies in job card register, manual and online job card. While job cards were issued to 15,176 households consisting of 35,667 members; photographs of 12,090 members (34 percent) were not pasted on job cards, and 1,452 households (10 percent) were not entered in the job card register, thereby subjecting these cases to probable tampering and manipulation.

 

While in test-checked districts, expenditure worth Rs 646.15 was reportedly incurred on the scheme as per Monthly Progress Reports during 2006-’07 and 2007-‘08, as much as Rs 231.39 crores (35.81 percent) was advanced to Other Implementing Agencies [line departments such as Forest, Public Works, Irrigation, Agriculture, Rural Engineering Services, Fisheries and Horticulture] and booked as final expenditure. But agency-wise allocation and expenditure was not maintained, and copies of paid muster rolls and purchase vouchers of material were not available on record. These agencies had also not sent in progress reports regularly.

 

During audit scrutiny of 40 gram panchayats, it was found that out of 271 works worth Rs 10.36 crores, 22 works worth Rs 2.32 crores were allotted to Other Implementing Agencies directly by District Planning Committee/ Zilla Panchayat, without the same being selected and recommended by Gram Sabha as prescribed in the guidelines. If this turns out to be true about the other cases of works executed by Other Implementing Agencies, it posits a huge question mark if NREGS as implemented in Chhatisgarh create productive social assets in rural area with involvement of people to insure them against the specter of drought and distress.

 

An Audit scrutiny of 8209 Muster Rolls (having details of Rs 4.37 crores paid as wages) to 1.11 lakh workers showed that job card numbers were not recorded against 18,217 workers, thereby making it impossible to verify whether payments were made to genuine households. There were numerous deficiencies in Muster Rolls, besides errors such as numerous cuttings, overwriting and use of erasing fluid; attendance of workers on 15 August, 2 October and 26 January; measurement book references not mentioned; number of signature/ thumb impressions more than the actual numbers paid etc.

 

In addition, out of 8209 Muster Rolls, in as many as 6360 Muster Rolls (i.e. 77.47 percent) wages of Rs 3.12 crores were paid to 94,853 workers with a delay of 1 to 326 days beyond a fortnight, but no compensation was given. Even out of the 23 work files where dated demands of work were attached, audit scrutiny revealed that in 16 works there were delays in providing work to 960 workers ranging from 1 to 384 days, and still no unemployment allowance was paid. Rather than feeling terribly ashamed of not providing even a day’s work to a person seeking wage employment under the scheme, the state government had the audacity to respond, in January 2008, that no claims of unemployment allowance had been registered. The CAG merely reports such a reply, and then adds, "The reply was not acceptable because as per the Act, the allowance had to be paid irrespective of claims".

 

Also there are three instances, where CAG auditors proactively unearthed fraud in muster roll (Kewra Gram Panchayat and Bilaigarh Janpad Panchayat), exposed minors employed on works (Bhaisamundi and Paragaon Gram Panchayats), and reported use of heavy machinery on works in contravention of provisions of the Act. Such performance audit reports need to be engaged with rigorously by the media with due research, rather than reporting on its summary statement  the day it gets tabled. Let’s also hope that the tribe of such proactive Indian Accounts and Audit Department officers grow.

 

 

The author works with Environics Trust, New Delhi

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