MGNREGA in UP Bundelkhand: Regular irregularities

By Ashok Gopal

The modalities of fraud detected in one village, Kolawal Raipur, in Banda district of UP Bundelkhand, reveal how the national rural employment guarantee scheme is systematically subverted for private gain

When Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh wrote a letter to UP Chief Minister Mayawati in October 2011 about “rampant corruption” in the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in her state, he may have been trying to score a political point—the UP state elections are due early next year. But the minister was not talking without basis. And the UP chief minister, while taking umbrage at the minister’s letter, did not totally deny his charges. Sixty-seven reports of national-level monitors (NLMs), appointed to look into the working of MGNREGA, have been forwarded to the UP government, and it claims to have taken action in 49 cases. Several officials have been suspended or face disciplinary action. An amount of Rs 53.97 lakh has been recovered.

But these are paltry measures. MGNREGA is seen in many parts of rural India as an easy way of making money and the loot in the state of UP alone would run into several hundred crores. The modalities of fraud detected in one village, Kolawal Raipur, in Mahua block of Banda district of UP Bundelkhand, reveal how the national rural employment scheme can be systematically subverted for private gain.

The fraud was detected in October 2011 by Vidya Dham Samiti (VDS), an NGO based in Naraini block of Banda district. Known for its rights-based work, VDS was approached by some villagers of Kolawal Raipur, who had been complaining to district and block officials about the blatant misuse of MGNREGA in their village by the pradhan (elected panchayat head) and local functionaries. Officials ignored the villagers’ complaints and they turned to VDS. VDS used RTI applications and the central government’s MGNREGA website to unearth information. This is what it found:

A job card for everyone in the family

A job card is the first step to get labour work under MGNREGA. One job card is to be issued to every household that applies for it. A common method of fraud is to deny job cards to households that require work and issue it to households that don’t—such as households of the local elite.

In Kolawal Raipur, VDS found that there were at least 14 job cards issued in the names of people who plainly did not need to do labour work, or were ineligible. The ineligible job card-holders included the pradhan’s three adult and unmarried sons who lived with him—only one job card was to be issued for the entire household. Job cards had also been issued to some of the pradhan’s married relatives, with separate job cards for the husbands and the wives.

A job card was issued to the pradhan’s brother-in-law who owns considerable amount of irrigated land and runs a provision store. One job card was issued in the name of a male relative, who was a minor, and another was issued in the name of a relative living in another village. A job card was also issued in the name of the rojgar sevak, who works as a supervisor at MGNREGA worksites.

Wages for everyone in the family

 

After wrong issue of job cards, the next step in MGNREGA fraud is making wrong entries in muster rolls, to make wage payments to people who have not done any work. VDS found that between May and August 2011, the names of two of the pradhan’s sons figured in the muster rolls eight times and they had collected wages to the tune of Rs 8,280.

Likewise, the names of five other relatives figured in the muster rolls for a total of 20 times. Total wages paid to eight of the pradhan’s near and dear ones in four months (May to August) amounted to nearly Rs 30,000.

Denial of wages

A common mode of MGNREGA fraud is to call needy people to do work and then fudge muster rolls so that they get less than the due wage payments, or no wage payments at all. The due wages are neatly “transferred” to people who have not done any work—but whose names figure in the muster rolls.

VDS found evidence of quite a few such instances. In 2010-11 a well was built in Kolawal Raipur on the land of one Rammilan through MGNREGA. Around a dozen people, including members of the beneficiary’s family, worked on it. However, they have not been wages amounting to around Rs 80,000.  On the other hand, members of the pradhan’s family have got wages for this job.

Bogus work claims

A simple way of filching MGNREGA funds is to claim money for work that is done partly, or not at all. VDS found that wage payments had been made in Kolawal Raipur for field-bunding at sites at which bunds already existed. Wages amounting to over Rs 2 lakh had been disbursed and the main beneficiaries were the pradhan’s relatives. Another daring instance of fraud was “construction” of a well at a site where a well already existed (see pic). The cement and bricks purchased for this purpose were allegedly taken away by the pradhan and used in a house he has constructed. The total amount claimed from MGNREGA for the pre-existing well was Rs 1.92 lakh. A sum of Rs 16,000 was claimed for tree plantation. VDS found no evidence of plantation.

Inflated work estimates

Four wells were constructed in the village through MGNREGA funds. VDS states there was gross overestimation of materials, which were diverted to the pradhan’s house-construction site. Around Rs 10 lakh was claimed for the construction of wells.

Doing a few good deeds

Sustained fraud requires a smokescreen of good deeds. The pradhan of Kolawal Raipur is using MGNREGA funds to build a pukka approach road to a temple in the village, at a cost of nearly Rs 4 lakh. The deed would please many—but not some poor families whose cultivable lands were forcibly and illegally acquired for this purpose.

Systemic remedies?

These instances of fraud could probably have been detected with better systems. Computer technology in particular would have helped. A software that detects issue of more than one job card against one address would have flagged the multiple job cards issued to the pradhan’s family members. A system for recording fingerprints of labourers at worksites, and linking these records to wage payments via bank accounts, could have ensured that people who constructed the well on Rammilan’s land got their wages. A method of ensuring that payments are crosschecked against video images of completed works could ensure that money is not disbursed for nonexistent works.

Various state governments are implementing such technological barriers to fraud. But the systems are hardly foolproof. Members of one family can get job cards by giving a number of false addresses. Fingerprints of all people working at a site may not be taken. Wrong or fabricated video images can be sent to claim payments.

Looking at the happenings in Kolawal Raipur, it cannot even be said that the solution to fraud is increased awareness. People of the village did detect fraud, and did complain about it. Nobody except VDS cared to listen to them.

The real issue then is a governance one. The moot question is: Why did the officials who were approached by people from Kolawal Raipur ignore their complaints? Was it because the officials were overworked? Or was it because there is, as the Congress alleges, an informal policy in UP that MGNREGA fraud should be overlooked?

Kolawal Raipur, it must be added, is not an exceptional case. Parshuram Rai
of the Delhi-based Centre For Environment and Food Security (CEFS), which conducted a rapid survey on the performance of MGNREGA in 50 villages of Bundelkhand region of UP in November-December 2009, in the districts of Chitrakoot, Banda, Mahoba, Jhansi and Lalitpur, reported:

“We came across large numbers of very poor dalit households who have not received even a single day of NREGS work in the last four years or received it only for a few days. We found massive corruption and very serious irregularities in the implementation of the rural job scheme. Very few villagers have seen muster rolls. Live muster rolls are never available at the worksites. There is little transparency and accountability in the implementation of the rural job scheme in Bundelkhand. The grievance redressal mechanism is as good as nonexistent. Payment of unemployment allowance is unheard of.

“In none of the surveyed villages has there been any gram sabha meeting or social audit of NREGS work. At least, none of the villagers in these surveyed villages has ever attended any gram sabha meeting or participated in any social audit of the NREGS projects.”

Citing several instances of fraud in each of the 50 villages surveyed, the report concluded that in the implementation of the MGNREGA in UP Bundelkhand there has been “guarantee of only corruption, unemployment, poverty, hunger and humiliation”.

Irregularities, the report added, are the “only regular feature” of MGNREGA in this region.

(The CEFS report is available at http://www.cefsindia.org/reports/State%20of%20NREGA%20in%20Bundelkhand.pdf )

Infochange News & Features, November 2011