Groundxero | 31st October, 2023
On 30th October, Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (BKMS) met district officials (ADM-ZP) and political party leaders of BJP and TMC in Purulia district to draw attention to the increasing rural distress in one of the poorest districts in West Bengal due to collapse of NREGA. PBKMS also drew their attention to the deletion of almost half of Purulia’s job cards and to the failure of Khela Hobe (the Scheme announced by CM to provide work to NREGA job card holders).
- 5.5 Lakh or 47% Job Cards Arbitrarily Deleted in Purulia
- Administration clueless about 741 applicants for Khela Hobe
- Distress migration from Purulia increases manifold
The wage freeze of NREGA workers’ in West Bengal has now completed 22 months. The last wage payment by the central government was made on December 17, 2021 and, then on March 9, 2022, the central government decided to withhold money from the state government by invoking section 27 of the NREGA Act alleging widespread corruption. However, interestingly the central government hasn’t been able to conclude their investigation even after expiry of 22 months.
With a rank of 16 in the 2004 West Bengal Human Development Report, Purulia district is one of the poorest districts in West Bengal and the worst hit due to the suspension of NREGA. According to statistics, the population of Purulia district in 2023 is estimated to be about 33.86 lakhs. About 14.55 lakhs (43%) of them are workers. Government statistics also say that among these, about 11.83 lakh people have job cards and 3.33 lakhs are listed as active workers in 2023-24. This means that about 81% of Purulia workers have job cards and 22% are considered as being actively involved even in 2023-24 in NREGA. With one fifth of its population depending on NREGA, rural distress due to this whimsical decision of the Central Government is more than apparent in Purulia.
During this period, not a single government official or political party goon has been identified for punishment due to his involvement in corruption in the scheme. On the contrary, millions of innocent NREGA workers are suffering serious deprivation. Today, the NREGA workers are being punished for nothing and the criminals are walking around openly. This runs contrary to all principles of justice on which the Indian democracy is founded.
Activists of Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (BKMS) predict that in the next month or so villages will empty out. Complete families of workers, along with children and women are expected to migrate to brick fields of Asansol, Raniganj etc., with children’s education and health being subject to the uncertainty and adversity of temporary migration. Heart-rending stories of families with severe health problems are also emerging from the villages.
The political class of Purulia however is turning a blind eye. With 7 MLAs out of 9 from BJP and all 3 MPs (shared with Jhargram and Bankura) from BJP, the deafening silence of the BJP on the impact of this wage freeze on genuine workers in Purulia is quite amazing. They continue to raise the issue of corruption to justify the freeze on funds to West Bengal, oblivious of the great misery to which they are subjecting this large section of voters. The BJP seems to assume that it will continue to get votes from this very neglected and large section of the Purulia population, no matter what they do.
On the other hand , the TMC continues with its policy of “lies, lies and more lies”. Its MLAs and MPs have moved very smoothly from shedding crocodile tears in front of Raj Bhawan for NREGA workers to spending huge budgets on elaborate Durga Pujas. The General Secretary of the TMC has declared that their state government will pay for workers’ wages from State funds, but nothing has been forthcoming so far.
The Chief Minister of the state announced on 21st July 2023 at a huge TMC rally that she had launched a scheme called “Khela Hobe” to provide employment to NREGA workers. In the first 2 weeks of October, 741 workers have applied for work under Khela Hobe in Purulia. However, officials are embarrassed by these applications, because they have no orders about how to provide these people with work.
In the State Assembly the Government has announced that they had spent 1562 crores to give work to 24 lakh job card holders. We have found no signs of this work in Purulia or the other 11 districts where we have members.
In this difficult situation, the two governments have been working together to make the workers suffer even more. Unbeknown to the workers, the job cards of the workers are being deleted from the government database. In the financial year 2022-23, 5.51 lakh laborers of Purulia district have had their job cards deleted, that is, 46.87% of workers have had their job cards deleted without their knowledge. Living workers are being shown as “expired’’ on the Government website. Those wanting work have had job cards canceled with “unwilling to work” written on the website. When workers apply for job cards again, they are being turned away on the pretext of stoppage of work. This has been done in a totally non-transparent way with workers not being given a chance even for a hearing.
The Central Government seems bent on endless investigation into the genuineness of NREGA workers. On October 9, the last day of hearing in a PIL filed on this matter in Kolkata High Court, the Chief Justice inquired about the order of the central government dated 9.03.2022 wherein they themselves promised payment of pending wages prior to 9.03.2022. The Additional Solicitor General appearing for Central government however, appraised the court that they are unable to comply with their order due to issues relating to transparency and accountability in implementation of NREGA and unless the genuineness of the beneficiaries is proved, they won’t be able to make any payment.
With widespread corruption in MGNREGA, PBKMS states that it is ridiculous of the Central Government (or the State Government, for that matter) to assume that it can weed out corruption sitting in Delhi or even through Central teams that are sent here. What is needed are social audits with full and protected participation by job card holders and the general public in the villages.
West Bengal’s Panchayat Act has provision for mandatory Gram Sansad meetings in every booth where all expenses, budgets and plans for the hamlet are to be placed for approval before the voters. Such meetings are to be held in November. The State Government has taken no initiative for the past decade to see that such meetings take place properly. We state that it is high time that both the State and Central Government use such processes and social audits to weed out corruption.
- We demand that the State Government and Central Government start a process of Gram Sansad meetings and social audits to weed out corruption.
- If no such steps are taken, from November 7th onwards, public hearings (Gana Sunanis) will be organized by PBKMS in Purulia villages with public reading of muster rolls and lists of deleted job cards taken from the Central Government website (nrega.nic.in) to build public opinion and receive people’s feedback about stealing of wages and wrongful deletion of job cards.
- PBKMS is issuing a warning to both major political parties of Purulia – immediately arrange for payment of due wages to genuine workers and for provision of work for job card holders. If not, NREGA workers will be left with no choice but to boycott political parties that are responsible for their plight today.