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“Baang,” she replies when asked if she drinks water from the handpump she’s standing next to. That’s ‘no’ in Lukhi Murmu’s native Santhali language. There is filthy water around the pump. A pig grunts nearby, stubborn enough to return when chased away, to forage on the rice left over from the washed utensils. “Water from all the handpumps in our village smells a lot,” she says. It’s the high iron content. “We can’t help but go to the pond twice daily to collect drinking water. Even then, people, especially kids, keep falling sick with vomiting and diarrhoea.” Sukhi Hembrom, traditional motifs tattooed beautifully on her arms, joins in the conversation. “During the summer, my feet burn when I walk kilometres on the hot stones to the pond. It would help if good drinking water is made available in Paderkola.”
This is a real snapshot from the Hiranpur block in Jharkhand’s Pakur district, depicting the many challenges people here confront daily. However, going by the UPA-II’s Bharat Nirman ad, extolling the virtues of its flagship NREGA scheme, you could be pardoned for thinking otherwise. The ad, released in May, claims that a pond refurbished with Rs 6 lakh in Hiranpur’s Paderkola village had brought “prosperity through improved farming output, better living standards, health and dietary habits” (see UPA Divertissement). Murmu and Hembrom, who still have to slog it out for drinking water, are inhabitants of this supposed NREGA-inspired Shangri-La.
We read out these claims to Paderkola gram pradhan Jishu Hansda and a group of villagers, sitting by the pond. They all laugh; this is the first time they’re hearing of this. “This is nothing but a joke,” Jishu says. “The pond, which has always existed and was only renovated under MNREGA, has no activity or life the way it has been described.”
Sustained by underground aquifers, locals have always used this pond for bathing and washing, besides drawing water for their fields with motors. The ad, though, boasts of a siphon system of irrigation, where the water from the pond travels to the fields using nothing but gravitational force. It now lies defunct. “We were told that water would gush out with force,” says Jishu, “but it is nothing more than a trickle. Water would just flow out uselessly and endlessly. This angered us and also worried us as the pond had nearly dried up. A group of villagers just blocked the pipes and it has never been used since then.”
Ask Hiranpur block development officer Dheeraj Kumar Thakur about it, and he has a different take on the issue. “People here are aware of their rights, but not their responsibilities,” he says. The local administration has repaired the system four times, only to have it damaged by irate locals. “Management of NREGA assets has to be incorporated into the act,” he adds.
For most villagers in Pakur district, UPA’s ‘Bharat Nirman’ is as much of an affront as NDA’s ‘India Shining’ spiel.
Locals also dispute claims of increased output because of siphon irrigation. If that were the case, people like Ram Soren would never have to toil in the rice fields twice a year in West Bengal, with which state it shares a border along the Murshidabad and Birbhum districts. There may not be any bonded labour as the ad proclaims, but NREGA hasn’t been able to stem the forced migration of labourers like Soren from this part of the state. Despite getting paid more in Bengal than the daily NREGA wage in Jharkhand (currently Rs 138), Soren says he would never have needed to go if things were indeed the way they were described in the ad and if he could cultivate in his field all year round. “We have nothing to eat. Why else would I leave my children here?” he asks. Even claims of prosperity from fishing are untrue. “We rear fish once a year around Holi in this pond and each house gets only around 250 grams,” says Hansda.
For most people of Paderkola and other villages of Pakur, UPA’s ‘Bharat Nirman’ seems an affront, not unlike the NDA’s ‘India Shining’ spiel. Two days before Outlook reached Pakur, Manjhi Pargana Lahanti Vaisi, a grouping of local tribal leaders, issued a release saying the government’s ad was “misleading the public”. “We condemn it and seek action against the ministry of information and broadcasting,” they added.
The pond lay in obscurity until it was catapulted into the limelight after the ad was released across the country in different papers. Caught off-guard by local MP Devidhan Besra’s request to visit the site last month after he saw the ad, the local administration hurriedly refurbished the pond a day before his visit: it was deweeded, cleaned and its banks painted a fresh white. Going by local press reports, Besra left impressed with the project that helps “irrigate 200 acres”. The current local district administration has disowned the ad, saying they never sent any of the information in it to the Centre. “Someone may have sent it back in 2006-07 when the pond was refurbished and was in better shape. But its present condition is not good,” says Pakur deputy development commissioner Sanjeev Sharan, who joined earlier this month. “But we are going to renovate the pond and exploit its potential,” he adds.
Pakur is notorious for another siphon system, and it has nothing to do with irrigating parched fields. It’s about officials diverting NREGA funds. Along with this corruption, a shoddy and unprofessional workmanship is also undermining the act’s well-meaning intentions. A social audit of the act’s implementation in Pakur earlier this year had found, other than obvious instances of corruption, several projects that had failed to deliver intended benefits, especially to the tribal groups. “Because work is always imposed from the top and without using the collective potential of gram sabhas, many tribals, who are hunter-gatherers by nature, did not complete 100 days of work,” says Gurjeet Singh of Jharkhand NREGA Watch and who participated in the audit. In the lower reaches, it had found several instances where machines had been used clandestinely instead of manual labour to save money. Fake attendance sheets or ‘muster rolls’ had been produced by officials to pocket workers’ salaries. There were also enough instances of workers not having been paid. Asked if Pakur could be held up as “a national example”, Singh replies, “It’ll be an exaggeration.”
A NREGA audit found machines had been used instead of men to cut costs and fake muster rolls produced.
Outlook travelled to one of the villages mentioned in the audit (Vanpokhariya in Hiranpur block) and was shown three wells, all constructed under NREGA, that remain mostly dry because they have been constructed on higher ground. At least two of them built in 2011-12 at an approximate cost of Rs 2 lakh each have developed significant cracks because contractors used stone dust, which is available locally and is therefore cheap, instead of sand to mix with cement. Given that these wells are useless, locals have to depend on another well, also constructed with government funds but not under NREGA, for drinking water. Says local Arjun Pahariya, “While we got our pay, these wells we constructed have not helped. Even the pond we dug (also on higher terrain) remains dry except during the monsoons. Why would we need water from the pond at that time when we have rain for irrigation?” The Bharat Nirman ad may wax eloquent about “better living standards” but Vanpokhariya’s residents still have to drink from a well that is littered with foliage and is home to frogs and insects.
Not far from Vanpokhariya is Baghshisha, another village in Hiranpur block. Over 20 people here are yet to be paid for digging ponds in 2009-10. Most claim dues around Rs 2,000 but have spent probably more travelling to government offices and petitioning local officials to secure their payments for three years now. While local officials told Outlook that many payments have been withheld because of incomplete work or dubious muster rolls, Baghshisha locals, like those elsewhere in the district, point to nearly complete projects and produce “genuine” rolls as evidence of their work. “They ought to have been paid every week with a maximum delay of a fortnight,” says Mohammed Muzaffar Hussain, a member of Jharkhand NREGA Watch. “This situation shouldn’t have arisen in the first place.”
When told about the government’s ad, Baghshisha’s Ramratan Saha says, “God knows what nice work they are talking about in the ad. We have been running around for three years and it certainly hasn’t been nice.” While locals await payments, rumours of local contractors making more than their due share abound. “Who has NREGA benefited?” asks Hiranpur-based Aam Aadmi Party member Digambar Saha. “It is the middlemen. Look at their houses. Some of them even rival that of the local MLA.”
Helping the workers secure their dues is the Hiranpur-based Birsa Munda Seva Sansthan. Its founder, Amit Kumar Das, claims that you can find unpaid NREGA workers in every block of the district. He has diligently worked up the hierarchy, apprising government officials of the problems. “I have written to everyone you can think of, from the local deputy commissioner to the PM and the President, but have not received any explanation. I am now thinking of going to court,” he says. He’s unlikely to be heard in all the din of the government tom-tomming the “miles” it has covered before the 2014 elections. For the villagers in Pakur, it’s the “miles” they still have to catch up that remain a nagging sore.
By Debarshi Dasgupta in Pakur, Jharkhand