Thursday, April 24, 2008

Doing the Math

5th April 2008

Yesterday there had been a lot of speculation about who would get the charge of the CDO in his absence. Since the letter had already been sent to the CDO, we were not too worried about it, but word was that the DDO and Program Director (PD) were lobbying hard for it. We reached Vikas Bhavan at 11:30 am where the steno told Richa that the letter would be in our hands at 1:30 pm, guaranteed! We sat down outside the office to wait when a big group of villagers approached. They started speaking to the steno about getting an audience with someone or the other regarding their wages when Richa stepped in. Some of the villagers recognized her and began telling her their problem. They had done some work through NREGA some time ago and had yet not received their wages. Their job cards had been held by their Panchayat secretary and they had finally managed to get them back. In their cards a number of entries had been falsified – for example, a man who had worked for 6 days found 7 more entries of 6 days each in his card!

By now, Richa had found out that the PD had been given charge of NREGA. She took everyone upstairs to his office. On seeing her and the 20+ villagers in his office, the PD exclaimed, “Arre, Richaji, the NREGA file has not reached me yet and you are already here!” On hearing the circumstances, the PD called the BDO of Pisawa and began asking what was going on, with a lot of interjections along the lines of “If he is incompetent, remove him from his post.” After a lot of back and forth (and with a number of villagers trying to get their word in), he determined that the Pradhan of the village had recently passed away, some Panchayat members had been removed from their posts etc. with the result that there was only one office bearer in the village. This person was holding on to all the job cards.

The PD then started lecturing the villagers on why they need to hold on to their job cards. “How many times have we explained to you that you should not let them out of your hands?” Richa tried to explain to him that it was not easy to get them back – in one case, even when she was personally involved, it took a few days to get them back. If officials say that they will not pay the labourer unless they can keep their job cards, how long can the labourer resist?

Hearing the PD speak, I was reminded of all the instances when friends and family who have paid bribes have explained the circumstances: “If we didn't get a ration card, we wouldn't get a gas cylinder and how would we manage?”, “If I didn't bribe the official, my goods would rot in the godown”, “If I didn't pay the bribe, they'd keep me running around their offices for god-knows how long, and I had to leave in 3 days.” How easily we justify paying bribes. And how conveniently we dismiss villagers as ignorant when they do effectively the same, at greater costs to themselves.

Finally, the PD called in his assistant and handed the job cards and complaint letter over to him. Richa immediately asked the secretary to take copies and hand the job cards back to the villagers! We walked out and Richa told the villagers that they had been demanding their rights and the officials weren't doing them any favours – there was no need for them to be so deferential. She then strategized with them on what they would do next and we left them waiting for the secretary.

Downstairs the DDO called us into his office – he had received a copy of the letter and would hand us one. After the usual 'pleasantries', we got a copy of the letter. Just as it was handed to us, in walked the bureau chief of the Hindustan!

There was good and bad news to be found in the letter. The good news was that the committee had been ordered to complete the calculation work. The bad news was that the accusations of the Pradhan association had been mentioned in the letter and the committee was asked to give them a hearing. This incensed Sharmaji and he stormed out of the office. Richa and I followed with the editor who managed to get himself a copy as well.

Well, the task of getting an unemployment allowance from the government was not easy to start with and more and more roadblocks were appearing. More strategizing followed for the rest of the day.

By the way, the government's NREGA website is worth visiting here. Reports from all implementing districts in the form of statistics are uploaded. Speaking of which, earlier in the day we were sitting in the CDO's office and I was looking at all the graphs there. One bar graph was titled 'District schemes' and showed approved expenditure and actual expenditure for the past few years. Looking at the numbers, I realized that the 2007-2008 approved expenditure was pegged at ~Rs. 103 crore. This confused me – wasn't the NREGA allocation itself Rs. 110 crore?

I mentioned this to the 2 other people in the room, both men, who immediately started disputing my math – they said the number in the graph was Rs. 1030 crore (the figures were in thousands and there were no helpful commas). It took a few minutes of arguing and actual pencil-and-paper determination for them to accept (without actually accepting) that I was right. Then they told me that this was the State-approved expenditure and didn't include the funds from the Centre. Couldn't they have told me that in the first place?! At the back of the room was another chart which showed the money coming in from the centre under various schemes – Indira Awas Yojana, Afforestation, Rajiv Electrification Scheme etc. The total money from all of these schemes amounted to ~Rs. 1600 crores. With Sitapur's population estimated at ~40 lakhs, that works to about Rs. 4000/person. And, with luck, maybe Rs. 400 trickles down to some...

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