Thursday, January 22, 2009

NREGA at work

10th Jan 2009

Saturday found us accompanying Richa and Sharmaji to a village where a serious dispute had broken out over measurement of work at an NREGA work site. A pond is being dug in a village in Mishrikh and ~150 labourers turned up to work here. As we've seen and heard in many places, the Pradhan's 'chamchas' and cronies were doing less work and getting paid more. This was frustrating the rest of the workers, especially those who are SKMS members. A serious disagreement had broken out and a full-blown fight had been narrowly averted. A few of the Pradhan's 'gang' had used extremely foul language against some women and this had become more of an emotional issue.

At the village, people quickly assembled – work had been shut for the day – and began recounting their versions of the incident. The Pradhan Pati (his wife is the puppet Pradhan), his son and cronies were nowhere to be found, even though they had promised to be there.

A major point of contention was the measurement of work done – the government assessment is that an average worker can dig and remove 70 cubic feet of earth per day and will receive the minimum wage – Rs. 100. If a worker digs less or more than that, he/she will be paid accordingly. Now earlier, the average volume of earth was set at 100 cubic feet. With the downward revision, most workers would be eligible to receive more, but at this worksite, 100 cubic feet was still being used as a reference. Further, the measurement of work done is supposed to be recorded daily in the Measurement Book. Instead, it was recorded only after 6 days. And the calculations showed that most people would be paid Rs. 25-40/day, a number that seems absurdly low.

Sharmaji stepped into the half-dug pond to demonstrate how to measure the volume of the pits each worker or team had dug. This is a simple process – most pits are cuboids, so the volume measure is length x width x depth. But I realized that for semi-literate/illiterate workers with low self-confidence, even this level of math is a challenge. I am sure that they can compute more difficult sums, such as interest on their loans etc. So how to get them to figure out this relatively simple equation? As Dwiji remarked, workshops on muster roll records, measurement of work etc. are in order and a good time and place for them will be the dharna!

Richa and Sharmaji persevered in locating the Pradhan Pati and his son – we finally got them to meet us in Mishrikh in the presence of the Block Pramukh. After some amount of arguing and negotiation, a compromise was arrived at. The main mischief monger would apologize for the foul language he used and would be removed from the worksite. The Junior Engineer for the region would come and independently measure the pits and calculate the wages to be paid out. This process is planned for the 15th – till then, it's wait and see and continue preparations for the dharna...

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