The recent high court judgment on a PIL-petition filed by Assam Mojuri Sramik Union regarding the formation of state council of NREGA in Assam and payment of unemployment allowance to the NREG-workers who have not been provided with hundred days of work in a year, is an yardstick to assess the quotidian and arduous struggle of the NREGA workers of Assam. The state council has subsequently been formed and the appellant authority (the program coordinator/Deputy Commissioner) has been asked to pass order on the appeal petition filed for unemployment allowance.
The three years long struggle began with a series of workshops in different rural hinterlands and JANAPADAS under the auspices of Swabhiman NGO especially in this Barak Valley (comprising of three district viz. Cachar, Karimganj, Hailakandi) region of Assam, following the demand for inclusion of these three districts under NREGA-net from a mass-gathering held at Borkhola,Cahar and organized by Day Labourer’s Union. The movement really began to spread when these districts were brought under the purview of the act.
The form of struggle ranges from mass-gathering, demonstration, rally, road blockade, submission of petition / complain / memoranda, legal suits etc. The huge gathering of about four thousand strong demonstrators at Lalamukh juncture of Lala Block, Hailakandi district at
National Highway blockade program jointly organized by the Union and other mass organizations in the year 2008, could draw the attention of the administration. A strong rally of about four thousand NREG-workers at Hailakandi town during the conference of the Union also gave fillip to this movement.
This act which encompasses the people in such a large scale around somewhat a new concept of constitutional right to work hitherto remained beyond the reach and practice of the commoners becomes a weapon for empowerment struggle for the rural people. The archaic mindset of the bureaucracy and the submissive attitude of common villagers who have become accustomed to believe that the benefits of the Govt. program will be showered on those who are loyal to the power-that-be and whether one’s name will appear on the selected list of beneficiaries is squarely dependent on the generosity of the bureaucracy and their panchayat level political hangers on. If some naive villagers dare to protest, he will be deprived and harassed by the village panchayats who usually represent dominant section of rich powerful lobby who mostly belong to the ex-jaminders, landed gentry or illegal traders and village mafia network of unemployed youths sheltered under political boss in tow with the police administration.
The fear psychosis of the common villagers regarding the harassment from local police authority at the behest of dominant political class is a great impediment for villagers to be active against the corrupt practices. The educated professionals and the newly educated youths of villagers either prefer to remain docile and silent or compete with each other to show their allegiance to hanker after immediate gain that can be squeezed form the political leaders at the helm of affairs. The nexus is so strong that they can maneuver and resort to procrastination, political chicanery and manipulation having disregard to the existing legal means available to the villagers.
But the right based NREG scheme has given an adequate legal arsenal to the village people who if made aware can fight exploring for themselves a new world of empowerment and paradigm shift. Moreover, as the implementation of scheme is correlated with both the workers’ right to work and the development of the village, the poor as well as the middle section of the populace get interested in it. That’s why the NGO and the
Union envisages this act as an instrument to open up plethora of opportunity to build a chain of struggle for the development and empowerment of the rural working people in particular and the villagers in general.
Moreover, the high participation of village women in NREG work has created the opportunity to unionise the village women folk who can practice organised protest in the workplace as well as at the institution of village power centre and so this struggle, if continued with vigour and enthusiasm, may usher in a new plank in the platform where women can participate in grassroots decision making process.
At this juncture, the greatest challenge before Union’s NREG movement is of attaining this goal adequately combating the forces those are active to scuttle the Union’s initiative and trying to lead the
Union to fall back to the quagmire of reformism and submission to the power-that-be for status quo ante.
This movement of the NREG workers gets a fillip only when the workers have the feel that they could establish their rights enshrined in the act in spite of the political chicanery and$ arms twisting of the politico-bureaucratic nexus and this are not an easy task for these voiceless people. The
Union is gradually becoming their weapon to fight for their rights through legal and extra-legal means. They have to face lot of hurdles in every step that begins from issuing of job card.
Like other schemes, so long as the prerogative of implementing agencies to implement the scheme at their own whim is not disturbed, the official record shows high rate of allotment of fund and the expenditure incurred thereon. But unlike other schemes, when the workers pursue to abide by the provision of the act, they get disinterested and the allotted fund does not get expended and exhausted. They use every means and bear the hazards of going an extra mile to dissuade the workers from going by the rule book and to remain at their mercy. There are rampant examples of luring the villagers to take half the amount of money accounted against the number of days of work to be entered in the jobcard without actually doing any work. But where a section of jobcard holders who are members of the Union declines to do that and when the
Union retaliates with a demand for physical audit, they backtrack from this corrupt practices.
However there are example where the implementing agency suo motu actually engaged the workers for more than the average number of days, but the credit in this case goes to the so called benevolent leaders to whom the passive and servile inhabitants remain obliged. Thus the purpose of empowerment while generating income and development is jeopardized in both the cases.
When the workers with the help of the Union pursues their rights under NREGA, the vested interest leaves no stone unturned to frustrate their initiative and one such method is to resort to procrastination so that the workers get fed up and lose faith on due process. The other dominant method is to create hostilities along the fault-line of prevailing caste-community divisions especially on communal line by propagating the message through agent provocateurs that one particular community will be benefited at the expense of other. Sometime the lower level authorities under the patronage of power-that-be or immediate high ups become so desperate that they give little credence to due process. Few examples out of many may be cited to reveal such attitude. The GP president of katirail GP under katigorah Block of Cachar District declared in writing that as he is not well aware of the provisions of the NREGA, he won’t be able to receive the application of jobcard holders seeking jobs. The workers had to face lot of hurdles to get work for few days. 165 jobcard-holders of Kalinagar, Bokrihaor GP had to submit their application seeking job to the P.O., as GP secretary declined to receive the same. Regular visit to Block Office which is located far away from the residence of applicant is difficult for the have-nots considering the involvement of both time and money. The implementing and supervising officers taking advantage of these impediments of workers’ inability to go for regular pursuance and legal recourse do not feel any immediacy in implementing it. Numerous complaints at various level also sometime become futile. The Union committee of Chandrapur GP under Lala Block of Hailakandi District has to move high court which passed an order to pay the outstanding wages of 175 numbers NREG-workers and asked the District Co-ordinator (
) to take action against the responsible, if need be. Despite the court order and exceeding of stipulated time-period set by the court, the vested interests are making lot of flip-flop to hoodwink the workers. The appeal-petition filed to DC by the Hailakandi District Committee of the Union and to be filed soon by the other district committees in pursuance of their earlier numerous complaints /memorandum reveal multitude of occurrences of such anomalies, deprivation and gross violation of the provisions of the act. That does imply that so long as the balance of force in the village power structure is completely tilted towards the privileged classes and their minions, until the chain of the nexus of political-bureaucratic and administrative classes are struck somewhere and the knot is loosened, until the vested interests are in consternation of facing punitive action by the rule of law, the activism of the people for empowerment does not get initiated. NREGA has these teeth to achieve these goals to activise the villagers. Deputy Commissioner, DC
The NREG-workers have the rare experience to find that unlike other occasions, the local police under the legal pressure of the provision of the act is not prone to jump into the fray in favour of the rural bully. The provision of gramsabha for transparency and accountability instills a sense of empowerment within the minds of the villagers. That’s why the
Union has made the holding of gramsabha in proper manner a prime issue. In many occasions, the Union had successfully challenged the holding of improper Gramsabhas manipulated by panchayats officials and the District Coordinator /Program Officer was compelled to issue order for holding of gramsabhas afresh.
The mobilization of village people on NREG issue is noteworthy and the successful persuasion of NREGA encourages the people to organise and mobilise further. This movement has the potentiality to travel a long way in people’s struggle for development and empowerment. That’s why World Bank-IMF and the section of the corporate world are not very much in favour of continuing this NREG program.
It is disheartening to note that the middle class intelligentsia are not very much keen to come out in support of this movement to extend their hand of cooperation to the underprivileged. They are failing to visualise the overall impact in the economy, if this program is implemented properly and the strengthening of the movement for greater issue of democracy. Let us wait & see how the future course of events unravel itself.