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Transparent needs

MEENA MENON

The Employment Guarantee Scheme was considered a model in Maharashtra but activists have been exposing discrepancies in its implementation. It is for the government to act and set standards in rural employment.



Investigating muster rolls: Shivaji Raut in action in the villages.

WHEN Shivaji Raut, a right to information activist, applied for muster rolls under the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS) in January this year, he did not know it would take him seven months to lay his hands on those elusive documents.

A schoolteacher by profession in Satara, Raut has been involved in the movement for the right to information since five years. This January he decided to demand the muster rolls for the period February and March 2004 in four drought-prone talukas of Satara district.

Delays

Under the Maharashtra Right to Information (MRTI) Act, 2003, the information sought has to be supplied within 15 working days. However, Raut received a letter in February asking him why he wanted the muster rolls. The letter from the Government asked him to discuss the issue on a prescribed date and explained that the documents he demanded would run into 4000-5000 pages.

Raut says he had asked for muster rolls for EGS works carried out by the Agriculture and Forest Departments. He said, under the law, he need not explain the reasons for demanding this information. He wrote back to the Government stating this. He also appealed to the appellate authority in March. His appeal was dismissed.

Finally he approached the Lok Ayukta, the final authority for Appeal under the MRTI. It was July by the time the decision went in his favour.

Instead of asking for muster rolls of all EGS works, he demanded muster rolls from certain villages, as otherwise the documents would be voluminous. By August 26, Raut had 43 muster rolls of EGS works between March 15 and March 31, 2004 as well as 93 vouchers.

"The idea was to find out the true state of affairs by checking the documents in the villages itself. The Government is not serious about EGS. A committee of MLAs who visited the district did not even verify certain elementary discrepancies. In many places, people do not get wages or even the grains," he said.

Raut's exercise was rewarded when, on September 4 armed with muster rolls, he visited two villages, Phulkoti and Shirtao, in Maan taluka. In Phulkoti, 19 workers who had worked on the EGS last March were not on the muster rolls.

Bogus names


Instead he found 19 bogus names. "We went to Phulkoti and we called out the names on the muster. We found it was fake," he said. In Shirtao, of the 66 on the muster, there were 11 who knew how to sign. However, the muster had their thumb impressions.

Raut was dismayed that sometimes even the workers are part of the fraud. In one case a labourer said he worked for two days but was shown as working for 10 days. "In many cases, they are bribed with partial wages for showing their name on the muster rolls," he said.

Satara is a district with a high literacy rate and yet most muster rolls have thumb impressions, added Raut. The district administration's response to this has been to launch an inquiry.

Raut said the idea was to verify a few musters by reading them out publicly and press for an inquiry. The neighbouring district of Solapur is already facing an inquiry for large-scale irregularities in the EGS. While the Maharashtra EGS Act does have a provision for public display of muster rolls at the time of the work, it has never been done. "The Government is not willing to introduce any transparency in the EGS work," says Raut. Now that he has set a trend in demanding the muster rolls, he feels it is up to people to take it forward.

Maharashtra's Right to Information Act may shortly be repealed, as now there is a central Right to Information Act, which has been passed. Shailesh Gandhi, who along with Raut is part of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), said the idea was to establish a process where people themselves can verify whether the EGS works are really corruption-free.

Trendsetter

The link between the right to information and transparency has already been proven in many places. In Rajasthan, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS) has set a trend by exposing corruption in government works using the right to information. Unfortunately in Maharashtra, despite having a law since 2003, there has been little awareness and use.

The Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act 1977 was passed with the aim of providing gainful employment to people in the rural areas with a focus on drought proofing. In order to raise resources for the scheme, the State Government levied special taxes on professions, trades and employment, an additional tax on motor vehicles and sales tax, special assessment of irrigated agriculture land, surcharge on land revenue and a tax on non-residential urban lands and buildings. The State Government has to make a matching contribution equal to the net collection of taxes and levies every year.

In the last few years, EGS spending has risen to nearly Rs. 1,000 crore per annum. In 2004-2005, the provisional figure was Rs. 1,256 crores. Official sources said that for the last three or four years, the drought has increased the expenses under EGS. As it was a need-based programme, jobs were created only when there was a demand and there were plenty of funds. There was a surplus of about Rs 5,500 crores available and under the EGS Act this can be diverted for other programmes of the Government.

However, even though plenty of funds are available, there are many complaints about the EGS, once considered a model. While the right to information does impose a certain need for transparency on the Government, it has to sort the almost yearly grievances regarding EGS and set some standards in rural employment. It cannot wait for activists to raise questions about muster rolls and then investigate the matter.

In the context of the recently passed National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, these issues of transparency linked to rural employment are more grave and immediate.

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