You see, we do back calculations here – Rural employment and Panchayet realities in Bengal

March 18, 2008

By Swati Bhattacharya. Translated by Debarshi Das, Sanhati

We want work, work, work, work and work. – Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Chief Minister, West Bengal

Part I

Anukul Das was from Sonaga village, Gosaba Gram Panchayat (South 24 Parganas District, the Sunderban region). He demanded the right to work for minimum hundred days from Panchayat. Presently he is in the Andamans seeking work.

His wife Shikha Das says, he got only nine days of work in two years. So, he went to submit the application for unemployment dole with some other villagers. Panchayat did not want to accept to application, hence they forcibly submitted it. A few days later, works started in the area, and they did not find any. They were allotted works in Rangabelia, about four kilometres away. Cost of travelling to and fro is twenty two rupees per day. One hour by boat, one more on foot. It was absurd to accept such a proposal. Panchayat members had told them openly: you complained about us, we will provide no work to you. Therefore Anukul Das had make a voyage to the Andamans through job contractors. The fare was three thousand rupees. Shikha Das has to catch Meen (a kind of fish) in the swamps to repay the loan. If she makes a thousand catches it fetches two hundred rupees. One may catch fifty to one hundred in a day: at mid night or at the break of the dawn, wading in neck deep water. In the holidays their daughter Archana also accompanies her. She is in the eighth standard, quite good at studies, does not want to quit it. She skips the school for a few months during rainy seasons, as she has to work in the fields. “I would have managed somehow if we could get work for even sixty to seventy days. He would have stayed in the house. She could have gone to the school daily,” Shikha Das says.

In the Siyan-Muluk Gram Panchayat of Birbhum they are getting even one hundred days of work. The region is witnessing a fall in migration to other states, family indebtedness is declining, school enrolment rate of the children is getting a boost. But last year West Bengal as a whole could provide job for only twelve days on average. Estimate for end-January, 2008, is sixteen days. According to Bidhan Mandal, secretary, Gosaba Gram Panchayat, it was fourteen days. Does it imply there is dearth of work? There are 3600 kilometres of river embankment in the Sundarban region. Every year, rivers break them, ruining houses and harvest. The local people would find work throughout the year if the embankments are constructed. However, touring Jharkhali of Basanti and Sonaga of Gosaba it was found only a handful of people (ten percent according to the data of Jharkhali Panchayat Office) got work for only a few day, though people had job cards. In this desperate condition, even women are migrating in search of work. The chief of Jharkhali Panchayat, Sabita Mallik informs about a hundred women have left from her Gram Panchayat through contractors to places like Kolkata and Delhi. They have gone to do household works or works in the hotels. About a thousand men have left for the Andamans, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat. Migrating to Bardhaman and Hooghly districts during paddy and potato harvests is the norm. Two words are moaning through the empty harvested fields, dry mud banks, straw covered courtyards of Jharkhali, Sonaga – no work, no work.

Echo of the wail could be heard in the closed down tea gardens of Jalpaiguri. Adivasi girls are migrating to Delhi in search of work, through job contractors. Men are going to Arunachal, Mumbai, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh. What happens to those who are not going? One financier is running the Chinchua tea estate of Kalachini. Deepa Subba, Nagiya Oraon are working there on a daily wage of nine to eleven rupees. The regular workers of the tea estate got forty one days of work on job card. The casual workers (half of the total) have found seven to fourteen days of work. Varnobari tea estate is close for two years now. It has figured in the map of starvation deaths. In 2007 twenty eight days of work could be found there. This year, fourteen days. About two and half thousand people did not find work for a single day, thought they had their job cards.

Why people are not getting work. The Panchayat Department has a straight answer. They don’t want them, therefore they don’t get them. If you don’t believe look at the latest estimate, the one which the State has sent, and the Central Rural Development Department website is showing it. Forty lakh families demanded work, thirty nine got it. In five of the districts, the number of those who applied and those who got are exactly the same! In February the Panchayat Minister told the journalists, there is not much demand for work in the State. The Panchayat Secretary has explained the unspent Rs. 358 crores by these words, “This is a demand based project.” Talking to some district commissioners, SDO, BDO one finds they were also offering the same logic – many people got job cards made without understanding job card means earth digging and earth removal works. Farm jobs are more abundant. Wages in other states are higher. Women do not want to do earth works.

A new myth is being constructed in the corridors of power.

Talking to job seekers with job cards, Panchayat chiefs, staff of Panchayat Office, District and State level Government officials, people from varied walks of life it was becoming clearer that efforts are being so that no one is able to know what exactly is the quantum of the demand for work coming from the villagers. If no one knows the demand, the failure of supply gets suppressed.

The foremost tactic of suppressing demand: don’t admit job applications at Panchayats. Law says, if and when they are submitted, Panchayat is bound to provide jobs within fifteen days. If it fails to do so, the applicant has to be provided with compensation allowance. The magnitude of this is from one fourth to one half of the wage rate. The money would have to come from the State Government. In other words, the administration will have to admit its failure. Given this legal background, following are the evidences of the pressure brought upon the villagers so that they do not to submit job applications:

Madan Tirkey, Varnobari Tea Estate, Malangi Gram Panchayat: Twenty five of us applied on the 15th of January. We did not write down the date. If we did, neither the members of the village development committee nor the Panchayat chief would accept application. We understand it is gayerkanuni (illegal) to not to mention the date. But what else could we do, we need work.

Mahadeb Munda, deputy chief, Gosaba Gram Panchayat: Thirty five of them (Anukul Das and others) applied for jobs. The chief sent it to the BDO. Then twenty or twenty two of them withdrew their application so as to get jobs. The rest ten or twelve did not get jobs.

Abdul Samad Khan, regional secretary, Congress Party, Kumlai Gram Panchayat, Jalpaiguri: People are creating a racket: give us jobs, give us jobs. If we tell them submit your applications, hell will break loose, their will be fights.

Gopal Sarkar, member, village development committee (Forward Bloc), Churabhandar Gram Panchayat, Jalpaiguri: I told the construction assistant we need to invite application. We shall proceed accordingly. He replied, there is no need for that. Once jobs arrive, we shall call people. The chief has given us the list of those who would work. I said, that is not the law. He answered, see if you can gets works done according to the law.

Anima Roy, Panchayat member (CPI (M)), Churabhandar Gram Panchayat, Jalpaiguri: Once the scheme gets passed we ask everyone to apply.

Uday Mandal, member, village development committee (RSP), Jharkhali, Sourth 24 Parganas: If they start applying for doles we would have to leave the area and go wait in the block.

Rabindranath Biswas, Assistant Programme Officer, Malguri Block: Two of the sixteen Gram Panchayats in this block are admitting applications without hindrance.

Rural Employment Guarantee Act has put the Panchayati Raj of West Bengal in great distress. Those who were supplicating for alms, standing outside the door, are now knocking the door like collection agents. The first condition of distribution of work is, anybody who demands it has to be provided with, no matter how much she demands. This clause puts the power structure upside down. Rights of the citizens would get precedence over patronage of the leader. The familiar plot of exacting loyalty would go haywire. Therefore Panchayat members are continuing with threats and bullying. “You would get job once it comes,” “jobs will be given after BDO office sanctions funds”: villagers are returning empty handed hearing such admonitions. Those who are deploying legal rights in order to apply are being given the second treatment: ‘punishment posting.’

Villagers of the Joka could submit their applications for jobs only after the BDO of Bangaon gave instructions to Sundarpur Gram Panchayat over the phone. Bishaka Mandal, Shoibya Mandal, Aparna Mandal, Sandhyarani Bachhar, Latika Mandal of Joka got jobs at South Bagangram, about eight kilometres away. Sidhu Saren, Sukhlal Murmu, Duli Murmu, Salge Saren of Sialsai Gram Panchayat II, Mohanpur Block, East Medinipur District could submit job application through the mediation of the BDO. They were allotted jobs about ten kilometres away at Srichandanpur. After travelling by bus and trekker, three kilometres more have to be traversed on foot. People of Tillan village, Mathurapur Block I, South 24 Parganas District, were allotted work at Boalberia, seven kilometres away. And Boalberia villagers were sent to Tillan. Many such instances were provided by the members of the West Bengal Farm Labour Committee.

Are these isolated incidents? If they were, even after providing twelve to fifteen days of work, how could there be such magical equality between job demand and supply? Or, is there no demand for food for subsistence in this State?

Part II

Damdim Panchayat Office is eight kilometres away from Betguri tea estate. On a day in February at noontime Manisha Gnor, Budo Oraon, Silti Gnor, Kalaboti Lakhra and other women from Godam line trudged the eight kilometres to the panchayat office. Why? “No work here, no money, that’s why.” They left at three, reached there at five, did a gherao for an hour, started back at six and reached home at half past eight. It worked however. Women have got the payment for the four days they had worked.

But why four or five days? They don’t know. “Panchayat told there is no work. We are poor people, what could we do?”

“Movement for our rights” this phrase is uttered with much ease. Our utterances stumble when confronted with these shadowy women. One realises the backbreaking labour that goes only to earn the pittance which is their dues, and the insults, all of which sum up in the word “movement.” As the homilies shower on them from ministers and bureaucrats, “these people are not conscious,” even thought becomes silent.

In January last year during the State Conference of CPM one booklet was released, “Left Front Government, Panchayat, Municipalities and Our Task.” It says, “At each step of the Party and Administration there is a lack of sufficient consciousness against bureaucracy. At each level, in the way of administrative reforms, a mental blockade is being created…Without an effective solution of this, it will undoubtedly be difficult to reach the fruit of programmes adopted in the interest of the working people to the masses.”

There is however one interesting development in the Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. The vendors of power themselves are getting strangled by the red tape which they had used to rein in people. Old fashioned bureaucracy is proving unequal to the task. Panchayat therefore is left with two tools to block jobs from the labouring class: corruption and violence. West Bengal is witnessing ample applications of both.

1.Job cards are not being distributed. CPI(M) MLA from Coochbihar is remarkably clear, “No job cards are being given in areas where works cannot be provided.”

2.Illegal conditionalities are being imposed while distributing job cards. In Kumlai Gram Panchayat, Malbajar Block of Jalpaiguri District it has been announced unless Chowkidari tax is paid, no job card will be issued. Sitaram Oraon, East Damdim village says, “680 rupees are pending. So, I could not get a job card.” Villagers inform us, there are thirty to forty families, mostly Adivasi and Muslim, which could not obtain job cards for this reason.

3.No dates are being written in applications for registration of names for job cards, or in the receipt of job cards, application for work. Law says, work must be provided within fifteen days of getting job cards. Failing so, unemployment doles must be given. Political parties of all shades are desperate to avoid the dangerous possibility that daily wage labourers, farm workers would get money without working. Strange games are being played in accounting. In the jobs cards of Malangi Gram Panchayat, Kalchini block, dates of submission of application, of job demand, of actual delivery of job are exactly the same. How could it be possible? Construction assistant Sanjit Lama is silent. In the job card of Dhanbala Roy of Husuldanga Sansad, Churabhandar Gram Panchayat, it was found she demanded two days of work in February, three in March, four in April. She got exactly the same. Panchayat member of Sansad Adhirchandra Mandal is candid, “You see, we do back calculations here.” Such is the method of recording human demand in governmental accounts.

4.More earth is being moved than what is stipulated. Workers of Malbajar, Malguri, Kalchini block are almost unanimous, they are moving 120 cubit foot of soil. The government stipulation in Malguri block is, male 99 cft, female 85 cft.

5.Long wait from the date when the job is done till the delivery of wage. A brief dialogue on this:
Question: Why the workers in your area have to wait for so long?
Sanjay Bag, construction assistant, Churabhandar: There is no such complain.
Question: Don’t the villagers say anything?
CA: Those are verbal complains.

One instance of what happens if someone goes to lodge a written complain is Tapas Modak, Bhangamali village of Churabhandar. He went to Panchayat invoking the Right to Information Act to get the knowledge of happened to the wage dues. After he was thrown out, he went to the village post office to send a registered post. Post master had to close down office after party workers vandalised it. Finally Tapas Basak went to the district head quarter to send his registered post. He carries the receipt of the post. The evidence of his demand.

The responsibility of executing Rural Employment Guarantee Programme rests with the village development committee members. Apparently this seems appropriate. But the result is exactly is opposite. Families, society are breaking up. Members are keeping the job cards of villagers with themselves (Churabhandar), double withdrawal of money is being shown on the same date (Kalchini), money is being deducted while delivering wages (Varnobari). It’s difficult to protest. Villagers of Sonaga are at loss, “If we speak out, we’ll be speaking out against our own kith and kin.”

Political Scientist Partha Chatterjee decoupled party politics from people’s politics. In 1982, while writing on caste and politics he described the world of people’s politics as follows, “The norms and beliefs by which social relations thereof thought of and acted upon are based upon the notion of a community, a prior collective authority from which all other rights and entitlements flow.” In other words, the basis of people’s social bond is in the notion of a community. After a couple and half decades, what we are witnessing in the villages is destruction of community authority, break down of the rights which spring from communities bounded by kith and kin relations by demand for work. The only source of rights today is loyalty to political party. Applying rights of the individual is tantamount to challenging power of the party. This translates into threat to life. That the people felled by bullets in Dinhata, Coochbihar or Langalhata, Birbhum had job cards in pocket is not a coincidence.

One State level project officer notes, “In places where people are going in a body, submitting job demands, taking receipts after signing, works are being done. Nothing will work if they are not united. People will have to join the project and make the Panchayat listen. This may result in fights in some places.” Villagers are having to fight with their elected representatives to get work. This is politics of West Bengal.

Acknowledgement: Swadhikar, Jalpaiguri. This article first appeared in the Anandabazar Patrika