Kerpura/Jaipur: Narayani Bai pulled her sari around her head and sat cross-legged on the floor, as women from Kerpura in Rajasthan’s southern district of Udaipur gathered in her thatched hut. For several years, the mother of three has found employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), 2005, the world’s largest jobs-for-work programme.
In this arid region in India’s seventh most populous state, many women have no other source of income. Through MNREGA, Narayani is entitled to a 100 days of employment for up to Rs 221 a day. If all goes well, she would still only make Rs 22,100 a year. Even though that is double the state’s rural poverty line of Rs 10,860, it is 11 times lower than the family earnings of what is considered the lower end of the middle-class in India.
But Narayani never earned even that Rs 22,100.
When Article 14 visited Kerpura in March, Narayani, a labourer in her late forties, showed her MNREGA worklog on a borrowed smartphone. Though she had been working for almost a decade, it was only in 2021-2022 that she and her fellow villagers could work for the 100 days promised by the government. This was made possible after collective appeals at the village panchayat or council over the years.
Before the appeals, they received less than 50 days of employment, Narayani said, as others nodded in agreement.
When Narayani tallied the money in her account, it was Rs 17,000, not Rs 22,100 because the MNREGA “mate,” supposed to tell workers what they had to do and how, did not.
Other women in Kerpura received a similar sum, they said, and were denied an unemployment allowance, due if employment is not provided within 15 days of the date of application.
Millions of MNREGA workers face similar issues. Of more than 71 million households who worked under MNREGA nationwide, just over 4.9 million or 3.29% completed 100 days of work in 2021-2022, according to government data.
Hope From A Proposed New Law
The corridors of government offices across India are notoriously filled with citizens unable to get social-security payments, goods and services, including childcare grants, pensions, land rights, healthcare and scholarships. Complaints and appeals are often ignored.
Now, people in Rajasthan are pinning their hopes on what would, if passed, be India’s first new social accountability law. Over 100 civil society organisations, labour unions and farmers groups in Rajasthan are demanding that the Congress government of chief minister Ashok Gehlot fulfil a 2018 election promise of passing a Social Accountability Bill that was since drafted.
Civil society organisations, led by social activists Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy previously pioneered movements in Rajasthan that eventually led to the introduction of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 and the MNREGA across India.
Organisations like the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) and the School For Democracy (SFD) and movements like the Suchna Evum Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan (Information and Employment Rights Campaign or S R Abhiyan) proposed the idea of a social accountability law in 2010.
After sustained campaigns over the years, in the run up to the 2018 Rajasthan elections, civil society groups held a jan manch or people’s forum and pressured political parties to follow suit. Representatives of the Congress, Aam Aadmi Party, Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India and the Bahujan Samaj Party participated in the jan manch. The BJP did not. Following this, the Congress promised to bring a social accountability law if they came to power.
Law To Hold Officials Accountable Put On Hold
While Gehlot’s government mentioned the legislation in the state budget in 2019 and 2020, it has not yet been introduced in the legislative assembly for reasons that have not been made evident.
Article 14 sought comment over phone and mail to the Congress Pradesh Committee and Rajasthan’s principal secretary of administrative reforms, but did not receive a reply. The story will be updated if there is a response.
In 2019, Gehlot’s government in Rajasthan set up a committee to frame the Bill. Headed by former state election commissioner Ram Lubhaya, the committee submitted the draft bill in February 2020. There were reports that it would be tabled in 2019 and 2020, but that has not happened.
The draft of The Rajasthan Transparency and Social Accountability Bill, 2020, an earlier version of which is available online on the website of Rajasthan’s Department of Administrative Reforms, promises to ensure transparency. It promises “collective monitoring by citizens” of government programmes, social auditing by members of civil society organisations and independent bodies, public hearings and expenditure tracking. The Bill has provisions to hold public officials accountable and to penalise them for negligence, inaction and delay in grievance redressal, and delivery of goods and services.
While NREGA has social audit and redressal mechanisms in place, activists said these aren’t often easy for marginalised groups to understand and access.
The proposed law seeks to ensure seamless sharing of information with the public through dedicated facilitation centres at various levels. Provision of information about laws, programmes and orders will be the responsibility of public officials. The failure of government officials to create awareness about goods, services and entitlements may attract penalties under the proposed law.
Despite the committee’s advice to create a legal framework to guarantee accountability to the citizens, the bureaucracy is the main barrier to the passage of this Bill, observed social worker Nikhil Dey, of MKSS and the S R Abhiyan , who was also part of the 2019 government committee to draft the law.
“There’s an unjustified fear and partly an apprehension that they will be held to account,” said Dey.
‘You Are Starting From Zero’
Social accountability refers to accountability demanded by the people, and currently nothing of this sort exists in India, said R Ramakumar, economist and professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Economies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.
While democratically elected and decentralised local governments at panchayat and block levels are the best guarantors of accountability, these are non-existent in most states, with local officials not accountable to any authority that represents citizens, said Ramakumar.
“You are starting from zero. There’s nothing now,” said Ramakumar. “There is almost no accountability mechanism that exists at present.”
The demand for such a rights-based framework to hold officials accountable has been around for over a decade. An earlier version of the Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha and referred to a parliamentary standing committee between 2011 and 2012, lapsed when that particular Parliament session ended back then.
Citing an over-reliance on civil society to ensure accountability, Ramakumar said India’s current accountability framework transferred responsibility from democratic local governments to organisations or social movements under the rubric of civil society who represent the people.
“The current demand for social accountability legislation is the second best alternative,” said Ramakumar. “Nevertheless, the legislation is still an improvement from the current situation.”
Dey said they were in talks with political parties, unions and organisations to introduce the bill in other states, and eventually at the Centre.
“We will not stop,” said Dey “We want it passed in a matter of days, weeks and a maximum of a month or two.”
Rights, Not Charity
Days after speaking to Article 14 at her hut in Kerpura, Narayani travelled over 400 km to Shaheed Smarak, a memorial to the first war of independence in Jaipur, to join the Jawabdehi Andolan (accountability movement), organised by the S R Abhiyan , between 22 February and 13 March 2022.
Narayani was joined by several thousand others who came with their grievances related to the lack of implementation of a silicosis policy, The Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), RTI, and other laws and government programmes.
At the protest in Jaipur, Article 14 met several pensioners, widows, miners, labourers, farmers, students and several others struggling to get their dues. All demanded the passage of the Bill, and chanted the slogan: “Hum hamara adhikar mangte, nahin kisi se bheek mangte (We are demanding for our rights, not begging for charity).”
“If labourers work less, their wages are deducted under MNREGA. This should be implemented on government officers and employees as well,” Norti Bai, president of the Rajasthan Asangathit Mazdoor Union, said at the S R Abhiyan on 10 March.
To understand persistent problems of non-delivery of goods and services, and poor redress mechanisms, the S R Abhiyan took out annual yatras (marches) and conducted camps in several districts in Rajasthan between 2015 and 2021.
“People would come with bags full of papers and documents,”said Mukesh Goswami of the MKSS. “They were fed up.”
More than 13,000 grievances were filed with the Rajasthan government’s Sampark portal, a grievance website, over the last two years alone. Complaints ranged from difficulties in getting ration, pensions, compensations for deaths due to silicosis (an occupational disease), employment, wages, healthcare, scholarships, employment and other benefits.
Activists said the voices of marginalised groups, including Adivasis, Dalits and women were often not heard, even if they complained to officials.
‘Appeals Not Heard In Over 10 Years’
Sakaram Garasia, member of the Kotada Adivasi Vikas Manch, an organisation of tribal groups in south Rajasthan, recounted the struggles of his community.
The Garasias are a scheduled forest-dwelling tribe, who have the right to claim land titles under the FRA. Garasia and his fellow villagers must prove they were living in the forest before December 2005 to get land titles. Without these, they can be evicted from their ancestral homes.
In 2009, Garasia and another 1,214 families filed papers for land titles. In 2010, around 105 claims were cancelled by the forest department without a hearing, Garasia said, adding that 400 families were still awaiting their claims to be processed, despite petitions at the panchayat and block level.
The FRA has a three-tier system to process claims and an elaborate redressal mechanism. However, the process does not work, and 1.6 million or 38% of claims under the Act were rejected as of February 2022, and over 580,000 (13%) land title claims were pending, according to government data. Insufficient documentary evidence is the main reason for rejecting claims, often dismissed at the gram sabha level, a 2019 investigation by IndiaSpend revealed.
“It has been more than 10 years, our appeals are still not heard,” said Garasia, who protested in Jaipur over several days.
While Garasia can appeal to higher authorities, the process is slow, and no one will be held accountable for the decade-long delay.
Lack of support from government agencies and the lower bureaucracy, and ineffective grievance redressal are key challenges to social accountability, a 2011 paper called Social Accountability; A Generic Framework, published by the then National Institute of Administrative Research (now the National Centre For Good Governance) noted.
Mehvish Khan, a fellow with the MKSS, said that the bulk of the grievances collected at the rally are related to ration and pension—lifelines for poor families. “Many grievances are often disposed of without proper explanation, replies or solutions,” she said.
Barriers To Information
People like Sakaram Garasia and Narayani Bai go to great lengths to learn what they are eligible for as beneficiaries. This process is not easy in remote areas which have limited Internet and poor literacy.
For Narayani, this has been a decade-long journey of learning.
Women in Kerpura found strength in solidarity. In 2012, they organised themselves into village-level groups called Ujala, as part of an initiative by the Aajeevika Bureau, an Udaipur-based nonprofit. Since 2009, over 600 Ujala groups comprising 15,000 women have been formed to share information about schemes and entitlements and help members file appeals and grievances.
“Men can go to a panchayat and demand information, but not women. They suffer because the government offices are often inaccessible to them in many ways,” said Manju Rajput, program manager, Aajeevika Bureau, adding that Ujala groups get their entitlements by putting collective pressure on the panchayats.
The women now know that wages under MNREGA are calculated on the completion of work. A MNREGA mate (a labourer who heads 10-20 workers, liaisons with the panchayat for work, measures the completion of projects and sets wages), is supposed to instruct the workers about the tasks to be completed and how.
Wages are deducted if the work is incomplete.
Narayani said that she was not properly instructed by her mate on how much work she had to do and wages were deducted for 2021-2022. Many women weren’t aware of this deduction until it was too late.
Narayani’s Ujala group is now demanding full wages, but Narayani felt she paid the price for the incompetence of the panchayat and the mate who failed to instruct her properly.
The government runs training programs for MNREGA mates, who receive the same wages as the workers on completion of 100 days of work, but activists and labourers said the training is often inadequate.
Narayani was furious to learn that despite his negligence, the mate received the full wage of Rs 22,100.
‘If You Don’t Know, How Will You Tell’
Shankar Singh of the Bhilwara-based School For Democracy told Article 14 that currently the onus is on people to be aware of process, rights, and entitlements. Government functionaries were “indolent”, and do not provide marginalised groups with the information they require, said Singh.
“Currently, civil society and non-governmental organisations are bridging the information gap, but they can’t reach everyone,” said Singh.
Awareness amongst the beneficiaries and implementing officials (department heads, district or block officers) is key for seamless delivery of goods and services, said BS Bisht, professor at NCGG and co-author of the Social Accountability Mechanism.
In 2011, Bisht studied the implementation of education and health sector programmes in Kerala, Bihar and Uttarakhand and found that Kerala scored well because implementing officials were aware and trained, and informed the people about schemes and programmes.
Beneficiaries in Bihar and Uttarakhand were not as well informed about such details by the implementing officials who were unaware of government programmes, his paper noted.
“If you don’t know what the programme or scheme is, how will you tell the beneficiaries and implement it?” said Bisht.
Another problem flagged by activists was technical issues that deprived people of getting benefits in a timely manner.
“Some departments will say the web portal is under construction,” said Khan, the MKSS fellow. “Others will deny the pension or ration when the thumb impression doesn’t work. But is that the fault of the people? Whose responsibility should it be to ensure that the people do not suffer?”
‘Full work, full wages’
At the rally on 10 March, Naryanai joined hundreds of MNREGA workers and other protesters who marched to Jaipur’s Civil Lines, home to residences of the Chief Minister and several ministers.
Her fist in the air, she shouted: “Pura kaam, pura daam (full work, full wages).”
Ramakumar, the economist, said the success of the law was contingent on “enormous political will”.
“Every social audit will create enemies as it will expose somebody’s lack of accountability. So people will try to sabotage, twist and manipulate it to their advantage. It will need constant monitoring,” he said.
Dey pointed to the resistance of the bureaucracy to laws holding them accountable is not new. A similar fear was created when demands for the RTI Act were made with claims that it would bring the administration to a halt, he added.
“They (bureaucracy) have been held to account by those (authorities and leaders) above. They are not used to people ‘below’ them asking questions,” said Dey. “But they aren’t ‘below’. They are the sovereign of this country, the people who pay their salaries.”
(Mahima Jain is an independent journalist writing on science, environment, culture and socio-economic issues.)