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INDIA: A corrupt supervisor misappropriated the wages of 16 illiterate workers depriving them of their food security

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) received information from SPREAD, a human rights organization based in Orissa, that the wages of 16 illiterate workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) were misappropriated by the supervisor in charge of the project. The villagers are landless and without a regular source of income and NREGS is one of the government programmes to guarantee the food security of the poor in rural areas. The villagers made a complaint to the Block Development Officer and the district Collector however, the alleged perpetrator has not been brought to justice.

Hunger Alert Case: AHRC-HAC-005-2010



8 March 2010
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INDIA: A corrupt supervisor misappropriated the wages of 16 illiterate workers depriving them of their food security

ISSUES: Corruption; right to work; food security
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Dear Friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) received information from SPREAD, a human rights organization based in Orissa, that the wages of 16 illiterate workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) were misappropriated by the supervisor in charge of the project. The villagers are landless and without a regular source of income and NREGS is one of the government programmes to guarantee the food security of the poor in rural areas. The villagers made a complaint to the Block Development Officer and the district Collector however, the alleged perpetrator has not been brought to justice.

CASE DETAILS:

On February 28, 2010, sixteen labourers of Kharsapada village, Lamtaput block of Koraput District of Orissa discovered that a supervisor of the Soil Conservation Department had misappropriated their wages paid under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGAS), to the tune of INR 49,490 (USD 1000).

During the months of September and December 2009, the Soil Conservation Department launched a NREGS project in the Koraput district planting cashew trees over 80 acres of land. Thirty villagers from Kharsapada village joined the project for a period of 11 to 43 days from September to October in 2009. All these villagers are landless without a regular source of income and find it difficult to manage their daily food.

At the end of the project, the Supervisor in charge of its implementation, Mr. Debiprasad Jena, asked for the workers’ post office passbooks in which the workers are expected to receive their wages, threatening them that they would not be given rights to the cashew land if they did not hand him their passbooks, Mr. Jena managed to convince 16 workers to accede to his demand. He also managed, while having them sign the muster roll, to take their thumb impression on withdrawal forms of the Machkund post office where the workers have their accounts. Because they are illiterate, the 16 workers did not realize that by doing so they were giving the Supervisor open access to their bank accounts.

Since they did not receive their wages in due time, the labourers went to the Machkund Soil Conservation Office several times to ask for the payment of their wages and for the return of their passbooks, but Mr. Jena was either absent from the office or argued that the bill had not been prepared yet.

On February 28, 2010, after mounting pressure from the workers, the supervisor eventually accepted to return the passbooks but reasserted that the bill was still not ready and that they would have to wait for their wages.

Upon return of the passbooks, some villagers showed them to Mr. Harihara Hantal, a literate villager of Mantriput village who noticed that the wages had been deposited in their accounts on December 19, 2009 and were withdrawn the same day. Each worker was robbed of an amount of money ranging from INR 980 (USD 21) to INR 3,870 (USD 84)

The villagers have been trying to confront Mr. Jena but have failed to locate him so far. Some of them have lodged a complaint to the Lampatut Block Development Officer (BDO). Others have gone directly to the District Collector of Koraput who gave assurance that steps will be taken to investigate those serious allegations and punish the culprit. However, the alleged perpetrator Mr. Jena has yet neither been investigated nor arrested.

The robbed workers in this case are landless tribal villagers, which make them part of one of the communities the most vulnerable to poverty and hunger in India. Depriving them of their wages is thus very likely to deprive them from a very valuable source of income and hamper their food security.

ADDITIONAL COMMENTS:

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), passed in 2005, guarantees 100 days of employment for the poor household, per year, to any adult willing to do casual labour at minimal wage. This program aims at ensuring the food security of the poor in rural areas by providing them with employment. It guarantees the right to protection against unemployment entrenched in the article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to work as stated in the article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Nevertheless, during the last few years, the AHRC has regularly documented cases which clearly illustrate how recurrent flaws in the system have prevented it from achieving this goal and effectively protecting the villagers from poverty and unemployment.

Those malfunctioning do not only occur in the Orissa state for instance in two villages of Madhya Pradesh, the head of the village kept the villagers’ job cards, refusing to distribute the wages. Those practices breach the villagers’ right to work and often force them to migrate to other states (See AHRC-HAC-003-2010). For other recent cases of mismanagement of the NREGA, please refer to: AHRC-UAC-129-2009 and AHRC-HAC-004-2010.

The accountability of projects launched under the NREGA is further damaged by the lack of clarity in the provision of the law. Indeed, while Section 25 of NREGA provides for penalties against anyone who “contravenes the provisions” of the Act, it does not specify the amount of penalty which should be imposed, who has the authority to order them and under which circumstances someone should be fined.

This often leaves villagers without any legal remedies to abuses. In Orissa, where 37% of the adults are still illiterate and thus vulnerable to abuse from corrupted government officials, access to legal institutions to hold those in charge of implementing public programs accountable for their abuses is even more difficult. They are also often unaware of the existing redressal procedures and of the possibility to hold a social audit for each project implemented under the NREGA. Even a social audit is often held without villagers’ participation.

A interim field report published by the right to food campaign in 2007 found that ‘NREGA in Orissa appears to be particularly vulnerable to corruption’ especially because the public servants attached to village council system are in control of almost all the matters related to the implementation of the scheme which can easily lead to abuses and misappropriation. The lack of grievance redressal procedures only adds to it and increases the system vulnerability to corruption. Indeed, the grievance redressal authorities are often the same as the implementing authorities, which leaves the workers with very few solutions if the scheme is inappropriately implemented.

The report also interestingly points out that relying on the banking system to prevent the misappropriation of wage funds also includes a lot of risks due to the lack of preparedness of the banking system. This case exposes that the bank did not refuse to withdraw money from a bank account in the absence of the owner. The workers’ lack of familiarity with somehow complexes banking procedures. Even though this report was released in 2007, these loopholes continue to hamper the functioning of the NREGA.

SUGGESTED ACTION:
Please join us in expressing your concern regarding the misuse of public programmes aiming at guaranteeing the right to work and the right to food of the poorest in India.

The AHRC has also written a separate letter calling for intervention to the Chief Justice of India and the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food.

To support this appeal, please click here:

SAMPLE LETTER:

Re: INDIA: A corrupt supervisor deprives16 illiterate NREGA workers of their wages

Names of victim: (Job card number, Account number, days the victim worked, payment withdrawn)
1. Subarna Majhi& Krushna Najhi: 3559, 1820235, 36 days, INR 3,240
2. Boidi Golori & Gangadhar Golori: 3560, 1820252, 38 days, INR 3,420
3. Mukta Dora & Mangala Dora: 3564, 1820241, 38 days, were deprived of INR 3,420
4. Sabitri Dora & Mangaraj Dora: 3553, 1820245, 38 days, INR 3,420
5. Parbati Dora & Ghasiram Dora: 3551, 1820254, 36 days, INR 3,240
6. Rama Dora& Padlam Dora: 3565, 1820258, 36 days, INR 3,240
7. Gouri Khara & Ramamurty Khara: 3567, 1820248, 36 days, INR 3,240
8. Narahari Dora & Kesaba Dora: 3554, 1820262, 36 days, INR 3,240
9. Raila Dora & Guru Dora: 3556, account number: 1820243, worked for 31 days, were deprived of INR 2,790
10. Boidei Dora & Gupta Dora: 3577, 1820244, 25 days, INR 2,250
11. Kumari Machha & Adu Machha: 3555, 1820253, 43 days, INR 3,870
12. Manima Majhi & Gangadhar Majhi: 3566, 1820255, 36 days, INR 3,240
13. Debaki Majhi & Laxman Majhi: 3558, 1820236, 38 days, INR 3,420
14. Pratima Dora & Phalahd Dora: 3569, 1820249, 36 days, INR 3,240
15. Parbati Dora & Manika Dora: 3557, 1820238, 36 days, INR 3,240
16. Sanai Khara & Guru Khara: 3563, 1820251, 11 days, INR 980
Name of Alleged Perpetrator: Mr. Debiprasad Jena, Supervisor of the Soil Conservation Department (Machhkund)
Name of village: Kharsapada Village (GP Chikenput), Lamtaput block, Koraput District, Orissa

I am writing to voice my deep indignation regarding a case of 16 tribal NREGA workers deprived of their wages by a corrupt government official.

According to the information I have received, during the months of September and October 2009, 30 workers from Kharsapada tribal village were employed to plant cashew trees over 80 acres of land, a project launched by the Soil Conservation Department under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). At the end of the project, the supervisor, Mr. Debiprasad Jena, managed to threaten 16 workers into giving him their post office passbooks in which the workers are expected to receive their payment. Mr. Jena also managed to get their fingerprints on withdrawal forms of the Machkund post office where they have their bank accounts.

I am informed that due to illiteracy, the sixteen victims did not realize that by doing so they were giving the Supervisor open access to their bank accounts.

Since they did not receive their wages in due time, the workers went to the Machkund Soil Conservation Office several times to ask for the payment of their wages and their passbooks, but Mr. Jena was either absent from the office or argued that the bill had not been prepared yet. On February 28, 2010, after mounting pressure from the workers, Mr. Jena eventually accepted to return the passbooks but reasserted that the bill was still not ready and that they would have to wait for their wages.

Upon return of the passbooks, some villagers showed them to Mr. Harihara Hantal of Mantriput village who noticed that the wages had been deposited on their accounts on December 19, 2009 and were withdrawn the same day. I am aware that each worker was robbed of an amount of money ranging from INR 980 (USD 21) to INR 3,870 (USD 84).

Some of the workers have lodged a complaint to the Lampatut Block Development Officer (BDO). Others have gone directly to the District Collector of Koraput who gave assurance that steps would be taken to investigate those serious allegations and punish the culprits. I welcome this commitment and encourage the Collector to take immediate and concrete measures to correct this situation.

I am very concerned to hear that the robbed workers in this case are landless tribal villagers, which make them part of one of the communities the most vulnerable to poverty and hunger in India. Depriving them of their wages is thus very likely to deprive them from a very valuable source of income and hamper their food security.

I have studied that the NREGA (Act) was implemented to guarantee the right to protection against unemployment entrenched in the article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the right to work as stated in the article 6 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It is also one of the most efficient ways to ensure the food security of the rural poor in India.

Nevertheless, rampant corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency have prevented it from entirely fulfilling this goal so far. I am aware that although social audits are supposed to be held for every project implemented under this scheme, the villagers in reality have very little legal remedies because of the neglect and the corruption of the government officials or simply because they are unaware of those procedures.

I am of opinion that the government of Orissa should take appropriate measures to ensure that those who work under the NREGA are aware of their rights and of their legal remedies to complain. It should make sure that the persons in charge of implementing public programs can be held fully accountable for their abuses and misappropriations. This should start with the full and strict implementation of the article 15-5-d of the NREGA, which states that a social audit should be held for every work carried out under it.

I am therefore calling for the immediate and thorough investigation of this case of abuse of governmental program. If enough evidence is gathered, Mr. Debiprasad Jena, the alleged perpetrator should be punished in order to prevent more corruption. Furthermore, an adequate and proportionate compensation must be granted to the victims.

I look forward to your immediate and substantial response.

Yours sincerely,

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PLEASE SEND YOUR LETTERS TO:

1. Mr. Naveen Patnaik
Chief Minister
Naveen Nivas, Aerodrome Road
P.O.Bhubaneswar, Dist. Khurda
751001 Orissa
INDIA
E-mail: cmo@ori.nic.in

2. Upendra Prasad Singh
Commissioner-cum Secretary
Department of Agriculture
Orissa, INDIA
Fax: +91 674 2393 948
E-mail: agrsec@ori.nic.in

3. Mr. Bikram Keshari Arukh
Minister
Ministry of Rural Development
Bhubaneswar, Orissa
INDIA
Fax: +91 674 2536 641
E-mail: rdsec@ori.nic.in

4. Ms. Amita Sharma
Joint Secretary (NREGA)
Rural Development Department
New Delhi, INDIA
Fax: +91 11 2338 4703
E-mail: amita712@yahoo.co.uk

5. Rajesh Pravakar Patil
Collector of Koraput district
Collectorate
Koraput PO
Koraput, Orissa 764020
INDIA
Fax: +91 6852 250466
E-mail: dm-koraput@nic.in

6. Chairperson
National Human Rights Commission
Faridkot House, Copernicus Marg
New Delhi 110001
INDIA
Fax: +91 11 2338 6521
E-mail: chairnhrc@nic.in

7. Maurice Kujur
Vice-Chairperson
National Commission for Scheduled Tribes
6th Floor, ‘B’ Wing, Loknayak Bhawan,
Khan Market, New Delhi – 110003
INDIA
Tel: +91 11 2456 7474

Thank you.

Hunger Alert Programme (foodjustice@ahrc.asia)
Asian Human Rights Commission (ua@ahrc.asia)

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