Monday, March 31, 2008

Postcard from Naxal country

Red terror just an excuse for lazy officials
Neelesh Misra
Gitildi (Jharkhand), March 21

Sometime in the middle of the night, the widower got up, stole past his four sleeping children, and hung himself from a nearby berry tree with his late wife's sari.
Fighting crushing poverty in his Gitildi village in Jharkhand, 40-year-old Turiya Munda killed himself last month because he had not been paid his wages for months under the ambitious rural employment guarantee scheme - the world's largest social security programme.
Munda had worked for 48 days digging a pond a kilometre away. He kept waiting for months for his money - Rs 3,360 - then gave up, becoming a tragic milestone - the first NREGA death.
The state government has recommended action against local officials. When government officials sleep on their jobs across one third of India, they often love to blame the militants.
True enough, Gitildi village is in the militant heartland where squads of rebels have come by often, asking villagers to support them. But Munda gave up his life (see adjoining story) because of officials' sloth, not Naxalites - the rebels are not creating roadblocks for the implementation of the rural jobs law here, or elsewhere.

In another part of the state, a group of villagers stood in the sun in Dundu village with some eloquent proof of that: pieces of blank paper. The villagers were digging to build a pond in the insurgency-wracked Latehar district, under the rural jobs law that guarantees 100 days of employment each year.
The blank papers were job cards - the equivalent of a bank passbook. They showed how villagers had not got a single day of employment last year, even though Naxalites have allowed the project to run unhindered.
In some areas of Jharkhand, local Naxal units even put up posters urging villagers to claim their right to employment. "The Naxalites do not oppose NREGA. They ask us to work and demand employment," said Ram Avtar Singh, a 50-year-old Dundu villager, as he set aside his spade and fetched his blank job card from his home across the road. "If the officer at the district headquarters says that 'I cannot do this because the Naxal will shoot me', then that is just a good excuse for not doing their work."

It is a crisis of governance that resonates in tens of thousands of villages across insurgency-affected India, the very villages where sincere implementation of the jobs law is perhaps needed the most. One-third of the country - at least 200 of the 600-plus districts from Jammu and Kashmir to the Naxalite-affected dozen-odd states or the northeast - is currently under the shadow of armed movements.
Government officials in New Delhi as well as the states often say that that is the reason why the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has not reached a huge section of people in areas like these. Dundu village lies in the Matlong region, a medley of steeplechase-like mud roads flanked on all sides by hills.
The SUV rolls past quiet villages, where men and women watch the strangers. No outsider comes to these parts any more.
So when NREGA was announced in 2005, it seemed like the godsend that would lift the villagers from crushing poverty.

"We are desperate for employment. If we got work here, in our village, are we mad to go to the cities for work?" said Daroga Singh, standing outside his home in Dundu. Villagers wondered whether Naxalites would attack those taking part in NREGA programmes. But the rebels also wanted to know more about the law.
"They came to me one night and I was asked to explain the detailed provisions of the NREGA - then sought my help in preparing a write-up on it. I think they also made some posters locally and put them up, asking people to take part in it and seek work," said a local NGO official in a district near Latehar.
He declined to be named, citing fears of police action. In Dundu, platoons of Naxalites, both men and women wearing green uniforms and carrying guns, frequently walk down the mud road next to the pond project.
They watch the pond building project with curiosity, but the villagers know that this is one government project that is not at risk. "When their squads passed by this road some days ago, they asked me: 'are you getting your wages?' I said 'no'," said Ram Avtar Singh. "They said 'You must take your wages, it is your right'."
Insurgents do not oppose the ground-breaking NREGA because it touches the everyday lives of the poorest - and targeting it could mean a popular backlash.
However, this comes for a cost - they are known to take levies or taxes from NREGA projects running in their areas. But villagers say this is no reason why people should not get employment. "The Maoists take five per cent levy here, we know that. The government official takes much bigger cuts. Both do it," said Peshkar Singh, standing in the shade of a tree as others looked on.
By the end of January, one member each in 29 lakh families in Jharkhand had job cards - but out of these, only 13.5 lakh had demanded employment from the government, Jharkhand's NREGA Commissioner Amitabh Kaushal said. Even going by the government's figures, it was unclear why 15 lakh families in the state living in abject poverty would not demand employment guaranteed to them.
A central government official monitoring NREGA projects said Jharkhand's estimates were under a shadow of doubt. "According to their figures, everyone who demanded a job got it within 15 days.
But that is not turning out to be true," said the official, declining to be named. "The record keeping in Jharkhand is abysmal - and it suits them."
Officials never inspect records on the ground in Naxal areas, and the unusual visitors are also interrupted in their interviews with a phone call as they approach the edge of the dense forest that holds Naxal hideouts.
"You have come too deep - so far so good," a voice says in a phone call to HT's Latehar reporter.
"Please turn back with your guests.".
(With Vishal Sharma in Latehar)
(This story first appeared in the Hindustan Times on March 22)
(All photos by the author, except when credit mentioned otherwise)