Tuesday, June 17, 2008

NREGA: Activism, Accountability and the Challenge

Corruption in the implementation of the NREGA has been talked about time and again. At the same time, it has been observed by some writers that instances of corruption alone cannot be the ground to measure the success or otherwise of the NREGA. This a reasonable view to take, as it has to be seen whether the implementation of the Act could create appropriate mechanism to ensure accountability at various levels. The recent episode of the murder of the NREGA activist, Lalit Mehta in Jharkhand and the attempt to cover-up and divert the real issues behind the murder by responsible officers in the State will surely disappoint those of us who have been optimistic that the gains of NREGA would outweigh the perceived setbacks.

Here, we publish the following statement signed by some prominent activists, engaged in the evaluation of the implementation of NREGA.

Palamau Report: Enquiry or Cover-up?

We are shocked by the recent report prepared by the Deputy Commissioner (DC) and Superintendent of Police (SP) of Palamau, commenting on Lalit Mehta's murder as well as on the survey of NREGA conducted there in May 2008 by the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad. This report is a deliberate attempt to divert attention from the real issues, which effectively protects those responsible for corruption and violence in the area.

The report shows that the police have made no serious enquiries into Lalit Mehta's murder. It does not provide any credible clue to this murder, but raises a number of mischievous conjectures using selective evidence. For instance, the report refers to interviews with Lalit Mehta's brother and his sons, without mentioning that the sons are one and three years old, respectively. Meanwhile, evidence from extensive interviews with Lalit's wife, Ashrita, is ignored. Further, the report is full of factual mistakes. Even the date of the murder is incorrect: Lalit Mehta was murdered on 14 May, not on 15 May as stated in the report.

Instead of presenting a serious analysis of the circumstances of the murder, the report makes absurd insinuations, such as Jean Drèze's possible involvement in the murder, or the allegation that he and his team manufactured evidence of fraud in NREGA works. Equally ridiculous is the unsubstantiated claim of the possible role of an old family dispute about Lalit Mehta's inter-religious marriage being the cause for the murder.

The report also makes insidious allegations about the survey team, Vikas Sahyog Kendra, and Lalit Mehta's family. For instance, the report presents a ludicrous picture of the social audit activities conducted by the survey team, and even accuses the team of using devious means to collect testimonies. No one familiar with the team's work (which was conducted in a transparent manner in full view of the public and the media) can take this seriously. Casting unwarranted aspersions on people like Jean Drèze, who is a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (and therefore mandated to monitor and investigate NREGA implementation anywhere in the country), and on students from Delhi University and other reputed universities, is in fact an attempt to snuff out any independent monitoring of government expenditure.

The report reinforces earlier suspicions that there is an entrenched and deep rooted nexus of corruption and violence surrounding NREGA in Palamau, with powerful connections. Otherwise, why would the district's seniormost officers go to such length to undermine a forthright examination of the use of NREGA funds in this area?

We demand that the report of the DC and SP Palamau be rejected by the Central Government as well as by the State Government, and that a CBI enquiry into Lalit Mehta's murder and the corruption in NREGA works in Palamau District be initiated immediately.

[Signed by Aruna Roy, Bunker Roy, Arundhati Roy, Prabhash Joshi, Harsh Mander, Kiran Shaheen, Nikhil Dey, and Shanker Singh.]

The article written by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey in Indian Express can be read here. Readers are welcome to read our earlier posts on NREGA here, here, here, and here.
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