STONE EATING: A REMARK EN ROUTE REALITY

Subhas Chandra Pattanayak

There is a remark on my write-up on stone eating in Sinapalli attached thereto. From the end of this remark, two sentences- “Addressing these issues is difficult. Simply crying that people are eating stones is easy”-were dropped at moderation stage as, to the administrator of this site, these were not commensurate with the gravity of the remark. With these two sentences revived, the remark goes as follows:

“There is no doubt that people living in KBK region of Orissa have serious challenges in overcoming poverty, unemployment and disease. Lot of work remains to be done in protection of common property resources,land improvement and skill development. But to say that people are eating stones is simply an affront to human dignity.Firstly, it is obviously a false statement. Secondly, it is a statement made with a view to gain cheap political mileage. Thirdly, it is an irresponsible stance, as nothing can replace the hardwork of trying to work with the communities, let them understand the theoretical opportunities of NREGA and the practical ways of trying to get the maximum of it etc., just to cite one of the opportunities available for the people. For example, many job card holders do not know that they need to apply a second time, after getting the job card. It is also a challenging task to see the correspondence between the NREGA labour side and the creation of assets side. What kind of assets are being created? Are they really the right ones, as decided by the community? Another important question is the stance that contractors are not allowed. In reality, somebody is required to get all the material for a public work together, stand there and get the men and women organised for work, pull up those who are not working properly and generally taking care of quality and speed of work. You have a choice of calling that person by any name you like, ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ or ‘work executant’ or ‘field worker’ or ‘supervisor’ or whatever. Whatever name you may give him, the person exists. NREGA pretends that such person does not exist. What is important is to see that such persons are transparently selected in open meeting of the community or gram sabha, give him reasonable margin of profit and ensure that he is held responsible in case of any faulty work. Right now in NREGA works, nobody is held accountable for quality and this person gets decided through non-transparent means by way of a simple device that officially you do not recognise that he exists! This is the same mindset which pretends that sharecroppers and absentee landlords do not exist. Rather than recognise the fact that you have people who cultivate the lands recorded in favour of somebody else, give each of this category some basic rights apportionment, the State pretends that by law all the tenancy in Orissa has been abolished. This has pushed the tenancy under the carpet. This has affected the profitability of agriculture as an occupation. This has also resulted in lots of lands lying fallow and valuable agricultural land not getting adequate resources for development. Neither the absentee landlord invests because he is not present all the time. Nor would the tenant invest in land, because anyway the land does not belong to him. In NREGA also, this is the same manner in which the State does not recognise the existence of contractors and thereby the quality of work is hampered and the assets are not generated worth the money that is spent. Addressing these issues is difficult. Simply crying that people are eating stones is easy”.

It is a note worthy remark. It reflects serious application of mind to the issue. Looking as if coming from an administration insider (the commentator having used obviously a pseudonym like ‘Observer’), it confirms that the people of the area of stone eating, undoubtedly, “have serious challenges in overcoming poverty, unemployment and disease” and in the area, through NREGA, “assets are not generated worth the money that is spent”.

But for this confirmed malady, the only factor located as responsible is lack of open presence of contractors. Notwithstanding ban on execution of works under NREGA through contractors, Observer says, the works are being executed through them, who exist despite the “pretence” that they do not exist.

Instead of calling a person a contractor, “You have a choice of calling that person by any name you like, ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ or ‘work executant’ or ‘field worker’ or ‘supervisor’ or whatever. Whatever name you may give him, the person exists” and, Observer reveals, “this person gets decided through non-transparent means by way of a simple device that officially you do not recognise that he exists!”

So the remark is en route reality. The reality is that people are perishing under “poverty, unemployment and disease” and the works done under NREGA are not “worth the money that is spent” and this is so, because, in spite of ban on execution of works through contractors they are engaged “through non-transparent means”.

En route this reality, Observer says, even though contractors are engaged, as because the “NREGA pretends that such person does not exist”, responsibility for deficient execution of works is not being fixed as work orders are allocated clandestinely, in absence of legal authority. To quote him, “Right now in NREGA works, nobody is held accountable for quality”.

This is a very helpful observation to understand the ailments that the State administration is downed with.

NREGA is an Act that gives guarantee of employment to rural workers. Contractor is a person that operates for his personal profit and evidences are rampant that the engineers and administrative officers, in most of the cases, act as commission agents of contractors and the nexus they build up leads to extension of time and expansion of estimates to the detriment of public exchequer.

I have cited the survey report of non-official CEFS to show how Muster Rolls are manipulated to misappropriate the money provided for ensuring food security in the region comprising the stone eating area of Sinapalli. Now I think, the observations of the highest official authority on audit, the CAG, needs be referred to. This may help in understanding as to why contractors are banned under NREGA.

The CAG has umpteen times shown that contractor-centric corruption spanning from massive projects to tiny works has severely affected both planning and exchequer of the State. Situational relevance justifies CAG observations on the latter ones.

Open the report on civil audit of 2005-06. The CAG notes, “Avoidable extra cost, unfruitful expenditure and undue benefit to contractors amounted to Rs 90.11 crore in Rural Development (Rs 28.99 crore), Works (Rs 6.41 crore), Water Resources (Rs 48.08 crore), School and Mass Education (Rs 1.54 crore), Higher Education (Rs 1.30 crore), Housing and Urban Development (Rs 1.14 crore), Cooperation (Rs 2.22 crore) and Panchayati Raj (Rs 43 lakh) Departments.

“There were instances of blockage of funds and idle investments of Rs 13.84 crore in Women and Child Development (Rs 4.68 crore), Cooperation (Rs 2.86 crore), Industries (Rs 1.79 crore), Tourism (Rs 1.26 crore), Rural Development (Rs 1.07 crore), Culture (Rs 1.35 crore) and Information and Public Relations (Rs 83 lakh) Departments. Besides, there was irregular expenditure of Rs 4.64 crore in Water Resources (Rs 2.69 crore), Revenue (Rs 0.99 crore) and Higher Education (Rs 0.96 crore) Departments”. These are only samples of how the contractors highjack the exchequer as well as the projects.

The Executive in Orissa is subservient to contractors. So, deficient and defaulting contractors are seldom penalized. At Paragraph 4.4.1 of the report noted supra, the CAG says, “failure to penalise a defaulting contractor by the Executive Engineer (EE), OECF Division No. I, Bada jhara and non-initiation of suitable action to recover the outstanding dues led to loss and non-recovery of Rs 34.44 crore.

Go to any other year, similar scenarios would snare attention. As for example, in auditing 2004-05 transactions, the CAG says, “Avoidable extra cost, unfruitful expenditure and undue benefit to contractor amounted to Rs 23.09 crore in Water Resources (Rs 14.61 crore), Works (Rs.8.22 crore) and Health Family Welfare Departments (Rs 26 lakh). There were instances of blockage of funds and idle investments of Rs 6.22 crore in Home (Rs 3 crore), Water Resources (Rs 1.61 crore), Agriculture (Rs.78 lakh) and Higher Education Departments (Rs 83 lakh) besides irregular expenditure of Rs 6.47 crore in Finance, Information Technology and Panchayati Raj Departments”.

In respect to projects linked to poverty amelioration, the scenario is worse. At Paragraphs 4.3.1 and 4.3.2 (2005-06), the CAG has reported, “Item rate of Water Bound Macadam (WBM) under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) in the Rural Development Department was computed incorrectly resulting in an undue benefit of Rs 16.07 crore to contractors. Besides, there was excess payment of Rs 11.27 crore to the contractors due to wrong computation of item rate of Granular Sub Base (GSB). Even “wrong computation of item rates of Cement concrete works, evasion of ST and other unwarranted favours led to undue benefit of Rs.20.88 crore to contractors”.

What was the earlier finding?

See, how the CAG has recorded it in its report of 2004-05. I quote:

“Govt. of India (GoI) launched the Food for Work Programme during 2002 with a view to
augmenting food security through wage employment. The scheme provided for supply of 5 kg of rice per day at subsidized rate of Rs.5.65 per kg and payment of balance wages in cash. To ensure that the benefit of subsidy reached the labourer and as a safe guard against the sale of rice at higher rate in the market, the scheme stipulated that rice should be supplied to the
labourers at the work site along with cash component on muster rolls in presence of the local representatives.

“However, 8 EEs issued 4057 tonnes of rice to contractors after completion of works executed through 1092 agreements between 2001-02 and 2004-05. The delays ranged between 7 days and 18 months. Since distribution of rice to daily wage workers after completion of the works was not practicable, the subsidy of Rs.2.06 crore provided by GoI was not passed on to the labourers and instead led to undue benefit to the contractors”.

While providing benefits to contractors, as that helps the Executive sharing the booty, the Food for Work scheme is so mismanaged that an Assistant Engineer of Minor Irrigation Division, Sambalpur has “misappropriated” 1345 MT of subsidized rice “valuing Rs.1.68 crores received under Food for Work Programme”, the CAG has exposed at Paragraph 4.1.1 of its Report for 2005-2006.

As stressed supra, these are mere samples. The corruption continuing by the contractor- executive nexus is unfathomable.

Against this backdrop, there is no doubt that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme would be totally defeated if contractors are accommodated. Hence under NREGA engagement of contractors was blatantly banned. The entire money provided under the scheme is to be spent on guaranteed employment.

But as transpires from the remark of Obeserver, this scheme has been sabotaged in Orissa and job-orders are being given to contractors while pretending that they do not exist.

This pretension being official, the NREGS funds are also looted. My earlier report incorporating the survey findings of CEFS has thrown light on that. According to Observer, this has to happen as the work orders are given “through non-transparent means”. It is a reality. In reality, it is indicative of how the government has failed.

Observer has rightly observed, “Many job card holders do not know that they need to apply a second time, after getting the job card”. Making people know of this cannot be expected of a job-contractor. It is the work of the government machinery.

Observer is right in saying, “somebody is required to get all the material for a public work together, stand there and get the men and women organised for work, pull up those who are not working properly and generally taking care of quality and speed of work”. But he says, this “somebody” should be a contractor under any attire, “transparently selected” to do the job with “reasonable margin of profit” and answerability.

Instances have been cited supra from CAG reports and, in these pages, elsewhere, light is thrown on how contractors enjoy immunity in Orissa and how administration has failed in Orissa to penalize erring and willfully irresponsible contractors. So, call the contractor in any style (“‘Mahatma Gandhi’ or ‘work executant’ or ‘field worker’ or ‘supervisor’ or whatever” suggests Observer), in Naveenraj, they shall, in every matter of corruption, continue enjoying immunity.

And this administrative collaboration with contractor-centric corruption has defeated Food for Work program, has defeated Gramin Rojgar Yojana etc as show above and as open engagement of contractors has been punishably banned under the NREGA, the officials, who earn salary for executing official programs, have hijacked wage-funds under this scheme to their respective pockets, compelling people to thrive on stones under stark starvation.

My esteemed friend, whose remark so far is highly commensurate with reality, has dismissed the stone-eating phenomenon as “simply an affront to human dignity”. According to him, “firstly, it is obviously a false statement. Secondly, it is a statement made with a view to gain cheap political mileage. Thirdly, it is an irresponsible stance, as nothing can replace the hardwork of trying to work with the communities, let them understand the theoretical opportunities of NREGA and the practical ways of trying to get the maximum of it etc.”. I think the falsity of the ‘third’ observation needs no proof as in the write up that has generated this debate the researchers of CEFS have been adequately quoted in showing how the “Scheme has become less of Employment Guarantee Scheme for the hungry and poor villagers and more of a money-spinning machine and Income Guarantee Scheme for Orissa’s officials” and how “job cards have been kept in the homes of VLWs against the will of cardholders”. I have further quoted there the report of CEFS that says, “Most of the VLWs are inaccessible to villagers because they stay in towns located 50-60 kms away from Panchayats. They come once or twice a month in the Panchayat office. A poor Adivasi has to walk on foot and cover this long distance just to meet VLW. Even after walking this long distance, poor Adivasi is not sure whether he would be able to meet VLW”. Had this reality been contradicted with convincing proofs, the ‘third’ observation of Observer could have been really helpful. Absence of any proof in support of “hardwork of trying to work with the communities, let them understand the theoretical opportunities of NREGA and the practical ways of trying to get the maximum of it etc.”, makes the observation that the “stance” of the write up is “irresponsible” deserves to be dismissed. The second observation, I am afraid, is ambiguous besides being irrelevant. I am unable to see a phenomenon like “cheap political mileage” anywhere in the report that was transmitted/televised or in the write up that I authored and published in this site or in saubhasyablog under my other site www.saubhasya.com. Had Observer substantiated this observation, it could have merited attention. But sadly it is not substantiated. Now the first observation, i.e. “it is obviously a false statement”. So far, only two statements have been acted upon in context of stone eating. One is of Baru Singh Pahadia who stated before camera that he eats stone to overcome hunger and the other is of Dasamati Pahadia who allegedly gave a statement before a team of officers headed by DWO of Nuapada at 9 PM of 25.5.2007 to the effect that Khuturam Sunani and his companion journalist instigated people to eat stone and took pictures thereof when some of the villagers were eating the stones. If the second statement is false I have nothing to say; because I have analyzed that Dasamati’s statement of confession was false and fabricated. If the first one were false, it would have been proper to show how it is false.

Khaturam Sunani, who spotted the alarming event, has affirmed that stone eating by people of Nangalghat is true. In a statement issued on 20.6.2007 from Komana of Nuapada he has further stated that not only in Nangalghat, but also in habitations nearby, people of Pahadia tribe have been thriving by stone eating since long. He has stated that he has investigated into this matter and has accumulated firsthand evidences in support of this information. Sunani is a journalist of the concerned area and has first hand knowledge over the issue. Unless otherwise proved, the truth he has discovered cannot be said to be false simply because that exposes misrule.

When the news is reliable that people are eating stone to overcome hunger, it cannot be an affront to human dignity. It would be, if we, as a civilized people, fail to stand with Sunani in his fight against false charges of sedition framed against him by a corrupt, inefficient and anti-people administrative set-up because he has found out the truth of stone eating in Sinapalli.

En route reality, any proof propelled remark on my write-ups would be most welcome. I will be really happy if the stone eating news could be proved to be false.

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