Right to work? NREGA payment system is still returning an “invalid aadhaar” error message in Jharkhand

Close to 1,000 National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers and other rural labourers converged to Birsa Chowk, Ranchi, from 12 districts of Jharkhand on Wednesday and sat on dharna to protest against “repeated attacks” on right to food and right to work. The event was jointly organised by Right to Food Campaign Jharkhand and NREGA Watch.

The dharna was prompted by a series of recent starvation deaths in Jharkhand. The starvation deaths epitomise the hardships that millions of people endure when it comes to securing their rights under NREGA and the public distribution system.

Many NREGA workers at the dharna spoke about the problems they are facing. More than 10 years after the Act came into force, they still have to fight at every step to get work, to be paid on time, and for higher wages. For instance, delays in wage payments continue, and payment problems, if anything, have increased after aadhaar-based payments were introduced.

Vilas Singh from Barwadih said hoe is still struggling to get his wages, months after working on NREGA. Initially he was told that his account had been closed. He then went through a long process of Know Your Customer (KYC) update and aadhaar authentication, but the payment system is still returning an “invalid aadhaar” error message.

It was made known that the government is paying only a fraction of the compensation due to NREGA workers for delays in payments. Rajendran Narayanan from Azim Premji University explained how, based on a detailed analysis of NREGA payments, he and his colleagues had found that Rs 1,200 crore of compensation money was due to workers. Of this, the government admits only Rs 519 crore, and just Rs 30 crore have actually been paid.

The government’s failure to raise NREGA wages is another injustice done to NREGA workers. In Jharkhand, the NREGA wage rate was raised (from Rs 162 per day) by five rupees last year, and just one rupee this year!

The gathering heard similar grim tales about the public distribution system. Common complaints include cancellation of ration cards due to failed Aadhaar linkage, missing names on the ration card, biometric failures, and katauti (cuts) by corrupt dealers. Manikchand, from a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) in Garhwa, explained that even PVTG families in Jharkhand are often deprived of PDS rations as the new ‘dakiya system’ of direct delivery to their homes routinely fails.

The Public Distribution System (PDS) in Jharkhand, already weakened by compulsory biometric authentication, is in danger of being further undermined by a transition to cash transfers. Akash Ranjan and Afzal Anis reported the findings of a quick investigation of the Direct Bank Transfer (DBT) system recently introduced in Nagri block of Ranchi district.

Poor people in Nagri are running from pillar to post, trying to extract cash from the bank (often without knowing which account the money has been sent to) so that they can buy their food rations at Rs 32 per kg – instead of Re 1/kg in the earlier system – from the ration shop. The speakers warned against the imminent extension of this counter-productive system to other parts of Jharkhand.

There was also discussion of the recent starvation deaths. Taramani Sahu, the courageous woman who drew attention to the starvation death of an 11-year old girl (Santoshi Kumari) in Simdega, gave a detailed account of what happened. August 20, 2017 onwards she had tried to help Santoshi’s family to get a new ration card, after the old ration card was cancelled for lack of Aadhaar linking.

On March 27, 2017, the Chief Secretary of Jharkhand ordered mass cancellation of ration cards not linked with Aadhaar. Santoshi died, after going for 8 days without food, before a new ration card was issued. Since then, Taramani has been continuously harassed by the Jharkhand government. In this and all other recent cases of starvation deaths, the government is refusing to accept facts and hounding the victims.

The dharna culminated with a ‘thali bajao’ session, by way of protest against these and other violations of people’s right to food and right to work.