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Needed, honest clerks to free India of pangs of hunger: Food for work, NREGA

By Gagan Sethi* 

It’s been 37 years since I started out as a raw hand with a master’s degree in social work from MS University of Baroda. I had refused a job with a four-figure salary. I joined an organisation, then euphemistically called a ‘voluntary organisation’; there were a few of them which prided in being professional and in the business of social change. Many others were all about charity fostering dependencies. Today we are called NGOs (non-government organisations), a word which describes itself as what it is not — a term coined by World Bank which, in a sense, charts the 37 years of change from social work being a vocation to a profession to a job opportunity!
In 1977, I remember supervising food for work, that is, wheat bulgur given in lieu of work to the poor. The work involved either building community assets or remodeling their own fields for paddy so that the incomes of the dalit households could be increased. This was to also provide food security to the poor, especially in drought years. We haggled for every centimetre of the size of the pit being dug. We kept copious records as there were audits by big international auditing firms, the international donors, mainly catholic relief service, would send in. We had to account for every empty bag and every empty can of oil. We were told it was public money given as charity and we were accountable for every penny. This could have been possible only as we involved the community at all stages of the supervision process; this meant that there would be trouble if someone was unduly favoured.
Of course the upper caste and big landlords didn’t like it as it pushed the minimum wage rates from Rs 3 to Rs 5.50 legally then…we called it a revolution! We said it would change power relations; whether that happened or not, I don’t know. I do know that families, specially children, had a third meal of ‘phada ni khichdi’.
The MNREGA is nothing but a rehashed avatar of the same idea which hundreds of such organisations had been implementing. I remember the organisation being criticised for using this ‘food for work’ as a conversion tool and I laughed because, firstly, it was untrue and, secondly, why would I, a Hindu boy, working in a Christian organisation do that!
Building organisations of accountability and transparency with the communities managing their programme was possible because some of us did the job of a clerk with the passion that we were building self-reliant communities based on values of citizenship.
The MNREGA implementation has been criticised for its large-scale corruption and its thoughtlessness of giving wheat to maize-eating adivasis. We have created millions of man-days of work. As to how much of it is on paper, there are only sample surveys and anecdotal evidence with claims and counter claims on both sides.
In spite of all this, it remains the only way of ensuring that grain reaches a household so that food can be cooked. We are food-surplus yet have the largest number of undernourished young girl children and no professional clerks to run a ‘food for work’ programme.
We are helpless. Though we have food commissioners in all states appointed by the Supreme Court, yours truly being one, we don’t have chief secretaries, district supply officers, supervisors who want to do an honest clerk’s job because that’s all it takes.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. This article first appeared in DNA

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