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Hope damned and dead
Perils of job scheme deadline: Well collapse kills 14-year-old girl working for father

Palpati Kumari, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, was inside a well. She was adjusting her bida a kind of headgear made of cloth used by labourers to cushion the weight they carry on their heads. Suddenly, the walls of the well, still under construction, started to peel off from the top. Palpati was killed, buried under the debris

New Delhi/Ranchi, Feb. 16: Rampyari Singh was supervising the last rites of his daughter today at their village of Palheya in Latehar’s Manika block. Perhaps his only consolation is that the others with Palpati at the time Anita Kumari, another 14-year-old, and Rajmani Devi, 22-year-old, have survived the ordeal. They are being treated for injuries at Latehar Sadar Hospital.

But hidden behind Rampyari’s family tragedy is the untold saga of lakhs of wells that are being built across Jharkhand under the Centre’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).

During the last two years, the state government started digging 1.12 lakh wells across Jharkhand, each with an investment of Rs 2.56 lakh. According to official figures, before last year’s monsoon, only 20,000 wells had been completed and the state had already received news of about 2,000 well cave-ins due to showers.

So, why was a 14-year-old working in the job scheme? Are villagers across Jharkhand working under pressure to complete construction of wells? After all, the state did issue a deadline to MGNREGS beneficiaries, asking them to complete construction by the end of the financial year.

According to information from an MGNREGS help centre in Manika, brought to light by development economist Jean Drze and activist Reetika Khera, Palpati was a victim of a tragedy waiting to happen.

A student of Barwahi Middle School near her village, Palpati was working in her free time on behalf of her father, Rampyari, who holds the job card. Apparently this is the norm in villages across Jharkhand, especially so in Manika where Maoist terror has meant limited work it was in this block that MGNREGS activist Niyamat Ansari was killed.

“Yesterday, the two girls along with Rajmani came under the debris. We hurriedly shifted the mud from around them but could not save Palpati,” recounted her uncle Jugeshwar Singh.

He explained that his cousin Rampyari had begun digging the well in April last year, after he was allotted work by the Latehar district administration. Construction could not be completed as the monsoon set in. “This year, we had undertaken to complete the well,” Jugeshwar said.

Latehar DC Rahul Purwar said that unfortunately, MGNREGS rules did not offer compensation for non-job card holders. “Palpati, a minor, was the daughter of Rampyari Singh, in whose name the district administration had allotted the scheme. She appeared to have worked in the well in her free time on behalf of her father,” he said.

Drze, the architect of the job scheme, explained the overall impact of the faulty implementation of MGNREGS schemes in a May 2011 report titled, “Collapse of thousands of NREGA wells in Jharkhand”.

“The seeds of this disaster,” he said, “were planted two years ago when the Government of Jharkhand, in violation of all norms of decentralised planning under NREGA, decided that the construction of wells would be the top priority for NREGA works across the state, with a target of 50 wells per gram panchayat.”

The main problem, the report said, was that the market rate for stones to build wells was Rs 5 per piece while the rate fixed for MGNREGS procurement by the state government was Rs 2.80. As a result, it was impossible to complete wells with the grant of Rs 1.5 lakh to 2 lakh.

This, and the delay of sanctioning funds, had been brought to the attention of the Jharkhand government by an Aruna Roy-led committee set up by the Union ministry of rural development last May.

Khera explained: “As monsoons approached the price of stones soared as the demand to complete wells fast increased. Wells can only be built in the dry season. Once the rains came, people finally gave up. In some districts like Latehar and Khunti, the state, through BDOs and mukhiyas, issued notices that recovery proceedings would be started against those who have received grants yet not completed wells. People want the water of the rains to first dry up before starting work, as they can’t afford to pump out water instead.”

She said they were going to immediately request the state to withdraw the warning notices, a copy of which was with The Telegraph. “We will also request them to make the payments on time and revise the rates of stone.”

Ranchi DC K.K Soan, however, defended his state. “It’s not possible to pressure people to complete wells before March 31. I have told the BDOs that if required we can use contingency funds to de-water unfinished wells. We are giving an additional grant of Rs 4,000 due to increase in stone prices. The pradhans and mukhiyas are helping us identify not only collapsed wells, but all incomplete wells and the target is to complete all wells before May 31,” he explained.

MGNREGS workers, he revealed, were being brought under the Aam Aadmi Beema Yojana that would give their families Rs 75,000 in case of death.