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Watchful eyes

The melting summers of India’s Rajasthan state frighten off even the tourists who come drawn by desert scenes and ancient forts. In Rajasthan’s villages the scorching heat brings the leanest of times. Food and water runs short and farming stops, forcing many men to migrate to other states to try to find work.

So when a Government-sponsored Employment Guarantee Scheme was launched in 200 districts across the country last year, it was a lifeline for many Rajasthani villagers. The scheme guaranteed at least 100 days work per household for people willing to do manual labour. The work would be back-breaking, the pay poor – a daily rate of 73 rupees ($1.65). But against a backdrop of desperation, it would alter much. Cynics used to coiling corruption in any official activity in India predicted the money would ‘go down the drain’, not reaching the people for whom it was intended.

But the legislation also provided for public monitoring of the funds. And in this instance, galvanized by local activists, the public descended on Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district to carry out a social audit in April last year. More than 650 participants from 13 states and 165 organizations joined the venture, plus a further 250 from the district itself.

Their brief was simple. Over eight days they would cover on foot each of the district’s 237 _panchayats_ (village councils) and as many worksites as possible. They would take the basics of the legislation to the people, informing them of their entitlements. And they would find out if the money really was going down the drain.

Around 120,000 people, roughly half the families in the district, were employed by the Employment Guarantee Scheme at the time. The social audit team fanned out across 1,000 worksites but found only 15 complaints of corruption, involving just 185 workers.

Critics had argued that even if the scheme resulted in more employment, the nature and quality of the assets created would be questionable. But the social auditors found that in drought-prone Dungarpur, water-harvesting structures were being built or repaired as a priority.

They also found 70-80 per cent and sometimes all of the workers were women, even though crèche facilities and medical help were woefully lacking. ‘But,’ says local activist Maan Singh Sisodia, ‘for the first time, women are earning hard cash for their efforts. This might lead to some financial independence among rural women, with important repercussions on how the money is spent within the household.’

Other social audits followed in three more districts in Rajasthan and elsewhere across India. Dungarpur was audited again early this year with the same result – no major instances of corruption. Instead, positive spillovers included the Government releasing delayed payments and reducing the workload during peak summer months.

The logical next step will be to work towards a participatory people’s audit, where the workers themselves ensure that the work is useful and that the money flows, unimpeded, to those who earn it.

*Sowmya Kerbart Sivakumar*, Research for People.

New Internationalist issue 400 magazine cover This article is from the May 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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