ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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NREGA and the Death of Tapas Soren

Tapas Soren, a tribal of Birakhap in Jharkhand, committed self-immolation recently, impoverished by the constant demand for bribes by local officials for work done under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. His death soon after the murder of Lalit Mehta who had exposed corruption in NREGA schemes in Palamu is a damning comment on how the scheme is being implemented in Jharkhand.

COMMENTARYjuly 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly8NREGA and the Death of Tapas SorenAnish VanaikTapas Soren, a tribal of Birakhap in Jharkhand, committed self-immolation recently, impoverished by the constant demand for bribes by local officials for work done under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. His death soon after the murder of Lalit Mehta who had exposed corruption in NREGA schemes in Palamu is a damning comment on how the scheme is being implemented in Jharkhand.On the morning of July 2, 2008, Tapas Soren set himself ablaze at Charhi Chowk in Hazaribagh.1 Just before taking this ultimately fatal step he was heard shouting “aur anyay nahi sahenge” (I will not tolerate any more injustice).2 Only a couple of hours before these events, Soren had met the block development officer (BDO) of Churchu and the panchayat sevak of his gram panchayat to discuss matters relating to a 20 ft well that was being constructed on his land under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). That theNREGA, designed to benefit people like Tapas, could be the precipitant of such a calamity speaks of a particularly grave state of affairs with respect to its implementation in Jharkhand.Hazaribagh was among the first batch of districts where the NREGA was imple-mented. This means that it has been oper-ative for almost three years. Birakhap (where Tapas lived) is exactly the kind of village where it was envisioned as having the greatest impact. Dilip, Tapas’ elder brother described the struggles involved in making ends meet in Birakhap. The family owns and works a total of 4.54 acres of land. The single crop that they are able to produce in the year enables them to run their households for around four months. The rest of the year they are forced to look for employment elsewhere. This is a difficult task. Birakhap has no road: a river must be crossed to reach one. The search for work often led Dilip and Tapas far from home to where it was available – on roads or with contractors in the region. Just as often, employment was not available at all. NREGA would seem tailor-made for Tapas, Dilip and others in their village. To be assured of work at decent wages near home would be a combination that seemed wonderful to the point of being an illusion.An Insidious PatternThat is because for the most part it is an illusion. Employment generation in Haz-aribagh has been quite low. In 2007-08, the average employment generated for the 1.23 lakh households that demanded work was only around 34 days.3 This year, until June, only 31,658 households have been provided with employment.4 These macro statistics also find reflection in Tapas’ story. Dilip pointed out that NREGA works had only opened in December and January and no new ones were taken up in the summer, when work is most acutely needed.Even when employment was offered, there were delays in wage payments. Against the legal stipulation of payment within 15 days, funds for payment of wages were often released only 40 to 50 days after works had been completed.5 This means that when alternative employ-ment was available, workers would choose to leave anNREGA worksite for immediate wages. At Tapas’ own well, work had been going on for almost three months, although, given the delays in release of funds to Tapas, there was rarely a week in which work would be carried out for more than three or four days at a stretch. Dilip remarked that workers would simply leave work on the well for other kind of employ-ment if it was available in the area.While delays in wage payments and the low volume of works might simply be put down to bureaucratic slowness, the pattern in which works were taken up suggests something far more insidious. Jemma Mendis, an activist of the Chhotanagpur Adivasi Seva Samiti which works in the area, points out that in the four tribal hamlets of Sarabaha revenue village only two pond excavation works and the well on Tapas’ field had ever been sanctioned. In the one predominantly non-tribal hamlet, no less than 26 wells had been sanctioned. The reason for this stark contrast, she explained, was that there is a system of kickbacks running all the way up the administrative hierarchy. The standard price for having a well Anish Vanaik ( is involved in field surveys of the NREGA initiated by the G B Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
COMMENTARYjuly 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly10If the murder of Lalit Mehta in Chhat-tarpur laid bare the brutal consequences of the contractor-bureaucracy-politician nexus that has sprung up around the NREGA in Jharkhand, Tapas Soren’s fate reveals a different consequence of the same fact. The state of corruption seems institutionalised and regularised – with its coordinates of 5 per cent here and 7 per cent there. In stark contrast is every provi-sion of the act designed to empower work-ers and the rural poor – the ability to demand work, the capacity to decide which works get sanctioned in what order, the right to receive wages on time, the dis-bursal of wages in a public and trans-parent fashion, the right to inspect the documents relating to the NREGA, and others. These are forced to languish as is the promise of genuine, participatory change that they hold out. In such a sys-tem ‘anyay’ will inevitably be an everyday experience, one that will seek out and drain those among the poor who dare to try and make the NREGA work for them-selves – as Tapas did.Dilip Soren hopes that provision will be made by the state government for ade-quate compensation to Tapas’ two chil-dren and a job will be provided to his widow Dasmitudu. But he is also deter-mined that part of the outcome of this tragedy should be speedy development of the village and that those responsible for this state of affairs be brought to book. Apart from the government enquiry which has been instituted, perhaps the first step towards this can be the social audit that Chhotanagpur Adivasi Seva Samiti plans to conduct. After all, if the crisis is a result of the determination to ensure that the participatory elements of the act break down, it is only an equally strong determination to ensure that they are made operational that will in the long run be the cure.Notes1 The following account, except where otherwise indicated, is based on conversations with Dilip Soren, the brother of Tapas Soren, and Jemma Mendis, an activist of the Chhotanagpur Adivasi Seva Samiti, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi soon after Tapas Soren died at Safdarjang Hospital on July 8. 2 A video, which includes testimony taken from Tapas Soren when he was conscious soon after he was brought into hospital, is available at On the video, despite the visibly painful burns, he recounts some of the circumstances of his action and repeatedly affirms that people should not tol-erate injustice any more.3 All statistics relating to employment generation in Hazaribagh are taken from the implementation status reports provided online by the ministry of rural development.; 42.34 lakh person days were generated for the 1.23 lakh households.4 5 This was mentioned by both Dilip Soren and Jemma Mendis.6 All the figures relating to Tapas’ financial transac-tions were provided by Dilip Soren.[Readers can post their comments on this article in the blog section of the EPW web site. The blog will be open until August 5.]Communal Violence in IndoreJaya Mehta, Vineet TiwariThe “Bharat bandh” of July 3 saw communal violence erupt in Indore, with the police either on the sidelines or allegedly conniving in the attacks on the minorities. A number of events preceded the flare-up. Now fear and insecurity haunt the minority areas.In the wake of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) call for an all-India bandh, Indore witnessed widespread violence on July 3 and 4, 2008. Eight persons died. (Seven of them were Muslims.) Many people were injured and were admitted to hospitals in a serious condition. This was just a glimpse of the communalist forces active in the town and in Madhya Pradesh (MP). BackgroundIndore has had a glorious past of commu-nal harmony. The Holkar state was known for its secular and progressive rule in the region. Indore was also a major textile centre in central India. Hindu and Muslim labourers worked side by side and the working class culture constituted a major bulwark against caste and religious divides. However, the mills have closed down. Indore is no longer an industrial town. It is now a major business hub and a real estate hot spot. Trade union politics has given way to communal politics. The working class culture has been replaced bythe neo-rich culture of shopping malls. The town is flush with loads of unaccounted money. At the same time, unemployed youth are available in large numbers for recruitment into various activities whichcharacterise the distorted lumpen capitalism of our time.After the BJP government came to power in the state again in 2003 the Hindu right wing organisations geared up their activi-ties on all fronts and the local administra-tionsupported them. ‘Path sanchalans’ are organised regularly by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in different parts of the town. All public parks are used for morning ‘shakhas’. The premise of a girls’ college has been taken over to build a temple complex. ‘Surya namaskar’ is compulsory in all government schools. Communal politics has made deep inroads in the administrative set-up as well as in the audio-visual and print media. Temples in the premises of police stations are a common feature. It is in this milieu that activists from the Bajrang Dal and other allied organisations have routinely registered their rowdy presence at the railway station, at the airport, in hospitals, and of course, on the streets. The Christian and Muslim Shafi Mohd Sheikh, Ashok Dubey, Sarika Shrivastava, Pankhuri Mishra and Sourabh Das helped in collecting the data, meeting the victims and in writing this article.Jaya Mehta ( is an economist and Vineet Tiwari ( is a human rights activist and journalist, both are based in Indore.

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