While the Lok Adalats are a possible tool of grievance redressal for NREGA, the first-ever Lok Adalat, convened by the Jharkhand Legal Services Authority in Latehar District, shows that its implementation has a long way to go, say economists
Put yourself in the shoes — or sandals — of a worker employed under the National Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) who has not been paid for weeks. Where do you go to seek justice? Under the Act, the "Programme Officer" at the Block level is supposed to receive complaints and dispose of them within seven days.
However, Programme Officers are often responsible for such lapses in the first place. This complaint system is not a very effective way of holding them accountable. This is one reason why delays in wage payments and other irregularities persist for a long time.
There is, thus, an evident need for independent grievance redressal channels under NREGA. In principle, "Lok Adalats" can serve this purpose, to some extent at least: they can help to deal with complaints that lend themselves to being resolved through mutual agreement.
The first-ever Lok Adalat on NREGA — convened by the Jharkhand Legal Services Authority (JHALSA) in Latehar District on February 7— was a valuable attempt to explore this approach. However, the events of February 7 and the week preceding it raise serious questions about what can be reasonably expected from a Lok Adalat.
What went wrong?
Preparations for the Lok Adalat began with an announcement in the local newspapers, inviting people to submit NREGA-related complaints to the District Legal Services Authortiy (DLSA) by January 31. In response to this announcement, published in mid-January, DLSA received more than 20,000 applications. Overwhelmed by this response, DLSA decided to conduct preliminary Lok Adalat proceedings on February 2-5. Twenty benches, with three members each, were formed to facilitate negotiations and draft "awards". Each bench consisted of a lawyer, a "social worker" and a District official not involved in NREGA. Orders had been issued to Block-level officials (including the Block Development Officers) to be present as the respondent party. The District Court was buzzing with activity throughout this period. When we arrived in Latehar on January 31, we found a staff of more than 30 employees hard at work, that too on a Sunday afternoon.
However, we also found a range of anomalies in the process. First and foremost, it turned out that the flood of complaints was based on misinformation or rather disinformation: a false impression had been created in the District that if a Job Card holder had not been employed under NREGA, he or she could claim the unemployment allowance, even without applying for work.
In fact, expectations had been created that the Lok Adalat would sanction mass payment of the unemployment allowance. A "form" to make this misguided claim was selling at an inflated price across the district, and most of the complaints were based on this form. How and why this happened is yet to be established.
Secondly, some of the benches lacked credibility. For instance, the credentials of several "social workers" were far from clear, and some benches included officials who were hearing complaints against them. At one point, a Soil Conservation official from one of the benches requested the District Judge, in front of us, to withdraw a particular "award" and let him give some cash to the applicant instead. He was afraid of action being taken against him, as the complaint pertained to his department.
Thirdly, most of the bench members knew little about NREGA, and had not been briefed. Even the District Judge was evidently innocent of the basics of the Act as late as January 31, when we arrived in Latehar.
Fourthly, we noticed that bench members typically asked the villagers two or three brief questions and then told them to put their signature or thumbprint on the "agreement", without explaining it to them. They were dealing with disempowered labourers who also happened to be illiterate in most cases. This abuse of power, combined with the fact that there is no appeal, could lead to great injustice.
Row over receipts
The main issue, however, was the disposal of misguided claims for the unemployment allowance. After protracted negotiations, the government and JHALSA agreed to treat these claims as applications for work under the NREGA. Specifically, it was agreed that the applicants would get a receipt for their work application at the Lok Adalat on February 7, and employment within 15 days. It is on the basis of this agreement that, on February 6, Gram Swaraj Abhiyan (a network of local organisations) lifted a dharna launched earlier to voice these and other demands.
Repeated pleas for the timely preparation of receipts (so that people returned from the Lok Adalat with something tangible) were made to JHALSA and the District Administration. Assurances were given that this would be done, and that the applicants would also receive a true copy of the Lok Adalat's "award", in cases where an award was ready. Yet, on February 7, it turned out that no such arrangements had been made. Further, due to massive overcrowding (about 20,000 people turned up), most of the applicants were not able to reach the relevant bench. They went helplessly from bench to bench and returned empty-handed. Meanwhile, a string of dignitaries were giving cheerful speeches from the dais.
As thousands of disappointed people were leaving the venue of the Lok Adalat, a rally was formed to protest against this betrayal. Sounds of "Lok Adalat dhokha hai" (the Lok Adalat is a farce) reverberated through Latehar. When the rally moved towards the residence of the Deputy Commissioner to demand that receipts be sent by post to all concerned, it was stopped by the police, leading to a half an hour road block. This compelled the DC to come out and meet the agitated protestors. Long negotiations (also involving the District Judge) followed, without achieving a compromise.
All is not lost
It is too early to write off Lok Adalats as a possible tool of grievance redressal for NREGA. The principle is worthwhile, and the practice can improve. Indeed, flawed as it was, the Lok Adalat in Latehar was a great learning experience.
The Lok Adalat also achieved some positive results. Most importantly, it created much better awareness of NREGA in the area and mobilized large numbers of people on this issue across the district. And in spite of the impasse it ended in, the Lok Adalat is likely to lead to a massive activation of NREGA works in Latehar.
The Lok Adalat also led to the first instance of payment of the unemployment allowance in Jharkhand. Seventy-eight workers from Kope and Jerua Gram Panchayats of Manika Block (Latehar) were awarded Rs. 1,38,000 as unemployment allowance, paid on the spot on February 7. Residents of these two villages had waged a long struggle for the unemployment allowance, after being denied employment in spite of well-recorded work applications.
The government order sanctioning the unemployment allowance in Kope and Jerua also pulled up the Block Development Officer (Manika) for failing to perform her duty. She was fined Rs. 1000 under Section 25 of the NREGA. Jharkhand is the first state in the country to activate this crucial Section of the Act (this is, in fact, the second case in Jharkhand). Judging from the resistance of the BDO and the consternation of other local officials, this penalty is likely to have strong demonstration effects well beyond Latehar.
Efforts are on to repair the damage done by this "ceremonial Lok Adalat", as a senior JHALSA official candidly described the event. JHALSA has agreed to post a true copy of the Lok Adalat's award to some 6,000 people who were actually able to find their way through the proceedings.
Follow-up Lok Adalats are to be held very soon at the Block level to deal with pending applications. JHALSA will also be monitoring the implementation of the Lok Adalat's awards. According to Justice M.Y. Eqbal, Executive Chairman of JHALSA, anyone who is not given NREGA work within 15 days of February 7, in spite of an award to this effect from the Lok Adalat, will be considered eligible for the unemployment allowance.
It remains to be seen whether these promises will be kept. Meanwhile, they provide a useful toehold for further public mobilisation in Latehar.
Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera are associated with the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad University.
What is a Lok Adalat?
Lok Adalats are set up under the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987. Part of the move to provide wider "access to justice", they are aimed at providing speedy and affordable justice to the poor. The "award" of a Lok Adalat is based on mutual agreement between the two parties.
Lok Adalats cannot pass orders "on merit". Once an award is made, there is no appeal.
Note: "Permanent Lok Adalats" set up for specific public utilities have different powers. For instance, they can settle cases on merit.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ "Ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality." - Dr BR Ambedkar ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~