In a year when large swathes of rural India reeled under drought, the Centre used WhatsApp messages to ask states to go slow on generating employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
This startling revelation emerged in the public domain in the last week of October through the reports of the Business Standard.
But for people in villages across India, the news is hardly surprising.
In Ratnauli village in Bihar's Muzaffarpur district, people said it has been a struggle to get MNREGA work this year. As in most parts of Bihar, landholdings in the village are severely skewed. According to Madina Begum, a woman in her late forties, of the 1,500 families in the panchayat, no more than 10 or 20 families own land. The rest are sharecroppers. The economics of their households are hard to imagine.
This is a paddy growing part of Bihar. Here, after deducting the investments they make for each crop and the money they pay the landowners, she said, the annual income that sharecroppers make from farming is as low as Rs 5,000.
"That is why NREGA is important for us," she said. "If we get work for 100 days, that is Rs 17,700."
According to the rural employment guarantee act, the government is obligated to provide households with a minimum of 100 days of work every year. In the best of times, households have found it hard to get 100 days of work. Since 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre, the struggle has intensified.
“We did not get any work all of 2014," said Begum. "We got 20 days in 2015."
This year, Begum said, the villagers put in a request asking for 100 days of work. "But, so far, we have only received 35 days of employment."
Protests break out
As Business Standard reported, the Centre began sending instructions to the states on WhatsApp in August. Since then, work generated under the scheme has been "54.8 million days less than what had been planned”.
Villagers in Bihar might not know why MNREGA work dried up, but they are living with its consequences. In Ratnauli, things have reached such a point of desperation, said Begum, that even people in their fifties have begun migrating, seeking work in backbreaking brick kilns.
In the neighbouring panchayat of Dumri, villagers found the administration had misrepresented the work they did, paying them Rs 91 per day instead of the minimum daily wage of Rs 177. As a result, the villagers, who have come together under a local movement called NREGA Watch led by activist Sanjay Sahni, have been camping in protest at the district collector's office for two months now. If the matter is not resolved by the end of October, they say, they will return the wages to the state government.
Begum sums up the state of affairs: "Block ke afsar ko mahiney mahiney tankah aati hain. Koi nahin dekhta hamein hamara adhikar mil raha hain ya nahin." The officials get monthly salaries. No one is concerned whether we are getting what is rightfully ours.