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Daily Current Affairs 03.09.2022 (Paddy cultivation sees decline, The NPT is beginning to look shaky, India’s cyber infrastructure needs more than patches, Wind in the sail, Delays, debt and distress in West Bengal)

Daily Current Affairs 03.09.2022 (Paddy cultivation sees decline, The NPT is beginning to look shaky, India’s cyber infrastructure needs more than patches, Wind in the sail, Delays, debt and distress in West Bengal)

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1. Paddy cultivation sees decline

5.62% decrease in the area covered this year compared to 2021, data show

The trend of decrease in paddy sowing has continued even as the monsoon season in north India is in its last legs. According to the data released by the Union Agriculture Ministry on Friday, the decrease in the area of paddy cultivation is 22.90 lakh hectares, 5.62% less than the area covered in 2021.

As of now, paddy has been cultivated in 383.99 lakh hectares of area and in the corresponding period of last year, it was 406.89 lakh hectares.

“Thus, 22.90 lakh hectares less area has been covered as compared to last year,” the Centre said.

States such as Jharkhand (decrease of 9.80 lakh hectares), Madhya Pradesh (6.32 lakh hectares), West Bengal (4.45 lakh hectares), Chhattisgarh (3.91 lakh hectares), Uttar Pradesh (2.61 lakh hectares) and Bihar (2.18 lakh hectares) are the major contributors for the decrease in the cultivated area of paddy in this kharif season.

Meanwhile, States such as Telangana (increase of 4.71 lakh hectares), Haryana (0.94 lakh hectares), Nagaland (0.78 lakh hectares) and Gujarat (0.55 lakh hectares) showed an increase in the area of cultivation of paddy.

Farmers’ organisations have been maintaining that the higher input cost, particularly the increase in prices of fertilizers, is the main reason for the decrease in paddy cultivation apart from scarcity of water. The government is hopeful about a normal monsoon this year.

Cultivation of pulses

The coverage of pulses too witnessed a marginal decrease. In this kharif season, the cultivation so far is in 129.55 lakh hectares compared to 135.46 lakh hectares in 2021. Increase in area in cultivation is reported from States such as Madhya Pradesh (4.08 lakh hectares), Uttar Pradesh (0.22 lakh hectares) and Assam (0.11 lakh hectares) while Maharashtra (decrease of 3.23 lakh hectares), Telangana (1.70 lakh hectares), Jharkhand (1.33 lakh hectares) and Karnataka (0.94 lakh hectares).

Tur/arhar cultivation was down marginally at 44.86 lakh hectares as against 47.56 lakh hectares in 2021.

Oilseeds have been cultivated in 188.51 lakh hectares in the country, slightly less than 189.66 lakh hectares of 2021. In the case of sugarcane, the cultivation is 55.65 lakh hectares, a slight increase in the production as compared to 54.70 lakh hectares in 2021 kharif.

2. Editorial-: The NPT is beginning to look shaky

Sustaining it requires facing up to today’s political realities such as the growing rivalries in a multipolar nuclear world

The Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) concluded last week in New York. Marking 52 years of a treaty that every speaker described as the ‘cornerstone of the global nuclear order’ — it was originally planned for its 50th year for 2020, but the conference was delayed due to COVID-19 — it should have been a celebratory occasion, yet, the mood was sombre. And after four weeks of debate and discussion, the delegates failed to agree on a final document.

NPT’s success and weakness

To manage the disappointment, some staunch believers claimed that the success should not be defined in terms of a consensus outcome! It is true that since 1970, when the NPT entered into force, only four of the 10 review conferences (in 1980, 1990, 2000 and 2010) have concluded with a consensus document, the review years were: 1975, 1980, 1985, 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005, 2010, 2015, 2022. Ironically, even the critical 1995 Review Conference that decided to extend the NPT into perpetuity, broke down weeks later over the review process.

However, there was one key difference in 2022. In the past, the divergences were over Iran, Israel, West Asia or between the nuclear haves and nuclear have-nots. The three depositary states (the United States, the United Kingdom and the U.S.S.R./Russia) were always on the same page. The difference in 2022 was that it pitched Russia against the West; it was the inability to find language to address the nuclear safety crisis at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, under Russian occupation since March, that ultimately led to the failure.

The NPT was negotiated during the 1960s to reconcile three competing objectives — controlling the further spread of nuclear weapons beyond the P-5 countries (the U.S., the U.S.S.R., the U.K, France and China) that had already tested; committing to negotiating reductions of nuclear arsenals leading to their elimination; and sharing benefits of peaceful applications of nuclear science and technology. The first was strongly supported by the nuclear-haves; the latter two were demands made by the nuclear have-nots.

Over the years, the non-proliferation objective has been achieved in large measure. Despite apprehensions that by the 1980s, there would be close to 25 nuclear powers, in the last 50 years, only four more countries have gone on to test and develop nuclear arsenals — India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan (South Africa developed nuclear weapons but the apartheid regime destroyed them and joined NPT in 1991 before relinquishing power to majority rule). After the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the U.S.S.R. in 1991, non-proliferation remained a shared priority for the major powers and the International Atomic Energy Agency, set up originally to promote international co-operation became better known as the non-proliferation watchdog.

Progress on the other two aspects took a back seat; no meaningful discussions or negotiations on nuclear disarmament have ever taken place in the NPT framework. In fact, in the early 1980s, there was a growth in nuclear arsenals. Arms control talks between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R./Russia did take place and the two countries did succeed in bringing down their collective arsenals from a high of nearly 65,000 in the early 1980s to less than 12,000 warheads. But this process too has ground to a halt.

The first signal was the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002 on the grounds that it unduly constrained its missile defence activities. Limits imposed by the ABM Treaty had been a critical element in creating mutual vulnerability as a means of underwriting deterrence stability. It was a unipolar world with the U.S. as the dominant power. Russia gradually responded by embarking on its nuclear modernisation.

In 2019, the U.S. notified Russia of its decision to quit the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that had obliged both countries to get rid of all ground-launched missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km. The U.S. blamed Russia for cheating on its obligations and pointed out that China’s missile developments created new security threats that needed to be addressed. The U.S. was now facing two strategic rivals.

The only surviving arms control treaty between Russia and the U.S. is the New START Treaty that imposes a ceiling on operational strategic nuclear weapons of 700 launchers and 1,550 warheads each. It expires in 2026 and there are no signs of any follow-on discussions.

Attempts by the Donald Trump administration to invite China to join in the arms control process were rejected. Given growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, any prospects for such talks have only receded.

All that the five nuclear-weapon-states party to the NPT could manage at the conference was a reiteration of the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev declaration that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’. The statement remains valid but clearly sounded hollow in the face of growing strategic rivalry between China, Russia and the U.S., rising nuclear rhetoric, and modernisation plans for nuclear arsenals being pursued.

Nuclear modernisation

While the Joe Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review is awaited, the U.S.’s 30-year nuclear modernisation programme, intended to provide ‘credible deterrence against regional aggression’ is already underway. This has been used to justify developing and deploying more usable low-yield nuclear weapons.

Russia (and China too) is developing hypersonic delivery systems that evade missile defences as well as larger missiles that do not need to travel over the Arctic. Also on the cards are nuclear torpedoes and new cruise missiles. Last year, satellite imagery over China revealed that at least three new missile storage sites are being developed. Analysts suggest that China may be on track to expand its arsenal from current levels of approximately 350 warheads to over 1,000 by 2030. Such a dramatic expansion raises questions about whether this marks a shift in the Chinese nuclear doctrine that has relied on a credible minimum deterrent and a no-first-use policy for the last six decades.

Developments in space and cyber domains are blurring the line between conventional and nuclear weapons, leading to nuclear entanglement and rendering command and control systems vulnerable. This, in turn, compresses decision-making time and creates incentives for early use, raising nuclear risk.

At the conference, France, the U.K. and the U.S. wanted to draw a distinction between “irresponsible” nuclear threats of an offensive nature and “responsible” nuclear threats for defensive purposes but Russia (and China) stymied western efforts. When the nuclear have-nots suggested a universal condemnation of all threats of nuclear use, all five nuclear-haves joined together to resist such moves. This reflects an emerging divide.

Other treaties, their state

Frustrated by the absence of progress on nuclear disarmament, the nuclear have-nots successfully negotiated a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, also called Ban Treaty) in 2017 that entered into force in January 2021. All 86 signatories are nuclear have-nots and parties to the NPT. The TPNW creates a new legal instrument and at their meeting in June in Vienna, the TPNW states committed to pushing for ‘stigmatising and de-legitimising’ nuclear weapons, condemning all nuclear threats and ‘building a robust global peremptory norm against them’. Expectedly, the nuclear-haves and their allies ignored the Vienna meeting but will find it increasingly difficult to overlook this political reality as more and more NPT colleagues call their bluff.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was concluded in 1996 but has yet to formally enter into force because two major powers, the U.S. and China, have yet to ratify it. While it is true that they do observe a moratorium on nuclear testing, modernisation plans could soon run up against the CTBT.

Nobody wants a breakdown of the NPT but sustaining it requires facing up to today’s political realities. The rivalries in a multipolar nuclear world create new challenges, different from what the world faced in a bipolar era of the 1960s when the NPT was concluded. Without addressing the new challenges, the NPT will weaken and with it, the taboo against nuclear weapons that has held since 1945.

3. Editorial-2: India’s cyber infrastructure needs more than patches

With cybercrime on the rise, the central and State governments need to work in tandem

There has been a steady spike in cases of cybercrime in the last five years. According to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), from 12,317 cases of cybercrime in 2016, there were 50,035 cases registered in 2020. In India, cybercrime is increasing with the increased use of information and communication technology (ICT). However, despite this alarming trend, the capacity of the enforcement agencies to investigate cybercrime remains limited.

As far as the admissibility of electronic evidence is concerned, though there were some conflicting judgments of the Supreme Court of India earlier, the law was finally settled in Arjun Pandit Rao Khotkar vs Kailash Kushanrao Gorantyal & Ors. The Court held that a certificate under Section 65B(4) of the Indian Evidence (IE) Act was a mandatory pre-requisite for the admissibility of (secondary) electronic record if the original record could not be produced.

With ‘police’ and ‘public order’ being in the State List, the primary obligation to check crime and create the necessary cyberinfrastructure lies with States. At the same time, with the IT Act and major laws being central legislations, the central government is no less responsible to evolve uniform statutory procedures for the enforcement agencies. Though the Government of India has taken steps that include the setting up of the Indian Cybercrime Coordination Centre (I4C) under the Ministry of Home Affairs to deal with all types of cybercrime, much needs to be done to plug the infrastructural deficit.

No procedural code

There is no separate procedural code for the investigation of cyber or computer-related offences. As electronic evidence is entirely different in nature when compared with evidence of traditional crime, laying down standard and uniform procedures to deal with electronic evidence is essential. The broad ‘guidelines for the identification, collection, acquisition and preservation of digital evidence’ are given in the Indian Standard IS/ISO/IEC 27037: 2012, issued by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). This document is fairly comprehensive and easy to comprehend for both the first responder (who could be an authorised and trained police officer of a police station) as well as the specialist (who has specialised knowledge, skills and the abilities to handle a wide range of technical issues). The guidelines, if followed meticulously, may ensure that electronic evidence is neither tampered with nor subject to spoliation during investigation.

A significant attempt has been made by the higher judiciary in this field also. As resolved in the Conference of the Chief Justices of the High Court in April 2016, a five-judge committee was constituted in July 2018 to frame the draft rules which could serve as a model for the reception of digital evidence by courts.

The committee, after extensive deliberations with experts, the police and investigation agencies, finalised its report in November 2018, but the suggested Draft Rules for the Reception, Retrieval, Authentication and Preservation of Electronic Records are yet to be given a statutory force.

Shortage of technical staff

Second, there have been half-hearted efforts by the States to recruit technical staff for the investigation of cybercrime. A regular police officer, with an academic background in the arts, commerce, literature, or management may be unable to understand the nuances of the working of a computer or the Internet. He can at best, after proper training, act as a first responder who could identify digital evidence and secure the scene of crime or preserve digital evidence till the arrival of an expert. It is only a technically qualified staff who could acquire and analyse digital evidence.

It is relevant here to mention that the Court, during the trial of the infamous State of Goa, through C.I.D. C.B., North Goa, Goa. vs Tarunjit Tejpal took objection to the fact that the investigating sub-inspector, who seized the relevant CDs, did not know the meaning of the term ‘hash value’.

Similarly, in the Aarushi murder case of Noida, reported as Dr. (Smt.) Nupur Talwar vs State of U.P. and Anr., the Allahabad High Court observed that the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) expert was not provided with the details of the Internet logs, router logs and laptop logs to prove whether the Internet was physically operated on the fateful night. Even the certificate under Section 65B of the IE Act (which is statutorily required), was undated, and hence rejected by the trial court.

Therefore, it is essential that State governments build up sufficient capacity to deal with cybercrime. It could be done either by setting up a separate cyberpolice station in each district or range, or having technically qualified staff in every police station.

Further, the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000 insists that offences registered under the Act should be investigated by a police officer not below the rank of an inspector. The fact is that police inspectors are limited in number in districts, and most of the field investigation is done by sub-inspectors. Therefore, it will be pragmatic to consider a suitable amendment in Section 80 of the Act and make sub-inspectors eligible to take up investigation of cybercrimes.

Upgrade cyber labs

Third, the cyber forensic laboratories of States must be upgraded with the advent of new technologies. Offences related to crypto-currency remain under-reported as the capacity to solve such crimes remains limited. The central government has proposed launching a digital rupee using blockchain technology soon. State enforcement agencies need to be ready for these technologies. The Centre helps in upgrading the State laboratories by providing modernisation funds, though the corpus has gradually shrunk over the years. While most State cyber labs are sufficiently equipped to analyse hard disks and mobile phones, many are yet to be notified as ‘Examiner of Electronic Evidence’ (by the central government) to enable them to provide expert opinion on electronic records. Since there is now a state-of-art National Cyber Forensic Lab and the Cyber Prevention, Awareness and Detection Centre (CyPAD) of the Delhi Police, there may be an extension of professional help to States in getting their labs notified.

Need for localisation

Most cybercrimes are trans-national in nature with extra-territorial jurisdiction. The collection of evidence from foreign territories is not only a difficult but also a tardy process. India has extradition treaties and extradition arrangements with 48 and 12 countries, respectively. In most social media crimes, except for the prompt blocking of an objectionable website or suspect’s account, other details do not come forth quickly from large IT firms. Therefore, ‘data localisation’ must feature in the proposed Personal Data Protection law so that enforcement agencies are able to get timely access to the data of suspected Indian citizens. Also, the police still get CyberTipline reports on online Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) from the U.S.’s non-profit agency, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). It would be a step forward if India develops its in-house capacity and/or makes intermediaries accountable to identify and remove online CSAM for immediate action by the police.

In fact, the Centre and States must not only work in tandem and frame statutory guidelines to facilitate investigation of cybercrime but also need to commit sufficient funds to develop much-awaited and required cyber infrastructure.

4. Editorial-3: Wind in the sail

INS Vikrant is a milestone; the focus now must be on a twin-engine deck-based fighter

India commissioned its first indigenously designed and built aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, on Friday and joined a small group of countries which include the U.S., the U.K., Russia, France and China, that have the capability to design and build carriers with a displacement of over 40,000 tonnes. What India has demonstrated is the capacity to develop a carrier although it has been operating these ships for over 60 years. It took 17 years from the time the steel was cut and around ₹20,000 crore to make Vikrant a reality. Developing a viable domestic defence industry has been a priority for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the new aircraft carrier is a sign of India’s expanding atmanirbharta or self-reliance in defence. The new vessel has 76% of indigenous content overall but its critical technology has been imported, pointing to the need for persistence. The carrier in itself is an engineering marvel with an endurance of 7,500 nautical miles. It has around 2,200 compartments for a crew of around 1,600 that include specialised cabins to accommodate women officers and sailors, and a full-fledged speciality medical facility. Several technological spin-offs from the ship’s construction include the capacity to manufacture warship-grade steel, which India used to import. Its commissioning gives India and its emerging defence manufacturing sector the confidence to aim and sail farther.

The Indian Navy’s ambition is to have three aircraft carriers — it already has INS Vikramaditya procured from Russia — and it has suggested that the expertise gained from building Vikrant could now be used to build a second, more capable, indigenous carrier. INS Vikrant will be the wind in the sail for India’s proactive maritime strategy in the Indo-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region. At the commissioning ceremony in Kochi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh reiterated India’s interest in “a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific” and Mr. Modi’s idea of ‘SAGAR’ or Security and Growth for All in the Region. A strong Navy is also critical to India’s ambition to grow its share in global trade, which is largely maritime — INS Vikrant significantly expands the Indian Navy’s footprint in the backdrop of increasing Chinese activity in the region and New Delhi’s closer cooperation with the U.S. While MiG-29K fighter jets will now be integrated into the fleet air arm of Vikrant, the Navy has taken an active interest in procuring either the French Rafale M or the American F/A-18 Super Hornet. This would need structural modifications in the ship which would allow operating these more capable aircraft from its deck. Meanwhile, the plans to develop India’s own twin-engine deck-based fighter continue to remain a distant dream. The focus, and priority now, should be in resolving the fighter jet conundrum while also taking a call on the second indigenous aircraft carrier to ensure that the expertise gained is not jettisoned due to strategic myopia.

5. Editorial-4: Delays, debt and distress in West Bengal

The delay in payment of wages has pushed MGNREGS workers in West Bengal to the brink. Shiv Sahay Singh reports on the allegations of corruption against the State government, the Centre’s reluctance in releasing payments, and the plight of the workers caught in this tussle

On July 25, nearly three hours after Droupadi Murmu took oath as the first tribal President of India, hundreds of women, mostly from tribal communities and Other Backward Classes, held a rally at Puncha block in West Bengal’s Purulia district, about 1,300 km from Delhi. Demanding that they be paid pending wages for work done under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the women shouted, “Keu khabe ar keu khabe na, ta hobe na, ta hobe na” (Some will eat, some will go hungry. That can’t happen.) Some of them were not wearing shoes, but they walked without wincing on a tarred road that sweltering afternoon. “Jaat dharm baad dao, bhuka pete bhaat dao” (Set aside caste and religion, give food to the hungry), they cried.

Entering the administrative complex of the block in Puncha town, the women gathered around a display sign of MGNREGS. It featured a photograph of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as well as details about who is entitled to work under MGNREGS and for how many days. The women said they had not been paid since December 2021.

Ranu Mahali had come to the rally with a nine-month-old child in her arms. She said she had worked for 14 days in the financial year 2022-23. Her husband, Dibakar Mahali, who had been unable to find work, had left for the neighbouring Bardhaman district to work in potato fields. On his way back home on April 4, Dibakar died in a road accident. Ranu was desperate for her pending wage of ₹2,982.

“She is struggling to make ends meet. She has three children to feed,” said Sadhana Mahato, pointing at Ranu. Sadhana had worked for 48 days in April and May and was waiting for her dues.

Somali Mahati and Sarati Mahato, who were walking barefoot, said they want to work but there was no work to be found. “We have to depend on others in the family. Nobody is willing to give us a loan,” said the two women who appeared to be in their mid-fifties. The people in Purulia, which is among the poorest districts of West Bengal, are the worst affected by the delay in payment of MGNREGS wages.

Brewing discontent

Not far from Puncha Block Development Office is Kultanr village, where the Sabar tribals live. The Sabars are a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Most of the 50 houses in the village have been constructed under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. The announcement of the state’s contribution in building the houses is in bold letters on nearly every house. The children don’t attend school. The older people in the community look perplexed when asked why July 25 was a historic day. Most of them had not even heard of Droupadi Murmu.

Sajani Sabar was cooking the evening meal of rice and leafy vegetables, which were grown in her backyard. The food, she said, was insufficient to feed her three children. Her situation had worsened compared to last year when there was guaranteed work for 100 days under MGNREGS. Sajani and her neighbours said they could now afford to cook only one meal a day.

A fact-finding team, which was probing the impact of the delay in payment of MGNREGS wages, looked at the job cards of the Sabars. None of the members of the community had got any work in the financial year 2022-23, said Apurva Gupta, a member of the NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, who checked the job cards on the MGNREGS management information system (MIS). With no work under the scheme and no land of their own, the Sabars have been surviving on odd jobs and agricultural work.

Anindya Bhattacharya, the Block Development Officer of Puncha, who met the team, said work was available, but labourers could not be convinced to do the work as payments were pending. Speaking about the regular demonstrations at his office, he said he was aware that discontentment was brewing. He was worried that the anger would erupt and lead to a law-and-order situation.

Pradipta Biswas, the District Panchayat and Rural Development Officer of Purulia, said the district administration was unable to plant saplings or undertake water restoration projects because of the issue of pending wages. Biswas explained that the average number of people employed under the scheme for any given day in July 2021 was 80,000-90,000; this had now dropped to 5,000-6,000. The stoppage of 100-day work has not only pushed workers to the brink, but also impacted the creation of necessary physical infrastructure in Purulia, which faces water scarcity. The district had a yearly target of planting 20 lakh saplings but is now trying to meet a target of about 1.5 lakh, he said.

Biswas’s words rang true in Purulia’s Barabazar block, once a hub of the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Rows of small pits, dug to plant saplings, were lying empty. At Tuima village, women assembled under a tree besides thatched mud houses that were beautifully decorated with tribal motifs. Most of them had worked for 10-14 days in the last few months under MGNREGS, but had not received wages. Their debt was surging. They were depending on daily work in agriculture to sustain themselves, but ₹150 a day was far lower than what they were earning under MGNREGS (₹223 a day). “We would repay loans, taken from self-help groups, with the money we got from 100 days of work. Now we have no means to repay the loans,” said Jaleshwari Hansda, who had worked for 16 days in February.

The women, who are mostly in their forties and fifties, insisted on taking us to the water body where they were working. Thakurdas Mahato had about three bighas of land, which was surrounded by a guava orchard. The land had been dug for a pond, but the work had stopped. The pond was several feet deep. “But it is not deep enough to store water,” said the women as they descended into the pit. A few kilometres away, there was another half-dug pond at Tumrasole village. Purulia is crucial to West Bengal’s ambitious ‘Usharmukti’ scheme, which aims to provide relief to people in drought-prone areas.

Allegations of corruption

In the last week of July, West Bengal was on the boil over the recovery of ₹50 crore cash, and jewellery worth ₹4.5 crore from an aide of former Minister Partha Chatterjee. The visit of a fact-finding team of activists and social workers to three districts of West Bengal — Purulia, South 24 Parganas and Nadia — coincided with the reports of the cash seized in Kolkata.

After the visits, district representatives of the fact-finding teams met Partha Ghosh, Special Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development, in Kolkata. Ghosh appeared worried about the deadlock and said a flurry of letters had been exchanged between the State and Central governments over the non-payment of wages. He said several Central teams had come to West Bengal in the last few years and another team was expected soon.

Asked about the allegations of corruption, he said the Centre wanted action against erring officials and, in some cases, “full recovery” of the money spent for MGNREGS. Ghosh said the West Bengal government was lodging FIRs in some cases where allegations of corruption had come to the fore. But he admitted it would be difficult to recover the money.

James Heranj, an activist from Jharkhand who was part of the fact-finding team, asked why the State had not set up a buffer fund so that it could pay the workers before the Centre released the funds. Heranj gave the example of Jharkhand where the State government had set up a buffer fund of ₹500 crore.

The team also met the social audit director of West Bengal, who revealed that no budget had been sanctioned to conduct a social audit of MGNREGS for 2021-22 and 2022-23. A social audit helps to check corruption in MGNREGS.

The number of people affected by non-payment of MGNREGS wages in West Bengal can only be gauged by the figures in the MGNREGS MIS. The State has about 3.42 crore registered workers and 1.57 crore jobs cards (one family has one job card). In 2021-22, the number of man-days generated was 36.42 crore, the second highest in the country after Rajasthan. Women comprised almost half the workforce — 46.69% in 2021-22 and 48% in 2022-23. Due to non-payment of wages, the total man-days generated in 2022-23 till September 2 had dropped to 3.43 crore.

A major political issue

In response to a question by Trinamool Congress MP Jawhar Sircar on August 3, the Ministry of Rural Development informed the Rajya Sabha that West Bengal was the only State in the country that had received no funds for 2022-23 from the Centre under MGNREGS. In response to another question in the Rajya Sabha on July 20, the Ministry of Rural Development pointed out that the Centre had ₹3,989.58 crore pending liabilities for the wage component under MGNREGS and that it owed ₹2,605.82 crore (about 65%) to West Bengal. In response to Sircar’s question and several other questions in Parliament on why funds to West Bengal had been stopped, the Centre cited “non-compliance of directives of the Central Government” under Section 27 of the MGNREGA, 2005. Section 27 says the Central government may order stoppage of release of funds to the scheme and institute appropriate remedial measures for proper implementation within a reasonable period of time. “What is so ‘reasonable’ about withholding payments to workers for months for the back-breaking work they did,” Anuradha Talwar of Paschimbanga Khetmajoor Samity asked. A prominent voice on worker’s rights, Talwar said allegations of corruption in MGNREGS in West Bengal “have a basis, but it is completely unjustified not to pay workers for no fault of theirs.”

Several other activists also admitted that there is rampant corruption in implementation of MGNREGS in West Bengal. There have been allegations of fake bills, panchayat functionaries withholding job cards of workers and siphoning off funds, forged master rolls of workers, and work done with earthmovers and machines being passed off as MGNREGS work. After Cyclone Amphan ravaged large parts of the Sundarbans two years ago, a substantial amount of MGNREGS funds was diverted for restoration of damaged houses. Plantation of saplings constitutes important work under the 100-day work scheme. The planting of trees has multiple benefits in regions such as Purulia, which are arid. And in the Sundarbans, mangrove plantations protect low-lying areas from frequent cyclones.

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 6, the Leader of the Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, referred to specific instances of corruption in panchayats under Joynagar II block of Kultali Assembly in South 24 Parganas district. The BJP MLA alleged that individual beneficiaries, mostly from the ruling party, had been allocated funds but did not plant a single sapling. At the time of inspection, these beneficiaries claimed that the plants had been washed away in the Amphan and Yaas cyclones, he held.

“Despite allegations of corruption, the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) has not conducted any audit of the implementation of MGNREGS in West Bengal after 2011-12. Even the system of social audit is not working,” said Biswanath Goswami, a socio-legal researcher and RTI activist. In the past few months, there have been a few instances, including in Nadia and Malda districts, where block development officers have lodged complaints against panchayat functionaries for corruption. During a meeting in August, the State Panchayat Secretary directed District Magistrates to file FIRs and recover money for work where irregularities had surfaced. Instances of refunds of MGNREGS work were also being reported in some districts.

The Chief Minister has raised the issue of non-payment of MGNREGS wages on several occasions. She has written letters to the Prime Minister and met him on August 5. In a letter to the Prime Minister on August 5, she said there was “great distress” in rural areas because funds had not been released for schemes. On August 4, the West Bengal government denied permission to members of a fact-finding team to hold a gathering in Kolkata’s Esplanade area, but on July 22, during her party’s Martyr’s Day rally, Banerjee called for protests in Delhi against non-payment of MGNREGS dues.

The Trinamool Congress has termed the issue of non-payment of wages as an act of vendetta by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government at the Centre for the defeat the national party faced in the 2021 Assembly polls. The BJP leadership, including party president J.P. Nadda, said West Bengal did not submit details of how MGNREGS funds had been utilised over the past three years. The Left parties and the Congress have stressed on corruption, rather than highlighting the plight of the workers.

The fact-finding team made its report public on July 28. It pointed out that work under MGNREGS had almost come to a halt due to non-payment of wages. This had impacted food security, especially among single women. The report also stated that the imbroglio between the Centre and the State had increased migration, and the stoppage of work like building embankments and irrigation channels had an adverse impact on the livelihoods of communities and the environment.

No work on the embankments

Almost three weeks after the workers in Purulia held protests demanding work and wages, the villagers in South 24 Parganas’s coastal area braved back-to-back depressions in the Bay of Bengal. This is the district where the highest complaints of corruption of MGNREGS have surfaced. Large areas of Nagedrapur gram panchayat in Mathurapur II block of Sundarbans were submerged on August 14, when embankments were breached. The Sundarbans has a network of 3,500 km mud embankments, most of which are repaired under MGNREGS. Since there has been no repair of the embankments, fear of inundation looms large. There are a number of small huts in Jata Barodanagar on the embankments, just beside a water body that locals call river Moni. When it poured on a Friday afternoon in August, women, all of them barefoot, tried to keep their huts safe by covering them with tarpaulin sheets. The children of Samiran Mollah and Gauri Halder have migrated for work. Asked why they didn’t repair the embankments, the women replied: “We haven’t got any money. Why should we work?”

Arjina Gazi, pradhan of the gram panchayat, also expressed her helplessness. “The people have not been paid. How can I ask them to repair the embankments,” she said, opening the doors of her newly built and curtained two-storey house.

The rain poured for hours and the wind gathered pace, turning into a squall. As dusk descended, women fretted over how to cook dinner. The firewood was wet and none of them had an LPG cylinder which, they said, costs more than ₹1,000. “We don’t cut the mangrove trees we planted although that could have given us dry wood. Maybe we should have repaired the embankments before the monsoon,” rued Samiran and Gauri.

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