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West Bengal: Not Paid for Over 5 Years, Jeevika Sevaks Struggling to Survive

Even after the Centre withdrew allocation under BGRF for Jeevika Sevaks, they continue to work for the panchayat department but say they are not paid.
Jeebika Sevak

Kolkata: Nearly a thousand Jeevika Sevaks, who are employed as contractual staff in West Bengal, claim they have not been paid their honorariums for over five and a half years (67 months), since June 2017, despite repeated appeals to the state government. 

"Our condition is worse than you can ever imagine. We have been without pay for the past 70 months and we are not getting the recognition as state government workers on the payrolls even after putting in years of hard work. There are 931 Jeevika Sevaks currently in the state, who are in dire straits since June 2017. I am married and do not have enough money to feed my child. I am now doing agricultural work to feed my family," Parameshwar Mal, a Jeevika Sevak from Bankura in his 40s, told NewsClick.

Another worker, Aparoop Banerjee, has a similar story. A bachelor, he lives with his mother in Bankura district. He told NewsCilck that many Jeevika Sevaks still go to the panchayat offices where they are entrusted with various types of menial labour without any pay. "We have visited various government departments and even the official residence of the Chief Minister at Kalighat. The chief minister had even assured absorbing us in the panchayat department. But it turned out to be only lip service," he said.

Banerjee said Jeevika Sevaks are still working under a written order from the state government. In their field of work, they are primarily supposed to help fulfil the livelihood ambitions of people living in backward regions. "Currently, our condition is such that we have appealed to the state government for voluntary death” Banerjee said, claiming that the past five years, about 15 Jeevika Sevaks had died due to hunger and without medical treatment. “In the panchayats, we are made to work without any money,” he added.

It was in 2009, when the then Left Front government had advertised in newspapers for the posts of Jeevika Sevaks, after which bright students who had passed the higher secondary examinations with agriculture as a subject had been appointed. Based on their qualifications, they were placed in Central government projects under the Backward Regions Grant Fund (BRGF). The appointments were primarily done in Bankura, South 24 Parganas, East and West Medinipur, Purulia, Birbhum, Murshidabad, Malda, North and South Dinajpur, and Jalpaiguri. Later, the districts of Jhargram and Alipurduar were added. A total of 1,150 youths were appointed as Jeevika Sevaks in the state, whose work was to let the people of the backward districts know about different government-run agricultural projects and help in the service delivery aspect of agricultural schemes.

Furthermore, they used to supervise the 100-day work programme under MNREGA (rural job guarantee scheme), survey work, different tasks related to information technology, maintain the register of widows and old-age pension, and all things related to development under village panchayats. They are also enlisted during elections and for Census-related work.

In 2009, the Jeevika Sevaks used to get Rs 4,000/month as honorarium, and then in 2012 and 2015, their wages were hiked to Rs 7,500/month. In 2015, the Central government-run project under BGRF was reportedly withdrawn. After that, May 2017 onward, their honorariums were stopped.

When asked by NewsClick, Pradip Majumdar, Minister in charge of the state's Panchayat and Rural Development Department, dismissed the claims made by Jeevika Sevaks, claiming that there was no worker under the panchayat department, such as Jeevika Sevaks. "They were initially scheme workers and that Central government-run scheme has now been closed," he added.

However, contrary to the minister's claim that Jeevika Sevaks have nothing to do with the panchayat department, NewsClick accessed a letter from a panchayat pradhan (village head) that outlines the major tasks carried out by the Jeevika Sevaks all these years.

While Jeevika Sevaks continue to work for the state government, on paper they do not seem to exist, as BGRF has been delinked from Central budgetary support to states since 2011-16 following the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission. As a result, those appointed are left in the lurch as they have neither been absorbed at the state level as employees, nor are they getting paid for the work they have been doing.

Criticising the state minister’s attitude toward Jeevika Sevaks, Indrajit Ghosh, a trade union leader and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) questioned how Jeevika Sevaks were being made to work for the state government’s pet ‘Duare Sarkar’ scheme, when they were “non-existent” on government rolls.

"What is happening to the lives of the Jeevika Sevaks is grossly unfair," he told NewsClick, demanding that the due wages of workers be paid, and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee should take steps to absorb them within the panchayat department, as assured by her.

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