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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 13, March 14, 2009

Declaration of a Conference on NREGA and Panchayats

Sunday 15 March 2009

The Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the Embassy of Sweden (Swedish International Development Agency-SIDA) organised a National Conference on NREGA and Panchayats on October 14-15, 2008 at the Constitution Club, Rafi Marg, New Delhi. More than 1200 Panchayat Presidents and elected local government representatives from 24 States Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal participated in the Conference. Mani Shankar Aiyar, the Union Minister for Panchayati Raj, inaugurated the Conference. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, Union Minister for Rural Development, addressed the delegates on October 15. The Ambassador of Sweden, Lars-Olof Lindrgren, Ms Annie Raja, Ms Aruna Roy, B. N. Yugandhar, S. M. Vijayanand, Nikhil Dey, Ms Soumya Kidambi, Amitabh Behr and Ms Pamela Philipose addressed the Conference. In the session on international experience Ms Anna Backmann of SALA-IDA spoke about the Swedish local government experience while Dr Joy Elamon of SDC-CapDeck narrated the Swiss experience. Eminent scholars and social activists led the open sessions and representatives from all parts of the country freely aired their views about the implementation of the NREGA through the Panchayats.

The following is the declaration adopted by the Panchayat Presidents and elected local government representatives at the end of the two-day Conference:

The NREGA is one of the greatest experiments undertaken to eradicate rural poverty. The other great experiment is democratic decentralisation through Panchayati Raj. Both could make each other powerful and effective if the implementation of the NREGA is styled in a genuinely democratic and decentralised manner. Although the Act itself asserts that Panchayats would be the main implementing agencies and assigns a host of functions to Panchayats and Gram Sabhas, no effective step has been taken either by the Union or the State governments to ensure that Panchayats are equipped to handle the NREGS in the best possible way.

The success stories of the NREGS are abundant. While not denying the credit of these to the Panchayats, we should be concerned with the basic issue: whether all this has really empowered the local government institutions. In many places, Panchayats have been sidelined in the actual process of implementation. They do not have control over the whole process. And yet, when it comes to apportioning the blame for failures, it is the Panchayats that are singled out. We, the Panchayat Presidents and elected representatives assembled here, do admit that our Panchayats are not towers of idealism. There are cases of corruption. Certainly, part of the blame lies with the prevailing ethos in the States and the country as a whole. But the remedy lies in devolving more responsibilities and powers to the Panchayats. We understand the important role of the NREGA in fighting poverty and bringing in development. We are committed to play a historic role through the institution of the Panchayat. Therefore we declare that:

1. There is need to ensure that the NREGA is implemented through the Panchayati Raj System.

2. Right to work in rural areas has to be treated as a livelihood right and has to be operationalised through the Panchayati Raj Institutions.

3. The States should ensure that the fund for the NREGS is not diverted to any other purpose by the State.

4. Works under the NREGS have to be implemented as per a Panchayat level development plan prepared by the Panchayat and approved by the Gram Sabha.

5. The NREGS funds should be transferred to the bank accounts of Panchayats (zero balance account of Panchayats).

6. While the Act says that the utilisation of 50 per cent of the NREGS funds is made through the Gram Panchayats, it should also prescribe that the rest of the funds are utilised in collaboration with the intermediate and District Panchayats as per the District Perspective Plan.

7. The District Planning Committee should approve the NREGS District Perspective Plan.

8. The Panchayats should be mandated to ensure that the principle of equal wages for men and women in the NREGA is adhered to.

9. The minimum wages need to be raised in view of the current economic situation.

10. Minimum wages differ from place to place within a State. The wages have to be proposed by the District Planning Committee in consultation with the Panchayats.

11. The Panchayats must ensure that the Job Cards issued under the NREGA have the status of a Voter ID Card or a Passport.

12. Each State must appoint a separate NREGA Commissioner to constantly monitor all aspects of the NREGS every year. In the districts, he/she should work under the leadership of the District Panchayat President and District Panchayat. He/she must place the district level report before the District Panchayat and the State level report before the State Legislature.

13. While there is the ranking of districts based on the NREGA performance, there should be ranking of District, intermediate and Gram Panchayat as well.

14. Training of Panchayat Presidents and elected representatives on various aspects of the NREGA must be mandatory; it should be ensured that a percentage of the budget is utilised for the same.

15. The Panchayats will ensure regular and effective meeting of Gram Sabhas so as to eradicate corruption and thus prevent allegations which tarnish the image of Panchayats and the NREGA in the country.

16. Considering the increased responsibilities, the Panchayat Presidents and elected members of the Panchayats be paid reasonable honorarium.

After observing the implementation of the NREGA, we consider that the NREGA is an important tool for the development and growth of the rural population of the country. We, the Presidents and other elected representatives from the Panchayats from all parts of India who participated in this National Conference on NREGA and Panchayats, resolve that we will work for a clean, efficient, people-oriented the NREGA to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

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