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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 15, March 28, 2009

Working of NREGA — Voices from Panchayats

Thursday 2 April 2009, by Bidyut Mohanty

Introduction

Bureaucratic implementation of the NREGA has bypassed the Panchayati Raj Institutions which were intended to play an important role in planning and executing this flagship programme to respond to the local needs of the people. As a result several problems ranging from corruption to poor planning and the arbitrary management of the scheme have crippled the potentially valuable measure to provide sustenance to the rural poor. This was the tenor of the deliberations of some 1200 panchayat delegates who assembled in New Delhi at a National Conference on NREGA and Panchayats organised by Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), New Delhi on October 14-15, 2008. (Similar issues were raised during another conference organised by the ISS on Thirty Years of Panchayati Raj in West Bengal at Kolkata on December 12-13, 2008.)

The NREGA was passed in 2005 with twin objectives in mind. First, it ensured the legal right to work for a hundred days to poor people whoever is willing to work at a minimum wage rate, particularly in the rural areas, which in turn would reduce the flow of rural to urban migration. (Dreze et al. 2006) In addition to this, another important objective of the Act has been to strengthen the PRIs. (Aruna Roy, 2008) As result the institutional machinery at the grassroots level would be stabilised to address both short term and long term measures to eradicate poverty, facilitate rural development and promote social equity in consultation with the local people. Under the Act the Gram Panchayat has a pivotal role in the implementation of the NREGS. It is responsible for planning of works, registering those households which are entitled to get work, issuing job cards, allocating employment, executing 50 per cent of the works, and monitoring the implementation of the scheme at the village level. All these activities are to be done in consultation with the gram sabha. In view of the complexities and sheer volume of work, the implementation of the NREGA assigns a considerable organisational responsibility at the level of the Gram Panchayat.

For example, the role of the Gram Panchayat in the registration of beneficiaries is significant. In order to authenticate the registration, the Panchayat verifies whether the applicant resides in that village and is an adult. The unit of registration is the household. After verification, the Gram Panchayat issues a Job Card to the household.

The Intermediate Panchayat will be responsible for planning at the Block level, and for monitoring and supervision. It can also be given the responsibility of executing works from among the 50 per cent that are not to be executed by the Gram Panchayat. The Programme Officer at the Block level will assist the Intermediate Panchayat in its functions.

As per the norms, the Gram Panchayat/Programme Officer should send letters to the applicants informing them where and when to report for work. A public notice has to be displayed at the Gram Panchayat office and at the Programme Officer’s block office, providing information on the date, place of employment and the names of those provided employment.

The District Panchayats will be responsible for finalising the District Plans and for monitoring and supervising the Employment Guarantee Scheme in the district. District Panchayats can also execute works from among the 50 per cent that are not to be executed by Gram Panchayats. (ISS, ’NREGA—Concept Note’, 2008)

To perform the assignment efficiently the panchayats representatives and functionaries need to undergo orientation training on various aspects of the Act ranging from micro planning to technical inputs. They also need coordination between all three tiers of panchayats. Further, these institutions need additional functionaries at their disposal. Vertical integration of all three tiers of panchayats is also necessary.

But it became apparent from the deliberations of the delegates that neither have the funds been devolved nor has the decision-making process from the lines departments been fully decentralised. The Gram Panchayats are still dependent upon the block level and district level officers. What is more, in the process of getting sanction from them the PRIs have to give commissions to the concerned officers. On top of it, they don’t have Secretaries of their own.1 Two to three panchayats have just one Secretary who is always overburdened. Besides, the Secretary declines to take the additional responsibility of the NREGA in some States. A junior Rozgar Sachiv, who is appointed to look after the NREGA at the panchayat level, is quite inexperienced in the matter of keeping accounts. The functionaries of the panchayats are also quite inexperienced in handling a massive amount of money while having limited skill of micro planning. These and other issues emerged from the two-day Conference.

Voices from the Field and Findings
of a Survey*

The convention delegates had come from all parts of India including the North-Eastern States as well as Lakshadweep and Puduchery. They were mostly Zilla Panchayat and Block Panchayat chiefs and also those of Gram Panchayats. About 33 per cent elected women representatives were present. The delegates discussed various issues not only recounting some positive impacts of the scheme but also highlighting the problems which they face while implementing it at the villages level. At the end of the conference they adopted a Charter of Demands which was passed uninanimously. All of them agreed that the scheme should be implemented by enabling the panchayats to operate more efficiently.

Effect of NREGA

Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, the Minister for Rural Development, Government of India, reeled out impressive data to show how the NREGA is creating a revolution in the countryside. He said the NREGA has already created 2900 million person days work throughout India. As many as 339 million families have benefited because of the scheme. A sum of Rs 160,000 million has already been spent on this, while 422 million accounts have been opened in the post office. He observed that the scheme is working well in Jharkhand and Orissa. Answering a query he said that the budget for the NREGA has not been reduced. But apart from highlighting the need for training he did not go into details as to what kind of problems the elected representatives were facing in implementing the scheme; these came out subsequently at the convention and those points are discussed here.

Coverage

First of all it is to be noted that the NREGS has not been implemented in all districts of India though legally it has been done so since April 2008. Out of a total 416 respondents 79 per cent said that the NREGS has already started in their panchayats but the rest replied in the negative. Delegates from Jammu and Kashmir, Nagaland and some districts of other States informed that the scheme is yet to start. The delegates from J&K pleaded that the scheme should be implemented as soon as possible so that women have access to employment, whereas Nagaland reported that they don’t know anything about the NREGS yet. (Nagaland, incidentally, does not come under the purview of the 73rd Amendment Act. On the other hand they have the Autonomous District Council.) Obviously the initiative to start was still lacking with the implementing machinery. Vijaya Bai Tai, the awardee of nirmal gram puruskar from Maharashtra, said that her district was agriculturally prosperous and hence they were yet to start the scheme even though it had been in operation. In other words, the agricultural schedule and that of the NREGA don’t match. Even many delegates from Uttar Pradesh informed that the scheme was yet to start in some parts of their region. Similarly the delegates from the Mewat region of Haryana, and Koppali in Karnataka pleaded ignorance about the scheme.

Training

As for training to all the PRI members who were supposedly the main implementers of the scheme, the Minister for Rural Development recommended that training and awareness programme should be imparted to all the 34 lakh representatives in a phased manner. He even suggested that institutions like the IIT and Agricultural University should start training on the NREGS. The same view was expressed by the delegates from Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka etc. A president of a panchayat, who happened to be a male and hailed from Karnataka, observed that women presidents are more ignorant than men about the budget and social audit, vigilance committee, budget and micro planning.

According to the survey, 25 per cent of the respondents were silent about the training, whereas 34 per cent of them said that they got training only for two days which is really inadequate to learn about the complicated procedure of the scheme. About 29 per cent of them said that they attended only one-day training. Regarding the contents of training 89 per cent of the delegates replied that they were given training relating to the panchayats and NREGS. Regarding other important issues such as Right to Information, social audit, village development, only one per cent in each category replied in affirmative! The training was mostly given by the SIRD followed by NGOs as per the survey.

Representatives from Arunachal Pradesh and Assam pointed to the weak structure of the PRI system in their States and explained how they are unable to handle the scheme. In Arunachal Pradesh, therefore, the Zilla Parishad directly selects the beneficiaries ignoring the role of the Gram Panchayat!

Funds and Functionaries

Regarding funds and functionaries, the delegates were candid about the shortage of everything. Under the scheme, the panchayat is supposed to get Rs 10 million per year but in reality only 39 per cent of the delegates informed that their panchayats get more than Rs three lakhs and then 29 per cent of them said that they get a small amount of money, namely, Rs one lakh. But the most shocking point was that rest of the delegates did not reply to this question!

On top of it the panchayats don’t get adequate number of technical functionaries such as junior engineers to carry out the NREGA activities. In many places, Rozger Sevaks have been appointed to advise them about the technical points or preparing the budget or village level planning needs. But they themselves are not adequately trained. Further, the panchayats do not have Secretaries of their own to manage the routine work. Besides, some gram panchayats don’t have the own offices, let alone sitting space for the personnel meant for the NREGS. Insofar as the nature of activities is concerned, the predominance of construction work became quite clear from the survey. For example, 52 per cent of the work was in the nature of road construction, repairing of boundary wall, creation of check dam etc. followed by digging of water bodies (41 per cent) and agriculture related work(20 per cent). Thirteen per cent of the funding is spent on increasing the forest cover. A high proportion of delegates—32 per cent—did not reply to this question!

Corruption

On corruption almost all the representatives expressed concern about the commission that they have to pay to get the project sanctioned. It included many levels from patwaries to other officers. A patwari took 25 to 50 rupees per job card with photographs, a pradhan from one of the panchayats in Saurastra region reported. A Zilla Parishad member from Sitamadhi, Bihar informed the gathering that even the officers took bribe to sanction the NREGS money. As per the survey, 57 per cent of the delegates felt that the block and panchayat officers have a share in the total amount of money sanctioned for the NREGS work, whereas 23 per cent were silent.

According to the delegates, the contractors also cheated the labourers on measurement at the work site, or duplicating the job cards or measuring the earth work after a lapse in order to show it as less amount than the actual weight particularly after the rains. In the process the labourers got less than the actual wage rate which was invariably lower than the minimum wage.

A common complaint of the delegates was that even though the panchayat chief was likely to handle millions of rupees, the members of the panchayats did not at all benefit. The functionaries were not even considered to be entitled to employment opportunity offered by the scheme. Further he/she got only three to four hundred rupees per month and the ward member got Rs 30 as sitting fee.

Some Block Panchayat chiefs said that there is hardly any coordination between the three tiers of panchayats whereas the Act clearly mentioned about such coordination. In many places it was the CEO who ordered to start the work through contractor.

About political interference the delegates from West Bengal and Tripura shared the same opinion, namely, if the villagers were not from the same political party as that of the elected represen-tatives, the contractor took six months to issue the job card.

Duration of the Activities and
Minimum Wage Rate

Further, they also said that employment was created only for fifteen person days and the minimum wage rate which was paid to the labourers was not adequate in some panchayats. Subhas Pradhan, a Panchayat Samiti member of Ganjam, Orissa, reported about the discrepancy between the male and female wage rates. He explained that since the nature of work was very arduous, women being anaemic are unable to earn the full wage rate. Others also commented on the minimum wage rate pointing out various malpractices adopted in deciding the amount. The President of the Banda District Panchayat of UP was of the opinion that even though the labourers worked for fifteen days, they were paid only for a couple of days by the CEO and BDO. It took fifteen days to five months to get the amount in spite of the fact that the daily labourer lived from hand to mouth, observed the elected representatives from Uttarakhand. Regarding the duration of the work, it is surprising that about 61 per cent of the of the delegates who answered other questions, did not respond to this question. But one quarter of them said that the activities lasted for 20 to 30 days, followed by 18 per cent who were of the opinion that it lasted for more than three months. About 31 per cent of the respondents at the time of survey confided that labourers got more than Rs 80 followed by 15 per cent who were of the opinion that labourers got below Rs 50. At the same time a significant percentage of the respondents, 23 per cent, did not reply to the query at all. In Gujarat, interestingly, 50 per cent of the delegates said that the workers get less than Rs 50 followed by another 50 per cent who did not respond to the question!

Some Positive Impact

The delegates were quite aware of the impact of the Act. For example, they noted that the migration process had declined throughout India. This was stated not only by the elected representatives from Punjab but also those from Bihar. Both agreed that the migration flow has declined. However, the Up-sarpanch of Bolangir district of Orissa said that since the work begins in September and October, by that time the seasonal labourers have already been committed to contractors for dadan migration to Hyderabad or Raipur. Hence the whole impact of the availability of work is not being utilised fully.2

Many specific recommendations were made by women members from the different States for allocation of employment opportunity under the NREGS. Representatives from Bangalore suggested that labourers should get a chance to work in international airport modernising schemes. Bihar representatives felt that efforts should be made to canalise the course of the Kosi river to prevent massive floods through this work. Others opined that a provision should be there to meet the needs of skilled persons or physically challenged persons in the villages. So far as the division of material and labour cost is concerned, the delegates suggested to make it 50:50 instead of 60 to 40.

Conclusion

From the panchayat perspective it is clear from the above discussions that the NREGA has not been able to help in deepening grassroot democracy or strengthening the PRIs even though the scheme has brought about some positive impact on the beneficiaries. The members of local government lack knowledge about micro planning, social audit, vigilance committees etc. Since they don’t have functionaries of their own, they depend on the line departments and hence the BDO, CEO, patwaries, and other officers get the opportunity to take extensive bribes in order to get the scheme sanctioned. In order to make the decentralised decision-making process a reality the NREGA should be implemented through the panchayats by proper devolution and without having any undue interference from the block and district officers. n

References

ISS (2008), ‘Concept note on NREGA’ prepared on the occasion of the Conference.

Dreze, J. et al. (2006), Employment Guarantee Act: A Primer, New Delhi, NBT.

Narayanan, Sudha (2008), ‘Women’s Work and Children’, Economic and Political Weekly, March 1, 2008.

http://www.pria.org/ NREGA %20 Press Release%20 Release NREGA.Eng.pdf.

Roy, Aruna (2008), Lecture delivered at the Conference organised by the ISS.

Vijayanand, S.M. (2008), ‘NREGA, Kerala Experiences’, Lecture delivered at the Conference.

Footnotes

1. PRIA which had conducted extensive survey in twenty districts of 13 States in 2007-08 reached the same conclusions. Source http://www..pria.org/NREGA per cent 20 Press Release per cent20 Release.NREGA.

2. Sudha Narayan (2008) pointed out as to how not only has it become women’s programme but also the flow of migration has decreased. She had conducted a survey in Tamil Nadu. Vijayanand (2008), presenting the experience of Kerala panchayats, narrated how the Kootumbashree members monitor the NREGA; but he also added that the panchayats get untied fund for implementing the scheme.

Dr Bidyut Mohanty belongs to the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. She can be contacted at dr_ mohanty@yahoo.com

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