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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 45, November 1, 2014

NREGS: Need for Reinvigoration

Sunday 2 November 2014

by Saumitra Mohan

With the change of guard at the Centre, lots of initiatives are being conceived. Newer schemes and programmes are being contemplated to bring about a positive turnaround in the socio-economic life of common India. Many extant programmes are also being given a makeover. The new enthusiasm and fresh thinking are definitely laudable and so far have been contagious given the positive vibes generated among the hoi polloi. All these initiatives, however, are yet to be tested for their efficacy in terms of practical implementation. In the interim, one particular national programme is definitely gasping for breath and that is the National Rural Employment Guarrantee Scheme (NREGS).

The NREGS was launched in the year 2005 pursuant to the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarrantee Act (NREGA) in Parliament the same year during the first UPA (United Progressive Alliance) Government. The scheme was also launched to honour the constitutional commitment as enshrined in Article 41 (Part IV relating to Directive Principles) of the Indian Constitution.

The scheme took its time to gain momentum as it made a break from the erstwhile venal ‘paymaster system’ to bring about more trans-parency and efficiency in the delivery mecha-nism. The scheme, of all things, promised an assured 100 days’ work to a registered rural household within 15 days of the application though most implementing agencies found their ways with the mandatory unemployment allowance in case there was a delay in providing the demanded work within the statutory 15 days. Nevertheless, the scheme did ensure creation of immense asset creation in the countryside in terms of soil conservation, recla-mation of cultivable land, massive social forestry works, enhanced irrigation capacities, flood protection works and hundreds of thousands of water bodies while also simultaneously ensuring redistribution of resources by way generation of millions and millions of working person-days. The latter definitely had a multiplier effect for the entire economy as the purchasing power generated in the countryside fuelled demands which had a cascading effect for the entire economy. Notwithstanding the sundry criticisms from all across including the alleged ingenuous leakages, the executing agencies used flexibilities of the NREGA to provide demand-driven works to the rural populace as well as to fill up the infrastructural gaps as and when demanded.

While almost all the States struggled with their labour budgets, some States including Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal did strikingly well. In fact, West Bengal continues to be one of the national leaders in the NREGS. However, this flagship scheme has definitely been in dire straits lately what with the clogged national funding channels and the protean reporting systems. The NREGS funding from the Centre has been far from smooth for some years now. To some observers, it often appeared that the NREGA administrators have wilfully been dilly- dallying to delay fund allocations to the States. Surprisingly, notwithstanding the straitened financial position most States have been more than prompt to part with their share of the funds.

To begin with, the wages were paid in cash which was rightly converted to wage payment directly to the beneficiaries through bank/post office accounts to check leakages. Though the opening of bank account was an uphill task given the penetration and manpower of these financial institutions, still almost all the executing agencies managed the same. The fund allocation was again made conditional upon submission of 60 per cent utilisation of the funds already allotted which was later hiked to 80 per cent. While the executing agencies were somehow managing these requirements, there came the system whereby the executing agencies were asked to reflect the work and financial status online through MIS (management of information system). This was another Sisyphean task given the poor availability of trained manpower and poor internet connectivity in the countryside. And all these were besides the requirements of 100 per cent social audit, GIS mapping and compulsory uploading of photographs of various stages of the schemes executed as well as regular financial and quality audit by the national and State monitors (read Ombudsmen). Indubitably, these were all good initiatives, aimed at bringing greater transparency and efficiency.

 However, with the Electronic Fund Manage-ment System (EFMS) coming into vogue, the wages are supposed to be directly credited by the state to the workers’ bank account. This was done with an aim to avoid payment delays by cutting layers. But before the state could do it, all the bank and postal accounts are supposed to be verified and frozen for ensuring correct crediting of the various payments. The latter has proved quite problematic due to poor manpower of these Central financial institutions. But even where this is done, there have been considerable delays on the part of the banks and post offices to credit wages to the accounts of the households, resulting in huge resentment. Moreover, with the drying funds from the Centre, the States are finding it well nigh difficult to meet the fund requirements from the executing agencies, some-thing which is negatively impacting the scheme.

The workers have been revolting and agitating against delayed payment, not to speak of refusing to come forward to take up new works. Delayed payment and workers’ loss of faith in the executing agencies have adversely affected the scheme’s execution. The same also compromises the important tenets of the NREGA, namely, provisioning of work within 15 days of application, assured 100 days’ work to a household in a year and payment of wages within fifteen days of the work. The recent directives relating to asset creation and for intensified execution in shortlisted blocks are welcome but the same definitely ought not to be at the expense of the right to work as promised by the NREGA. Any compromise with the tenet of right to work, as enshrined in the Constitution of India, would be a regressive move.

One should not forget that the NREGA has also been envisaged as a medium for optimal reallocation of values which has resulted in a huge multiplier effect in the countryside by keeping the demand afloat in times of recession. Believe it or not, the NREGA has definitely been one of the principal reasons for the rising wages of urban workers due to reduced emigration of rural workers to towns and cities due to facile availability of works in our boondocks. Effective wages have gone up all across resulting in enhanced pay-offs for the workers who have generally been short-changed. The demand-driven NREGS works have ensured availability of works during the lean season in the countryside. The same also had a salutary effect on the consolidation of family values and a redirection of focus on improvement of agrestic infrastructures is palpable.

The observers feel that the policy-makers should not throw the baby with the bathwater by trying to reinvent the wheel. The NREGS is an offshoot of lots of thinking and is definitely an improvement on all its previous avatars like Food for Work Programme, Swarnjayanti Gram Rojgar Yojna, Jawahar Rojgar Yojna et al. The scheme has been quite progressive in the sense that it does not discriminate between BPL and non-BPL families as the BPL list itself is not a foolproof list to select the beneficiaries from. The flexibility and independence the NREGS promises to the executing agencies coupled with tighter transparency norms ensure better delivery than any other scheme has ever done. One feels the need for a broad-based discussion and consensus to consolidate the gains made through the NREGS to make it further efficient and effective.

Dr Saumitra Mohan is an IAS officer presently working as the District Magistrate, Burdwan (West Bengal).