Guaranteeing work

Published : May 19, 2006 00:00 IST

Social monitoring is necessary to realise the transformatory potential of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

IT almost seems like a mini-revolution. In one of the most backward districts of the Hindi heartland, in an area which is traditionally neglected by public policy and where most citizens' experience of the state is oppressive rather than sympathetic, there is suddenly a very different feeling of optimism and sense of rights, creating new expectations among ordinary people. Their expectations are almost palpable and new pressures are brought upon the local government machinery to deliver to meet these.

Suddenly, rural workers expect to be offered work and be paid the minimum wage for it; local officials and panchayat representatives feel the need to display all the relevant information about the work they are providing; they even seek advice from the local community about the works to be taken up. And this whole process sends out a very powerful message of hope that can have positive repercussions across the country.

A common criticism of large public expenditures directed towards improving the conditions of the poor or less well-off section is that the problems of public service delivery and corruption ensure that the poor rarely benefit or benefit only partially from these programmes. For more than two decades, ever since Rajiv Gandhi came out with his much misquoted speech in which he suggested that for every rupee spent, only 15 paise reached the poor beneficiary, this argument has been trotted out to oppose any increase in public spending for the poor.

This argument has also been used against the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). While this Act has great potential to transform economic conditions in rural areas, it has met with much resistance at every stage. One commonly expressed view is that this is no more than money down the drain, since the money spent will be siphoned off by intermediaries or be spent inefficiently in ways that are not productive or beneficial.

This is not necessarily so, certainly in principle, or even in practice, because the Act itself has included many provisions to ensure greater community participation and monitoring, through the panchayats, and more public disclosure of important information such as the muster rolls of workers. Also, the Right to Information Act has enabled citizens to ask for information that will allow them to check on whether expenditures are being correctly made and thereby prevent leakages as far as possible.

Of course, whether these more optimistic possibilities work themselves out depends on a number of conditions. Most importantly, none of this is possible without social mobilisation. But once such mobilisation occurs and is widespread, then it creates a momentum that is hard to stop, and which will definitely have ripple effects in surrounding areas as well.

An ongoing process of mobilisation and social audit that is taking place in Dungarpur district of Rajasthan shows how public awareness and social pressure, combined in this case with a committed and responsive district administration, can create dramatic changes not only in the implementation of this programme, but even in the way the local government works.

The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, which has been working in Rajasthan for more than two decades, took up the challenge of a comprehensive social mobilisation for the employment guarantee in this district, which is extremely backward with a large tribal population. The mobilisation involved as many as 658 volunteer participants from all over India, 250 from the district itself, as well as 10 from Bangladesh.

Jan sunwais - public hearings - were held in as many places as possible, and the process culminated in a huge sammelan held at the district headquarters, where bureaucrats and officials involved in the process were also invited, to hear first hand of the actual conditions at the work sites.

The purpose of this exercise was simple: to make the NREGA successful. And the underlying principle was that this could be done simply by ensuring that the provisions of the law were actually upheld in the implementation, through constant and vigilant social monitoring.

The results have been impressive and inspiring. The mobilisation initiative has shown that when people are made aware of their rights and when the local authorities are forced to adhere to basic principles of transparency, there is huge response in terms of worker participation, reasonably efficient working of even a very new scheme and very little leakage.

In Dungarpur, the programme has been operating only for slightly more than a month, but already around 150,000 workers have been employed, covering more than half the families living in rural Dungarpur. More than 14,000 works have been opened.

The participation of women workers was as high as 73 per cent in the work sites visited by the padayatris, which is remarkable in a State where, according to the latest National Sample Survey (NSS) the work participation rate of rural women is only 25 per cent.

Almost all the works were organised by the panchayats, and no case was found of works being handed over to contractors. All the work sites visited (except one) had the muster rolls displayed or available for inspection. Despite the huge number of sites visited, only 15 complaints were received during the padayatra, and 17 complaints were received from individuals separately.

Of course, all sorts of other problems emerged or were identified during this process. The selection of works, especially watershed works, has often been ad hoc and unrelated to any overall district plan. The issue of the unemployment benefit has not been adequately clarified, and both the authorities and workers were confused about the terms and conditions. Since task or piece rate work appears to dominate, the problems of work norms and measurement of work for payment have become serious, leading to payments of wages that were much lower than the stipulated minimum wage of Rs.73 for a day's work - in most of the sites visited, the wages paid were between Rs.40 and Rs.60 a day. There were many cases of delayed wage payments or part payments.

But the most significant problem that emerged clearly was the shortage of administrative staff to run this important programme. In particular, engineers are required at all levels to plan and supervise the projects, in addition to more administrative staff to manage activities, do the accounts, and so on. Without much more allocation for such staff, it will be extremely difficult to sustain this programme even in places where it has taken off well.

This means that the proportion of expenditure allocated for running this programme must definitely be increased, from the current 2 per cent to at least 6 per cent and possibly more depending upon the particular conditions of some districts.

The NREGA is in its incipient phase and since it is conceived as a guarantee, which is therefore demand-led, the programme must have access to continuous flow of funds if it is to succeed.

In fact, the apparent lack of enthusiasm of the Central government in making this programme work has other serious consequences. There are rumours that the Centre is planning to impose a "National Advisory Wage" of Rs.60 across the country for the programme, regardless of the prevailing minimum wages in the States. This would inevitably expose State governments to litigation, and certainly cause delays and confusion in the programme, so it would effectively be one way of destroying it.

Since it is now apparent that the programme can indeed work, and that criticisms of wastage also can be dealt with through public vigilance, there is now no excuse for trying to destroy it through other means. But this means that vigilance is required even in terms of monitoring the Central government, to ensure that the NREGA actually does fulfil its transformatory potential.

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