Entitlements under NREGA violated

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

Jean Dreze. The revival of interest in NREGA is an opportunity to set a lot of things straight.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Jean Dreze. The revival of interest in NREGA is an opportunity to set a lot of things straight.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

JEAN DREZE is an Indian development economist and a former member of the National Developmental Council. He is a member of the support group of the Right to Food campaign, an informal network of organisations and individuals committed to the realisation of the right to food in India.

Dreze, also an Honorary Professor at the Delhi School of Economics, has been deeply involved in monitoring the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) across India. In an interview to Frontline, he talked about some aspects of the implementation of the Act and its social relevance.

The government has increased the allocation for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) in Budget 2009-10 to Rs.39,100 crore. Obviously, it has identified the NREGS as one which would fetch electoral benefits for the Congress. What are your comments?

The increase is not as large as it has been made out to be (144 per cent, according to the Finance Minister) considering that actual expenditure on the NREGS in 2008-09 was around Rs.27,000 crore. Still, this increase is a positive step, not only as an opportunity to expand the scale of NREGS works but also as an acknowledgement of the achievements of the scheme. If anything, the tribute went a little overboard, with the Finance Minister describing the NREGS as a magnificent success. This is bound to sound a trifle heroic to anyone who is familiar with the ground realities. I see the current revival of interest in the NREGA as an opportunity to set a lot of things straight.

A few economists complain about the improper implementation of NREGA. What, in your opinion, is the way to go about it? What are the real problems of implementation?

Our main concern should not be with the complaints of a few economists, but with those of millions of workers. Their entitlements under the NREGA are routinely violated, whether it is the entitlement to work on demand or to minimum wages or to payment within 15 days, or to basic worksite facilities.

For instance, in recent months there have been massive delays in wage payments around the country, causing immense hardship to NREGS workers, but this is barely noticed in the corridors of power. Underlying this state of affairs is the breakdown of grievance redress systems. All the grievance redress provisions of the NREGA have been sidelined, including, for instance, the provisions for unemployment allowance, for penalties on errant officials, for compensation in the event of delayed wage payments or for framing of Grievance Redress Rules.

The Central and State governments dont seem to be interested in making themselves accountable to the people.

During the tour of north-eastern Madhya Pradesh, this correspondent saw NREGS job cards in the hands of village sarpanchs. So, it gives them enough space to manipulate the days of work. How could this problem be tackle

The hoarding of job cards by sarpanchs, panchayat secretaries or others is a common problem. The usual excuse is that they need the job cards to make requisite entries in them. The real reason, quite often, is that they want to be free to make fake entries in the job cards, beyond public scrutiny, as part of their attempts to fudge the records and siphon off NREGS funds.

Hoarding of job cards must be made a punishable offence under the much-awaited Grievance Redress Rules of the NREGA. In due course, workers are likely to learn not to surrender their job cards to anyone. But the learning process could be greatly accelerated by cracking down on the culprits from time to time.

The NREGS has faced criticism that the kind of infrastructure it is building contributes nothing to the overall development of the country. It is said that it retains its populist character without being truly constructive?

I disagree with the statement that NREGS assets contribute nothing to rural development. It is true that the technical standards of NREGS works are often quite low. Even then, many are fairly productive.

Just to illustrate, in parts of Jharkhand (one of the worst States as far as the implementation of the NREGA is concerned) we are beginning to see a major improvement in rural connectivity owing to building of kaccha roads. A well-designed kaccha road can be very useful, and rural roads are known to be productive investments. So are check dams, tanks, canals and similar infrastructure.

NREGS works on private land, such as land levelling and construction of wells, are also productive. The way to go is to improve the technical standards by providing better scientific support, for instance, by developing creative blueprints for labour-intensive works. A wide range of productive works could be undertaken within the stipulated 60:40 labour-material ratio, especially if the list of permissible works is expanded.

Can the Act be used to revive the agrarian economy? Can it be used to address farmers distress permanently?

The NREGA is not the answer to everything. If the Act is well implemented, it can provide an important form of social security in rural areas. The NREGS can also help revive the rural economy, by creating productive assets, generating purchasing power, strengthening institutions of local governance and promoting new standards of transparency.

But still, there is a limit to what can be achieved with Rs.39,000 crore (less than 1 per cent of Indias GDP), however well spent. Permanent solutions to agrarian distress require other interventions as well, such as public investment in rural infrastructure and more equitable property rights.

Do you see social equations in the villages getting positively altered because of the Act?

I think that this will happen in due course, but it would be naive to think that this has already happened. For one thing, the scale of the NREGA is still quite limited, and its empowering role has been severely undermined in many ways, starting with the lack of grievance redress systems. For another, the impact of the NREGA on social equations depends on organisational work of a kind that has happened to a very limited extent so far, such as the formation of workers unions.

What are the reforms you would like to see in the present form of the Act?

I am not in favour of amending the Act for the time being. Of course, improvements are always possible, but amendments can also be seized by the government as an opportunity to dilute the Act. Some amendments of the Schedules of the Act would be useful.

For instance, the list of permissible works should be expanded, and an enabling provision could be made for employing educated unemployed persons as support staff for the NREGS Gram Rozgar Sevaks, worksite supervisers, technical assistants, record keepers, social auditors, etc. This could be of great help in relieving the current staff shortages. Other innovations are also possible, but I feel that the main issue at this time is to make NREGA work rather than to amend it.

How much have the marginalised communities benefited from the Act?

Marginalised communities are the primary beneficiaries of the NREGS this is one of the strongest arguments for it. A large majority of NREGS workers belong to Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families. Similarly, the proportion of women among NREGS workers is close to 50 per cent, and rising year after year.

Disadvantaged communities benefit from the NREGS not only as wage earners but also in many other ways. For instance, the programme is an entry point for their active participation in gram sabhas and other institutions of local governance. It is also an opportunity for them to organise around common interests this may turn out to be one of the most important roles of the NREGA.

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