Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From NREGA to ‘Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act’: An apt tribute to Mahatma Gandhi?

On October 2nd, NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) was named as ‘Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Guarantee Act’ after the Father of the Nation, who dreamt of Gram Swaraj. NREGA was notified on 7th of September 2005 and promises at least 100 days of work to one member of any rural family and operates in all 605 districts of the country. NREGA focuses on rural asset building projects like water conservation and harvesting, afforestation, rural connectivity, flood control and protection projects such as construction and repair of embankments. Rs.39, 100 crore has been allotted for 2009-10 for the NREGA, which marks an increase of 144 per cent over 2008-09 budget.

NREGA has become a buzzword in the media for both good and bad reasons. Some claim that it has empowered rural India. At the same time, there are allegations that it has only made the middlemen richer. The occasion of NREGA being named after Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps an opportune time to reflect upon the Act, focusing on its successes and failures, and tracking its progress from inception.

NREGA is the first national programme that has attempted to bring transparency and accountability to the challenging interface between people and government. It is India’s first piece of legislation to codify development rights in a legal framework. However, four years on, several reports and studies indicate that a shocking amount of corruption and inefficiency clouds the programme, making it nearly impossible for the benefits to reach the poor.

NREGA, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government’s showpiece social welfare program during its first term (2004-09), captured the imagination of rural voters during the 2009 General Elections. In its election manifesto, the UPA had promised to expand NREGA in three ways: first, to raise daily wages to hundred rupees; second, to extend the employment guarantee to individual workers rather than entire households; and finally, to extend to the scheme to urban areas. The rest, as they say, is history. The UPA won a massive victory in the 2009 elections, largely on the strength of rural votes. However, have poor people actually benefited from the programme?

Every state has a different story to tell about the implementation of NREGA. Left-ruled West Bengal and BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh have emerged as the top states in implementing NREGA for the disabled. Meanwhile, NREGA is a tragic failure in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state in the country. The scheme has proved to be a breather for women in Punjab who are being given opportunities to earn whereas Assam has recorded a reduction in employment generation under NREGA as compared to its predecessor, Sanjay Gandhi Rozgar Yojana (SGRY).

The government is persevering in its efforts to make the programme more effective by introducing responsive and transparent measures such as social auditing involving NGOs and appointment of district-level ombudsman. The Rural Development ministry at the Centre, the nodal agency for NREGA, is testing an ATM-like machine which would help reduce NREGA workers’ dependence on panchayat officials or the local administration. As a pilot project, the Rural Development ministry has launched the machine in Raila panchayat of Bhilwara in Rajasthan on October 4, 2009. Rural Development minister C P Joshi has stated that the software developed for NREGA by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) would help curb corruption. The experiment testifies to a sense of urgency on the part of government in trying to address issues plaguing the programme.

A programme such as NREGA honours the people’s right to work, apart from providing much needed income generation activities to mitigate the effects of seasonal unemployment. However, we cannot ignore problems in its implementation. These will be discussed in a follow-up post next week. Notwithstanding such problems, it would be churlish to dismiss the programme as ‘wasteful expenditure of public money’. If the political classes can look beyond their narrow goals and use NREGA to create the change that it envisions, that would be a meaningful tribute to Mahatma Gandhi who urged one and all to be the change they want to see in the world.

1 comment:

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