NREGS – Who’s Responsible?

National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, NRGES, is a real great visionary project for a country with 80% population earning less than Rs 20 a day. It provides an ensured earning for at least one member of the household for 100 days a year. Interestingly, it is not a charity or dole. Wages are paid against the physical work done. Perhaps this is the best social security mechanism created for a poor country and provides a right to work and earn to live. Only a genuinely needy man would labour under an Indian summer sun and bitter winter for 60 rupees or so a day. And according to Aruna Roy, ‘the ealier practice of paying without making any distinction between those who worked and those who didn’t, has been dropped. Workers are paid exactly on the basis of the actual work done by them.’ Further, if the government fails to give work, the individual beneficiary gets also entitled to receive a daily unemployment allowance. There couldn’t have been a better scheme for rural India with a large number of unskilled, illiterate, and socially deprived population. The ‘Economist’ recently came out with a report ‘ Shovelling for their supper‘ and called it the world’s biggest public-works project.

The scheme’s prime mission was to create an employment to a large number of people- at least one member of each willing family out of needy lot. Another mission was to create permanent assets in rural India to improve the productivity of the farming and quality of life. Assets may be projects related to water conservation, draought proofing, creation or rennovation of traditional water bodies, plantation and afforrestation, land development, flood protection, or roads for improved rural connectivity. Ideally, it is for the community afected such as a village or a panchayat who must identify the assets required or the maintenance work for the existing assets. However, a technical group must validate it and coodinate with the overall requirement of the region.

Has the scheme, that started with only 200 of the poorest districts of the country has gone to all the 604 districts, succeded in its mission? There are different opinons.

According to a recent CAG report, barely 3.2 percent of the 50 million registered households could get the full 100 days employment between February 2006 and March 2007. The average employment provided under the scheme was just 18 days. However, the ministry contended that 21 million families had been provided work for an average of 44 days and that 2.2 million families had been given work for their full entitlement of 100 days.

On the assets created, 57% were in water conservation, 13% in irrigation, 17% in roads, and 14% for land development. Of the water conservation works, 347,000 or 43% of the total value were for water harvesting, 13% or 98,000 for waterbodies such as ponds and 20% to irrigate land owned by SC/ST’s. There were 113,000 tree plantation works and 206,000 for roads. An environmentalist has called it “the world’s largest ecological regeneration programme.” I wish it could be believed without any question?

The ‘Economist’ observes rightly, “Enthusiasm for NREGS among state governments has been patchy, with some of India’s poorest and most populous states, such as Bihar and Jharkhand, slow to adopt it.” Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh have done wonderfully well. Even Aruna Roy confirms that. I wish the politicians wouldn’t have used NREGS for their politics. I really get depressed when I find Raghubans Prasad Singh and Nitish Kumar fighting. Working together they could have used NRGES to wipe out the misery of millions of deprived people of Bihar.

I wrote on the subject since the scheme was getting discussed. I appealed to make it free of politics. Fortunately, the minister assigned with the task was honest and dedicated to the mission. Over the period, he initiated many safeguards to make it more transparent and less misused than its earlier predecessors. NREGS has also used IT to bring in efficiency and transparency. And the minister is also trying to get help from all the IIMs and IITs for improving upon the performance of NREGS. Latest provision of the scheme is the opening of an account in name of the beneficiary in the local post office or bank and wages tranferred straight to the benficiary’s account. As reported, ‘a staggering 16 million people registered with NREGS now have bank accounts.’ Ultimately, all the 55 millions will be covered by formal banking system.

Many are skeptical about the NREGS and its effectiveness because of the leakages. The Economist quoted in conclusion. “According to a recent World Bank simulation, more Indian peasants would be withdrawn from poverty if the government just handed them cash-without first making them shovel dirt.” However, why should we consider only the darker aspect? Let us look at the brighter side too. If the NREGS is fully operational, it would change the lives of over 25 million people in the country at less than what it costs to subsidise the energy consumption of the better off.

Here is a scheme that provides a right for even the most deprived one in the country to demand work, earn his living, and avoid going empty stomach to sleep. He must demand his right to live an honourable life.

I wish one day every village will have a website of its own and a rural knowledge centre. The website will have all the information about the NREGS along with many other information.

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