“MGNREGS should move from relief work mode to one that blends natural resources and labour” to build productive assets

The Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC), which went into hibernation in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson's absence, has been reactivated.

On September 14, it despatched its recommendations on strengthening the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) to the government; it wants the scheme to move from its “relief work mode” to one that will blend “natural resources and labour to build productive assets.”

The suggestions come in the wake of criticism from many quarters — including within the government — that the gargantuan MGNREGS has been a drain on the exchequer, with vast sums of money being spent on unproductive works. With the MGNREGS having been a vote spinner – along with the farm loan waiver scheme, in the general elections of 2009 – the need to revamp the employment scheme became an imperative.

In the run–up to finalising its recommendations, the NAC had set up a working group under Deep Joshi to suggest ways and means of strengthening the capacity of panchayats to implement the scheme more effectively. At a workshop in April, conducted by Mr. Joshi, representatives of the Central and State governments, as well as NGOs, reviewed the MGNREGS. What emerged was that the annual budget of Rs.40,000 crore could be better utilised with more effective planning. Even though Schedule One of the MGNREG Act refers to conservation of natural resources such as rainwater, land, forests, this was not reflected in the works floated for the scheme, the panchayats, barring those in Karnataka — and, to some extent, in West Bengal, thanks to the long years of Left rule — had “no experience at all in planning large-scale programmes.”

The current system does not have the space for any deliberation, say NAC sources. The object, therefore, is to “enable” the panchayats engage in better planning, giving them access to technical expertise and encouraging them to increase local consultation.

The key recommendations, approved by the NAC on July 28, are the need to create a mission structure for intensive support and facilitation; decentralise planning and the creation of technical capacity at various levels to the village level; design a training and support mechanism with earmarked funds to train village resource persons, provide implementation support; insist on two thirds investment on natural resources management (NRM); and set up mechanisms for convergence with schemes for utilisation of productive assets.

The fundamental principles recommended included that at least two-thirds of all works in financial terms at the block/mandal level should focus on the development of land and water resources to result in sustainable increase in productivity of such resources and incomes to the poor; that no other works should be taken up in a gram panchayat under the MGNREGA until the NRM works proposed by the gram panchayat, based on hamlet-level plans, are implemented; that overriding priority will be given to developing the assets of the poor, especially of BPL, SC and ST households and land allotted under the Forest Rights Act; that works shall be taken up on the basis of multi-year plans drawn at the level of a natural village or hamlet through a participative process.

The plans should have built-in provision for convergence of other schemes such as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) /the Rainfed Areas Development Programme (RADP), the National Horticulture Mission (NHM) etc. to enhance productivity and incomes.

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