It wants the scheme to build productive assets through convergence of natural resources and labour

The Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) — at the initiative of which the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme was rolled out in UPA-I — is taking a fresh look at how to strengthen it.

The NAC wants the scheme to move from its “relief work mode” to one that would blend “natural resources and labour to build productive assets.” When the NAC meets here on Thursday, the Deep Joshi-headed working group will suggest ways and means of strengthening the capacity of panchayats to implement the scheme more effectively.

Having finalised its recommendations for big-ticket laws on food security and communal violence, both currently with the government, the NAC will focus, over the next few months, on other smaller, but critical, aam aadmi issues. Besides proposing new guidelines for the MGNREGS, the council will deliberate on welfare interventions for de-notified tribes, social security for the unorganised sector and pre-legislative consultative mechanisms, sources in the NAC told The Hindu.

Three new working groups — on the northeast, minority welfare, and social protection for the most vulnerable groups such as street children and the homeless — will also be constituted.

Workshop

In the run-up to Thursday's meeting, Mr. Joshi, it is learnt, held a workshop in April, in which 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. The sources said that though Schedule One of the MGNREG Act referred to conservation of natural resources such as rainwater, land, forests, this was not reflected in the works floated for the scheme. Thus far, the panchayats, barring those in Karnataka — and, to some extent, in West Bengal, thanks to the long years of Left rule — have “no experience at all in planning large-scale programmes.”

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

The second issue — how to improve the lives and livelihood of the roughly 13.5 crore-strong denotified tribes, whose members are yet to shed the colonial stigma of being described as criminal tribes — will be addressed by Narendra Jadhav, who heads the working group on the subject.

Spread over approximately 200 communities and several States and, being largely nomadic, at present they don't enjoy the rights given to the tribal population.

Their status in different States varies: in some, they have been categorised as the Scheduled Castes; in others as the Other Backward Castes; and in some others, they have just fallen through the cracks.

Meanwhile, even as the government grapples with the controversial Lokpal Bill and its uneasy relationship with civil society, Aruna Roy, who heads the working group on transparency and accountability, will initiate a discussion on Thursday to put in place a framework to give non-state actors an institutional role in framing laws. The proposal emanated from the National Campaign for People's Right to Information.

As for the unorganised sector, UPA-II has already extended the benefits of the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana to the MGNREGS and domestic workers, but the NAC feels that other social security interventions should also be considered. Towards that end, the Mirai Chatterjee-led working group will put forward some draft proposals on Thursday.

Sachar panel report

Of the new working groups coming up, Pramod Tandon will head the one on the northeast, and he is scheduled to outline its concerns. Harsh Mander and Farah Naqvi will head the one on minority welfare, which will look at how far the Sachar Committee's recommendations have been implemented.