The effectiveness of implementation of the country’s much talked about job scheme—Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme—was probed in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara district this past fortnight through a social audit that involved 1,700 participants from 16 different States. There had been an element of suspense and curiosity about the possible outcome of the exercise as the testing ground happened to be the Lok Sabha constituency of Union Minister for Panchayati Raj and Rural Development C. P. Joshi but there was neither high drama nor tension -- as it used to be in the past -- as both the State and the Centre remained willing partners in the fact-finding.

Though no verdict was passed at the end of the 12-day “combing operations” in 11 panchayats of the district—known for its prosperous urban clusters with spinning and weaving units and rural areas with very little productivity but for mining—the impression gained at the concluding function on Monday here in which Prof. Joshi too joined was of a mixed fare. There were instances of corruption, mismanagement of funds, use of machines instead of manpower, delays in payments, job cards not in possession of labourers and absence of boards explaining the status of work undertaken. Yet there were many things to rejoice as well.

People are getting an assured minimum amount of money through the job scheme and the system, though not in full form, is emerging. The card holders are increasingly getting aware of their rights and entitlements and the establishment—the district as well as village bureaucracy--is more sensitive and receptive.

In fact, the stock-taking found Rajasthan and Bhilwara lucky as the Gehlot Government has put a committed team in place. The Commissioner of NREGS in the State is Rajendra Bhanawat, a senior IAS officer known for his commitment to the social sector, and Bhilwara Collector Manju Rajapal has proven credentials in the implementation of the programme. The latest appointments -- Banna Lal as the Director of Social Audit, NREGS, and Ramniwas Mehta as Director of NREGS – are also being hailed.

“I accept that there is corruption in the panchayati raj. I participated in the social audit in one panchayat the other day and could not miss the apprehensions of the functionaries. I myself had been a sarpanch for long. Perhaps instead of blaming those at the lower levels we should first make the persons at the top answerable,” said Rajasthan’s Panchayat Raj Minister Bharat Singh. When the Collector was expected to make ten inspections a month to the NREGS work sites in the district, 50 per cent of the Collectors in Rajasthan did not do any, he noted.

“The social audit was not a fault-finding mission. We looked for positive examples as well and were happy to find many. Another heartening aspect was that the Government and the administration now fully accept the need for social audit and cooperated with us fully,” said Magsaysay Award winner Aruna Roy who spearheaded the audit programme under the banner of Soochana Evam Rozgar Abhiyan. Ms. Roy did not miss the horrors of the past when the audit teams were chased out of the area in Banswara and Jhalawar during the previous regime.

“Those days we could not get any official information. We had to even resort to a dharna outside the Banswara Collectorate,” she said pointing out that the past two-three years had witnessed slow progress in implementation of the scheme.

“We have to change the model of governance,” said Prof. Joshi at the end of three-hour-long patient hearing in which activist Nikhil Dey and his team paraded the data and the major findings. Prof. Joshi was not grudging but said in a lighter vein, “Aruna Roy did the misadventure of social audit.”

The Minister expressed his concern over 14 per cent of the eligible persons getting 100 days’ work in the country. “We have to take into account the rest of the population as well,” he asserted.

Prof. Joshi announced creation of a category of qualified professionals designated as Panchayat Development Officers and introduction of technology which would help bring more transparency. He also promised to get information boards installed outside panchayat offices all over the country.