“MGNREGA needs to sort out delayed payments problem”

A quarter of a century ago, the then Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Manmohan Singh, started a programme of concurrent – or real-time – evaluation of the government’s rural development schemes. On Saturday, the Prime Minister expressed surprise that such processes are “languishing” and “not in good shape” and asked the present Deputy Chairman, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, to “apply his mind to making good this deficiency.”

The Prime Minister was speaking at the release of an anthology of independent research studies on the performance of the government’s flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGA) scheme. “I hope that this programme of looking at programmes in real time will gain momentum,” he said.

In fact, Mr. Ahluwalia’s Planning Commission has now approved the establishment of a Concurrent Evaluation Network, a panel of reputed research organisations, which will rapidly and rigorously evaluate the government’s rural schemes even while they are being implemented.

“We keep doing post-mortems, but if we have simultaneous evaluation, we have the chance to learn, to effect mid-course corrections,” said Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh. He has drafted a Cabinet note on the Concurrent Evaluation Network proposal which is now being circulated among his fellow Ministers.

The Prime Minister noted that the NREGA story was impressive in statistical terms. “No welfare scheme in recent memory has caught the imagination of the people as much as Mahatma Gandhi NREGA has,” he said, pointing out that over 250 crore person days of work were provided to 5.5 crore rural households last year. “The scheme scores high on inclusiveness,” he added.

However, Dr. Singh also admitted that he was not “fully satisfied” and spotlighted the concern of late payment of wages. The research anthology quoted a CAG audit which found payment delays in 213 gram panchayats in 16 States. “There is a problem in this area and the sooner we tackle this problem of delayed payments, I think better results would be in the offing,” said the Prime Minister.

One of the major challenges facing the scheme is the need to ramp up the capacities of Panchayati Raj institutions so they can fulfil their role in the scheme. The Rural Development Ministry has recently proposed to allot one per cent of its Rs. 99,000 crore budget to the Panchayati Raj Ministry to invest in improving technical and managerial capacities in the grass-roots institutions. “If these local bodies can rise to the challenge, the Mahatma Gandhi NREGA can very well become a ‘silver bullet’ for India’s rural renewal,” said the Prime Minister.

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