Council felt that a critical need for public works may arise in many States

Saving the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) — the centrepiece of UPA-I’s achievements in the social welfare sector — from its many critics in government and the media who view it as a drain on the exchequer will head the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC)’s agenda in the coming months.

At a meeting of the reconstituted NAC on Friday, its members discussed the role a re-energised MGNREGS could play in alleviating the condition of the very poor, currently facing the threat of a failed monsoon and an impending drought: in this context, it was felt that there was a critical need for public works may arise in many States.

The NAC Working Group on Transparency, Accountability and Governance, headed by Aruna Roy, has, therefore, been mandated to hold consultations in co-ordination with the Ministry of Rural Development and the State governments “to measure the impact of the Act so far, monitor implementation of the scheme and suggest effective institutional measures.”

Also attending the meeting for the first time in his capacity as a NAC member was the Planning Commission’s Mihir Shah, author of a report of the Ministry of Rural Development that has examined the challenges to the MGNREGS, following which the Ministry issued fresh guidelines and set up a National Resource Group and Technical Advisory Group to look into issues of implementation.

Challenges in implementation

Ms. Roy submitted a letter to Ms. Gandhi, pointing out that after an initial period of enthusiasm and significant progress, the MGNREGS was facing several challenges in basic implementation. Simultaneously, despite its seminal achievements, it was at the receiving end of a series of hostile critiques, not based on rigorous evaluation.

Ms. Roy said it was crucial to interface with workers on issues such as work on demand; wages and timely payments; expanding the scope of works, ensuring better quality assets; transparency, accountability and social audit.

“It requires very strong commitment and signals from the highest levels of authority to see that the basic rights under the MGNREGS are actualised,” Ms. Roy wrote, stressing, “New guidelines should be operationalised, but we do need to go beyond that. The implementation of these guidelines has to be monitored consistently, and action taken where there are loopholes and deliberate mismanagement.”

The second key issue the NAC deliberated on was how to make the Unorganised Workers' Social Security Act, 2008 as inclusive as possible with a comprehensive social security package to be provided through a single window backed by a common ICT architecture.

On Friday, representatives of the Ministry of Labour and Employment and Department of Financial services (Ministry of Finance) made a presentation to the Council in the context of the NAC’s recommendations that were sent to them in April 2012.

Social security package

The presentations highlighted existing provisions for social security under the Act, as well as well as other national social assistance programmes, including the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY).

There was general agreement on broad elements of the integrated social security package, the implementation architecture and phasing of the coverage of the unorganised workers.

It was felt that the success of the RSBY should be leveraged and the pension and life and disability insurance schemes should use the RSBY platform. The Council has asked the Ministries to develop detailed features of the scheme and appraise the Council at its next meeting.

Ms. Roy wrote another letter to Ms. Gandhi, urging her to push for the early passage of the Whistleblower Protection Bill and the Grievance Redress Bill, as it would complement the Right to Information Act and “help take India from transparency towards accountability.”

With many of the social sector legislation and flagship programmes suffering because of lack of effective grievance redress mechanisms, and the grievance redress mechanism suggested in the Right to Food Bill “reportedly removed in anticipation of the passage of the generic grievance redress law,” she stressed the urgent need to get this Bill legislated, as it “would immediately alleviate sufferings of millions of Indians.”

Not passing the Whistleblower Protection Bill and the Grievance Redress Bill on an urgent basis, she says, “only conveys the impression that the government is not at all serious about issues of accountability and corruption.”

At Friday’s meeting, the NAC recalled the valuable contributions made by past members M.S. Swaminathan, Madhav Gadgil and Harsh Mander, while welcoming Dr. Shah and Ashis Mondal, Director, Action for Social Advancement, Bhopal.

Others who attended the meeting were Narendra Jadhav, Naresh C. Saxena, Pramod Tandon, Aruna Roy, Deep Joshi, Farah Naqvi and Mirai Chatterjee.

The next meet of the NAC will be held on August 24.

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