New-look programme to be rolled out in 2,000 most backward blocks within a year

As part of a coordinated and aligned initiative, the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council, a re-energised Union Rural Development Ministry and the Planning Commission are working in tandem to make up for the time and money lost due to the underperformance in UPA-II on the government's flagship programme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

Even as the NAC on Thursday discussed how to converge natural resources with the MGNREGS to create productive assets, it is learnt, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, working closely with the Planning Commission, will issue guidelines to Chief Ministers in the next fortnight to make the programme realise its “full potential.” Government sources told The Hindu that the revamped programme would initially be rolled out in 2,000 most backward blocks — identified by the Commission — within a year.

With corruption in high places dominating the political discourse and the UPA finding it hard to shift the focus from allegations of financial wrongdoing, the Congress leadership wants to get back to what worked for it in the recent past. In 2009, when the Congress-led government returned to power with an increased mandate, one of the reasons cited for its success was the MGNREGS: its ability to put a steady flow of money in the hands of the most vulnerable during an economic crisis paid the Congress rich dividends.

But two years into its second term — with two Ministers, C.P. Joshi and then Vilasrao Deshmukh, performing well below par — the Congress has realised that the programme is “working way below potential,” as Planning Commission member Mihir Shah phrases it. The task, therefore, is to fix it and make it a vote-spinner again.

Survey in blocks

For the revamped programme, the Ministry will ask all States to draw up a labour budget based on a survey conducted in all blocks to identify not just how many people require work but also the quantum and the timing, so that the works planned can be synchronised with labour availability.

Second, the States will be asked to make a work plan and create a shelf of works. Third, clusters of gram panchayats will be serviced by a team of professionals who will assist in the measurement and choice of works as well as in finalising the labour budget. The professionals will include social mobilisers, civil engineers and hydro-geologists. Each gram panchayat will have an employment guarantee assistant to record demands and fill the muster rolls. Each block will have a programme officer.

The success of the programme, sources said, will lie in making small and marginal farms productive so that labourers go back to their farms and the demand for MGNREGS jobs comes down. “We hope the public investment in the MGNREGS will incentivise private investment for farmers,” said sources in the Planning Commission.

Mission structure

Meanwhile, Deep Joshi, convener, Working Group on Natural Resource Management (NRM), in convergence with the MGNREGS, recommended the creation of a mission structure for intensive support and facilitation; decentralisation of planning to the village; creation of technical capacity at various levels down to the village; creation of a training and support mechanism with earmarked funds to train village resource persons and provide implementation support; insisting on two-thirds investment in natural resources management and the setting up of mechanisms for convergence with schemes for utilisation of productive assets.

Land development

At least two-thirds of all works in financial terms at the block/mandal level, the Working Group suggested, will focus on the development of land and water resources to increase their productivity and incomes to the poor; no other work will be taken up in a gram panchayat under the MGNREGS until the NRM works proposed by the gram panchayat, based on hamlet-level plans, are implemented. Finally, it recommends that priority be given to developing assets of the poor, especially of BPL, SC and ST households, and land allotted under the Forest Rights Act.