“This Employment Guarantee Act is the most significant legislation of our times in many ways. For the first time, rural communities have been given not just a development programme but a regime of rights…The NREGA gives employment, gives income, gives a livelihood, and it gives a chance to live a life of self-respect and dignity.” — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the launch of NREGS

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), launched in 2006 and renamed in 2009 as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), is back in the news. This is in consequence of a meeting of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) held in Delhi in the last week of August to take stock of the functioning of the scheme.

The main purpose of the meeting was to discuss the reports of six working groups constituted by the Central government to help remove the deficiencies in the functioning of the system. The groups have identified problems and made several recommendations. They were constituted in response to allegations from beneficiaries and the public in general. These included denial of wages for work done, delayed payment, poor response to the card-holders' job demands, non-payment of unemployment allowance to those denied work, failure to put in place proper monitoring devices, corruption and wastage of public resources, and favouritism and discrimination in allotting work.

Most of the adverse comments from a section of the media were based on a misreading or misrepresentation of the draft CAG report on the implementation of NREGA, 2005. That critique was not about corruption, but about specific cases of diversion or non-utilisation of funds allotted for the scheme.

It was under these circumstances that the government decided to constitute a few working groups to ensure a better implementation of the scheme, which is considered one of the best and most needed welfare programmes for rural India. The Ministry of Rural Development formed six working groups on March 4, 2010 to address issues which included planning and execution of schemes, capacity-building initiatives, evolving a new wage structure, and ensuring transparency and accountability in the operation of the scheme.

The working group on transparency and accountability chaired by Aruna Roy in its report criticised the government for its failure to take action against “large-scale and unchecked corruption” in the functioning of the scheme. It wanted the government to plug the loopholes immediately. The report pointed out that many provisions in the Act relating to social audit in 2008 were diluted by the government as a result of which the panchayat functionaries could be corrupted. The group recommended a set of model rules to make good the absence of any comprehensive statutory regime on social audit. To ensure transparency, the working group recommended that all NREGA-related information should be put in the public domain. It found that one of the biggest lacunae in the implementation of NREGA was “the flagrant violation of the basic entitlements of the worker with impunity.” A key suggestion by the working group was that the social audits in the gram panchayats should be conducted not by the panchayat president, but by a third party.

The working group chaired by John Dreze recommended that the wages of the workers under the scheme should be linked to the Consumer Price Index. The other groups also proposed some practical solutions to problems.

Typically, the government avoided an immediate response to these recommendations. Rural Development Minister C.P. Joshi told members of the six working groups at the end of the meeting that many of the recommendations they had submitted needed to undergo financial and legal scrutiny before they could be taken into account. The Minister has reportedly agreed that the delay in, and denial of, wage payments would be his principal concern and so would be addressed by the government soon.

Media coverage of MGNREGS

The news media have all along been divided in their attitude to the scheme. It is clear this difference is essentially ideological. Even when the proposal for the scheme was under discussion, a section of the mainstream media backed the stand of a group of economists who were sceptical of its success. They expressed apprehension that whatever money was spent on it would go down the drain. They were not prepared to accept the concept of the right to employment. Some even called it ‘anti-people.' They would not see it even as a poverty-alleviation programme.

Substantial sections of the broadcast media were critical of the scheme, which notwithstanding its deficiencies has proved its potential to provide jobs for the unemployed and unskilled and even to bring about, to some extent, socio-economic changes in the countryside. The scheme's popularity and success in keeping youth, hitherto unemployed, engaged in useful activities was largely ignored or underplayed. However, several newspapers highlighted the positive aspects of the scheme. For instance, some journalists brought to public notice how the scheme had helped in arresting mass migration from villages to towns and cities. They explained in their news reports and articles how NREGS had served as a dependable safety net for the unemployed, particularly the unskilled, during the years of drought and famine, supplementing household incomes. Some commentators even concluded that this played a significant role in bringing peace in rural areas. Aside from putting some cash in the hands of rural youth, the employment guarantee scheme has helped create sustainable assets. Where it has worked well, it may even have raised the confidence level of young men and women.

Rajasthan is a State where the scheme is being implemented with a high level of success. In places like Bhilwara, an effective system of social audit has given people the strength to fight corruption and irregularities and such success stories have been highlighted by newspapers. Another positive development is that rural women have become more productive in areas where the scheme functions properly. More and better-informed and critical media coverage will really help.

It is not surprising that there has been a steady increase in the number of households benefited by the scheme. While 21 million households were provided employment under NREGA in 2006-07, it was 33.9 million in 2007-08, and 45.1 million in 2008-09. For 2009-10, 44.9 million households were covered up to January 2010. The average wage paid per person-day progressively increased from Rs. 65 in 2006-07 to Rs. 88.56 in 2009-10. The central budget allocation of funds for the scheme has also increased over the years, with the current year's budget allocation being Rs. 40,100 crore. Early implementation of the key recommendations of the working groups is a socio-economic and democratic imperative.