The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (2005) differs from the other poverty alleviation measures in two significant respects. Where most welfare programmes cast the state in the role of benefactor offering handouts to the poor, the NREGS is built around notions of citizenship and entitlement. Secondly, the NREGS also facilitates disclosure by means of regular social audits. These audits, mandated to be done by the Gram Sabhas, are intended to identify and plug pilferage and corruption, which in turn, helps build awareness and confidence in beneficiaries who learn, over time, to become vigilant and assertive. Institutionalised social audits are vital if a programme of the dimensions of the NREGS is to succeed, and as much was the objective of a sample 10-day social audit conducted recently in Bhilwara by the Aruna Roy-led Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan in close collaboration with the Rajasthan government. Over a fortnight, social auditors, fully backed by government machinery, minutely examined NREGS documents like job cards, muster rolls, and technical and financial sanctions and interacted with thousands of beneficiaries.
The Bhilwara social audit exposed irregularities; indeed it underscored the NREGS’s susceptibility to corruption. Yet significantly, it also provided the answer to the problem. There can be no better certificate for the audit than the resistance it faced from the panchayat staff who obviously feared being held to account. The sarpanchs (village heads) sat in dharna, made their displeasure public at the ‘jan sunwais’ (public hearings), and demanded that they be spared punishment for wrongdoings. That the demand was backed by a Minister from the Rajasthan government points to the difficulties involved in breaching local power structures, now doubly more influential for the huge funds made available by the NREGS. Bhilwara alone got Rs.330 crore this financial year from the State’s budget allocation of Rs.9,500 crore. The monitoring mechanism under the NREGS must function robustly, not only to silence critics who argue that influx of funds on this scale can only lead to more corruption, but more importantly to reach the programme’s numerous benefits, both financial and social, to the target group. Among other things, the Bhilwara audit team found that guaranteed employment had reduced distress migration by the Bhil tribal community, and raised wage levels across the private sector. With so much going for it, the NREGS is also a potential election winner — which ought to make it an article of faith with every politician.