Envisioning NREGA-II is key to realise the unfulfilled dreams of NREGA-I, which has failed thus far to break free from a debilitating past.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) promises a revolutionary demand-driven, people-centred development programme. Planning, implementation and social audit by gram sabhas and gram panchayats can engender millions of sustainable livelihoods following initial rounds of wage employment. But NREGA-I has had to battle against the legacy of an ignominious past. Rural development programmes over the last 60 years have been dependent on the munificence of the state . They have been implemented top-down, using labour-displacing machines and contractors who have customarily run roughshod over basic human rights.

NREGA is poised to change all that. And there is no doubt that its promise has charged the hearts and minds of the rural poor with unprecedented hopes and expectations. But the first three years of the programme have also shown that NREGA suffers from many ills leakages and delays in wage payments, non-payment of statutory minimum wages, work only for an average of 50 days per annum as against the promised 100 days, fudged muster rolls, few durable assets and even fewer sustainable livelihoods.

Envisioning NREGA-II is important to realise the unfulfilled dreams of NREGA-I, which has failed thus far to break free of the shackles of a debilitating past. At least seven key elements need to characterise NREGA-II. One, strengthening the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) by providing them requisite technical and social human resource so that plans can be made and implemented genuinely bottom-up. Without a cadre of social mobilisers or lok sewaks (at least one in every village), it is difficult to convert NREGA into a truly demand-driven programme, where works are undertaken in response to the needs and aspirations of a fully aware citizenry. Otherwise, the current practice of works being imposed from above will continue unchecked. And without much greater technical support to the PRIs, it will be hard to stop the backdoor entry of contractors.

Two, there needs to be a renewed focus on improving the productivity of agriculture and convergence to engender allied sustainable livelihoods. NREGA is not the usual run-of-the-mill relief and welfare programme of the past. It is not merely about transferring cash to people in distress. It is about creating durable assets that will ultimately lead to a reduced dependence of people on NREGA. The percentage of agricultural labour households in India who own land is around 50 in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, 60 in Orissa and Uttar Pradesh and over 70 in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. And if we focus on Adivasis, the proportion shoots up to as high as 76-87 per cent in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan. Millions of our small and marginal farmers are forced to work under NREGA because the productivity of their own farms is too low to make ends meet. NREGA will become really powerful when it helps to rebuild this decimated productivity of small farms and allows these people to return to full-time farming, thereby also reducing the load on NREGA.

What would accelerate this strengthening of small and marginal farming is the proposal to allow assets creation through NREGA on farmers lands. This is element three of NREGA-II and would help the poorest who constitute 80 per cent of farmers in India. It is not entirely clear why certain sections of civil society are opposed to this idea, which will also mitigate the apparent conflict perceived by some Gandhians between small farmers and NREGA. Especially given the just demand for extending the work guarantee of 100 days to every person (as promised in the Congress manifesto), there is need to extend the scope of NREGA to small and marginal farmers lands. This remarkably inclusive provision can potentially transform Indian agriculture, which is crying out for greater public investment.

Apparently there is an apprehension that if work is allowed on poor farmers lands, the provision will be misused by powerful rich farmers in the village. Let me begin by stating that Magsaysay award winner Deep Joshi believes that NREGA should actually be used for assets creation on all lands, much as in a watershed programme, so that plans can be made and implemented on a watershed basis. I disagree with him only because I feel priority must be given to the poor. But I fail to understand opposition to work on farms of the poor themselves. Misuse of NREGA provisions is a genuine fear but that should be addressed with element four of NREGA-II strengthening social audit.

Here we have two possible ways forward, what I call MKSS-I and MKSS-II. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) blazed the trail of social audit in Rajasthan. MKSS-I, a process that has been fraught with violent opposition from vested interests, and by the MKSS own admission, has been less than successful. MKSS-II refers to the social audit pro-actively promoted by the government of Andhra Pradesh and guided by the MKSS that has achieved unprecedented success. However, this remains a predominantly top-down approach with relatively weak roots. What we need to do is to combine the strengths of MKSS-I with those of MKSS-II, because social audit is undoubtedly the weakest link of NREGA so far, even though it was hailed initially as its most attractive differentia specifica. Pramathesh Ambasta, National Coordinator, Civil Society Consortium on NREGA, is working on a blueprint of a National Authority for NREGA, which should become a matter of serious reflection and debate if we are to strengthen social audit, evaluation and grievance redress, by making them independent of the implementing agency.

Element five has to be more of creative use of information technology (IT), which can greatly strengthen social audit and reduce chances of fraud and leakage. As in Andhra Pradesh, computer systems need to be tightly integrated end-to-end so that any work registered in the system is alive, status-visible and amenable to tracking. Delays at any stage can thus be immediately identified and corrected. The system keeps track of the work from the day the work-ID is generated and flags delays in the payment cycle as soon as they occur. Because the network secures all levels from the ground up to the State headquarters and data are transparently and immediately available on the website, a delay at any stage is instantly noticed by the monitoring system. Free availability of this information on the website also facilitates public scrutiny, greater transparency and better social audit.

IT has one more new dimension. Ever since it was decided to make payments only through banks and post offices, NREGA-I has run into serious trouble caused by delays and corruption in payments. Workers, especially in remote rural India, find it very hard to travel long distances to get money. This promotes a nightmarish variety of malpractices. It is now imperative that we roll out the banking correspondent model using handheld computer devices and mobile phones to all gram panchayats in India by the end of the Eleventh Plan period. The government needs to commit the support required to make this happen in a time-bound manner to achieve unprecedented financial inclusion on the doorstep for our poorest people living in distant hinterlands. The demand-driven, pro-poor unique ID project can play a key role in this regard and also greatly benefit from the demand created by this exercise.

Element six of NREGA-II is a reformed schedule of rates (SoRs). The commitment to pay real (indexed to inflation) wages of Rs.100 a day can never be fulfilled if we continue to use antediluvian SoRs that were meant to serve the contractor-machine raj. Using these rates will inevitably underpay labour, especially women. We need gender, ecology and labour-capacity sensitive SoRs that are themselves indexed to the real minimum wage, undergoing revisions with each revision in the statutory wage. Otherwise, complaints of underpaid labour will never cease.

Finally, element seven the role of civil society, which is crucial in making NREGA realise its potential. Whether it is grass-roots activists assisting PRIs in social mobilisation, developmental NGOs building capacities of panchayats and supporting them in planning and implementing NREGA works, academic institutions helping to improve the standards of evaluation or eminent citizens acting as ombudsmen, there is an urgent need to mandate civil society action in strengthening NREGA. On its part, civil society needs to adopt a strategy of dialogue and support to make NREGA a success. Revamped and revitalised CAPART (Council for Peoples Action and Rural Technology) and NIRD (National Institute of Rural Development) based on vibrant partnerships with civil society could help facilitate this change.

Each of these seven elements was part of the original NREGA vision. What NREGA-II will do is to place renewed emphasis on key aspects of this vision and build new strategies to help the programme realise its true potential. It is good that the Ministry of Rural Development is engaging in detailed discussions with various stakeholders as also the Central Employment Guarantee Council before unfurling the NREGA-II blueprint.

(The writer is Member, Planning Commission. Views expressed are personal.)

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