Before tinkering with the NREGA in the name of reforms, the government must ensure that the foundations of the scheme are strengthened. No change should be introduced without a rigorous debate that centrally involves its primary constituents.

As the Union Ministry of Rural Development attempts to craft the architecture of what is being referred to as “NREGA 2,” the principles that constitute the basic foundation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act must be kept in mind. The NREGA evolved out of a political response to a people’s movement and the articulated needs of rural workers. It put the people’s right to seek work in a legal framework, and approached development through the economic and social empowerment of the poor and the marginalised. The focus was clear: work must be provided on demand. The assets created should benefit the poorest and most marginalised communities first. The work itself should create and sustain favourable conditions for providing minimum wage employment in a transparent and accountable manner. Plans, and even new programmes, should be suggested and endorsed by the people. With a large increase in fund flow, the gram sabha and the panchayat is finally in a position to actually build participatory democracy, and people’s planning can be developed, as Kerala did along with fund devolution.

Despite all the criticism with respect to corruption and leakages, the NREGA has actually drawn attention to the weaknesses of the delivery mechanism. And it has made a host of different sets of people apply their collective skills to repair them. It is true, however, that the achievements of the NREGA have been uneven: in many States even the job cards are yet to be properly issued. Its foundations still being weak, any immediate change must not burden the fragile success, and must strengthen its basic structure. Most important, no change should be introduced without rigorous debate, centrally involving its primary constituents.

Unfortunately, the first change was slipped through on July 22, 2009, when Schedule I of the NREGA was amended to allow the “provision of irrigation facility, horticulture plantation, and land development facilities to land owned by households belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes or below poverty line families or to beneficiaries of land reforms or to the beneficiaries of the Indira Awaas Yojana of the Government of India, or that of the small or marginal farmers as defined in the agriculture debt waiver and debt relief Scheme 2008.” (the amendments made are marked in italics). The definition of small and marginal farmer used here implies that anyone who owns up to five acres of arable land (over 80 per cent of farmers come in this category) will be eligible for assets on their land.

By removing the focus of such subsidies from Dalits and the poor, this deceptively benevolent looking amendment could fundamentally change the course of the NREGA. Yet it came about with no public consultation or debate: in fact without even placing the matter before the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC). What is its potential impact?

With all its shortcomings and failings, the limited benefit provided by the NREGA has been an important support structure for the poorest and most marginalised rural communities. Wage work has been open to all those who offer to do casual manual work on eight categories of work — most of which are designed to strengthen the natural resource base of those who are most dependent on such community assets for their livelihoods.

At a meeting with a group of farmers including small and marginal farmers who work on NREGA worksites, there was unanimous agreement that the amendment would place the controls of the NREGA in the hands of the landed peasantry. Another apprehension that was strongly articulated was the potential disintegration of the strong transparency and accountability provisions that have been woven into the NREGA, as collective work on community land is replaced by work on individual landholdings. Dalits and the below poverty line group, however, had a sharper and personalised reaction. One of them said: “We have just begun to get something out of this Act, and it seems everyone wants to find ways of taking it away from us. Dalits and the poorest farmers will be pushed out, and the landless will be left developing assets for others.”

So far, only a fraction of poor and Dalit farmers have been sanctioned works. There is no justification to include others, and move to the second generation when the priority group is still to be covered.

At a meeting at Vigyan Bhavan in Delhi on August 20, Union Minister of Rural Development C.P. Joshi said the Ministry welcomed “discussion, debate and dissent.” Having received objections, he made the welcome announcement that the amendment would be kept in abeyance and re-examined, keeping in mind its potential impact on Dalits and the poor. However, the amendment itself needs to be withdrawn or suspended immediately, at the least, till lands of the first category are saturated.

One of the arguments used against the NREGA is that it has made farming difficult because farm labour have to be paid higher wages. This complaint is in fact one of the strongest endorsements the NREGA could receive. It is a law designed to support the poorest, and this criticism indicates that the NREGA has increased the bargaining power of rural labourers.

What about the farmer’s problem? The severe crisis in the agricultural sector must be addressed, and the viability of farming in India ensured. There are a slew of measures that are needed to ameliorate distress and increase the vibrancy of farming. These should include better support prices, more rational policies in international trade, special programmes and direct subsidies for agricultural revival including the building of farm ponds on every farm, better credit policies and effective crop insurance. Questions of credit, trade, and technology must be re-examined keeping the farmer’s long-term interests in mind. However, subsidising farmers through lower wages for agricultural labour, or transferring a share of resources meant for those who are worst-off in rural India, is the most unjust way to help the Indian farmer. The legitimate concerns of the farmers need to be separately addressed. The fragile success of an employment programme cannot bear the burden of lifting the entire rural economy out of the morass.

At a time when the spectre of drought looms large, the primary focus must be on providing work and wages on time. The NREGA is the first law in the country that put economic and social rights in a legal framework. Establishing such an alliance between the poorest citizen and the state on these most basic components, is the real blueprint of the NREGA.

We need to make sure this foundation is strong, and then carefully begin to construct NREGA II. There are strong legal provisions within the law that a citizen can initiate to demand work on 15 days, payment of wages in 15 days, and redress of grievances within seven days. In case of failure, workers can demand unemployment allowance, compensation and imposition of penalties.

Instead of trying to tinker with second-generation reforms, the government needs to first demonstrate that it can ensure an effective response to these demands across the country. An alliance between the ordinary citizen and the state is the roadmap of not just the NREGA, but of democratic governance.

( Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are social activists.)

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