In the final analysis, what makes any NREGA social audit worth all the pain and effort is the awareness it creates among poor beneficiaries.
It is a measure of the hard labour that awaits NREGA activists in other States that a social audit conducted under blazing arc lights, and with so much official support, such as the one in Bhilwara in Rajasthan, could run into so many roadblocks. Virtually all of the Rajasthan government ( in September Rajasthan became the second government after Andhra Pradesh to set up a Directorate of Social Audit) was at the disposal of the Bhilwara audit team which also had the full backing of C.P. Joshi, Union Minister for Rural Development, elected to Parliament from Bhilwara.
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan activists Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey said they chose Bhilwara for the audit exercise because they wanted to see if the Minister could face up to an NREGA audit in his constituency; after all, there was no knowing what the audit would reveal. Yet a question arises: Would Mr. Joshi have shown interest in the Bhilwara audit had he not been its MP? Secondly, what happens to NREGA work in States that lack men and women of the calibre and commitment of Ms Roy, Mr. Dey and other MKSS activists? Can a programme’s success be made dependent on a few individuals? What happens when the government shows no interest which is the case in most States?
Mr. Dey argued that the MKSS social audit had visibly and strongly demonstrated the positive effects of civil society-government collaboration. The unity of purpose shown in Bhilwara by social auditors, government, media and the office of the Comptroller and Auditor-General was replicable in other States. Indeed, if Minister Joshi took the trouble to watch over the audit in his constituency, it only showed that there was huge political capital to be made from pushing NREGA.
Through the audit the Bhilwara team was inundated by calls from people impressed by its work in the district. And a day after the gargantuan exercise wound up, Congress MP from Alwar, Jitendra Singh, turned up in Bhilwara asking that the MKSS organise an NREGA audit in his constituency.
The Rajasthan experiment is itself based on the Andhra Pradesh government’s success with conducting NREGA audits. The A.P. government did this off its own bat, at the urging of Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, whereas in Rajasthan the push came from civil society. The A.P. government was the first to institutionalise social audit by means of a Social Audit Directorate. Since then the state government has gone a further step with a committed budget for social auditing and provisions to host audit results on its NREGA website.
At a meeting the Bhilwara audit team had with Rajasthan government officials and other experts, Sowmya Kidambi, an MKSS activist deputed to work with the A.P. government, strongly advocated bringing audit results into the public domain via computerisation, arguing that this had greatly increased transparency in Andhra Pradesh.
In the final analysis, what makes any NREGA social audit worth all the pain and effort is the awareness it creates among poor beneficiaries, who slowly but surely learn to hold the programme’s managers to account. A quick survey by The Hindu in a cross section of Bhilwara’s villages showed that the village people had fully internalised their rights and entitlements. But because of the patriarchal, dominating nature of the panchayat set-up, most of them lacked the courage to speak up. This situation would gradually change if accountability was built into the system.
Accountability could also impact social evils like untouchability, which the audit team found was widely prevalent in NREGA sites. In many panchayats, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe NREGA beneficiaries were given separate utensils and prevented from accessing common resources.
The social and economic spin-offs from even partial implementation of NREGA were only too evident in Bhilwara. NREGA beneficiaries were unanimous that the programme had improved their lives. For years the Bhil tribal community in Malanas in Gram Panchyat Jindras had battled hunger and poverty, travelling out of the State in search of work. Today, most Bhil wives are employed under NREGA, bringing stability and assured incomes to families that were until recently desperately poor. NREGA also made valuable contributions in times of drought which was the case in Rajasthan this year. Though poor, few families in Bhilwara seemed on the brink of starvation. Besides, as many villagers pointed out, the minimum wage of Rs. 100 a day under the NREGA had increased wage levels across the private sector, benefiting both families that could not avail NREGA work and families that had completed the NREGA quota of 100 work days per family. As MKSS activist Shanker Singh remarked: “NREGA has greatly increased the bargaining power of poor people. They are no longer willing to work cheap.”
Poverty reduction potential
One has only to look at the funds the NREGA has placed in the hands of local administrators to understand its poverty reduction potential . Bhilwara alone drew Rs. 330 crore from the NREGA budget in 2009-2010. As MKSS activists stress, “funds are available for the asking now. Assuming the programme is properly utilised, NREGA can change the complexion of poor India.”
Yet the Bhilwara social audit also revealed that funds can easily get into the wrong hands. Indeed, even as the MKSS team deservedly takes credit for the massive Bhilwara social audit, it must know that it can hardly rest on its laurels. On the concluding day of the audit, a Rajasthan Minister suggested that while sarpanchs caught with their hands in the till must be made to refund the misappropriated funds, they ought not to be punished. This is exactly what the sarpanchs demanded at the various jan sunwais (public hearings). If this point were conceded, the social audit would lose its purpose, irreversibly damaging NREGA. Other dangers include threatened official amendments to a job programme hailed far and wide as progressive and empowering.
Even with all these ifs and buts, the Bhilwara exercise is worth emulating by other States. For as the audit and the responses to it showed, there is political dividend to be had from investing in NREGA. If politicians can use NREGA to win elections that will surely be the job guarantee programme’s best guarantee for survival.