Expand and re-orient NREGA

RURAL DEVELOPMENT: Workers laying road in Thirukannurpatti Village in Thanjavur District under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Photo: M. Srinath  

Soon after assuming office, the first UPA government took an impressive step for the alleviation of rural poverty by launching the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. It was, indeed, a wise move to insulate the programme from the vicissitudes of electoral politics by enacting the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The implementation of the programme has been uneven. A large number of articles have appeared in the press pointing out the defects in implementation. On September 19, The Hindu published an article by Professor Jean Drèze, “Employment guarantee or slave labour?” It reveals a sorry state of affairs. Every effort should be made to remove the shortcomings and ensure better implementation. Despite all its failings, the NREGA has proved to be a boon to the rural poor. It is now necessary to expand and re-orient the NREGA. That is the theme of this article.

The NREGA evolved into its present shape by building on past experience in designing and executing schemes for providing employment. The new programme is an improvement on its predecessors. There is greater flexibility and the implementing agencies have freedom to start new works according to necessity. Though the main emphasis is on providing employment, the law also aims at the creation of durable productive assets. The present recession is a promising moment to expand the programme with greater emphasis on the second objective of building social capital in a big way.

Great scope for building social capital on a massive scale. More than half a century ago, Ragnar Nurkse, the distinguished Cambridge economist, had pointed out that capital starved over-populated countries could build social capital in a big way by employing the surplus labour on a variety of projects. He had listed schemes concerning irrigation, drainage, roads, railways, housing, etc. In his view, the only danger was the onset of inflation caused by the increased demand for food and other wage goods. Though the Indian planners were aware of Nurkse’s prescription, they could not have implemented the idea in the pre-Green Revolution era of precarious food supply. Now we have ample stocks of food grains. And our industry will welcome the enhanced demand for consumer goods. We can, therefore, employ the surplus labour for building social capital in a big way without incurring any risk.

National Rural Development Board. There is considerable scope for absorbing vast quantities of human labour in well planned projects of soil and water conservation, rain water harvesting, irrigation and drainage works, flood control, watershed development, de-silting and maintenance of numerous water bodies, both manmade and natural, and an ambitious programme of afforestation aimed at restoring green cover throughout the country. In that enormous programme, governments’ efforts should be supplemented by suitable NGOs, co-operative societies, joint stock companies and so on. The present ad hoc approach aimed at providing immediate employment should yield place to a systematic, well planned, well co-ordinated effort.

Such an ambitious programme would necessitate the setting up of a National Rural Development Board clothed with adequate statutory powers. It should be a lean organisation responsible for policy and overall guidance. Under the Board there should be a well staffed regional office for each major river basin to handle planning, formulation of projects, co-ordination between major watersheds, technical guidance and supervision, maintenance of the assets created and so on. The valley of a big river will naturally include a number of major watersheds. Every major watershed should have a small office for coordinating and supervising the work within that watershed. The Panchayati Raj set up should handle the work within the district. The expanded programme will generate employment on a large scale, both for skilled and unskilled hands. The afforestation project will absorb a large number of rural workers, many on a permanent basis.

Two basic suggestions for better implementation: The fatal weakness of NREGA is poor implementation. The main reasons for shoddy execution are the decline and degeneration of the administration at all levels, particularly at the block level, and the lukewarm, half-hearted approach to democratic decentralisation. As I am out of touch with field conditions, I am unable to present a comprehensive proposal for setting things right. However, as a Collector in North Bihar five decades ago I had closely observed the robust functioning of the block administration. In 1981-82, I had occasion to see the sorry state of the block set up in several States that I visited as Director of the National Academy. As far as the Panchayati Raj is concerned, I had the privilege of serving on the review committees set up by two States, Karnataka and Kerala. Relying on these slight exposures I have mustered the courage to make the following radical suggestions.

Induct Block Development Officers of a higher calibre. The responsibility of the BDO is so onerous that it should be held by an officer of a much higher calibre. I suggest that after the completion of their training, all IAS officers should serve as BDOs for at least three years. The implementation of this suggestion will provide only about 300 officers. The country would need some 6000 bright young men and women to work as BDOs.

I put forward three suggestions for getting the required number of officers. The annual recruitment to the All India and Central Services may be stepped up by 50 per cent. After six months’ training, the new recruits should serve as BDOs for two years. Thereafter the required number may be allotted to the different services on the basis of their performance, aptitude and choice. The rest may continue as BDOs. A two-year stint as BDO will prove to be an invaluable experience even for those joining the foreign service.

The second suggestion is that short term contracts may be offered to the products of IITs, Regional Engineering Colleges, national law schools and so on. They could be posted as BDOs after being trained for six months. At the end of the contract some may be absorbed in government service and the others may move on to jobs of their choice elsewhere. Companies in the public and private sectors may be persuaded to offer them suitable employment giving credit for their service in the Block.

A third possibility is to depute young officers from the State services and public sector banks to work as BDOs for fixed periods after a short orientation course. The matter, of course, calls for a more thorough consideration.

The District Officer to be the Chief Executive of the District Panchayat. Thoroughgoing democratic decentralisation is the only way in which this sprawling country of great diversity can be governed efficiently. The Seventy Third Amendment to the Constitution providing for the creation of panchayats at the district, intermediate and village levels was a giant step forward. The State governments have, however, been reluctant to empower the panchayats. Their approach has been half-hearted and lukewarm. Even so, in the larger public interest, the States should be persuaded to delegate adequate powers to the panchayats.

After considerable introspection, I have come to the conclusion that the District Officer, variously designated as Collector, Collector and District Magistrate, or Deputy Commissioner, should be the Chief Executive of the district panchayat. This single step will go a long way in strengthening the Panchayati Raj. The District Officer should, of course, have under him at least four senior officers to handle work relating to law and order, land revenue, development and Panchayati Raj. Initially there will be many hitches and irritants. A sub-clause should be added in Article 243-C of the Constitution spelling out the powers of the Chairperson and the Chief Executive.

Such a clear demarcation of powers and responsibilities will hopefully reduce friction and promote mutual respect, understanding and cooperation between the two functionaries. Furthermore, hand-picked officers of 10-12 years of service should be appointed District Officers and the Chairmen should be seasoned public persons. I hope that in due course, the relationship between the Chairperson and the Chief Executive will settle down to resemble that between the Chief Minister and the Chief Secretary. In the initial stages, however, the relationship could be like that between the non- executive chairman and the managing director of a large company. I know that this proposal is highly controversial. It will be opposed both by politicians and bureaucrats. However, in my considered view, this radical step will facilitate the better implementation of the re-oriented NREGA.

The massive effort in building social capital outlined in this essay could trigger higher productivity of land and labour, diversification of agriculture and faster industrial growth. It would also mitigate the suffering inflicted by chronic drought and flash floods.

What I have presented is not an action plan or a project report for reorienting NREGA. It is only the rough outline of a fond vision I have been nursing for a long time. I shall be happy if this article provokes purposeful discussion.

(P.S. Appu is a former Chief Secretary of Bihar and former Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration, Mussoorie. He can be reached at: psappu@hotmail.com)

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 3:21:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Expand-and-re-orient-NREGA/article16886475.ece

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