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NREGA: weeping over wages, forgetting dying works

Y.B. PRASAD

The Act must lay down clearly the authorities who are accountable to maintain, run and own these assets





Few laws have had such stimulating economic, social and political impact so soon in India as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005 — since renamed Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Think of the guaranteed employment to 4.47 crore rural households; additional income flowing to wage earners’ hamlets to the tune of Rs.18, 155 crores; S.C., ST and women workers far out-numbering other sections of workers; 31.2 million poor families opening accounts in banks, post offices; and the ruling party handsomely rewarded at the Lok Sabha hustings. The quintessence of this phenomenal legislation lies in fulfilling the twin mandatory objectives of this historic Act — providing a right based 100-day unskilled employment in a year to strengthen the subsistence livelihood support, enhancing the rural households’ purchasing power and capacity to alleviate hunger and directing the colossus amount of wages towards creating productive and durable assets of irrigation, drought-proofing, land and water conservation, horticulture and connectivity to generate a prosperous livelihood support system. In actual operationalistion of the Act, however, the first objective assumes by far the most dominant concern of the law, and no wonder, the second objective of securing sustainable productive assets stands in the shadow.

Even during the social audit, the prime attention goes to matter related to registration, issue of job card, allocation of work, timely wage payment and work site facilities, rather than the utilisation of the works completed, increase in production, multiplier aspects of income generation, diversification and processing activities, let alone the overriding issue of ownership, operationalistion and maintenance of the assets created on public lands. The suggestion with regard to convergence of NREGS with other flagship development programmes has proved theoretical rather than practical. Since NREGA schemes have to have 60 per cent earthwork, it is important that the durability aspects are given serious attention. It appears that the Act itself is greatly more tilted toward the first objective, wages. With regard to the second objective, the Act lays the focus on water conservation and water harvesting; land development; flood control and protection works; rural connectivity and any other work, which may be notified by the Central government. It also states that the scheme shall be subject to appropriate arrangement as may be laid down by the State government under the rules issued by it for the proper maintenance of public assets created under the scheme.

Hence, maintenance, operation, accountability and the ownership right of the assets created on the public lands are exclusively vested with the State governments. The State Employment Rural Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) has been notified by the State governments, but there too, invariably, absolute clarity appears to be wanting. The Central budget (2009-10) proposes an outlay of Rs. 39,100 crores under NGREA which marks an increase of 144 per cent over the 2008-09 budget estimates. The Finance Minister, in the budget speech on July 6, 2009, informed the House that 115 pilot districts had been selected for NREGA convergence with other sectoral schemes to increase the productivity of the assets created. The convergence of NREGS with social sector programmes to strengthen the durability of the earthen assets needs fresh thinking. What calls for immediate attention is the alarming fact that during the last three and a half years, 19.49 lakh works have been taken up under NREGS, out of which only 2.67 lakh(13.69 per cent) are reported to have been completed till August 22, 2009.

The investment-starved farm sector is a recipient of Rs.18,155 crores investment through wages for the creation of assets, 75 per cent of which are irrigation works. NREGA, therefore, must lay down specifically the authorities accountable to maintain, run, and own these assets to fulfil the objective of strengthening the prosperous rural livelihood resource base.