Just two months from now — on April 1 2008 — the government will meet one of the biggest organisational challenges any government has ever faced — the extension of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to the entire country. This is one of the most ambitious development programmes in the world, set to embark soon on a decisive new phase. Has the groundwork been done for this?
During the last two years, we have been involved in a series of NREGA-related activities (social audits, field surveys, training programmes, etc.) in seven states: Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Consistent with the secondary data available, we have observed a highly uneven picture of NREGA implementation in different parts of the country. There are states and districts where unprecedented amounts of employment have been generated, and the Act has shown its ability to be a new lifeline for rural communities. For instance, in 2006-07, the NREGA generated as many as 77 days of employment per rural household in the six districts of Rajasthan where the Act applied. In many other states, employment is still quite limited, and there are many procedural issues, as the recent draft CAG report illustrates. Nevertheless, in all the states mentioned above we have observed that the enactment of NREGA has initiated a paradigm shift in the standards of implementation of public works schemes. For instance, the Act has made it possible to confront a range of exploitative practices such as the non-payment of minimum wages, chronic delays in wage payments, the use of labour displacing machines, and the illegal contractor system. Further, NREGA has started setting new standards of transparency of accountability, enabling people to fight corruption not only in public works schemes, but also — potentially — in other development programmes. It is this broad trend of positive change that gives hope in the possibility of implementing the Act in letter and spirit across the country.
Having said this, the forthcoming extension of the NREGA presents new challenges, and there is a risk that it might boomerang unless adequate preparations are made to face them. That, indeed, is the real message of the draft CAG report, widely misrepresented in the media as an indictment of the Act. The experience of the last two years needs to be understood and built upon to ensure the success of this “new phase” of the programme.
According to official data, the NREGA was employing nearly three million workers on an average day in 2006-07 (when the Act was in force in 200 districts). As the Act is extended to the whole of rural India, this could rise to 10 million or so — the largest public works programme ever. These numbers need corresponding support structures, especially as the NREGA is a law that creates legal responsibilities to deliver. For instance, the financial allocation for administrative expenses urgently needs to be raised from the present, meagre 4 per cent to 6 per cent at the very least. However, it is not just a question of financial resources. Adequate administrative, legal, technical and institutional support structures are also essential. In their absence, there are likely to be multiple failures in the delivery system, and these will be invoked once again to argue against the Act itself.
This challenge, however, can be turned into an opportunity. The success of the NREGA depends on sustained attention to details of a range of practical arrangements, such as the distribution of job cards, work application procedures, technical planning, worksite management, staff training, record-keeping, social audits and much more. This could be done in a creative manner, where systems are put into place supported by the pool of resources and skills available at the local level. For instance, recent experiments in Rajasthan have shown that the shortage of technical staff can be overcome by creating a cadre of trained worksite supervisors drawn from the community. This could lead to major improvements in worksite management without having to set up a new bureaucracy. Similarly, creative use of the Gram Rozgar Sevak (the NREGA assistant at the panchayat level) could go a long way in ensuring sound record-keeping as well as strict implementation of the transparency safeguards.
The state governments have a crucial role to play in the process of preparing for this new phase of NREGA. Recent experience shows that where state governments have taken active interest in the Act, wide-ranging initiatives have emerged, making it possible to provide work and create productive assets on a massive scale. However, many states continue to have a casual attitude towards the Act. This is startling as 90 per cent of the expenditure is borne by the Centre. The state governments have never had such a good opportunity to pursue rural development goals without having to worry about the financial burden.
The Centre, for its part, has a mandate to ensure that all rural households are able to exercise their right to employment under the Act. It can perform both regulatory and constructive roles in this regard. The regulatory role involves framing the guidelines and rules that flesh out the responsibilities of states. The constructive roles are potentially wide-ranging. Aside from providing adequate funds, they include developing communication and training tools, putting in place record-keeping systems, providing technical resources, facilitating mutual learning between states, conducting or sponsoring evaluation studies, monitoring the implementation of the Act guidelines, and so on.
The Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) was expected to facilitate many of these roles. Unfortunately, it has been kept on ‘standby’ mode most of the time during the last two years. Recent CEGC delegations to Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh have been very productive, and demonstrate the scope for further initiatives of this kind, as well as for activating the council in other ways.
By default, the immense burden of overseeing this ‘flagship programme’ rests on the frail shoulders of a small team of overworked civil servants at the Ministry of Rural Development. This crucial support base of NREGA needs to be expanded into a full-fledged ‘Employment Guarantee Mission’, with strong political mandate and a full secretariat.
But ultimately, what needs to be activated most of all is the political leadership. The NREGA presents unique possibilities for grassroots political mobilisation and organisational work. This opportunity exists for both ruling parties and opposition groups. It is a telling commentary on the state of Indian democracy that, with few exceptions, political parties across the spectrum have — so far — failed to seize this opportunity.
This point applies even to the parties that took the initiative of enacting the NREGA. In fact, there is a schizophrenia about the attitude of the UPA towards the Act. On the one hand, political leaders parade NREGA as one of the main achievements of this government (the Prime Minister himself described it as “historic and revolutionary”). On the other hand, the government is doing far too little to face the organisational challenges involved in ensuring that the Act achieves its potential. Hopefully, the extension of the NREGA will provide an opportunity to correct this bias. Let it not be said, a few years from now, that this extension took place appropriately on April Fools’ Day.
The authors have been involved in social audits and field surveys of the NREGA since its inception.
Aruna Roy and Jean Drèze are members of the Central Employment Guarantee Council.