Good schemes, like technology, are never future-proof. They need to be tweaked as and when required so that they stay effective. Unfortunately, many feel, this tweaking of the UPA’s flagship scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), is not happening and slowly but surely we are losing the advances that had been made till now. At a press meet recently, rights activists Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy, Nikhil De, Annie Raja and Reetika Khera, people who helped the government design the scheme, listed the points of discord: first, the government had declared that the Minimum Wage Act will not be linked to the MGNREGS wages and has also frozen the minimum wage paid under MGNREGS at Rs 100; second, a 2008 order that said that only gram sabhas — not outsiders — can conduct social audits of the MGNREGS; and, third, the activists felt that the rural development ministry doesn’t listen to the National Employment Guarantee Council that is meant to be a scheme watchdog.
Recently, former Congress MP from Gujarat, Madhusudan Mistry, commented that some activists think the scheme is their “fiefdom” and that “they are the architects of the Act”. This unfortunate war of words is unwarranted and will only delay or stop the improvements that the Act needs. Having said that, there’s definitely a case for independent social audits. From the time the MGNREGS came into force, there have been many instances of corruption. The cases have come from all parts of the country, more from states where the delivery mechanism is faulty. The scheme, as a report of the Lal Bahadur Institute of Management, said is individual-driven — if officials are committed enough, only then would it move forward. Yet, there is no lack of penalty in case public officials fail to deliver to the people what is due to them. In such a scenario, a civil society audit, will not only ensure that corruption is tackled but also help understand the shortcomings of the job plan.
The effectiveness of the scheme has also been apparent in many areas, curbing distress migration and also drought-proofing the country. The question is now whether we want to build on these positives and fix the shortcomings. If the squabbling over its merits and demerits continues, there really is no guarantee that the scheme will deliver on its initial life-changing potential for millions in this country.