To be sure, there are a number of problems with the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) that provides a universal, self-targeting guarantee of 100 days of employment to every rural household in 596 districts of India. In a four-part series, this newspaper highlighted sharp regional contrasts on how the scheme has worked so far on the ground. From Jhalawar in Rajasthan, Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh, Gitildi in Jharkhand to Mahbubnagar in Andhra Pradesh, the picture that emerges is that the scheme is bedeviled with corruption, administrative paralysis and other well-known factors that have plagued its implementation elsewhere as well. The track-record in employing women is also far less affirmative than is popularly supposed.
Despite these problems, however, the NREGS must be made to work as it represents the most ambitious employment programme so far in this country. If implemented properly, it truly has the potential to eradicate rural poverty. The reports provide grounds for hope that technology can indeed be harnessed to ensure greater transparency in the implementation of this scheme. In Mahbubnagar, for instance, specially-designed software, dedicated muckrakers and political will ensured the recovery of Rs 1 crore that was siphoned off by corrupt officials. Why can’t this software be applied elsewhere to plug the leakages in the scheme? The Gitildi report demolishes the popular bogey that Naxalites are coming in the way of NREGS. Far from it, official sloth was more responsible for not paying wages, resulting in the first suicide death in India under the scheme. The problem was more a crisis of governance in the thousands of villages across insurgency-affected India.
How does one make it work better? For starters, major design flaws in the NREGS have to be rectified to ensure 100 days of guaranteed employment by providing it mostly during the lean agricultural season when demand is the greatest. The official website, however, indicates that Andhra Pradesh scored a perfect 10 in providing employment to all the 42.3693 lakh households who demanded it — down to the last decimal point! This is far from credible. NGOs have also underscored the need for revising the schedule of rates to take into account regional, climatic, gender and age-related variations in worker productivity. If the daily productivity of malnourished workers is less than average, they will earn less than the minimum wage. The biggest challenge, though, is for capacity-building at the grassroots level as the existing support structure is woefully inadequate. NREGS will not be implemented properly unless gram panchayats are empowered.