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Do good intentions yield results?

Our surfer discusses the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act at length.

india Updated: Mar 29, 2006 15:51 IST

Hailed as "landmark", "historic and revolutionary" for eradicating poverty in India, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) -- is full of promise and hope; clearly, a milestone for the grass-root movement and commendable policy by the Government.

Noble as its intentions are, its potency deserves scrutiny.

A quick snapshot of the Act -- it guarantees 100 days of employment to anyone who is willing to do manual labour at the minimum wage, initially targeting rural households in 200 districts across the country.

The Central government is responsible for the cost, which is estimated to be 1 per cent to 2 per cent of the GDP.

At the local level gram panchayats are responsible for implementation for the programme.

Transparency and accountability are ensured by the Right to Information Act, as per which, public documents like social audits and muster rolls are provided on demand.

The expected economic and social benefits are rural household crossing the poverty line, reduction in rural-urban migration, empowerment of women and necessary asset and infrastructure creation in rural areas.

Seen in this form, the NREGA seems infallible. However, its lacuna lies in the inherent limitation of such a programme.

Major criticism for the programme has centred on two points; probability of corruption eroding the effectiveness of the programme and the target population being too small for such largesse by the government.

For a moment holding these aspersions and its intricate of statistical evidence aside, the fundamental concept of 'providing employment by the government' for poverty alleviation needs to be examined.

Consider the case of providing employment to rural poor for profit -- nothing moral, mere business acumen.

Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL) in its new distributive system aims to sell its products to the inaccessible consumers in remote villages.

Stated in such a manner, the project Shakti seems like an aggressive marketing by an exploiting MNC.

However, in the process of recruiting women to sell their products, HLL forms women self help groups, provides fundamental education, creates awareness in basic health and hygiene and thereby creates a micro enterprise opportunity.

The project was started in drought hit and poverty stricken villages in Andhra Pradesh, where women who earned around Rs 26 a day by pulling weeds, but after joining the micro enterprise initiative are earning around Rs 1,152 per month.

Since its initiation in late 2000, Project Shakti now covers approximately 80,000 villages in various other states and by 2007 aims to touch at least 100 million consumers.

Coming back to the NREGA, apart from the generality of any rural unemployed person seeking work, it targets underemployed agricultural labourers who are unable to find employment during drought or off-season.

This does not seem too different from the population that HLL started targeting since 2000.

Limiting rural - urban migration, empowering rural women and providing employment -- if these are the objectives of NREGA, then a micro enterprise initiative sufficiently seems to fulfil the same.

As far as creating rural infrastructure, it appears to be the means to provide employment, rather than being an end by itself.

Even if the Right to Information Act in all its capacity checks corruption and even if the cost of implementing NREGA is not exorbitant, the Act at best would provide temporary relief to unemployed few.

The NREGA merely provides employment, rather than generating employment, certainly not a sustainable policy aiming to reduce poverty.

Policies on poverty reduction are not just about providing temporary employment, but also focusing on education, health and vocational training that would help generate and sustain employment opportunities.

To debate the intentions of NREGA appears sacrilegious as it involves rural poor, but to assume its effectiveness is impractical, and to describe it as 'landmark' and 'revolutionary' is a complete misnomer.

Sudha Meiyappan is an intern at Hudson Institute, Washington and can be contactedsudha.meiyappan@gmail.com.

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