Reaction to NREGA, the flagship program of the UPA government that provides a legal guarantee for one hundred days of employment every year to adult members of any rural household do public work-related unskilled manual work at the statutory minimum wage, has been varied even among the social activists. While some have lauded it as one of the frontrunner program based on an entitlement approach, others have compared it to crumbs being thrown at the poor, finally conceding that perhaps crumbs are better than no-crumbs.
Such extreme reaction is often a function of the way the program has been implemented. It also questions the point in increased budget allocations without ensuring proper utilization of what is already there. Increasing the size of the pie is important but is the pie being eaten by the hungry?
Realistically, there is always gap in the way a program is envisaged and the way it finally gets implemented. In approach, NREGA marks an important departure from a ‘dole out’ welfare measure to a program that emphasizes ‘enforceable entitlements’. However, what really hurts is the way the accountability mechanisms that were carefully crafted in the program are being bypassed.
Field studies by various activists, development practitioners and journalists bring to light the point. Some examples- the unemployment allowance- if someone is not employed within 15 days of applying, he or she is entitled to an unemployment allowance. However, the general practice has been to reject work applications or refuse to issue a receipt denying people the right to claim the allowance. This way, not only are the officials evade their responsibility of finding appropriate work, but also removing chances of any redressal. (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS-Sunday-TOI-All-That-Matters...
Another important provision for ensuring accountability is a fine of Rs 1,000 that is imposed on persons failing to do their duty. While it could have been a great way to keep a check, this instrument remains largely unused by the states. This way, the states actually protects the interest of its erring machinery giving a slip to the poor.
Similarly, envisaging the perpetual delays in implementation, there is a provision, for compensating workers for delays in payments if wages are not paid within 15 days. However, except for a very few cases, this provision has remained largely unutilized. This is perhaps one of the most unjust practices as it keeps the poor and the hungry waiting for their rightful payments despite having put in hard labour.
There are wide variations across the states in terms of implementation of NREGA. While states like Rajasthan have fared well, those like West Bengal have done exceedingly poor. However, when it comes to accountability, they are in the same boat. While the State governments are bound to formulate Grievance Redressal Rules for “dealing with any complaint by any person”, no state government has done that so far.
There are also reports that the attempt to check corruption by making payments through banks or post offices is not working well as the workers find it difficult to use these sparsely located offices. A recent newspaper report had an official in West Bengal regretting that NREGA could not be implemented due to the lack of expertise or experience of the Panchayat in doing such works- “The panchayat pradhans do not have the expertise to identify works, prioritize them and submit projects on time”. Well, why are they there then in the first place? NREGA or no NREGA, is this not one of the most important function of the Panchayat? Even if there is a lack of capacity does it justify abysmal implementation, especially when there are so many examples of good work from within the country?
NREGA, where it has been implemented, has been, with all its limitations, the line of difference between starvation and survival- a thin life, but nevertheless, a lifeline. It is therefore important to put a premium on accountability of the program. And this can only be a bottom up approach. Evidently, top-down planning does not work- therefore the process of securing entitlement and demanding accountability has to come from below.
How can the accountability of the officials dealing with NREGA be ensured?
- Ipsita Basu
Write in about you own NREGA experiences.