NREGA: Breaking new ground
ARUNA ROY AND NIKHIL DEY
In THE HINDU
The NREGA, the flagship programme of the UPA government, was revolutionary in its promise of inclusive growth, the right to work and the dignity of labour and a rational, participatory relationship with the State. And it has mostly delivered…
Suddenly the NREGA has become a buzz word. It stands vindicated by the mandate of the people in its most basic evaluation in a democracy — the general elections. Basking in the glory and security of post-electoral analysis, it is actually the b est time for those who support the basic philosophy of the NREGA to focus on what it has done and what it has not, by its own parameters.
The first and the primary focus should be to examine its impact on the human resource base of rural India. Has it energised, mobilised, empowered, and delivered to India’s poorest and most marginalised rural people? Secondly, has it provided those who were “not shining” a measure of dignity, tangible economic benefit, and a motivation to participate in local action? This is the crux, for, something as vast and ambitious as the NREGA can only succeed in bringing about change if millions of workers become its true advocates and monitors.
Let us begin with the most persistent charges of endemic corruption. Notwithstanding negative propaganda and the prominent reportage of corruption, NREGA stands apart from employment and poverty alleviation programmes in significant ways. It is the first national programme of consequence which has woven transparency and accountability into the mundane fabric of daily interaction of people with government. The cases of reported corruption have shocked the intelligentsia. The rural worker might often be the victim but will still offer critical support, not only because it has provided wage income, but also for facilitating disclosure, which helps identify and fight pilferage. In fact, in many cases, scams have been exposed by the workers themselves. NREGA gives an opportunity to break the feudally enforced silence of its victims. Through transparency and social audit measures, it allows anyone, anywhere to be part of the monitoring of the delivery system. The other programmes appear to be clean only because no one knows what goes on! The NREGA gives a further opportunity to realise the Constitutional sovereignty, the power of the people. What the political establishment would do well to understand is that the vote was not a blind endorsement, but the expression of a fragile hope of a rational participatory relationship with the government.
The NREGA has opened up a unique legal space for the poor, with a consequent, legally-mandated obligation on the administration to deliver. In fact, implementation rests on the simple philosophy that ordinary people will go to great lengths to procure their entitlements, given the space to do so. Apart from systemic corruption, we are all aware of the chronic inefficiency, unwillingness and incapacities of the bureaucratic system to deliver entitlements for the poor. The persistent argument was that in this context implementation would be impossible. The NREGA sought to create real opportunities and legal spaces, with the belief that people will begin to push to overcome bureaucratic and political resistance. The electoral endorsement over, it is a good time to begin to examine this aspect of bottom-up implementation. Does the rights-based approach really work?
The Act has a number of “trigger mechanisms” designed to activate and establish people’s entitlements. One such trigger is the right to have a Job Card. The Act mandates that anyone who applies at their Panchayat for a Job Card must be given one within 15 days. Without a Job Card, people cannot even apply for work, nor corroborate the records. It is a “license” and “pan card” of the wage worker’s family, with a record of days of work and wages received during the year. There are many States where large numbers of people have demanded, but not received, Job Cards. In many Panchayats, the Job Cards are in the control of implementing agencies. Publicising the Job Card as a record of individual entitlements, to be updated by the authorities, and kept in possession of the workers, would ensure the NREGA is monitored by its workers.
The application for work and the dated receipt are crucial to trigger the demand for work. The receipt is also the basic record for claiming unemployment allowance if the work is not provided within 15 days. States like Rajasthan have fared well in providing Job Cards, and providing work within 15 days, but resistance to giving dated receipts has become a massive problem. No State has effectively activated this important mechanism. Nevertheless, it has worked when workers groups have got organised.
In the 30 years of existence of its precursor, the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Act, there is no recorded instance of payment of unemployment allowance. The NREGA has already recorded payment of unemployment allowance to large numbers of workers in chronically poorly-administered areas. The successful people’s struggles for the payment of unemployment allowance — in Barwani District of Madhya Pradesh, Raichur of Karnataka, Bolangir, Navrangpur and Kalahandi of Orissa, Latehar in Jharkhand, Sitapur District of UP — has been a breakthrough in accountability, and an inspiration to other workers struggling for entitlements. The payment of unemployment allowance emanates from an administrative lapse, and is eventually deducted from the pocket of erring officials. It is not a freebie doled out of the government exchequer. Like the Right to Information Act, this has created an important mechanism for enforcing the right while holding the bureaucracy accountable.
The wage under NREGA has been another trigger and indicator of its success. The wage rate, the measurement system, and the timely payment of wages have all become part of the entitlement package. Thanks to NREGA, minimum wages have, for the first time, become a real factor in determining the lower limit for market wages. There are many ongoing struggles for the payment of minimum wages; and adopting a transparent measurement system for every work-site is a management challenge that has thrown up many grassroots solutions.
Wage payments through NREGA have initiated the biggest “financial inclusion” drive, with the requirement that all wage payments be made through banks and post offices. The engineers, the accountants, and the post offices have been unable to cope, and late payments have begun to cripple the Act. Students and Academics, working together with workers’ organisations in Khunti District in Jharkhand, have operationalised the entitlement in the NREGA to get Rs. 2,000/- per worker paid to over 300 workers as compensation for delayed payment under the provisions of the Payment of Wages Act. The Khunti payment, made last month, has once again demonstrated that the solution to the vexatious issue of late payments lies in the entitlement framework.
The uneven implementation in different States has shown that where people’s struggles have gained political and administrative respect, the NREGA has shown tangible results on a massive scale. It is that battleground of struggle that could well determine the future of the political discourse in this country.
The Government of India has transferred adequate money to the States and Districts to make timely wage payments. Shri C.P. Joshi, the current Union Minister for Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, was reported to have talked about his party prospects in the polls being negatively affected because of late wage payments in Rajasthan. As Union Minister now, if he were to exercise his administrative and political will to ensure compensation is paid to those receiving delayed wage payments, the lethargic bureaucratic system will find a way to respond. Chronic delays in wage payments during the drought in Rajasthan became a political issue, and the delays were wiped out. Innovations and mechanisms respond to a bottom-up demand, but do so best when the political establishment puts pressure.
The NREGA also assures an adequate, realistic provision for administrative expenses. At the current six per cent of total costs which has been allowed for administrative costs, there is no legitimacy in citing a shortage of staff or resources for bureaucratic delay. In Rajasthan, for instance, the over 7,000 crores spent on NREGA last year amounts to a massive Rs. 450 crores available for administrative expenses per year. This kind of money and resources can, in fact, help gram Panchayats become properly resourced to better carry out their overall responsibilities. It can also help ensure that there is no excuse for the failure to carry out all transparency measures and put an effective grievance redressal mechanism in place.
Transparency and accountability to the poorest and the weakest is in fact the biggest potential contribution of the NREGA to the entire governance system. The NREGA is an outstanding example of how the RTI Act can be woven into the fabric of the delivery system and the whole legal and governance paradigm. The entire expenditure on works and workers — 94 per cent of the total amount — is required to be put on the website of the NREGA, with every transaction revealed in detail. This can easily be increased to 100 per cent. Using this Management Information System (MIS), Vijaypura Gram Panchayat in Rajsamand District has begun to build a Janata Information System (JIS) painted on the walls of government buildings in the Gram Panchayat. The boards reveal the details of the number of days of work provided and payments made in the year to every Job Card holder in the Panchayat. Also painted on the walls are the list of works sanctioned, the expenditure on labour and material, and item-wise expenditure on material in each work in the Panchayat, including exactly how many bags of cement, sand and trolleys of stone were procured, and at what rate in the Gram Panchayat. This is like a web wall which reveals to every interested visitor all that they want to examine.
What can be done in one Panchayat can be carried out in the 9,189 Panchayats of Rajasthan, and the hundreds of thousands of Panchayats in India. The walls in Vijaypura Panchayat provide details of 976 families given employment in 2008-09, where two thirds have completed 100 days, with an expenditure of 91 lakhs. The Sarpanch is a Dalit youth from a poor family, elected in a general seat, and the Panchayat is proof of how well an Employment Guarantee programme can be implemented, in terms of people’s entitlements, transparency measures, worksite management, and many other innovations.
If the millions of financial transactions of the NREGA can go on their web site, there can be no justification for not following the example and putting almost every financial transaction of government — receipt or expenditure — on the web sites of the relevant department or agency. Proactive disclosure is a requirement of the RTI Act, and is a good example of the larger potential impact of the NREGA on governance.
The NREGA is India’s first law to codify development rights in a legal framework, and like the RTI, it has begun to set an example in a global context. Apart from the law, and a set of guidelines, there is a strong and immediate need to formulate rules to operationalise provisions in the Act; which includes guaranteeing grievance redressal in seven days, social audit twice a year, and mandatory transparency and proactive disclosure. Properly incorporated and enforced, a comprehensive set of operational rules could strengthen the entitlement framework, fixing responsibility at every level. Once again, it would enable bottom-up pressure for implementation, which should be matched by a strong political mandate. Today, the NREGA has millions of workers’ unresolved and un-addressed grievances and problems to be dealt with. A response system could not only radically improve the NREGA, but can impact and transform the whole face of rural governance.
Is the NREGA an administrator’s nightmare or a redistribution of income and power? A social safety net or a step towards the right to work, to prevent migration, and even boost local market economies? For those who cannot think beyond the pale of the free market economy and the business model manager, it is indeed a nightmare. For years, simplistic management solutions to poverty, with the poor as an input to be managed, have failed. We cannot see ordinary people as active participants and empowered citizens. That is why there is difficulty in understanding the practice and logic of democracy and difficult, therefore, to understand the realistic detailing and complexity of an Employment Guarantee initiative.
Inclusive growth Independent India has to acknowledge the critical role the NREGA has played in providing a measure of inclusive growth. It has given people a right to work, to re-establish the dignity of labour, to ensure people’s economic and democratic rights and entitlements, to create labour intensive infrastructure and assets, and to build the human resource base of our country. For the first time, the power elite recognises the people’s right to fight endemic hunger and poverty with dignity, accepting that their labour will be the foundation for infrastructure and economic growth. The entitlements paradigm is still to be established in many States in the country. Second generation issues like the expansion of the categories of permissible works needs to be taken up with labour and the deprived continuing to be the central focus. The improvements must be to strengthen, not divert from these basic tenets. In the midst of the current economic slowdown, there is enough evidence that this kind of commitment can work to help reduce the slowdown.
The political class would do well to understand that the most important solution is an assertion of its will to respond to people’s voices. The many wise, creative, and innovative initiatives emerging from theory and practice have a future only if they are owned by the people and implemented with justice. The NREGA can give people an opportunity to make the entire system truly transparent and accountable. Properly supported, people’s struggles for basic entitlements can, in turn, become the strongest political initiative to strengthen our democratic fabric.
Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey are activists with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS).