Thursday, March 10, 2011

5 years on, time to revisit strategy on job scheme


The flagship programme of the UPA is a success but the shortcomings needs to be addressed

Sangita Jha / New Delhi

The story goes that after the last Nawab of Oudh Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula shifted his capital from Faizabad to Lucknow in 1775, he undertook modernization of the town by building numerous monuments. The region was soon struck by a famine in 1784. It was thee that the Nawab decided to offer "food for work" to his people.

Under the directions and funding by the Nawab, work began on the "Bara Imambara". More than 22,000 people, which included poor and nobles, who too were hit hard by the famine, were employed. The Nawab found innovative ways to ensure that all were fed. In the day time when the poor worked most of the construction took place and in the night when the nobles worked part of what had been built was destroyed. This was apparently to ensure that no one remained unemployed and also that the edifice was not completed too soon.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which took off five years ago, is also intended to ensure that the unemployed people in the rural India get work which result in creation of durable assets. The NREGS guarantees a minimum 100 days a year of employment.

However, after spending Rs 75,000 crores under NREGS, there appears to be concern among policy makers. This is not without any reason. The concern was summed up by none other than the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi on the occasion of completion of five years of NREGS. "There are reports that its (NREGS) funds are being spent on other works. Reports of forged job cards, fake muster rolls, fake names of labourers have come to light. The existing mechanism has not been able to respond to these challenges," Gandhi remarked at the occasion.

Five years by any yardstick is quite a span of time to indulge in stock-taking exercise, that too after spending such a colossal amount of money. There is no denying the fact that there had been extraordinary benefits reaching out to beneficiaries. The impact of the NREGS had been so huge that some economic experts even blamed the money flowing in the rural India spiking demand thus leading to pressure on inflation and more so on food inflation.

The Rural Development ministry in an internal report has noted that less than five per cent of the total 68.6 lakh works taken so far to provide jobs in rural India has been completed in the current fiscal. To add more concerns to the Centre, the NREGS since its inception in 2006 has a track record of over 50 per cent of the works undertaken under the scheme having not been completed.

The low completion rate of the works undertaken under the NREGS is alarming also for the reason that the government report claims that around 880 crore man-days of employment have been generated under the scheme so far. Only 3.18 lakh works have been completed till December 2010, which comes to just about 4.6 per cent.

The Centre has called upon the state governments to go after the physical trail of the works done under the NREGS. Even the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) has initiated the process of conducting audits of the funds spent under the NREGS.

In fact, the Centre laid down five broad principles to ensure strict compliance regarding completion of works under the NREGS. It asked states to set a time-frame for completion at the time of sanction and constitute a local vigilance and monitoring committee for each project. The Centre further asked the state governments to record reasons for delay of works in the monthly progress report. Also the priority has to be accorded to pending works before taking up new projects under the scheme. Lastly, the Centre called for the states to provide status of ongoing works with detailed justification and remedial measures to complete them while seeking labour budgets.

The Centre's direction is understandable, as the state governments have reportedly been taking up new projects every year despite low completion rate. Just to illustrate number of projects rose sharply ever since the scheme was extended to the entire country in 2008-09, when 27.75 lakh projects were being implemented. The quantum jump in the number of works is reflected in 68.6 lakh of them having been taken up in the current fiscal, which comes to a whopping 150 per cent jump.

Aware of the existence of lacunae in the implementation of the NREGS, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for technological interventions and focus at the local level in the execution of the scheme. However, the beneficiaries have every thing to cheer about even if the babus in the corridor of the power are burning their proverbial midnight lamp to tighten up the scheme. The poor in the rural India are well cushioned under the NREGS, as against Rs 100 per day wages originally approved, actual wages given are as high as Rs 181 in Nicobar. The wages are in the range of Rs 118 to Rs 138 per day in other states.

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