Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Old wine in new bottle? Rural job plan revamp on cards

Sangita Jha/New Delhi

Minister Jairam Ramesh has indicated improving quality of work and creating durable assets for better farming in the country

The Centre is getting ready to unveil a revamped Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). The move has come after six years of the flagship scheme being in existence on which the Centre spends about Rs 40,000 crore a year. The flagship scheme is showing signs of not only largescale financial irregularities but also of questionable quality of works being executed. Six years clearly happen to be a long time to reflect and effect a course correction, which appears to the motives of the Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh.
The minister has spelt out that the reforms in the MGNREGA would be of more administrative in nature along with steps to ensure that more durable assets are created. He lamented recently that focus on the part of the Gram Panchayat happens to be more on sanctioning projects for building roads, which crumbles in less than two years' time, thus wasting the money.
Mr Ramesh, while informing that NREGA.2 is on the anvil, clearly stated that the approach need to be changed to give more focus on works to be undertaken for development of land and watershed. "States and Gram Panchayats should avoid choosing road building works, which will be undertaken through the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna," Mr Ramesh said, while speaking at a seminar which was called to brainstorm over the future outlook of the MGNREGA.
Clearly the focus is on the capacity building at the Gram Panchayat level, as spelt out by Mr Ramesh when he said that each Panchayat in the country would have one junior engineer to help in the technical aspects of the making of project as well as execution. The cost will be borne by the Central government. Further, the revamped version of the flagship scheme will entail a list of projects prepared by a local level committee that will seek help from hydrologists and engineers, instead of the current ad-hoc planning.
The Centre has already made it mandatory for the social audit, which has to be done at a state level once in two years. The Centre has also put in place a scheme called "Land to Lab" under which the local youth are being enrolled to keep a check on the ways the funds meant for the MGNREGA are being spent along with a monitoring of the quality of assets, while they have also been mandated to popularise the scheme to generate demand for the works from the people in the rural areas.
The Centre has already asked the CAG to audit the spending under NREGA in 12 big states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Odhisa and others. Mr Ramesh has also asked the CAG, while giving him details, of instances of flouting of the norms by state governments. He has told the CAG of states spending in access of the legal entitlement of 100 days and overcharging the Central government, with Andhra Pradesh alone doing it to the extent of Rs 500 crores in the last financial year.
Mr Ramesh has been candid to acknowledge that the dalay in payment of wages is the biggest challenge for the Central government. "There are instances where payment of wages is delayed to the extent of six months and more. Why will people come forward and seek jobs when we do not pay in time, while the Act mandates that the payment should be made within 14 days of the last day of the work to the concerned person," said Mr Ramesh at the seminar, while announcing that the government is left with no option to accept the fact that cash needs to be distributed in such areas where there is no banking system and post-offices. Thus cash payments in certain areas have become part of the MGNREGA, as the banking correspondent model too has not been able to address the issue of delay in payment of wages in large parts of the country.
The plan is also afoot to accommodate projects with larger time span to the extent of five years, so that more durable assets can be created. It has been noted that a large swath of barren land has been made fertile thanks to the works undertaken under the NREGA in some of the states. Therefore, while the foodgrains bowl of the country shrinking due to urbanisation and the urgency to further improve the foodgrains productions to meet the demand of the upcoming Food Security Act and also of the growing needs from the people, the focus is clearly on making the barren land fertile.
The revamped NREGA is also intended to address the issue of some of the areas where people have already crossed the 100 days legal entitlement. "There are eight per cent households under the MGNREGA who have crossed the 100 days limit. Ways need to be found to address to their demands of jobs and for which a linkage with National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM) will be tried, so that skill development too becomes part of the MGNREGA," Mr Ramesh said, while revealing the new focus areas.
The revamped MGNREGA is also likely to address the issue of the minimum wages for which the Union ministry of rural development is likely to move an amendment to the Minimum Wages Act to include NREGA as a separate employment category. The move is to ensure that the MGNREGA wages are not lower than minimum agricultural wages in states. Six states, namely Kerala, Karnatka, Andhra Pradesh, Rajsthan, Goa and Mizoram, have MGNREGA wages lower than the agricultural labour wages.
The Centre has already initiated an approach to use the MGNREGA as a tool to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people in the 60 naxal affected districts in the country, which would soon be joined by 18 another districts, which are included for Integrated Action Plan under the Planning Commission. In fact the Planning Commission member Mihir Shah said at the same seminar that they are in the midst of a process to draw a list of blocks in the country based on multiple deprivation level in a bid to use MGNREGA more intensively to improve livelihoods of the affected people.
In another departure the Centre is taking steps to make the norms of 60:40 ratio (labour and material cost) for a project under MGNREGA applicable at the block level from the existing district level to ensure that more works by using concrete materials could be taken up. However, the Centre has noted with concern the instances of the states overspending on labour wages against the limit of 60 per cent of the project cost. Data of last two years clearly indicate that states such as Andhra Pradesh (86 per cent), Kerala (91 per cent), Maharashtra (84 per cent), Tamil Nadu (100 per cent), Gujrat (73 per cent) have spent much in excess on the wages against the norms.
However, on the flip side the MGNREGA is faced with the challenge of not able to deliver the benefits to the needs due to various issues, as has been highlighted by the fact that only five states, namely Chhatisgarh, Gujrat, Haryana, Assam and Pudducherry, could spend more than 50 per cent of the funds under the flagship schemes in the first seven months of the current financial year, while states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Karnatka have lagged behind. This is despite the fact that the average mandays achieved under the MGNREGA still remains about 46 against the legal entitlement of 100 days.
Mr Ramesh has clearly his task cut out to ensure that the colossal amount of funds under the MGNREGA is spent as desired under the law. He has to put in place effective mechanism to fill the leakages to ensure that the MGNREGA is not known for as the popular saying goes that it has helped the Panchayat Sarpanch in driving "Pajero and Scorpio" sports utility vehicles.

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