Overcoming the implementation hurdles of NREGS

Thursday, January 7, 2010

In the last six decades, India has experimented large number of policies and programs to wipe out poverty. India has a long history and experience in creating unique policies and programs such as, Community Development Programme, Minimum Needs Programme, Twenty Point Programme, Training of rural youth for Self Employment, National Rural Development Programme, Integrated Rural Development Programme, Antyodaya Yojana, Indira Awasa Yojana, Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana, etc.. Long history of these programmes suggests that, there is no dearth of policy making talent in India. Our bureaucrats have come up with innovative ideas to change the lives around. But when it comes to the implementation of those innovative ideas, the government institutions have failed significantly.

All the programmes and policies experimented so far were intended more or less for three important tasks - reduction of poverty, creation of employment, and minimizing inequality. One of the major factor in the failure of many policies in the past is that they were all "supply driven", meaning, "giving fish to the poor rather than teaching him how to fish." Addressing this issue has been the major focus of National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS). In contrast to earlier programmes, NREGS is a demand driven programme, meaning, "providing work only if it is demanded." The demand is created through various projects in the scheme. On the one hand, this programmes is intended to build rural infrastructure and on the other hand, it is empowering rural India by providing employment (on demand). It is addressing all three requirements - reduction of poverty, creation of employment, and minimizing inequality - to empower rural India. More over, it is said that, "impressive participation of women in NREGS is a harbinger of social change."

"NREGS is one of the greatest experiments undertaken in India to eradicate poverty. The scheme has been launched to supplement the error and gaps of all previous schemes with involvement ofPanchayats , civil societies and local administration. Poor families were targeted to give benefits of employments and livelihood to supplement their family income [Kurukshetra, December 2009]." However, like in the past, this scheme too has suffered various implementation problems.
  1. Accountability has been undermined. Example, In Orissa, out of Rs. 733 crores spend under NREGS, more than Rs. 500 crores was unaccounted for, probably siphoned off and misappropriated by government officials.
  2. Fake job cards and fabricated muster rolls exaggerated the benefits of the scheme.
  3. The social audit was non-existent, which is vital for transparency. 
  4. There was an apathy towards creating awareness about the programme. For example, in some districts it appeared that people knew very little aboutwork-site entitlements like place of rest during work, crèche facilities for the workers’ babies, safe drinking water facilities, and medical treatment in case of accidents and compensation entitlement in case of death during work.
  5. Tampering of muster rolls, delayed payments, use of machines to siphon off funds, etc were common problems in many districts.
  6. Lack of adequate and devoted administrative and technical staff for NREGS is the major reason for procedural lapses.
So far, there have been number of suggestions to tackle all these problems, but the inertia developed in the past has been proving difficult to overcome. Many policy analysts have suggested that,
  1. Dedicated and fully trained full-time professionals should be appointed for the effective implementation of the scheme.
  2. Role of panchayats in proper planning, implementation and monitoring of NREGS should be enhanced.
  3. Proper maintenance of job cards, muster rolls and other records relating to the scheme at the block and panchayat level should be ensured.
  4. Massive programme to generate awareness about NREGS.
  5. Other measures to improve accountability and transparancy.
Though most of them sound important and "must have" procedures, they can still be deceived by those who siphon of the benefits. The fundamental problem in incorporating these suggestions is that, we do not have a strong Ombudsman system at local level (To give you a quick idea, Lokayukta is one good example for Ombudsman system at state level). There is a need to appoint district level and block level Ombudsman who will receive complaints directly from the 'common man' and facilitate their disposal in accordance with the law. District collector may be given adequate powers to facilitate this Ombudsman system. Just as higher officials are apprehensive of Lokayukta, the local level officials will be careful enough to avoid corrupt practices which would otherwise be brought to the light by local Ombudsman. It is interesting to note that Kerala has already set up a local Ombudsman system, take a look.

Also, in realizing the goals of government policies social audit plays an important role. "Social audit helps to narrow gaps between vision/goal and reality, between efficiency and effectiveness. Social auditing creates an impact upon governance. It values the voice of stakeholders, including marginalized/poor groups whose voices are rarely heard. Social auditing is taken up for the purpose of enhancing local governance, particularly for strengthening accountability and transparency in local bodies [FAO]." It is high time that the social audit procedures should be brought in the picture to enhance the quality of implementation of the programmes.

Unique Identification Development Authority of India (UIDA) has a significant role to play in the implementation of public policies. So far, identifying the real beneficiaries has been a major problem. For example, under many schemes, most of the benefits have gone to the powerful section where as 'poor man' continued to suffer. Unique identity card can play a significant role in identifying the real beneficiaries.

Programmes like NREGS are real drivers of rural economy. They are the foundations of rural empowerment. Unless we build sound mechanisms and frameworks for systematic and transparent implementation of these programmes, empowering India remains a distant dream.

PS: Some of the facts and data used in this post are from Kurukshetra, December 2009 issue.

Further Reading:
  1. Know everything about NREGS.
  2. NREGS's official website.
  3. NREGS on wiki.
  4. Read December 2009 issue of Kurukshetra.
  5. A primer to NREGS.

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This work by Manjunath Singe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License. The views and opinions expressed in this work are strictly those of the author and do not represent his employer's views in anyway.