Thursday, January 31, 2008

Problems in rural employment (this appeared in the New Indian Express, Friday, Feb. 01, 08)

FROM April 1, 2008, all adult members in the villages across India will be entitled to wage labour as a matter of right. This will be an extension of the scheme, now implemented in the rural areas in 330 districts. And the force behind this decision was Rahul Gandhi, the most influential Congress MP today. All he did was to do some loud thinking that NREGS ought to be extended to all parts of the country. And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was happy to oblige.

Notwithstanding this and the fact that this will be used by the Congress( I) during its campaign for the next election, the extension of the scheme to all rural districts is a radical step ahead and whether by design or otherwise, it amounts to a commitment by the Government to ensure the rural population the right to work.

This right is restricted to 100 days work in a year for a family that is willing to do manual labour on daily wages. The quantum of wages too will be the same as the minimum wage determined by the respective State Government. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, every family living in the rural areas will be assured Rs 8,000 in a year in addition to whatever they manage to earn otherwise. In Kerala, the rural families will be assured Rs 15,000 in a year, while every rural family in Bihar will be assured Rs 5,500. The daily wages under the NREGS is based on the minimum wages for agricultural workers in theirrespective State.

Most importantly, the villagers across the country, will now be entitled for unemployment allowance. The National Rural Area Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), in this sense, is a radical departure from all other poverty alleviation measures of the past 60 years.Apart from the fact that it explicitly recognizes the people's right to work, it also transgresses social and economic categories insofar as tackling rural poverty is concerned.

Such stipulations as the Below Poverty Line (BPL) or Socially and Educationally Backward Classes do not apply here. The NREGS is based on the simple premise that circulation of money in the villages will ensure an economic growth and that lack of employment in the rural areas is bound to stunt economic growth. Thus NREGS is a programme meant to ensure a steady economic growth.

The quantum of money that will now be assured to the villager may appear too little. But then, this would ensure that the poor will now have money to buy food-grains and so stay alive. The immediate fallout of this would be that a situation where food-grains meant for the public distribution system will no longer remain unutilized as villagers can now have the resources to buy their grain ration.

There are, however, a set of issues that will have to be internalised and addressed to in real earnest before the scheme is implemented in all the 595 rural districts in India. The experience in the 200 districts where the scheme was implemented first from February 2006 and the 130 districts that were included in the scheme later in April 2007 will help draw some important lessons to ensure that the scheme into which so much of thought had gone into is not distorted and made into one more poverty alleviation measure that fails.

Given the potential to distort it into a means to get rich by the political establishment, apprehension is unavoidable. The NREGS accords crucial role to the elected leaders of the gram panchayats and the fact that this section of our political establishment is vulnerable to corruption.

That party politics is an integral part of the panchayats is a truth that cannot be glossed over and one cannot grudge that every elected panchayat president is there waiting to become an MLA and then an MP!The NREGS without doubt is structured in a way that the traditional means by which some politicians employ to siphon funds - engaging machines and contractors - are not allowed. It also contains the provision that the funds allotted and the number of person/days are displayed at the work site and also that the specific projects are discussed in the gram sabha.

These mechanisms and the aspect of social audit are certainly significant measures that will help the scheme work.The gram sabha, for instance, should ensure democracy in the perfect sense of the term. But then, given the caste-based hierarchy that is still the reality in rural India, there is very little in the NREGS that will ensure daily wage employment to the members of the Scheduled Castes as much as it will to the equally poor but more assertive members from the Other Backward Castes.

This is bound to defeat the purpose of the schemeSuch an apprehension is inevitable given the fact that there is zero awareness among the rural people that they are entitled for work on demand and in the event there is no work, the state is bound to pay them unemployment allowance. It is a fact that there has hardly been an instance, hitherto, of unemployment allowance being disbursed in any district where the NREGS has been implemented since February 2006.

This is to say that the NREGS has miles to go before it becomes what it is meant to be.These are some issues that have come up out of the experience of the scheme in the course of its implementation. And it will make sense only when the civil administration and its political masters address these concerns that are bound to come up, before pushing it for implementation across the country.


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