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MGNREGA 2.0: We need it now more than ever

July 06, 2012 20:01 IST

With the threat of a failed monsoon and an impending drought, the need for public works and for greater numbers of workers will arise in many states, says National Advisory Council member Aruna Roy

Despite all its seminal achievements, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Gurantee Act is at the receiving end of the most controversial critiques any government programme has received so far. We could perhaps invert this to say that it has received the greatest scrutiny among rural development programmes. 

The "1 rupee spent -- 15 paisa reaching the people" situation stands substantially reversed. But that is barely even acknowledged. There are indeed many issues of concern and worry. The most disturbing is the resistance building in the administrative system to transparency and accountability provisions, so that basic obligations are not followed, often vitiating the basic guarantee that the act provides, of work to the poor.

It has been six years since the enactment of the MGNREGA. After an initial period of enthusiasm and significant progress, the MGNREGA has been facing several challenges at the level of basic implementation. Many of these have been identified by the ministry of rural development in the Mihir Shah report. Subsequently, the ministry has issued a new set of guidelines and has taken the welcome step to set up a national resource group and technical advisory group to look into issues of implementation.

Nevertheless, the MGNREGA continues to face hostility from a class of people who are unhappy with two significant achievements of the act -- the changing power relations and enhanced wages of the rural poor and landless peasants. This class has fed into the deep suspicion of the poor in the media and the market and been responsible for creating the impression that the MGNREGA has built no assets, is playing with mud, creating useless work, has increased corruption, and is negatively affecting agriculture.

These allegations have largely been made without any hard evidence or study. Most of these extrapolations are based on anecdotal evidence or on supposition. There has been no serious examination of the mechanisms of administrative failure at the lower levels, or of the soft responses of the government to proven cases of failure to deliver, including corruption. It does not seem to deny people a right because the administration cannot manage to deliver. Accountability therefore remains a critical issue.

There is eagerness in the media to dismiss MGNREGA as ineffective. More than expert commentaries in the print and electronic media, there is a need to get feedback from its intended beneficiaries, to find out what has worked, what has not, and to ensure that its implementation is strengthened.

With the threat of a failed monsoon and an impending drought, the need for public works and for greater numbers of workers will arise in many states. The role of the MGNREGA cannot be emphasised enough in this context. We are given to understand that the MoRD is already seized of the matter.

It requires very strong commitment and signals from the highest levels of authority to see that the basic rights under the MGNREGA are actualised. New guidelines should be operationalised, but we do need to go beyond that. The implementation of these guidelines has to be monitored consistently and action needs to be taken in cases of  loopholes and deliberate mismanagement.

It is absolutely urgent that these reforms be initiated immediately. All the more so this year as there is an additional crisis of a drought or severely delayed monsoons. At a time like this, the MGNREGA is the only hope for many to be able to survive. However, there is very little awareness of the MGNREGA being a demand driven employment guarantee.

The suchna and rozgar campaign in Rajasthan has in June carried out a kKaam maango abhiyan' (ask for jobs) in five blocks in Rajasthan. More than 40,000 people have applied for work, and have received dated receipts. This shows the absurdity of the assertion that there is no demand for work from workers. The right to demand work is the first and most basic entitlement, the trigger without which the MGNREGA will fall apart.

The resistance to issuing receipts can be traced to its being the origin of the trajectory of accountability. There is an urgent need to create an enabling atmosphere across the country.

Several other aspects of MGNREGA need to adequately addressed such as payment of MGNREGA wages on time, which only exists on paper. The planning of MGNREGA works, to improve planning for development and ensure the quality of assets created, need to be evaluated and improved. Transparency in MGNREGA and fighting corruption can effectively be dealt with by social audits, which are again resisted by a system that is resistant to transparency and accountability. State governments need to play a pro-active role to ensure that the system is in place.

We need to initiate a series of discussions across the country so that the various bottlenecks present in the implementation of MGNREGA can be removed. In particular, we need to look at and ensure that some basic provisions of the Act are decisively institutionalised :

1.      The demand for work
2.      The payment of minimum wages
3.      Timely payments
4.      Expansion of the category of works
5.      Quality of assets
6.      Social Audit

Workers and people from the ground level must be included in these discussions so that their experiences can shape the way in which guidelines are being implemented. We need to collectively ensure that the loopholes in implementation are plugged. We also need to understand the contribution of the MGNREGA and more rigorously evaluate its contribution to the lives of the poor and the economy of this country.

It is proposed that the NAC working group on Transparency, Accountability and Governance (also looking at the implementation of MGNREGA and RTI) should hold a series of discussions in coordination with the Ministry of Rural Development and the state governments to better evaluate the impact of the MGNREGA so far, monitor the implementation of MGNREGA 2.0, and suggest measures that might require support and efforts of not just the ministry but the government as a whole.

Aruna Roy