Non-government activists Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, who are widely regarded as architects of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP), boycotted its fourth anniversary celebrations at Vigyan Bhavan, on Tuesday, as a protest against the manner in which the programme had been implemented.
The function to commemorate one of the United Progressive Alliance's signature pro-poor schemes was attended by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, rural development ministers of various states and Planning Commission members.
Roy and Dreze are members of a Central Employment Guarantee Council that is supposed to monitor implementation of the programme. They, however, pointed out, that the executive council had not been activated and this was hampering the efficient rollout of the scheme.
They said as much in a letter to Union Rural Development Minister C P Joshi: "We see little point in attending ceremonial functions as members of the Central Employment Guarantee Council even as the Council's substantive work is at a virtual standstill."
Speaking to Business Standard, Dreze said: "It is pointless to attend these functions when the council is not being allowed to function. We had raised these points earlier but even now the council is not being allowed to do anything, as the executive council is not yet formed."
Nikhil De, activist, and associate Aruna Roy confirmed the decision to stay away from the function for the same reasons. The fact that the ministry had ignored the 10 demands these activists raised in August had humiliated them, they said and added that they did not know how to make their concerns known.
"We had raised 10 essential concerns, starting with the need for the Council to function in accordance with the law. We are sorry to note that, in spite of your assurances of a prompt response to these concerns, none of them have been addressed so far. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Council is being deliberately kept in this dysfunctional state,'' the activists said in the letter on Tuesday.
"NREGA is a law and not a scheme. This places legally binding obligations on the government, including facilitation of the Council's work. Failure to activate the Council is a violation of the law. It also deprives NREGA of an essential accountability safeguard,'' the letter added.
They went on to attack the government on several decisions taken by the ministry either against the advice of the Council last year or more recently without consulting it.
"It is partly due to this accountability gap that ill-considered policy decisions on NREGA have often been taken in the recent past. To illustrate, NREGA wages were 'frozen' state-wise in December 2008, against the advice of the Council. Later, they were raised to Rs 100/day, but price increases are rapidly eroding the real value of workers' wages. NREGA wages must be urgently indexed to the price level, as promised in the Congress Party manifesto,'' the letter said.
They also cited the recent amendment of Schedule-I of NREGA, under which "construction of the Bharat Nirman Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendra" has been added to the list of permissible works."This is a dangerous step towards displacement of labour-intensive NREGA works by material-intensive works. This top-down construction programme is also likely to be a new entry point for exploitative and corrupt contractors. This is not to say that we oppose the provision of adequate infrastructural facilities to Gram Panchayats quite the contrary. But, we feel that wherever construction of such buildings is required, it is best undertaken under other schemes (such as the Backward Regions Grant Fund), with the labour component only being dovetailed with NREGA. As with the freezing of wages, this amendment was made in a non-transparent manner, without adequate consultation,'' the letter says.
The second letter in a row from these activists marks a climax to the confrontation between the government and civil society groups over NREGP.The 2009-10 Union Budget saw NREGA outlays increase almost one and a half times over the previous year to nearly Rs 40,000 crore. The 2009 Economic Survey noted that the programme benefitted 45 million people in 2008.