In this article, Ashwini Kulkarni of NGO Pragati Abhiyan, discusses four key administrative reforms that can strengthen the implementation of MNREGA, and enable the programme to fulfill its objectives more effectively.
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On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) - India’s flagship welfare programme - there have been many articles across the spectrum of media about its relevance and significance to alleviating rural poverty. The programme is required for its objectives but it falls short of fulfilling them. The programme has never reached even 60 days of employment per household in any of the preceding years - leave alone 100 days as promised. Although useful, the works taken up are usually ad hoc and hardly ever technically sound. Given this mixed bag of successes and failures, it is time to take stock and prepare for the next phase of the programme.
Going forward, the programme first has to consolidate its administrative capacities. The various initiatives by the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) for smoothing the payment mechanism, ensuring participatory methods in planning of works, and building capacity of personnel involved in programme delivery, need to be brought up to an acceptable level of administrative capacity across states, districts and blocks. It is well known that states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have been consistently performing well whereas poorer states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh that need MNREGA more lack implementation capacity. State capacities determine the uptake of the programme rather than the need for the programme. Here, the MoRD has to take initiative by facilitating cross-state sharing of knowledge, skills and technology so that weaker states are pulled up.
The following set of reforms in administration is required:
Using technology to register demand for work
While the programme is designed to be demand driven, in practice, it is mostly supply driven. The demand of the job seekers is seldom registered. Typically, the labourers are the most vulnerable section of the village community. They are politically weak and lack understanding of the functioning of the local administration. Given this situation their ‘demand’ for work gets ignored to say the least. Appropriate use of information technology (IT) could remedy this problem. A toll-free number where anyone with a mobile phone can ‘register demand’ and get a receipt number through SMS is possible. The same system can then send messages/mails to all concerned authorities like Panchayat Secretary and Block Development Officer (BDO) for further action. This has been possible for the LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) cylinder distribution so similar technology can work in MNREGA. This can ensure that once a demand is registered with time and date stamp, then the local administration has no excuse to not respond.
Strengthening local administration for better programme implementation
The local administration at the block level needs assistance for proper implementation of the programme. The Gram Rozgar Sevak1 has proved to be useful but needs more support for being more effective. Another cadre of ‘barefoot engineers’, well trained as watershed engineers, available at the Gram Panchayat level will be very useful in participatory planning of works, and for preparing site-based designs. They can also be helpful in undertaking the weekly measurement of work output, which is one of the reasons for payments getting delayed. ‘Mates’ are also being deployed for managing the workforce. All these three positions - Gram Rozgar Sevak, Barefoot Engineer and the Mate - should be filled with local residents. They should be a part of the local administration, drive the programme, and ensure quality and effectiveness in implementation.
Increasing focus on community and livelihood-related works
For the programme to give a fillip to agriculture development, it is important that the works be planned accordingly. Most of the villages where MNREGA works are taken up are drought prone, rain-fed farming areas and a majority of the labourers belong to small and marginal farmer families. Hence, more community works such as community water storage structures rather than private wells are needed2. The rule of 60-40 ratio for wage payments and material costs for MNREGA works should be applied to both community and individual works. The same ratio can be applied to agriculture-related and other types of works (example, building toilets), to ensure greater emphasis on livelihood-related projects.
Improvement mechanism for wage payment
Delay in payments is still one of the major challenges facing the programme. This is one aspect that has a debilitating effect on its achievements. One of the reasons is that payments have to be done through banks and there are severe problems of last mile connectivity. At present, labourers need to walk miles, spend money on transport and spend a day just to get their wages from the nearest bank branch. The Business Correspondent (BC) model envisages a bank person to visit every village at least once a week with a hand-held ATM. This will enable payments directly to the labourers in their village itself. The BCs need to be deployed either by the banks or through independent agencies, and provided the necessary infrastructure and training to execute their tasks. The BC model, as encouraged by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), needs to be implemented with rigour across the entire rural landscape. Post offices becoming quasi-banks is a very important step in this direction.
Implementing administrative reforms
All administrative reforms need to be accompanied by clear instructions for implementation at the level of Panchayat Samiti (block) and Gram Panchayat. Clarity of procedures is very important and the lack of it is often the reason for inefficient delivery of schemes. Also, capacity building of local administration, especially contractual employees, is necessary.
The Finance Minister emphasised the relevance of MNREGA for employment generation, irrigation, drought proofing, in his Budget speech. This suggests that the current central government has now accepted that the programme is crucial for rain-fed, drought-prone and poor rural areas. This will hopefully give MNREGA the necessary traction to move into the next phase and realise its latent potential.
- Gram Rozgar Sevak is an assistant to the Panchayat Secretary for implementation of MNREGA. S/he is a resident of the village and is involved in all primary recordkeeping of the programme.
- At present, the agriculture-related works undertaken are mostly individual and those are not very labour intensive.