The NDA government has leased a new life into the flagship programme of the last UPA government, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) which provides 100 days of work to rural workers who wish to claim it. It is difficult to oppose the Act in principle. In a country where right to life is an inviolable fundamental right for the people, many would argue that right to food and work would also be inviolable.
But there has been much protests against the Act as well. While some including Rajastha chief minister Vasundhara Raje want it to be made into a scheme and not a law, there are few who complain the wages have been spiraling due to the Act. However, the biggest issue in the implementation of the Act has been the corruption charges, the latest added to that list being Kalahandi district in Orissa.
Zee News reported that recently the funds to plant trees under the NREGA scheme in Kalahandi were siphoned by few officials as the the trees were never planted. Though on papers, money has been paid to workers under the scheme for planting trees, in reality, physically no trees exist.
This is also not the first instance of such scam in Orissa. In 2007, a group of researchers led by well known economists Jean Dreze and Ritika Khera found muster rolls that had fake finger prints of fake labourers. The survey was being carried out in the districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Boudh. The panchayat executive officer was suspended and enquiry ordered. The Supreme Court while hearing a civil writ petition had even asked why it should not call for SBI probe in a scam that was pegged at Rs 500 crore.
A second survey in 2011 showed that in Orissa and UP, 67 percent of the poorest Dalit and tribal households did not get even a day's work in the past one year. SImilarly, more than a third of them did not even have access to the public distribution system.
The latest Economic Survey by the finance ministry also called for an overhaul of the system. It says, "Though the act is panchayat-centric and demand based, on the ground there is lack of principal role in planning, execution and monitoring by the panchayati raj institutions (PRI's) especially the gram sabha". Also the wages are in some places lower than market wages, which means mainly women come to take up jobs.
The corruption in implementing a social sector scheme is its biggest evil. On the one hand, if people who need it the most are not getting access to the government schemes, the argument of the rise in rural wages because of the scheme can be challenged. On the other hand, any modification of the scheme to make it more targeted and remove pilferage will be difficult. Those who need to implement the change are the ones who benefit the most from the current system.
NREGA is not just a subsidy scheme from the government unlike say, the mid-day meal scheme, because the state does not assume just a patronising role here. People are actually working to earn their wages. The government must work towards making the scheme efficient because both the state and the rural poor need it. The state sets a minimum wage and gets workers to work towards asset creating, while the poor have access to jobs with humane wages during the lean season or otherwise.
The new government has followed the UPA path in terms of allocation of funds. But it must take a completely different route to make this work.