Close to 130-year ago, Anne Isabella Ritchiel, an English writer wrote in her novel ‘Mrs. Dymond’, “If you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.” Since the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) came into existence in 2006, UPA’s brainchild has only provided a man a fish.
Regarded as assistance doled by the Centre with hardly any connection with asset creation or livelihood generation, many thought that the Modi government would scrap the flagship programme. But Arun Jaitley in his maiden budget put aside any such thoughts.
The Finance Minister said during his budget speech, “The Government is committed to providing wage and self-employment opportunities in rural areas. However, wage employment would be provided under MNREGA through works that are more productive, asset creating and substantially linked to agriculture and allied activities.”
Jaitley allocated Rs. 34,000 crore on the flagship programme which is only a marginal increase from the last year.
Rural India, which is reeling under infrastructure deficit, genuinely needs a programme which tackles such shortcomings, especially like building toilets, construction of buildings for gram panchayats and providing irrigation facilities. In fact, the Ministry of Rural Development recently wrote to states on making remedial exercise of the programme. The ministry said, “The state should place a special emphasis on quality of assets in terms of their design, utility and durability.”
A day before Jaitley presented his budget, the latest Economic Survey painted a bleak picture of MNREGA and suggested revamp, reorganisation and convergence of the social sector schemes. The Survey noted, “Lack of principal role in planning, execution and monitoring and low awareness, resulting in lack of ownership and ill-conceived planning.”
In order to create durable assets, the ministry wants convergence of the MNREGA with the schemes of other departments. It also suggested maintenance of assets, evaluation and impact study by third party agency to make it leakage free.
The Rural Ministry now seems to have good intent but it raises few questions. Who will decide the asset creation in rural areas? Will the ministry create a list of such assets where the programme is run? And who will lay down mechanism to execute and maintain such projects?
Since its existence in 2006, the MNREGA has come under all-round criticisms for hardly creating assets in the rural areas. Under the programme, the ratio of wage costs to material costs was 60:40. Many analysts feel that when 60% of cost was utilised in paying wages, how can it create durable assets? Also, there was no measurement of assets creation or result of such activities, which was only an invitation to corruption. The wage payment under MNREGA was made on the basis attendance of workers, not the payment made on the basis of measurement of work completed.
Over the years, there was fictitious MIS, fabrication of job cards and largescale corruption in villages, benefiting the gram pradhans and their henchmen.
The work completion rate was very poor under the flagship programme. “The average work completion rate under MNREGA, all throughout during UPA’s regime was 33.22 percent,” said the Standing Committee on Rural Development in its report in 2013.
Even in 2013, the then Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh admitted that the mega job guarantee scheme had failed to create durable assets in rural areas.
With so much baggage of corruption and leakages, Jaitley’s partial help is just a drop in the ocean. But will it bring efficacy to country’s most looked upon scheme?