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Why squeezing REGA?

It’s a conflict between two significantly divergent social interests’ groups. And under-privileged people are made to bear the brunt. It is obvious that Modi Government is determined to dilute MGNREGA from 2015-16. Feeble protests by Opposition Parties will not be enough to stop Modi Government. PM Modi’s decision to squeeze out the operational area of NREGA to the poorest 200 districts of the country received further boost as renowned economists Jagadish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya too are supporting the view. Not to forget, Arvind Panagariya is the Vice Chairman of newly created Niti Aayog, a body to chalk out development of the country. However, there is no denial that NREGA is a unique saga of major success and huge failures.

Research works by scholars indicate that NREGA has reduced rural migration in a great extent and empowered rural womenfolk in certain areas. Researchers also identified conditions and reasons that paved way for successful implementation of NREGA.

Firstly, it was observed, success of NREGA is strongly correlated with availability of active technical support to implementing agencies and Gram Panchayats. To ensure effective technical capabilities, several training programmes for officers of implementing agencies and Panchayat members were regularly carried out in several States. Apart from emphasizing various aspects of NREGA like auditing etc., such training also focused on work-seekers entitlements, decentralized planning procedures and awareness building to empower Panchayat members, Peoples’ representatives, villagers and even implementing Officials. Capacity building and awareness building amongst the stake holders are pivotal to successful implementation of NREGA.

Secondly, insight into success of NREGA also suggested, active and vibrant Gram Sabhas which debates and discusses about scope, disputes realting to NREGA without fear of political backlash helped to script success stories. In such cases peoples’ participation are spontaneous and social auditing systems are free from political influences ensuring maximum transparency.

Thirdly, open and impartial social audit system not only prevented corruption but also installed peoples’ confidence on block level administration and Panchayat system.

Fourthly, accountability of Gram Sabha is important. Where local leadership has positively responded to legitimate demands and addressed grievances of people impartially rather than muscle-flexing fixing strategy, NREGA implementation in such areas was a success.

On the negative side, experts pointed out focus on universalization without ensuring quality. Many believe that attempt to universalise the programme in a top-down manner went against the spirit of the Act and also encouraged a proliferation of corrupt practices, in an eagerness to show expenditure on the programme, even where there was no demand for it. Undoubtedly, there are innumerable instances of fudging entries in job-cards of workers, who sat at home and pocketed part of the wages. Wage-material ratio is one of the most prominent issues. It is argued that wage-material ratio has led to the creation of poor quality assets under the programme.

Considering countless instances of corrupt practices and laudable success in many areas relating to road construction, water harvesting structures etc. it is natural that NREGA deserves some reforms introduced after careful studies of success and failures.

Mihir Shah Former member of recently abolished Planning Commission mentioned in The Hindu, “Chief Ministers have long emphasised the need to understand India’s regional backwardness in terms of blocks rather than districts. Many advanced districts in India hide pockets of backwardness and not all blocks in the so-called backward districts may be equally deprived”. He further stated, demand for work has been shown to be the highest in the most backward sub-districts.  On the basis of this argument, it is necessary to make special provision that will cater area-specific needs. Most backward areas, even if it is under advanced blocks, should not be left out. Singling out backward blocks will actually deprive   countless small areas which lagging behind. Unless this is addressed, area wise imbalances will increase. As experts have pointed out, special emphasis is needed for backward areas all through the country.

Squeezing NREGA out to mere 200 backward districts will not serve any real purposes, rather it may have some adverse effect, critics argue. Notably, Modi Govt in its 1st Budget actually hiked allocation for NREGA from allocated Rs 33,000 crores in 2013-14 to Rs 34,000 crores for the scheme during 2014-15. The Modi Government also mentioned the NREGA scheme will continue with revamping the scheme to make it ‘development-oriented’. Here  Jagdish Bhagwati, a votary of the capitalist mode of growth, emerged in the scene. And the Modi Government has made a sudden backtrack from its earlier position. Critics claim real reason behind such a unlikely backtrack by Modi Government is due to clash of academics’ and economists’ of divergent ideologies. So, NREGA has suddenly become center of ideological war between two sections of economists – war between proponents capitalistic view on growth versus exponents socialistic views in development.  Bhabgwati, darling of Modi regime, emphasized on solely on the relevance and feasibility of the NREGA scheme. His argument is in sharp contrast that of Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and his close aide Jean Drèze who is known for his anti-market stance. Highlighting relevance of NREGA, Sen had said during a function to mark the golden jubilee of the Bar Council of India, “NREGA reaches out to the people and gives them income. It is an enhancer of capability. It enhances their self-respect and participation in life and community,” Opposing Sen’s view, Bhagwati and his supporters tried to talk about myriad issues like corruption, failures of many State  Governments in implementing the scheme etc. Interestingly, while mentioning about crunch of agricultural workers in Punjab and Haryana, mostly migrated from Bihar and UP, Bhagwati’s group conceded NREGA has checked migration and this has led raising rural wages. Still, this group is vehemently opposing NREGA as socialistic and Nehruvian ideas form basis of this scheme, critics observed.

Nonetheless it cannot be ignored that the NREGA has benefited the rural poor. What is needed is to overhaul it and make it more responsive and also to ensure that the fund leakage is completely stopped. The bureaucrats should be made answerable. The Peoples’ representatives will be made subject to rigorous audit by 3rd party. The proposal to introduce cash transfers should be implemented if it helps the cause of the poor.

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