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Undermining people’s power - A story of five years

by Nikhil Dey, 19 June 2011

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Deccan Herald, 19 June 211

Undermining people’s power - A story of five years

More than five years have passed since the world’s largest employment programme was launched in India. The scale of employment generated was not the only reason that this is a path breaking legislation.

The MGNREGA is the first national law to establish rights in the development sector. It is demand based, and not constrained by arbitrary and restrictive selections like the Below Poverty Line (BPL) list. Any person living in a rural area is entitled to get 100 days of work at minimum wages every year.

If work is not provided within 15 days the worker can claim unemployment allowance, and if payments are not made within 15 days, the worker should get compensation. A unique, and open-ended budgetary provision required the government to match allocations with the demand for work. Most important, the scheme attempted to create a bottom up, people based implementation system. Works were to be planned and prioritised by people in the Gram Sabha. MGNREGA was passed soon after the Right to Information Act (RTI Act, 2005), and it incorporated people based transparency and accountability provisions, so that workers could monitor every stage of its implementation. It was also the first law to make it mandatory for social audits of all its expenditure to be carried out by the people.

That was the theory. In fact, five years of the Act has once again demonstrated the capacity of the rulers to separate theory from practice. The MGNREGA has shown mixed results. Some states have clearly performed much better than others. However, despite showing tremendous promise, and being a lifeline for vast numbers of people, the MGNREGA has been crippled by a ruling class that views its potential success as a very real threat.

The undermining of the spirit of the Act begins at the very first step. Demand based “guaranteed work” has been rendered completely ineffective by not providing dated receipts to workers who demand work. Without a dated receipt, workers cannot demand unemployment allowance.

It is clear that the Government is unwilling to allow people to establish their claim. That would lead to a people based accountability system that they fundamentally oppose. Because of payments through banks and post offices, it is very easy to prove inordinate and widespread delay in the payment of wages. Instead of automatic payment of compensation for delayed payments, a complicated procedure has been set up. In some states it does not exist at all.

Work and wages

The payment of minimum wages was one of the success stories of the MGNREGA. Even in states that did not provide high amounts of employment, the requirement that minimum wages be paid on MGNREGA works, served as a benchmark, and depressed wages went up. Complaints by farmers and industrialists against the MGNREGA showed that this provision was working. However, even the Prime Minister declared that MGNREGA workers should not be entitled to minimum wages in violation of the Minimum Wages Act and the Constitution.

Worksites, and their management, as well as transparency in the implementation have certainly helped people identify fraud and inefficiency to push the administration to perform as per the norms. However, the grievance redress system is very weak and the penalty provision of Rs 1000 has been used in very few instances.

Asset creation is the biggest obsession of most policy makers, and assets are seen as works of cement and concrete. Claims that all the earth works are of poor quality have been glibly asserted without credible research. Planning continues to be top down, so that people are not even facilitated in identifying the labour intensive work that would be most productive.

Social audits have been stalled in Rajasthan - the land of their birth. They have been institutionalised in Andhra in a manner that over Rs 100 crore of fraud has been identified, recoveries have crossed Rs 21 crore, 5000 functionaries have been dismissed and hundreds of FIRs have been filed. It is worth noting that the quantum of fraud identified through an exhaustive social audit process has been just over one percent of the total expenditure. Despite this success in evolving a people based system to fight corruption, no other state government has followed the AP example.

Critics suggest the next phase needs to be asset based with less emphasis on employment and wages. However, what the MGNREGA really needs is a return to its most basic tenet: creating a people centred framework of planning, implementation and monitoring, with the understanding that employment and wages for the poor are crucial to the future health of the country.

(Nikhil Dey works with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.)