How not to run a programme

MGNREGA is beset with failures of planning, execution, monitoring and accountability.

Written by Nirmala Sitharaman | Updated: May 9, 2014 8:02 am

MGNREGA is beset with failures of planning, execution, monitoring and accountability.

This election season, we have seen the BJP seeking the people’s mandate on the slogan “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas”. The Congress harps primarily on a “we gave you” list. The first in this list is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGA).

The 11th Five Year Plan recognised that 30 crore people lived below the poverty line. It was felt that the MGNREGA could be an instrument of rapid poverty reduction during this plan period (2007-12). It was designed to provide “…short-term employment on public works to unskilled workers.” The Plan document was clear and specific: “…based on the premise that in areas with high unemployment rates and underemployment… can prevent poverty from worsening during lean periods of seasonal unemployment.”

Through an act of Parliament, this scheme was enforced in 200 districts from February 2, 2006. The first performance audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), covering the year ending March 2007, was readied in 2008. It is not clear if any action was taken on the several specific shortcomings and failures flagged in the report of the CAG. With elections to the Lok Sabha in 2009 clearly in mind, the scheme was expanded to cover all rural districts by April 1, 2008. In brief, it aimed to provide a minimum of 100 days of work to adult members of every household who volunteered. “Such work was to be provided at minimum wage rates, within a radius of 5 km of the village…”

On April 23, 2013, a performance audit of the MGNREGA by the CAG was laid on the table of Parliament. Covering the period April 2007-March 2012, this is the second performance audit report. This report covered 3,848 gram panchayats (GPs) in 28 states and four union territories.

Before we get into the CAG’s observations, it may be relevant to note that the GPs are the principal implementing agency. The scheme emphasised community participation in planning, implementation, social audit and transparency. Emphasis was on labour-intensive works for water conservation, drought- and flood-proofing as priority works to be undertaken. It banned the use of contractors.

In February 2013, the ministry of rural development stated that, up to December 31, 2012, the total actual expenditure on the scheme since its launch is Rs 1,92,322.33 crore. In the budget of 2013-14, another Rs 33,000 crore was allocated for the current fiscal.

As a flagship programme, thanks to political commitment and abundant funds, this scheme ought to have stood out for full preparedness, effective implementation and optimum utilisation by the beneficiaries. These were the worsening years of the UPA’s jobless growth and, given the demand-based nature of seeking work, the MGNREGA would have actually provided the necessary succour to the unskilled rural poor, we would assume.

In reality, the figures show otherwise. The person days of employment generated even for those who sought work has never been a full 100 days. Since 2007-08 till 2011-12, the person days of employment generated is shown here: 42, 48, 54, 47 and 43. In 2012-13, this figure was 44.99, while in the year just ended, 2013-14, person days of employment created is only 42.48.

Only 9.6 per cent of households who demanded employment in 2012-13 availed 100 days of employment. In 2013-14, this figure came down to 6.4 per cent. The CAG, in the latest performance audit, concludes: “[The] MGNREGA guarantees 100 days of wage employment to every rural household willing to take up manual labour… the intended beneficiaries had not been able to fully exercise their rights.” It is a cruel irony that, the CAG observes, “obtaining a job card does not automatically translate into employment when demanded by [the] beneficiary.” Further, the report adds, “widespread instances of non-payment and delayed payment of wages were observed in 23 states.”

There were only half-hearted attempts at monitoring the scheme. The CAG’s observations are unambiguous when it says, “The act makes the ministry legally responsible for monitoring the scheme and giving such directions to the states for its proper implementation. In fact, the act requires the ministry to set up a Central Employment Guarantee Council… it was seen that the Council had done little in terms of monitoring of the scheme. In six years of existence, a few council members conducted just 13 field visits, and the council had not put in place an effective system of monitoring and evaluation, as required under the act.”

Considering that the council worked under the chairmanship of the minister of rural development, it is too serious an indictment for us to ignore!

The CAG minced no words as it found “numerous instances” when the “ministry released grants in excess of demand and in breach of its own conditionalities.” The disregard of laid-out norms was brazen. “In fact, in 2010-11, the ministry relaxed all conditionalities (except furnishing utilisation certificate)… as a result, Rs 1,960.45 crore was released in the month of March 2011 alone, without exercising proper financial controls.” If this was not enough, “An amount of Rs 4,072.99 crore was released by the ministry in 2008-12 to states for use in the subsequent financial year, in contravention of budget provisions and General Financial Rules. Also, excess funds of Rs 2,374.86 crore were released by the ministry to six states due to wrong calculation or without taking note of balances available with the states.”

Unfortunately, that this brazen disregard targeted poverty reduction is also not made out. “Releases made to states… and poverty data showed that… Bihar, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh had 46 per cent of the rural poor in India but accounted for only about 20 per cent of the funds released.”

Key to implementing this scheme are the Gram Rozgar Sahayaks (GRSs). There were not enough GRSs on the field. Their “shortages ranged from 20 to 93 per cent.” It is they who maintain documents, issue job cards, allocate work, pay wages, monitor and facilitate social audits. “Non-maintenance or incorrect maintenance of basic records was noticed in 18-54 per cent of test-checked GPs.” Even from the poorly kept records, it emerges that “works abandoned midway or not completed for a significant period were noticed. Also it was seen that 7,69,575 works amounting to Rs 4,070.76 crore are incomplete, even after one to five years.”

Questions are raised about the lack of durable asset creation: “Cases of diversion of funds for other uses were also seen in a large number of states.”

If only some course correction had been introduced, as action taken, after the first performance audit of the CAG (2007-08), the thorough indictment in the latest report could have been avoided. This scheme smacks of the Congress’s disregard for rules and good governance at every stage: planning, execution, monitoring and accountability.

Campaigning in Amethi, the Congress vice president, Rahul Gandhi, claimed, “I have got information that the BJP and Narendra Modi… intend to abolish welfare legislations like… employment guarantee.” Is he attempting to frighten the poor of this country? Is he covering up for his government’s failure verging on irresponsible governance?

The writer is the BJP’s national spokesperson

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