Much of the public imagination on the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has been focussed on stories of corruption and conspiracy theories,with most public policymakers still debating over the merit of entitlement vs direct cash transfer,I would like to raise the stakes,perhaps a little audaciously. The truth is that the fate of NREGA and democracy in India are intertwined. In fact,NREGA is locked in an eccentric paradox: its promise to secure rural livelihood is embedded in the decentralisation of state power,but its implementation is unfortunately driven by a multilayered,centralised,bureaucratic mode of governance.
Take one example. Section 16(3) & (4) of the act clearly states that every Gram Panchayat shall prepare a development plan but the strangulating hold of district programme coordinators in the name of scrutinising the adequacy of works has suffocated the spirit of Panchayati Raj. The resurgence of an imperial bureaucracy,one that treats every Gram Panchayat as a den of vices and views every sarpanch as suspect,is hampering the NREGAs success. Consider the bureaucratic impunity granted by the act. In the era of widening and deepening of democracy in India,Section 30 of the act boldly states that no suit,prosecution,or other legal proceedings shall lie against the District Programme Coordinator,Programme Officer or any other person who is deemed to be a public servant. For stark,ironic contrast,read Section 25,which states,whoever contravenes the provisions of the act shall on conviction be liable to a fine which may extend to one thousand rupees!
It is no surprise that almost no one in the bureaucracy,including bank and post office staff is hauled up for delayed payment or non-payment of employment allowances or cases of fraud. Check the status of complaints compiled by the rural development ministry. Mostly,replies are awaited for want of action taken by state governments. In short,NREGA suffers from a governance deficit and not from a resource deficit or lack of ideological commitment. (This doesnt mean,of course,that NREGA has failed or it needs to be replaced.)
With the reconstitution of the Central Employment Guarantee Council,the time has come to infuse new life into the scheme. Its first task should be to develop a durable and robust mechanism of decreasing bureaucratic control over procedural aspects of implementation and monitoring. This can be done by setting up a NREGA Mission,in which civil society actors could play a significant role. Next,we must strictly follow the provisions of NREGA with regard to the autonomy of Gram Sabhas and Gram Panchayats in planning,implementation and social auditing. Bureaucratic Rip Van Winkles must wake from their self-induced slumber and re-imagine the implementation of NREGA by genuinely devolving funds,functions and functionaries. In this context,the recent declaration of 2009-10 as the year of the Gram Sabha by the Panchayati Raj ministry is a recognition of the institutions growing importance as a genuine deliberative and participatory space.
Next,we need to move away from surrogate and ad hoc solutions by vigorous and timely implementation of the District Ombudsman provided for by section 27(1) of the act for grievance redressal and ensuring disciplinary and punitive action against erring persons in a time-bound manner. Selected through public verification among persons of standing and integrity with at least twenty years experience in public administration,law,academics,social work or management,ombudsmen are expected to be independent of central or state governments. Armed with powers to initiate proceedings suo motu within his/her jurisdiction,ombudsmen has the potential to consolidate NREGA in a big way.
One of the long-lasting multiplier effects of the NREGA is new,fast-evolving architecture for financial inclusion in rural India. Yes,bank and post-office accounts too can be manipulated,and we have not solved the dilemmas of delays in payments; but this should not deter us from deepening the banking in rural India. Since opening branches in all rural locations is difficult,we need to use what is called the Business Correspondent Model where individuals act as agents for banks prudently. We should consider examining and extending bank correspondents and facilitators. In a joint initiative with the State Bank of India,the Orissa government has recently decided to cover all the states Gram Panchayats through correspondents. This also requires the participation of women in banking activities in the villages; I am hopeful that it is the women who would be ultimately game changers. The success of NREGA lies in this transition from inertia to activism,despair to hope,tradition to innovation.
The writer teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Science in Mumbai and is a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council