The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is once again in the news,for the wrong reasons. Arbitrary changes in the guidelines by the rural development ministry,has turned a requirement into a controversial,self-defeating exercise. Former members of the National Advisory Council like Aruna Roy,Jean Dreze and their colleagues who have been working in a sustained way on NREGA,have opposed the new proposals. They have made a valid criticism on the lack of discussion. Recently,on the birth anniversary of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi,it was declared that Lok Sewaks are to be appointed in every village to implement NREGA. Has any state government been consulted on this? And why should proposed panchayat bhavans in villages be mandatorily named after the late prime minister? Dont villages have heroes who merit recognition? Over-centralisation is one of the problems of an otherwise extremely important piece of social legislation.
However the contention of the critics of the new proposals,that there should be no changes in the Act till it is fully and properly implemented is not in tune with the experience of the last four years of the Acts implementation,particularly for workers. As far as the government proposals are concerned,they need to be modified and clarified rather than rejected.
From the workers point of view,the main issue that requires change is to shift from piece-rated to time-rated work. Harsh conditions of work,the very nature of the work and the high productivity norms make it extremely difficult to earn a minimum wage even after a full days work which has been unfairly extended to nine hours. When REGA started the standard norm was to dig at least 100 cubic feet a day and to lift out the mud. Rough calculations put that around 1000 to 1500 kilos of mud a day depending on the type of soil being dug. It is hardly a relief measure to expect a malnourished woman to carry that kind of load to earn a days wage. Since the base level is so high even the decreased productivity norms subsequently made by many states hardly helps. It would be fair to adopt a time-rated system.
There are two main areas of contention about the government proposals. The first is the July notification by the rural development ministry which includes,under NREGA,the development of land belonging to small and marginal farmers which was earlier allowed only to those belonging to the scheduled castes and tribes and to beneficiaries of land reform. The opponents of the proposals worry that this will divert focus away from rural labour and will deprioritise their needs. However,since NREGA is a demand based programme there need be no conflict in the allocation of funds. Indeed work on these lands under NREGA will not only benefit a large section of poor farmers,who today are the symbols of agrarian distress particularly in this period of drought,but will also enhance productivity and enable increase in the creation of work days. For example the Kerala government has proposed replanting of coconut trees under NREGA,which will benefit lakhs of poor households including job cardholders who otherwise cannot afford the expense of cutting down old trees and replanting. The guidelines already stipulate that farmers getting these benefits must contribute their own labour as job cardholders and that projects on private land must be done through the panchayats and gram sabhas. They must retain the right to decide on the prioritisation of projects. Work on the land of farmers should exclude recurring expenditure on agricultural/cultivation work and the clause which does contain such an exclusion must be strengthened so that NREGA is not turned into an instrument to provide free labour for well off landowners.
However the definition used in the notification for small and marginal farmers based on that of the central debt waiver relief scheme is problematic as it does not differentiate between irrigated and non-irrigated land. Thus while adivasi farmers in Nasik and Vidarbha holding more than 5 acres of unirrigated land were excluded from the debt relief scheme even though they are in the category of poor peasants,the better off small farmers of Western Maharashtra holding 5 acres of irrigated land were beneficiaries of the debt relief scheme. This injustice should not be imported into NREGA and differentiation for the purpose of inclusion in NREGA must be made between types of landholdings. Looked at from this perspective,the notification,if properly amended,could be seen as a welcome extension of government funds to needy sections of the rural population while enhancing productivity of the land.
The other contentious proposal is for convergence with other developmental works. Although it does make sense to dovetail projects for rural development,the main problem arises because of the 100 days work limitation per family under NREGA. Thus at present one member of a family may be working on a construction site for a particular government department and the other on a NREGA worksite. Under convergence their work days could be pooled and their entitlements reduced. Some departments have even higher productivity norms and thus lower wages. Convergence should be implemented very strictly within NREGA norms. Guidelines must be changed to remove the 100 day limit,to give job cards to individuals not family members and to use convergence to increase the total number of work days available.
The main problem is not lack of convergence but the inflexible and restrictive nature of the works permitted under NREGA. This has resulted in a low national average of only 50 days a year. In the name of producing tangible assets,the main work permitted is earth digging for water tanks,bunds etc. Experience has shown that while this may be beneficial in dry and arid zones like Rajasthan,it is extremely limiting in areas where there is intense use of land for cultivation and where the amount of common land available for such water harvesting projects is limited. After all how many tanks can be built in a village where there is little land to be had? Women in hilly areas like Uttarakhand,spend hours climbing up dangerous rocky hillsides,collecting fodder and carrying the huge bundles back to their village. Projects under NREGA could be worked out to pay women wages for this work which is fulfilling a social responsibility. There are many closed tea gardens in North Bengal. The state government had given a proposal to the Centre to use NREGA to pay workers to pluck the leaves,which would have helped develop workers cooperatives but was irrationally rejected. A task force was set up by the Centre several months ago to consider expansion of the work permissible,but its recommendations if any are yet to be published. Expansion in the work list is an immediate requirement.
The notification was made even while Parliament was on. It would have helped evolve a consensus on the changes required if the minister had consulted Parliament as also the members of the central advisory council for NREGA before making the changes. Executive fiat should not replace informed discussions.
The writer is a CPM MP in the Rajya Sabha.