DEBATE: Is NREGS II a product of a complacent UPA II?

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published Published on Sep 3, 2009   modified Modified on Sep 3, 2009

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is confident that the NREGS is his best bet to offset the drought but many grassroots activists are unsure of the scheme’s effectiveness, especially after some recent amendments. While the drought has spread to 246 districts, a heated debate rages on the poor peoples’ entitlements versus rural asset formation, even though in theory the two positions appear complementary.

14 organisations throughout the country are up in arms against the manner in which the UPA government has been rushing through the restructuring of the NREGS, which they say is against the spirit of the law and to the detriment of Dalits and the poor. Notable among the civil society activists opposing the amendments are Aruna Roy of the MKSS, poverty economist Jean Dreze, Dunu Roy of the Sanjha Manch, Arundhati Dhuru of the NAPM, Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women.

So far the NREGS work was allowed on the private land of the dalit and tribal farmers but the govt. has now widened its ambit to include all others who own up to five acres of cultivable land (see details in the links below). Those opposed to the amendment believe that the NREGA II strays from its objectives because it removes the focus from the desperately poor SC/ST people. However the supporters of the amendment are firm that an inclusive feature like extending it to all small and marginal farmers can lead to a transformation of Indian agriculture through improved productivity. 

The debate has come at a time when the feel good factor surrounding NREGA is already fading with widespread delays in payments, leakages of funds, inefficiency of the babudom, manipulation in the muster-rolls, and non-payment of compensation. In the last fiscal, the average household got 48 days of work instead of 100 days despite demand. 

Those against the amendment argue the following:
1. It removes the focus from the SC/ST farmers who also are the poorest of poor in most of rural India.
2. It is the relatively well off farmers who would benefit at the cost of landless labourers, dalits and the poor by fudging land records.
3. NREGS work on private land would amount to appeasing the rich farmers who would otherwise have to pay wage labourers to get their work done.
4. Civil Society Organizations are worried that the Government is in a mood to make NREGS more capital intensive that would displace labour (the mandatory labour-material ratio is 60:40) and ultimately open up the scheme for entry of private contractors.

The Government, on the other hand, is trying to synergize the scheme with other existing schemes so as to create rural assets. The proposed changes in the NREGA-II by the Ministry of Rural Development are:
1. After widening the ambit of the NREGS to include works on the private land of small and marginal farmers, the Rural Development Ministry is now considering setting up a ‘mini secretariat’ named after Rajiv Gandhi at each Gram Panchayat.
2. The Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC), which is slated to meet early next week, will consider a proposal for creating Bharat Nirman Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendra for each gram panchayat with the help of NREGS labour and with the cost borne by other Central schemes like Backward Regions Grant Fund.
3. The proposal includes a suggestion for appointment of permanent Lok Sewaks for “safeguarding the rights of the workers as well as to compel the Gram Panchayats to abide by the legally normative processes” along with a proposal to push states for appointment of permanent staff specifically for NREGS
4. The move follows the recommendations of a Task Force constituted by the Ministry for examining demands for widening the scope for permissible works under the scheme. The task force had suggested two broad categories, namely social infrastructure and social services, comprising 10 new types of permissible works. Currently, the scope of the scheme is limited to unskilled manual labour.
5. As part of creating social infrastructure, the Task Force has identified construction of toilet pits and individual latrines for BPL families under Total Sanitation Campaign, construction of houses for BPL families under the Indira Awaas Yojana (IAY) and Tribal Sub-plan, playgrounds and mini-stadiums, as well as Anganwadis.
6. As part of the social services category, the CEGC would be considering a proposal for employment of NREGS labour for cooking of mid-day meal; running of crèches as well as cooking meals for children below three years of age in adjoining anganwadis; and barefoot engineers for planning of works under the NREGS.
7. The proposal also includes doubling the land ceiling to 10 hectares under the new notification that allows works on the private land of small and marginal farmers in the rainfed areas.

According to the Letter No. 11019/2/208-NREGA, titled NREGA Joint Convergence Guidelines, 29 May, 2009, which has been issued by Department of Rural Development and Department of Land Resources, Ministry of Rural Development:
1. Under NREGA, large sums of public investments are made. Leveraging these investments towards sustainable livelihood requires inter-sectoral convergence. Since NREGA planning is decentralized and funds transferred are untied, work can be planned/ structured and executed as per local specific requirements. NREGA thus becomes a significant entry point for convergence with other development programmes.
2. One of the significant areas for convergence identified is the watershed management programme of the Department of Land Resources (DoLR) in the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD). The main aims of the Integrated Watershed Management Programme (IWMP) are to restore the ecological balance by harnessing, conserving and developing degraded natural resources such as soil, vegetative cover and water. The outcomes are prevention of soil run-off, regeneration of natural vegetation, rainwater harvesting and recharging of groundwater table. This enables multi-cropping and the introduction of agro-based activities, which help to provide sustainable livelihoods to the people living in watershed area.
3. The cost of material component of projects including the wages of the skilled and semi-skilled workers taken up under the scheme shall not exceed 40 percent of the total project costs.
4. No contractor shall be engaged in execution of the works.
5. As far as practicable, a task funded under the scheme shall be performed by using manual labour and not machines.
6. Muster rolls to be maintained on work site, with copies in the gram panchayat and to be electronically maintained on
7. Social audit to be done through gram sabhas.

8. Wage payments will be through no-frills accounts in banks/ post offices.       

The links below contain both sides of the story on recent amendments in NREGA and some of the suggestions/ recommendations made by various experts:

Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey (2009), Dalits, the poor and the NREGA, The Hindu, 28 August, 2009,  

Mihir Shah (2009), Taking goals of NREGA-I forward, The Hindu, 14 August, 2009,  

Ravish Tiwari (2009), Rajiv Sewa Kendras for NREGS soon, The Indian Express, 11 August, 2009,

Saubhadro Chatterji (2009), Govt to modify NREGA to plug loopholes, 1 July, 2009, Business Standard,

NREGA Joint Convergence Guidelines, 29 May, 2009, Department of Rural Development and Department of Land Resources,

'I'm a little nervous about NREGA-2', Interview of Jean Dreze by Josi Joseph, 17 August, 2009, DNAIndia,

NREGA: Back to Basics, Right to Food Campaign, 10 August, 2009,

NREGA: Essential Demands, Right to Food Campaign, 10 August, 2009,

Detailed Action Points Drawn for Kharif and the coming Rabi Crops, State Agriculture Ministers’ Conference Concludes, 21 August, 2009, Press Information Bureau,       

“Tinkering with NREGA will hit poor”, The Hindu, 11 August, 2009,


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