A job scheme gone awry

A job scheme gone awry

MGNREGA mess: The UPAs employment guarantee scheme for rural poor benefits the non-poor

A job scheme gone awry

(Left) Trenching work in Anantpur, AP. (Right) CBI officers deputed to investigate multi crore scam in six districts of Orissa.Ever since the Government in February 2006 launched National Rural Employment Guarantee Act – later rechristened after Mahatma Gandhi – to provide livelihood security to millions of poor in the villages across the country, Ansari was in the forefront of the campaign to ensure that benefits of the landmark initiative reach the targeted people.

He was instrumental in exposing many a scam in implementation of the MGNREGA, the latest involving the Block Development Officer of Manika and Panchayat Sewak of Rankikalan in Jharkhand, who allegedly in collusion with contractor mafia embezzled about Rs 2.5 lakh. An inquiry was conducted and an FIR lodged in the police station on March 1.

Ansari was murdered the very next day. He was only 35.

An enquiry by a central team – led by Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), B K Sinha – revealed that the murder was linked to exposure of corruption in implementation of two projects under the MGNREGA. Sinha called for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation.

This apart, the Supreme Court on May 12 directed the CBI to probe the alleged large-scale scams under MGNREGA  in Orissa. There are reports of irregularities from a number of other States as well – be it Congress-ruled Assam or BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh.

Though reports from many States are worrying, States like Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh provide the silver lining. So, one perhaps still cannot give up on the scheme, which not only guarantees 100 days of employment to any rural household but also makes the State Government legally bound either to provide employment to a household within 15 days of it demanding work, or pay an unemployment allowance.

According to MoRD, the scheme ensured employment to altogether 5.47 crore households (including 30.7% Scheduled Castes and 20.8% Scheduled Tribes) in 2010-11, with 250 crore person-days of employment being generated at a total expenditure of about Rs 39,000 crore. The average daily wage has been raised from Rs 65 in 2006-07 to Rs 100 in 2010-11. The wage notified under MGNREGA has been linked to the Consumer Price Index for agricultural labour with effect from January 1 this year to protect the workers against inflation. Wages are paid to the MGNREGA beneficiaries through post office and savings bank accounts. Till February 2011, over 9.68 crore accounts had been opened to deposit the wages.

The Government has earmarked Rs 40,000 crore for MGNREGA scheme in the 2011-12 Budget.

However, not all is well with the scheme. As many as 11,52,053 registered families have not been issued job cards in 2010-11, unemployment allowance was unpaid for 20,11,334 days and payment of wages was delayed by over 90 days to labourers registered in 6,83,878 muster rolls. Besides, 1,30,76,186 households got employment for less than 15 days during the year.

The MoRD received as many as 1,327 complaints about irregularities in implementation of MGNREGA up to March 31 last  year and 492 more till February 11 this year. Apart from misappropriation or diversion of funds, most of the complaints were about forgery of muster rolls and job cards, under- payment or delayed payment of wages, use of machinery instead of manpower beyond permissible limits, engaging contractors, non-provision of work on demand and job card being held by Gram Panchayat heads.

The National Advisory Council headed by Congress president Sonia Gandhi was instrumental in drafting the MGNREGA in 2004-05. The revised panel last year asked the MoRD to hasten the process of notifying social audit rules for MGNREGA to check irregularities.

Aruna Roy, convenor of the National Advisory Council’s working group on transparency and accountability, also headed a panel set up by the MoRD to examine some critical issues related to the scheme. In its report, the panel noted that implementation of the scheme on the ground left much to be desired.

“Reports from various quarters increasingly suggest that the implementation of MGNREGA remained patchy. Even more disturbing are the stories of widespread corruption reported from across the country. The weak and inadequate accountability structure is one of the primary reasons for the average performance of the scheme,” noted the panel, making a set of recommendations to strengthen the monitoring mechanism.

The World Bank in a recent report recommended strengthening of implementation structure, generating awareness of the rights and entitlements under the Act, leapfrogging technical manpower constraints (like shortage of engineers at the block levels) by developing detailed technical specifications of the works for different geo-climatic conditions and streamlining the flow of funds.

Roy points out that the MGNREGA scheme, despite its several problems, has indeed significantly changed the lives of many in rural India and stopped migration of jobless poor from the villages to cities and their exploitation.

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