'Ombudsman will deal with complaints regarding NREGS'

The Inquirer

C P Joshi

However, the Centre’s decision to revamp NREGS has received strong criticism from NGOs and social activists. They also train their guns against Rural Development and Panchayat Raj Minister C P Joshi, who was instrumental in bringing about changes like allowing the NREGS beneficiaries to take up work in lands owned by small and marginal farmers instead of only SC/ST lands earlier. Joshi spoke to Ajith Athrady of Deccan Herald on several controversial issues relating to his ministry. Excerpts:

What prompted you to restructure NREGS?
The President in her address to the joint session of parliament had asked the government to expand the scope of activities under NREGS. That is why the government has taken these steps to make the necessary modifications. The government wants more number of families to get the benefit of NREGS. From April to August 31, only 4.72 lakh families have completed 100 days’ work out of the total 16 crore rural households. This shows many people are not keen to work under the scheme as it is only limited to unskilled manual labour. So we wanted the scheme to help more families.

Your decision to expand works under NREGS to all small and marginal farmers was criticised. Earlier it was limited to only lands belonging to SC/STs...
There was a criticism that no permanent assets were being built  as part of NREGS activities. That is why we have allowed taking up water resources activities like digging ponds, desilting lakes in the lands of small and marginal farmers. The government is also planning to construct a building in every gram panchayat to house a proper office for the panchayat, which is called as Rajiv Gandhi Seva Kendra under the scheme. This is an asset creation. Moreover by allowing water related works in lands belonging to small and marginal farmers, we wanted to increase agricultural productivity among the poor.

But activists like Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, who are also original architects of NREGS, have expressed fear of dilution of the scheme. They have blamed you for diluting the scheme without consulting the Employment Guarantee Council which is mandatory.
I appreciate their concern. As social activists they are free to air their opinion. Finally, the government decides what to do. The ministry is consulting various sections of the society including political parties. We will sort out our differences and move ahead.

You have announced convergence between NREGS and proposed National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM).
Under NREGS we have provided only 100 days manual work to a family in a year. But what happens to them after a year? So we wanted to train the unemployed youth under NRLM as skilled workers and provide jobs under NREGS. This will help to create better assets if we can utilise their skills.

There is a concern that social sector spending might be hit this year due to drought. Is it likely that funds for NREGS get affected too?
No. We have enough funds. Moreover we have a provision of CRF (Calamity Relief Fund), where the Union government gives 75 per cent of the funds and the state government bears the remaining 25 per cent expenditure.

Following drought, many states have demanded increase in the number of days of work from the existing 100 days to per family to 150 days.
There is no such proposal before the government. Though some of the states governments have also demanded this, we have told them to use CRF which has been laying unutilised by most states. As CRF is meant only for use during natural calamities like drought, flood, etc, the states are free to use this fund.

What steps have you taken to make the scheme more  transparent?
We have asked states to set up district level Ombudsman. This will comprise well known persons from civil society. The Ombudsman will receive complaints from NREGS workers and others on any matters, and deal with them.

What is the status of Land Acquisition Bill, which is being opposed by Trinamool Congress, an important constituent party of your coalition government?
As ours is a coalition government, we have to take the opinion of our partners. This issue is being addressed at the highest level of the government as well as the Congress party. I don’t want to go into the details.

Is the government ready to accept Mamata Banerjee’s demand to allow private sector to acquire land instead of government, that there should be no forced acquisition and that agricultural lands should not be acquired?
There are issues. We have to protect the interests of both the farmers and industrialists. If land is not provided, how will the industries come up. Every political party has its own opinion. We will take note of the concerns of our coalition partners.

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