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NREGA: A NEW RURAL DEVELOPMENT INITIATIVE

* By Devidas.G.Rathod and Dr.P.B.Rathod

Barely two years on, there is a clamour for scrapping the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). The chorus is led y no less than the

!hief "inister of one of #ndia$s most populous and ac%ward &tates. 'e li(e in a strange country. 'e ha(e fanatics who want to put up arricades to de ar

)outsiders* from entering our metros. +thers suggest that spea%ing for the farmer is )the idiocy of ur an thin%ing* (&agari%a Ghose, Hindustan Times, ,e ruary -., /001). They repeat ad nauseam what #ndian planners ha(e een trying for the last .0 years 2 una ated ur anisation and industrialisation as the panacea. Agriculture can continue to e the ) argain sector,* especially now that the #ndian economy grows fast e(en when agriculture stagnates.

&uch a (iew is completely lind to the deepening distress in rural #ndia. A policy tried for .0 long years has not wor%ed. E(en during the reforms era, o(er the last -. years, #ndia has had an unaccepta ly high proportion of malnourished women and children that refuses to come down. Thousands of farmers ha(e committed suicide, a phenomenon unprecedented in the history of #ndian ci(ilisation. &urely, it is time for a change, time to recognise the centrality of agriculture, which the 'orld Ban% too has recently wo%en up to. This is not to deny the role of industrialisation and (i rant metros. But to emphasise the deep complementarities etween industry and agriculture, town and country. These

are not 3ust the narrow input4output ratios of economists5 they are also onds social, cultural and ecological that hold a nation together.

+ur cities are pro(iding e(en

ursting at the seams, crum ling under the pressure of e

asic amenities to their inha itants. But the answer cannot

6enopho ic hysteria. 'hile impro(ing ur an ha itats, we need to

etter

conditions in (illages so that there is less distress migration in search of wor% to

ur an #ndia. 7a(ing li(ed for nearly two decades in a tri al area steadfastly mo(ing forward on a path of sustaina le rural de(elopment (re3u(enated watersheds, thri(ing )rain ow* agriculture, empowered women, (i rant mar%ets, clean air, cell phones, internet connecti(ity and good roads), # can e(en foresee a time when there is a re(erse migration to (illages, in search of a etter life, more wholly understood.

The contri ution of agriculture to national income has fallen dramatically in recent w years ut more than 800 million of our people still depend on farming. This is not a u small num er that can e 3ust wished away. #n fact, the growing di(ergence etween the p share of agriculture in G9: and in the wor%4 force, alerts us to the urgent imperati(e of raising farm producti(ity in #ndia, which languishes way elow potential. +n a sound agrarian ase, we can uild a whole range of other location4specific, nature4 ased rural li(elihoods.

7erein lies the potential of NREGA. #t ran%s among the most powerful initiati(es e(er underta%en for transformation of li(elihoods in rural #ndia. The unprecedented commitment of financial resources y the largest employment

programme in human history is matched only y its imaginati(e m architecture. The emphasis on planning of wor%s and mechanisms of social audit means that ;uality of wor%s is centrally important. This is not a welfare programme dishing out doles. #t is a de(elopment initiati(e, chipping in with crucial pu lic in(estments for creation of dura le assets, which can pro(ide is the much4needed momentum to growth in the most ac%ward regions of #ndia. The s thrust is on construction of earthen dams, unds and ponds as part of a watershed de(elopment strategy. +n this foundation of water security, can e uilt a sustaina le (illage

de(elopment plan that includes a re3u(enated agriculture and allied rural li(elihoods.

:erhaps the most remar%a le feature of NREGA, ma%ing a decisi(e rea% with the past, is the complete an on contractors. E(er since independence, most

go(ernment programmes in rural areas ha(e

een implemented through the

agency of local contractors, who ha(e emerged as ma3or agents of e6ploitation of the rural poor, especially women. They ha(e run roughshod o(er asic human rights, paid wor%ers a pittance and used la our4displacing machinery. NREGA ans the use of such machines, mandates payment of statutory minimum wages and pro(ides (arious legal entitlements to wor%ers. #t (isualises the in(ol(ement of local people at e(ery stage 2 planning, implementation and social audit. All of this is o (iously incompati le with programmes where the main goal ecomes ma6imisation of profits of the contractor.

The radical pro(isions of NREGA signal the possi le inauguration of a new chapter in rural go(ernance. But a radically new programme also ma%es dramatically new demands from the system. A ureaucracy that has its hands full with a whole host of pree6isting responsi ilities can hardly muster the imagination and energy re;uired y NREGA. #n the main, rural de(elopment in #ndia has not een seen as re;uiring full4 time professional inputs. The a iding notion is of welfare4oriented, routine administrati(e wor%. +(er the last /0 years, politicians so committed to an agenda of reforms for the corporates, appear to ha(e a solutely nothing to offer to their main constituency, the rural poor. +n the contrary, with pressure on the state to shrin%, e6pansion of programmes (whether health, education or NREGA) is increasingly attempted with under4staffed esta lishments, using underpaid, poorly ;ualified )wor%er4(olunteers.* !orners must e cut when it comes to the rural poor. Anything for them, it appears, can e of the lowest ;uality.

The <=rd Amendment raised hopes that the issue would e addressed y ta%ing democracy to the grass roots, with the empowerment of :anchayati Ra3 #nstitutions (:R#s), +ne of the reasons this has not wor%ed is the meagre funds de(ol(ed to :R#s. They ha(e not een pro(ided with an ade;uate support

system either. :ost4NREGA, all o(er the country there is palpa le e6citement among :R#s (the main implementing agency) which ha(e ne(er efore seen this

(olume of funds

eing transferred to them. The pro lem is that the support

structure needed y :R#s to properly utilise these funds is still missing

Go(ernments ha(e failed to recognise the enormous di(ersity of s%ills re;uired to e6ecute the wor% with speed and ;uality. There is need for a large num er of full4time professionals, many of whom could e recruited from the

open mar%et, while strictly enforcing their accounta ility to :R#s. 'e call for a nationwide mo(ement of capacity uilding so that a massi(e cadre of fully trained ) arefoot professionals* is de(eloped at the gram panchayat le(el. "uch greater use of information technology would e critical for transparency, accounta ility and speed at all stages, from sanction of wor%s, release of funds and wage payments to social audit. +utmoded &chedules of Rates need to e re(ised, to ring them in line with a new programme that ans machines and contractors.

The go(ernment should also mandate a role for ci(il society organisations (!&+s) to wor% as support agencies for :R#s in NREGA planning, implementation and social audit. This would help institutionalise the !&+ > :R# partnership, putting pressure on oth !&+s and :R#s to learn to wor% together. &trictly spea%ing, these reforms should ha(e een in place well efore NREGA was launched. But it is o (iously etter late than ne(er.

The e6penditure entailed in these reforms must

e regarded as

)in(estments* and not administrati(e o(erheads or contingencies, as currently understood. 'ithout these inputs, NREGA appears almost programmed to fail. +n the other hand, a (ery small in(estment in the support structure could ma%e a ig difference in transforming NREGA outlays into enduring outcomes. +ur detailed calculations show that professional support costs come to no more than 8 per cent of the total cost of NREGA wor%s, while the capacity uilding effort would ta%e 3ust / per cent. #n addition, - per cent needs to e set aside for

monitoring and e(aluation. 'e show that pure administrati(e e6penses can actually e %ept, low as - per cent of cost of wor%s.

Concluding Thoughts:
Reformed on these lines, the NREGA has the potential to not only

transform li(elihoods ut also herald a re(olution in rural go(ernance. +f course, neither a professional > go(ernance. +f course, neither a professional system nor a (igilant pu lic is y itself sufficient to guarantee an accounta le democracy that actuali?es de(elopment for the poor. tandem with each other. Both need to grow organically in

@ Research &cholar @@ Reader 9ept . of :olitical &cience, Gul arga Ani(ersity, Gul arga > .1. -08