Talking with Architect of NREGA: Dr Jean Dreze at Ranchi
Dr Jean Dreze born in Belgium in 1959, has lived in India since 1979 and became an Indian citizen in 2002. He studied Mathematical Economics at the University of Essex and did his PhD (Economics) at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi. He has taught at the London School of Economics and the Delhi School of Economics, and is currently Visiting Professor at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad.
According to a recent article in Business Standard, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has attracted more criticism than any other development programme. What is your view?
This statement reflects the outlook of the business media, which has been very hostile to NREGA from the beginning. If one were, instead, to ask rural workers what they feel about NREGA, one would get a very different response. For instance, in a survey of 1,000 NREGA workers conducted in May-June in six states of North India (including Jharkhand), we found that 68 % considered the programme as "very important" for them. This is not to deny that there are many flaws in the programme, including widespread corruption. Nevertheless, NREGA represents a new hope for the rural poor. Instead of shrill rhetoric for or against the programme, what is required is serious discussion of how to make it work.
Can you tell us more about the main findings of this survey of NREGA?
The survey was conducted in May-June 2008 in six states of the Hindi-speaking region: Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. It involved unannounced visits to 100 randomly-selected worksites, and detailed interviews with 1,000 workers employed at these worksites. The survey shows that, where NREGA work is available, the programme serves many useful purposes: protecting people from hunger, reducing distress migration, empowering women, creating useful assets, among others. Unfortunately, this potential is being wasted due to widespread corruption. In most of these states, a substantial proportion of NREGA funds is being siphoned off, and as a result, employment generation is much lower than it ought to be. However, some states - particularly Rajasthan - have also shown that it is possible to prevent corruption in the programme.
How has this been achieved?
The main point is to enforce the transparency safeguards, such as payment of wages in public, availability of Muster Rolls at the worksite, maintenance of Job Cards, regular social audits, and close monitoring of the implementing agencies. Rajasthan has gone a long way in implementing these safeguards. For instance, in Rajasthan we found that Muster Rolls were available at 86 per cent of the sample worksites, compared with only 11 per cent in other states. Similarly, Job Cards were usually well maintained in Rajasthan, but this was rarely the case elsewhere.
Can this be done in Jharkhand also?
I think it can be done, but this involves confronting the nexus of corrupt contractors, bureaucrats and politicians who are attempting to make money from NREGA. In Jharkhand, this nexus is very strong, and also violent, as the recent murders of Lalit Mehta, Kameshwar Yadav and others illustrate. When those who are supposed to enforce the transparency safeguards are part of this nexus of corruption and violence, it is very difficult to restore accountability. This requires putting in place a strong system of grievance redressal, which ensures that anyone found guilty of corruption is swiftly punished. It also requires a political decision to combat corruption and protect workers' entitlements. In a state ridden with corruption and violence, such as Jharkhand, these are big political challenges.
Does this mean that the success of NREGA depends on the good will of the political leadership?
Not really. The required change in political priorities can be accelerated through grassroots mobilization. There are vast possibilities of organizational work around NREGA. We also found evidence of this in our survey. For instance, in Badwani District of Madhya Pradesh, Jagrut Adivasi Dalit Sangathan has organized NREGA workers and helped them to fight for their rights: employment on demand, minimum wages, timely payment, and worksite facilities, among others. The results are remarkable. People's awareness of their rights is very high and so is their confidence in their collective strength. Many of them are able to secure a full 100 days of NREGA work over the year - the maximum guaranteed under the Act. The Sangathan has even been able to persuade the state government to pay the unemployment allowance to hundreds of persons who had been denied work. It is also activating vigilance committees, to prevent corruption. These are very significant political developments, not restricted to Badwani, with enormous scope for wider expansion across India.
You have been a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council for the last three years. What is your assessment of the Council's work?
The Council has done very little work so far. Under the Act, the Council has wide-ranging powers and it is expected to play a very important role as an independent monitoring body. However, the Council is under the full control of the Ministry of Rural Development, which is treating it as an advisory body - accepting the recommendations that suit the Ministry and ignoring the rest. This defeats the purpose.
What about the State Employment Guarantee Council in Jharkhand?
I hear that the State Council in Jharkhand is more or less non-functional. This is an important lacuna in the support structures that are required to make NREGA work.
You have already mentioned some of the reasons why NREGA is in bad shape in Jharkhand. Are there any other important hurdles?
The absence of elected Gram Panchayats in rural areas is a major problem. In the absence of Gram Panchayats (the chief "implementing agency" under the Act), the implementation of NREGA in Jharkhand is effectively under the control of private contractors, or quasi-contractors such as the so-called "labhuk samitis". But private contractors work for profit, and the only way to make profit from NREGA is to cheat. Therefore, corruption is built into the system.
What about the Naxal problem?
I doubt that this is a major problem as far as the implementation of NREGA is concerned. I am not aware that Naxalite organizations obstruct the programme in any way, on a major scale. During our surveys and social audits, we have moved freely in areas under Naxalite influence, without any interference. A government official who does his duty under the Act, in an honest manner, is unlikely to become a target of harassment.
What is true is that, in many areas, the Naxal presence has become a convenient excuse for government officials to avoid going to the villages. But the answer is not to launch repressive operations against Naxal outfits that invariably lead to gross human rights and further escalation of violence. The appropriate response is to insist that all government officials fulfill their responsibilities under the Act.
I would go further and say that NREGA is a good opportunity to create a new rapport between the state and the people in these areas, based on constructive work. The face of the state in rural Jharkhand is very repressive, especially from the point of view of poor people. They live in fear of harassment from the police, the forest guard, the courts, and other arms of the state. This experience of state repression is one reason why many of them support Naxalite organisations. If the state machinery applies itself to the effective implementation of NREGA, it may be seen in a more positive light by rural people.
At the end of the survey, your team submitted to the state government evidence of specific irregularities in the implementation of NREGA in various Gram Panchayats of Palamau and Koderma Districts. What has been the response of the government?
In some cases, such as Khendra Khurd and Chiru in Palamau, action has been taken. But this has usually taken the form of clamping down on the small fry while more influential and powerful people, who control the system of corruption, escape punishment. And in many other cases, there has been no action at all. Even the official enquiries are often designed to protect the culprits rather than to take necessary action.
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