In NREGA reforms, prioritise the worker and her dues

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    Context

    • There is an urgent need for reforms in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).

    Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)

    • About:
      • It is a poverty alleviation programme of the Government of India, which provides the legal Right to Work in exchange for money to the citizens of the country.
      • On average, every day approx. 1.5 crore people work under it at almost 14 lakh sites.
    • Aim:
      • It aims to enhance livelihood security in rural areas by providing at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work.
    • Funding: 
      • It is shared between the Centre and the States.
      • The Central Government bears 100 per cent of the cost of unskilled labour, 75 percent of the cost of semi-skilled and skilled labour, 75 percent of the cost of materials and 6 percent of the administrative costs.
    • Latest Budgetary Allocations
      • In the Union Budget 2021-22, the government allocated Rs. 73,000 crore for the MGNREGA.
      • It is nearly 34.5 per cent lower than the 2020s revised estimates of Rs. 1.11 lakh crore. The budget estimates were around Rs. 60,000 crore but had to be enhanced as the national lockdown happened.
      • This year’s budget was kept low assuming that the economic recovery would alleviate the need for such spending.
    • Features:
      • Legal Right to Work: 
        • The Act provides a legal right to employment for adult members of rural households.
      • Women:
        • At least one-third of beneficiaries have to be women. Wages must be paid according to the wages specified for agricultural labourers in the state under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.
      • Time-Bound Guarantee of Work: 
        • Employment must be provided within 15 days of being demanded to fail which an ‘unemployment allowance’ must be given.
      • Decentralised Planning: 
        • Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) are primarily responsible for planning, implementation and monitoring of the works that are undertaken.
        • Gram Sabhas must recommend the works that are to be undertaken and at least 50 per cent of the works must be executed by them.
      • Transparency and Accountability: 
        • There are provisions for proactive disclosure through wall writings, Citizen Information Boards, Management Information Systems and social audits (conducted by Gram Sabhas).

     

    Significance

    • It is a social security scheme to generate employment for the rural poor and ensure livelihood for people in rural areas.
    • The scheme sees large-scale participation of women, Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) and other traditionally marginalised sections of society.
    • It increases the wage rate in rural areas and strengthens the rural economy through the creation of infrastructure assets.
    • It facilitates sustainable development which is very clear by its contribution in the direction of water conservation.
    • Over the last 15 years, three crore assets related to water conservation have been created through the rural jobs scheme with the potential to conserve more than 2,800 crore cubic metres of water.

    Concerns 

    • Poorer States: 
      • Poorer States struggle more to adapt when compared to those that are better off because of weaker administrative capacity. 
      • The programme’s “regressive” spending pattern, where poorer States spend less NREGA funds than better-off ones. 
    • Essence lost:
      • NREGA is underperforming because its most basic design principles have been forgotten or wilfully ignored. 
      • Employment days under Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme at a five-year low
    • Wage payments: 
      • The process of wage payments created by the central government has become even more convoluted. 
      • These have resulted in a lack of interest among workers making way for contractors and middlemen to take control.
    • Capacity: 
      • The zeal with which reforms are introduced often outpaces the capacity to adapt. 
    • Insufficient Budget Allocation: 
      • The funds have dried up in many States due to a lack of sanctions from the Central government which hampers the work in peak season.
    • Payment Delays: 
      • Despite Supreme Court orders, various other initiatives and various government orders, no provisions have yet been worked out for the calculation of full wage delays and payment of compensation for the same.
    • Corruption and Irregularities: 
      • Funds that reach the beneficiaries are very little compared to the actual funds allocated for the welfare schemes.
    • Discrimination: 
      • Frequent cases of discrimination against women and people from the backwards groups are reported from several regions of the country and a vast number go unreported.
    • Non-payment of Unemployment Allowance: 
      • There is a huge pendency in the number of unemployment allowances being shown in the Management Information System (MIS).
    • Lack of Awareness: 
      • People, especially women, are not fully aware of this scheme and its provisions leading to uninformed choices or inability to get the benefits of the scheme.
    • Poor Infrastructure Building: 
      • Improper surveillance and lack of timely resources result in poor quality assets.
    • Non Purposive Spending: 
      • MGNREGA has increased the earning capacity of the rural people but the spending pattern of the workers assumes significance because there is hardly any saving out of the wages earned.

    Way Ahead

    • Demand hearing:
      • A committee to suggest reforms should be constituted instead of listening to the long-standing demands of workers and their collectives. 
    • Wage payments: 
      • Address the delays in wage payments to restore the faith of workers in the programme. 
      • In 2016, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to ensure that wages were paid on time, calling the act of making workers wait for wages for months as equal to “forced labour”.
    • Simplify procedures: 
      • The point is the Ministry of Rural Development must simplify the payment process and has to be transparent about pending wage payments in stage one and two so that bottlenecks can be corrected.
    • Capacity infrastructure expansion: 
      • Strengthen implementation capacities where expenditure is low instead of curbing expenditure where employment generation is high. 
      • States which are spending more are implementing the programme better because they have better capacities.
    • Decentralisation should be practiced more:
      • The online Management Information System of NREGA can flag areas where entitlements are violated instead of being used as a tool by bureaucrats to centralise and control things.
    • Demand-driven: 
      • Run the programme like a demand-based law and not a scheme. 
      • Intermittent and unpredictable fund releases by the central government are one of the fundamental reasons why State governments are unable to ensure the full potential of NREGA.
    • Participatory discussion-based reforms: 
      • NREGA emerged from the demands of a vibrant peoples’ movement across India and its cornerstones have been its path-breaking provisions for public accountability. 
      • State governments have played a pivotal role in the successes and failures of NREGA, and any proposed reforms must be tabled in State assemblies in addition to Parliament along with bringing civil society organisations, worker unions and representatives of self-help groups into the discussion.
    • Targeted identification:
      • NREGA is fairly well targeted, benefiting the poorest, especially Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) families. 
      • However, there is scope for improvement. For instance, panchayats, blocks and districts where employment of SCs and ST families is lower than their proportion in the population must be identified.

    Source: TH 

     

    Mains Practice Question

    [Q] NREGA is underperforming because its most basic design principles have been forgotten or wilfully ignored. Critically Examine.