Government must focus on making MGNREGA leak-proof project to mitigate unemployment woes at rural level

A closer look at the ground reality is required in order to understand the implementation challenges of schemes like MGNREGA

Government must focus on making MGNREGA leak-proof project to mitigate unemployment woes at rural level

Akash Singh & Ashish Kumar Singh

The right to dignified work has been in forefront of policy agendas globally. To provide a safety net in the form of employment to the rural population, the then-Indian government launched its flagship project in the year 2005.

Named the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA, previously NREGA), it is one of the most pivotal legislation passed by the Government of India. In 2005, MGNREGA marked the importance of rights-based legislation in India and secured the crucial rights to work and accountability for citizens in the Constitution. However, the ground realities show severe lacunas in the successful implementation of this magnanimous scheme.

Under this Act, each household is entitled to 100 days of employment every year. The Forest Rights Act land beneficiaries are entitled to 150 days of employment. In states like Rajasthan, communities like the Sahariyas have been given an entitlement of 200 days. Furthermore, starting in 2015, the Union Government has provided an additional 50 days of work to people in drought-hit and natural calamity-affected areas on a year-by-year basis. This has continued into 2020.

The Central Government bears 100% wage cost of unskilled manual labour and 75% of material costs, including the wages of skilled and semi-skilled workers and administrative costs at 6% of the total expenditure. The state government meets the rest of the expenditure.

At a time when people are still finding it difficult to cope up with the crisis resulting from the Covid pandemic, usage of machines in place of labourers in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) works has increased the miseries of the daily wage earners. Evidence suggests that workers are losing workdays in MGNREGA projects due to the deployment of more machines in place of manual labourers.

In Para 22 of Schedule-1, Mahatma Gandhi NREGA, reads, “As far as practicable, works executed by the programme implementing agencies shall be performed by using manual labour, and no labour displacing machines shall be used. However, there may be activities in executing works, which cannot be carried out by manual labor, where the use of the machines may become essential for maintaining the quality and durability of works. Specific permission for use of machines listed above must be sought from the competent authority and the operation of such machines should be duly recorded/ documented in each such case and be made part of the case record.”

A closer look at the ground reality is required in order to understand the implementation challenges of schemes like MGNREGA. Rural eligible workers are more or less constantly exploited by local political cum contractor nexus, supported to an extent by the government official at block and district level.

There is nexus between Block Pramukh, Panchayat Pradhan and their political masters with block development officers and rural development officials at the district and block level. Local contractor gets the contract of MGNREGA jobs by using political influence. Due to their political influence as well as capabilities to impact local villagers and block elections, they gain an upper hand over the local administration. We all know the role of money in such type of election.

A majority of village labour is not part of any organized body to demand their rights and stand against such nexus. In our temporal study, we found that local politicians across party lines in close association with contractors collect documents from villagers. Then they carry out all the necessary procedures required to get them job cards.

On paper, they show that the job is being done by the cardholders. However, in many cases the use of machinery is preferred as it is cost-effective for the contractors. The money transferred to the bank accounts of the beneficiaries is either taken partially by the contractors, or the card holders are convinced that it is a win-win situation, so there is no harm in surrendering their ATM cards to these contractors.

The current government is chest-thumping that they prevented the leakage of the DBT money by linking AADHAAR and UPI with MNREGA labours remuneration bank account. However, in reality, workers are getting kind benefits given by contractors, not cash benefits of the government. If they oppose, then they lose their job guarantee for the coming days.

The issue can be sorted out if the government takes some genuine and well-intended steps.

First and foremost, the government should appoint a representative with the consent of workers to raise their concerns. This person should be a worker himself/herself with a tenure of 1 year. Every year a new person should be appointed.

If a certain individual wants to continue at this post, he/she shall attempt again after two years of finishing the term. Such individuals would disseminate information regarding the scheme and new changes (if any) to the beneficiaries of their village council. At the same time, they will convey the demands and challenges faced by the workers to the local administration. Hands-on training and hand-holding could be done with the help of civil society organizations.

Monitoring of the MGNREGA jobs – to ensure that MGNREGA job has been done by the worker only and not by help of machines, there should be the evidence-based proof that jobs are done only by workers. The government should use technology for real-time monitoring of the job by using satellite image or drone. Government should ensure the random physical audit of jobs. The job site auditors should not be from the local administration.

There are many GPS-based technologies helpful in location identification. These do not require smartphones and can be used in simple mobile phones. Geo-tagging and presence at the job site can be done with the help of such technology.

To ensure that the worker gets his all remuneration in his hand, the Government should focus on providing not only money in bank accounts but also some kind of benefits. Workers' remuneration should be part cash and part in kind or bond for their daily usage need, like Government is providing cooking gas cylinder under UJJWALA Yojana. Government can provide such vouchers for cylinder purchases only.

It can also be linked with the public distribution system for food grains most of the state governments are providing at no cost.

In short, the government should divide the remuneration in cash and kind so that corruption at the level of contractor can be done away with.

Recently the government has launched a digital currency which is an electronic voucher-based digital payment system developed by the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) on its UPI platform, in collaboration with the Department of Financial Services, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and National Health Authority. This eRUPI, can be a better solution to prevent misuse of workers' payment by contractors. The effort should be to minimize the influence of local politicians and contractor in MGNREGA. As a local villager told us, focusing on the welfare of rural workers will improve their lives and prevent MGNREGA from becoming MachineREGA.

(Ashish Kumar Singh is a doctoral candidate of political science at the NRU-HSE, Moscow. Akash Singh is a business development professional in polymer and chemical sector and has worked in Oman & Qatar. Views are personal)

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