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Employment Guarantee: Why Progress Is Patchy?

Letters

Employment Guarantee: Why Progress Is Patchy?

I
t is encouraging that both scholars and activists have begun to report on the progress of the national rural employment guarantee programme (NREGP) in different states. Though it is too early to discern overall trends, it is clear that programme implementation is uneven. The optimism reflected in a report on Rajasthan some months ago is certainly not shared by the feedback emanating from some other states. Will policy-makers learn some lessons from the problems being flagged?

Our national programmes for the poor suffer from a fatal weakness – the belief, despite repeated failures, that once a programme is designed and funds allotted, the government can sit back or move to the next programme. It is as if the government is an exception to the “learning by doing” model in development economics! It is not that this model is wrong but that it applies only to those willing and eager to learn.

We have reason to believe that NREGP – a programme with potential to improve the conditions of the poorest among the rural poor and provide stable mechanisms for local level planning and natural resource management by gram panchayats – could be the next victim of our policy-makers’ attitude towards rural areas and the rural poor. This would indeed be sad as there are enough indications and more that India is entering a phase of widespread simmering unrest and, if the rural poor are drawn into its vortex, the situation could turn explosive and politically destabilising.

The main lesson to be learnt to save the NREGP is that it needs a carefully designed grounding phase – checking the present status of panchayats, improving their capabilities before they are given the responsibility of planning and managing the NREGP, creating awareness of the scope and developmental importance of the programme, providing for a watchdog committee consisting of panchayat members, activists and, wherever feasible, some from the beneficiaries themselves to keep the programme on track, as also a simple and easy information system for the panchayat to do its own monitoring and assessment. It is unlikely that the grounding phase could be completed quickly and simultaneously all over the country. There are surely panchayats ready to sprint at the word ‘go’; but there would be many barely able to walk. The objective of covering the entire country in five years did reflect an understanding by the government of the rule of three but not a keen feel for the field. The modules, frameworks and procedures laid down in the programme need to be adjusted in the field where the local conditions vary widely. A ready-made garment manufacturer would court disaster if he designs his product for one height and waist girth! This also applies to local level programmes designed in Delhi or state capitals.

An obstacle in the way is the misconception of the government that monitoring and evaluation should cover the final outcomes and there should be filters allowing only good news to trickle in. Awareness needs to be created by the media as well as by opinion makers that merely bashing politicians, administrators and field personnel can bring about little improvement in the programmes for the poor. The government should be ruthlessly open and frank in bringing out the realities in the field with all the warts and worse.

It is not too late to provide a grounding phase and to make arrangements for its independent monitoring and evaluation. The panchayats ready to start now should

(Continued on p 4704)

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Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

Letters

(Continued from p 4630)

be distinguished from others that would need further time and help. What are important in the grounding phase are the creation of mechanisms for participatory planning and their ownership by the panchayats and the poor. Realistic norms should be discovered in the field indicating when a panchayat is ready to shoulder the responsibility of the NREGP. Those still to reach the norm could be assisted by NGOs wherever they are operational in the vicinity. In fact, if a young and committed officer with an activist background is put in a key position at the block level, many panchayats may be able to progress much faster than we may think. This is also true of panchayats where there is good local leadership with a tradition of mutual help and support. There could even be panchayats with abundant availability of unskilled employment in nearby larger villages and towns or in which the employment programmes are already working reasonably well. The important point is that panchayats need to be graded and the functions to be undertaken by them should be tailored keeping in view their present capacities and their improvement over time.

Finally, the programme should take care to emphasise all the three objectives: providing guaranteed employment to all those in need of it, linking employment creation with the development of a local resource base and creation of assets that would over time generate productive employment to make the NREGP itself redundant! The third and crucial objective is possibly the most neglected so far. It is revealing to learn that some of the government’s own organisations are reluctant to contract out works like road construction to the NREGP owing to the poor quality of works executed under such programmes in the past. It will be suicidal to use the NREGP for digging holes and filling them up a la Keynes!

V M RAO, SAMUEL PAUL, M VIVEKANDA, SITA SHEKHAR, K N M RAJU

Bangalore

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