Implementing the NREGS

Sep 24th 2008, C.P. Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has now been in operation for more than two years, even though it is still being extended to all the rural areas of the country. In that relatively short time, it has already become one of the most avidly studied programmes of the central government, with many independent evaluations in different states as well as government audit of its performance thus far.

It is increasingly recognised that the NREGA has the potential not only to generate more employment directly and indirectly, but also to transform rural economic and social relations at many levels. But there is also no doubt that this enormous potential is still incipient and requires to be substantially supported in many different ways. This is because the way that the NREGA has been framed, and the desired mode of implementation, amount to no less than asking for a social and political revolution. The programme reverses the way the Indian state has traditionally dealt with the citizenry, and envisages a complete change in the manner of interaction of the state, the local power elites and the local working classes in rural India.

Thus, the NREGA is completely different in conception from earlier government employment schemes that tended to be in the form of paternalistic provision, since it treats employment as a right and the programme is intended to be demand-driven. Furthermore, the Act and Guidelines anticipate very substantial participation of the local people in the planning and monitoring of the specific schemes, to a degree which has not been at all common.

The very notion of employment as a right of citizens (even if it is limited to 100 days per household in the Act); of the obligation of the government to meet the demand for work within a specified time period, and to have developed a shelf of public works that can be drawn upon to meet this demand; of the panchayat participation in planning and monitoring; and the provision for social audit, are all very new concepts.

For this to work, it requires, at the minimum, two things: the ability and willingness of local government and panchayats to plan works and run the programme effectively; and the dissemination about the programme and its guidelines to local people who can make use of it to register, demand work and run social audits.

Obviously, all this will take time to permeate down to the local levels. So to start with, an uneven record of implementation is only to be expected. So is the presence of a large number of problems that require correction. There are bound to be difficulties and time lags in making local officials and others responsive to this very different approach.

And of course, both this different rights-based approach and the implications of the programme in improving the bargaining power of rural workers would necessarily challenge the prevailing power structures, in some cases quite substantially. Therefore attempts to oppose or subvert the correct and full implementation of the scheme in rural areas are only to be expected.

It is increasingly clear that effective implementation of the NREGS requires at least the following conditions:
  • The capacity (including technical and administrative capacity) and willingness of local government and panchayats to plan works and run the programme effectively.
  • Dissemination about the programme and its guidelines to local people who can make use of it to register and demand work
  • Mobilisation to create ability to run social audits without fear of repression.
  • The willingness of local authorities to respond to problems and criticisms, and to change their behaviour accordingly, as well as effective redressal mechanisms for those whose rights have not been met.
Of course, the programme is still very young, and is only just being started in many districts. Chart 1 shows that there has been significant expansion of the official coverage of the NREGS in several states in the current year, including Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.
Chart 1 >>
However, as field reports have shown, the mere expansion to more districts often does not actually mean that the scheme is implemented on the ground, as the local officialdom may not be prepared to take it on or to fulfil all the conditions of transparency and accountability that are stated in the Act.

Table 1 provides a summary of the official evidence on implementation, based on the data from the NREGA website. It calculates the proportion of households that have received job cards or employment by estimating total rural households in each state (dividing the projections of rural population from the Census of India with the average household size estimated by the NSSO).
Table 1  >>

It is immediately clear that even based on the official data there are very wide regional variations in implementation. In fact, there are also big intra-state variations, across districts and even blocks, which cannot be captured here.

As Table 1 shows, most states have improved on the provision of job cards in the past two years, and in some states such as Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Orissa and West Bengal, a majority of rural households have received job cards. An extreme case is Madhya Pradesh, where the number of job cards issued exceeds the estimated number of rural households! However, the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and to a lesser extent Uttar Pradesh are clearly lagging behind even in the distribution of job cards.

However, the percentage of households that have received some work under the scheme is significantly lower. Only in Chhattisgarh in 2007-08 and in Rajasthan in the current year, has it crossed half of estimated rural households. In most states the gap between job card distribution and actual provision of employment remains huge. Even in MP, where more job cards have been distributed that number of households, only 35 per cent of rural households actually received some employment under the scheme. Another surprise is Maharashtra, where the proportion of households that has received work remains abysmally low despite the state’s earlier experience of employment guarantee scheme.

This has been possible despite the provisions of the Act, because most states collapsed the distinction between demanding and receiving work, which is a major aspect designed to ensure the accountability of government. As Table 2 shows, the gap between the number of households that demanded work and those that received it is very small, often zero, suggesting that either workers are not made aware that they need to separately demand work or that states and local authorities are simply allowing workers to fill in their demand for work when the work is already being provided. This is a major lacuna that needs to be addressed.
Table 2 >>

Despite this and several other gaps, there is already some evidence of success. Field reports suggest that there has been some improvement in consumption of the poor, reduction of distress migration and slight increases in lean season wage rates (especially for women) in the areas where the programme has functioned successfully.

Also, the NREGS has led to the disproportionate involvement of women workers, far above expectation. As Chart 2 shows, in Kerala women account for as much as 85 per cent of the total employment under the scheme. This proportion is also high in the other southern states and in Rajasthan. While the other southern states have had high rural work force participation of women already, Kerala and Rajasthan had had very low rates, so this greater involvement of women in the NREGS must also be leading to social changes.
Chart 2>>

Similarly, Charts 3 and 4 show significantly higher participation of SCs and STs than their shares of rural population in many states. While this may reflect the fact that they are also more likely to be represented among rural workers, even so it is a sign that the NREGS has succeeeded in targeting the more socially disadvantaged sections.
Chart 3>> Chart 4>>

Obviously, these successes have to be sustained, replicated and expanded. And in other areas the weaknesses of the programme that have been identified by many observers have to be addressed, including through local mobilisation. But this cannot happen overnight - it is necessarily a long process. The important thing is to create a socio-political momentum whereby the programme will actually work as intended across the country.

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