Business Today

Everybody loves to fight poverty

Puja Mehra        Print Edition: May 1, 2011

It is not often that a social security programme the size of Mahatma Gandhi NREGS - New Delhi has spent Rs 40,000 crore on it in 2010/11 alone - faces an existential moment. But, April 2011 will present one such crossroad: the end of the term of a bureaucrat widely acknowledged as the prime mover behind the five-year old scheme.

Brought in six years ago to the Centre from her parent Madhya Pradesh cadre, Amita Sharma, Joint Secretary at the Union Ministry of Rural Development, was given a free hand in monitoring and pushing by two successive ministers: Raghuvansh Prasad Singh in the first term of the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government and C.P. Joshi in the second. Many credit the success of NREGS, as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is called in short, to her.

With Sharma exiting, there is a worry in certain sections of New Delhi's bureaucracy that NREGS may miss its firm hand at the wheel. I do not say this lightly. I have tracked the scheme since its inception in 2006. A few months ago, I got to see the scheme and Sharma's work up close like an insider.

Women near Jaipur show their NREGS job cards
Women near Jaipur show their NREGS job cards
Taking note of my reports on it in Business Today the Ministry of Rural Development appointed me in the last week of 2010 on an expert committee it had constituted to pick districts excelling in implementing NREGS. In February, on the Founder Day of the scheme, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi gave away awards to 10 districts the committee selected from amongst 46 nominated by 16 states.

But that was not the highlight for me. It was the weeks of the awards selection process that revealed to me about the way the scheme is being implemented.

At the onset, to pick out districts for excellence seemed a dubious mandate for many reasons, prime amongst which is that in five years not a single job-seeker has been paid compensation for delay or failure in provision of wage employment under the scheme. Means every single district is violating the law governing the scheme. So, the first decision of the committee was to narrow the scope of the awards from honor for "excellence" to recognition for "initiation" in specific areas. For instance, we picked after field visits Kandhamal in Orissa for an award for using the job guarantee scheme to generate livelihood and promote communal harmony. The district had burnt in the aftermath of severe religious riots in 2008.

Few among the presentations made by district officials from the 46 districts impressed. So the committee decided to shortlist about a dozen or so for field visits. Sixteen of the 46 districts fell on two counts: the average number of days wage seekers are getting work in a year for a district is less than the national average of 54 or a violation of the stipulation that half the wage-earners must be women job-seekers.

NREGS nuggets

  • Tamil Nadu is paying wages in cash not through banks or post offices
  • Rajasthan is building takkas or drinking water tanks at a cost of Rs 1,40,000 each, up from Rs 40,000 in two years
  • Panchayats with women Sarpanches are largely run by Sarpanch Patis (husbands)
  • Churachandpur in Manipur is giving 100 days of work to 100 per cent of its population. Infants too?
  • No district has a foolproof system of addressing the grievances of job seekers
  • In Sant Ravidas Nagar, Uttar Pradesh, the District Collector suspended 23 elected Pradhans in 2010

Those turned away included Muktsar and Gurdaspur paraded by the state of my ancestors, Punjab, not that I was looking out for it. Muktsar provided an average of only 21 persondays in 2010. The legal guarantee being for 100 days.

Gurdaspur is worse. Of every 100 jobs provided in this historically significant district (was at the heart of the dispute over the partition of Punjab along the Radcliff award ahead of independence), only four are to women.

The next 13 failed to qualify on grounds of equity. They are providing less than 60 per cent of total job-seekers to those belonging to Schedule Castes (SC) or Scheduled Tribes (ST). The committee exercised considerable discretion over this criterion. It first pegged the cut-off at 75 per cent, relaxed it to 70 per cent and finally settled for 60 per cent. The real reason for this fickle-mindedness - pretended or real - isn't clear to me. But I noticed an additional district qualified on the easier condition.

Two districts from Andhra Pradesh both of which didn't make the cut worry me. Vizianagaram and Kurnool are amongst the highest spenders in the country on the scheme. Each is splurging nearly Rs 250 crore a year. And yet dalits bag less than a third of the jobs the scheme has created there. I suspected the weak implementation is attributable to the state government's decision to delegate the execution of the scheme to the water management and land development departments. The presenters from the state belonged to these departments. The district collectors in Andhra Pradesh do not play the same role in the implementation of the scheme as their peers in the rest of the country. To get a confirmation I asked the gentlemen what in their view was the objective of the NREGS. Their reply: "Water conservation and land development". That the flagship anti-poverty scheme is essentially a social security net didn't occur to these grassroot officials.

Amita Sharma
Amita Sharma
Of the remaining districts, nine got left out because, according to the records of the Ministry of Rural Development, at least one complaint or grievance about the implementation in each had received no attention for 30 days or more. This is a slightly tricky criterion because the committee was dependent on the ministry for information. It is possible the ministry and its officials have their own motives. For instance, I could see the ministry seemed keen to be seen as encouraging as many districts as possible and also be seen as being fair to all the states. At least one official from the ministry said to the committee members in hushed voice: "If not none of the multiple districts some states have sent qualify they will cry favouritism".

Some states could just not have been accommodated. True to reputation, Bihar had sent a District Collector representing Muzzafarpur (the land of lychees) who made a presentation on social forestry rather than NREGS. A big man (over six feet in height with a deep baritone) the collector had little to say on the scheme his district was being assessed for but insisted nonchalantly he had instructions from his state government to make a case for the district's performance on social forestry. It took a lot of prodding to get him to wind up and make way for the next presenter.

Both the District collectors Maharashtra had sent - representing Aurangbad and Nanded - confessed that the implementing machinery in the state is focusing on the state's employment guarantee scheme the design of which makes pilferage easier. Since the presentations reflected this, Maharashtra was out too.

Not unexpectedly, I got from some of the district collectors first-hand accounts of large-scale loot at the state level. These unpublishable stories of chief ministers demanding cuts will have to go to my grave with me.

The field visits were an eye-opener too. The committee members would have liked to spring surprises on the grass root officials, but were told by duty-bound ministry officials that the state governments would interpret it to mean New Delhi doesn't trust them!

Owing to the constraint of time, I chose to go to two districts: Barmer in Rajasthan (in news for Vedanta's proposed acquisition of the oil fields operated by the Cairn-ONGC venture) and Sant Ravidasnagar in Uttar Pradesh (the carpet export hub). Both fill me with satisfaction and horror at the same time. In many ways they are diametric opposites.

The District Collector of Barmer, Gaurav Goyal, 27, the youngest in the country showed me and another committee member its farthest blocks - bordering Pakistan and the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. People here are very poor - a handful of grain per family member a day and two or three sets of clothes is all most can afford - even though most own vast tracts of land - valueless barren dry desert land motorable only on four-wheel drives. The density of population: A family per 10 sq km. They live on a single crop of coarse grains that grows here over three or four months a year.

Driving around randomly in the scorching sun, we were thrilled as on the arid sands of the Thar tiny lush green patches appeared intermittently. These are coriander fields irrigated with water pumped out of beris or wells made under NREGS for individual SC or ST beneficiaries.

One such farm was barely a ten-minute drive short of the border with Pakistan. The owner told us neither he nor his father had ever had raised two crops a year, before the beris were built. The scheme has provided to some SC/ST individuals - the number needs to grow fast - takkas or drinking water tanks. Takkas are real life changers for the women of these families. Soft-spoken and coy, dressed in beautiful bright hues and tinkling jewelry, women in rural Rajasthan walk miles every day for portable water.

It was upsetting to know that the cost of building a takka has jumped from Rs 40,000 a couple of years ago to Rs 1,40,000. There is no way inflation can explain that rise. And it's not like they have switched from steel to titanium or teflon for building the structures. The sole beneficiary we met though is a ST. He drove us to his takka in his own jeep! I would imagine the Gram Panchayat needs to take a look at its priority list of beneficiaries.

The story in Sant Ravidasnagar is even more painful. The density of population here is perhaps the highest in the country. Olympics swimming-pools-sized ponds that were dug up under the scheme can be seen all around except that nearly all are absolutely dry and so useless. At one of the sites where digging was still on during our visit, I asked the workers about the ownership of the surrounding fields and they told me: The high-caste and powerful landlords of the village. I asked them about the ponds that they had worked on before this one and they told me not a drop of water was seen in any after the Monsoons either as the big farm owners had pumped out all the rain water.
 
The workers also told us, much to the annoyance of the accompanying district officials, that the Gram Panchayat hardly ever acquiesces to their long-pending demand for such ponds in their dalit bastis. That said, it was heartening to see a large number of women enquiring us about their rights as workers. One woman worker wanted to know why was the schedule of work (amount of work required to earn a day's wage) not being adjusted as the digging pit got deeper. "The distance over which I carry the dug-out mud keeps increasing so the amount of work I accomplish keeps reducing," she complained. We explained to her and the district officials that the rules address the issue she had raised recommending strongly they adopt it at once.

Empowerment is one of the lesser understood objectives of NREGS. To see the woman speak up was thrilling.  
 
Nowhere else do the women seem to be gaining confidence as in Sant Ravidasnagar, a carpet exports hub struggling with labour shortage as NREGS wage rates notified by the state are nearly twice as much those paid by the weaving factories.  

Many of the workers we met there are young lads who have given up the squalor in Mumbai where they had migrated to make a living by hawking vegetables. Also, on the worksites were women of the impoverished rat-eating Musharar tribe working alongside men, earning wages at the same rates as men that are deposited - albeit often with delays - in their bank accounts.

The story to me is clear. The UPA will have to find as driven and competent a replacement for joint secretary Sharma (incidentally an India Today Woman In Public Affairs award-winner from 2010). It's like a start-up that has hit big-time suddenly having its founder leaving. Sharma's role in building such a big scheme ground up with transparent systems has been huge. A management information system shows, online and almost in real-time, details of wages paid, money spent on material, and other details for every single job-seeker in the country. Sharma was instrumental in ensuring electronic transfer of funds directly from Delhi to the districts bypassing state capitals. No mean task that.

If the government can spot a competent candidate to take Sharma's position in driving NREGS -  and, to be sure, there are many, many government officers who can do so - I will then be glad that my tax money is going to change lives of India's poor. I will, meanwhile, report - the good and the bad - on how the scheme pans out in the years ahead.

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