The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has been a major talking point ever since its inception in 2005. Some regard it as a definitive way to ensure employment and counter widespread poverty in the rural regions of India. Sections of the media and academicians have used rather colourful words to describe the “inadequacy” of the programme and “wastage of funds” associated with it. The NREGA sends survey teams regularly, often in collaboration with the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad to administer the quality of NREGA implementation in various areas as well as to get a first hand idea regarding experiences from the workers.
The Delhi School of Economics is closely related to this project through Professor Jean Drèze. The last survey was conducted in December 2008 in selected villages of Allahabad and Ranchi, where two of the students of DSE, Navin Sundar (NS) and Akanksha Batra (AB) were part of the survey teams sent to those two districts respectively. I recently had a chance to converse with them regarding their experiences at the survey.
VP: What motivated you to volunteer for the survey?
NS: Well, I was always interested in economic development of India and the social progress of the rural people, so this was one programme where I slotted right in. I have been to villages before as part of NGOs and found those experiences stimulating. Connecting with the village level people is something I feel comfortable with and enjoy doing so.
AB: Helping out the downtrodden people in our country is a priority for me. The survey was an opportunity for me to see the reality of rural India and how far the government has been successful in alleviation of the problems. Also, talking to the people there, gauging their needs and indirectly working for ideas regarding their betterment were also an incentive for me to be a part of this survey.
VP: What was the exact nature of your work in the survey?
NS and AB: We were handed out questionnaires which we were supposed to fill by interviewing the participants. Now interviewing rural people isn’t as straightforward as you are doing with us. We had to strike up conversations with the villagers and had to earn their trust to gain information out of them. We had to evaluate the present and future possibilities of the programme as per as their perception. Awareness generation was also a big key, especially in the villages we were sent in. Finally, we had to find out about the problems regarding the implementation especially those regarded to corruption.
VP: Did you have any preconceived notions about the programme and the districts you were sent to?
NS: Well I was sent to six villages in the Allahabad district of Uttar Pradesh. Now, UP as we know is one of the traditional bemaru states of India, so I did not think NREGA implementation would be that great over there. But I had positive vibes regarding the programme overall and thought it was making strides in the correct direction.
AB: I was sent to Jharkhand which I am pretty sure hands down beat Uttar Pradesh in the category of being more bemaru. Corruptions in Jharkhand are daily headlines and the last time NREGA surveyed this districts the reports were very negative. Although I am pretty optimistic about the NREGA programme itself I did not have much hope of seeing that in the villages I was sent to.
VP: What were the positives you saw regarding the implementation of the NREGA programme in the survey?
NS: Well, the awareness of the workers and demand for NREGA work was pretty in high in the villages I went to. I must say that the village pradhans were quite co-operative and was very concerned regarding the proper implementation in their villages and often lamented about lack of support from the higher-ups. Most of the villagers who applied for employment under the scheme were granted so in the stipulated time period (fifteen days) and were getting decent enough wages. Contractors, a huge problem of this area in the past seemed to be mostly non-existent. Although banking and postal payments were introduced in this area, the old payment system of the pradhan handing out the money physically to the workers seemed to working quite well.
AB: I must say I was hugely surprised by the reality of the villages’ vis-à-vis my preconceptions. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that female awareness and working proportion was pretty high. I know there is an NREGA mandate that 1/3rd of the workers should be women, I never thought it was going to be seriously followed in Jharkhand. Awareness in general and the community sense in the villages was very high as well.
NS: What were the biggest drawbacks in this regard that you found out?
NS: Unfortunately, the drawbacks really stood out in the villages our team was sent to. The new system of banking and postal payments was not really working at all. We had to cross check bank statements obtained from the bank with that of the passbook possessed by the workers were rarely updated. On being asked about this, the workers said that there were are a few occasions they went to the bank to update their passbooks, but that bank staff dismissed them on the account of being too busy. Also, the rates were very confusing- the piecewise rates (rates on the basis of the nature of the job) and the hour-wise rates were not used uniformly and workers ended up getting different levels of payment for roughly the same work done. The worksite facilities, although a lot better than expected was still not up to the mark. And let us not go into the muster roll episode. Pukka muster rolls were hardly found and even if they were, in most cases they did not tally with the Kuccha muster rolls. Discrimination through caste system and nepotism was also prevalent in most of the villages.
AB: Well the payment system was haywire in the villages our team visited. Firstly, the BDO was less than co-operative on divulging exact details regarding method of payment. The details of the workers and their payment claims were not clearly specified in the records. The officials blamed it on the illiteracy of the majority of NREGA applicants. The village of Dumargadi was an exception to this rule probably due to the presence of an active Nigrani Samiti. Other problems included job cards, passbooks and muster rolls being not found at their “scheduled locations”. Villagers often complained of embezzlement of their rightful wages.
VP: Transparency is a problem for a programme of this magnitude. How well do you think measures introduced to tackle this problem have worked out and what further measures do you think are necessary for implementation?
NS and AB: Transparency is the biggest problem the programme suffers from. Yes, there have been measures to curb it and some like near elimination of contractors from almost every work site has been implemented quite successfully. But the effectiveness of most measures varies from state to state. Muster rolls and job cards is not much of a problem in states like Rajasthan, but where we went too- proper Muster rolls and job cards were a sight for sore eyes. Also the introduction of the payment system has been a step in the right direction, but its execution so far, at least in our experience is botched. Also abuse of power taking advantage of illiteracy of majority of workers in the backward states has not been curbed significantly. If it’s not the pradhan, then it’s the BDO or someone else. We think that if this can be controlled through stricter government vigilance or education, then most of the other transparency problems will sort themselves out.
Q: How far do you think the NREGA programme has contributed and can really contribute to solving the problem of poverty and unemployment at the village level, especially with regards to women?
NS: Oh it has come a long way since implementation. Awareness and Demand are the two things which have hugely improved compared to the early days. Valuable assets are being generated and employability of villagers has gone up a significant lot. Yeah there have been problems with regards to transparency, but I feel it’s not one step forward two steps back as many point out. So if we can deal the matter of corruption sternly, I think the NREGA has a long and bright future for the rural India.
AB: The upliftment of female workers under the programme has really been heartening to see. Earlier not only they were mercilessly exploited and deprived of minimum wage, they were given little respect. Now things have changed for the better a lot. Only if they had better healthcare and childcare facilities on sight, that would have helped their cause a lot. I also feel that it has created a strong community sense amongst the villagers. I would like to bring up the Dumargadi example again, where a strong community through the Nigrani Samiti meant a better worksite for the villagers and vice versa.
VP: And finally, what steps can the youth take to ensure greater strides of the programme?
NS: If you live in villages where such work is going on and you are literate enough, help those who are in need by writing job applications, ensuring proper passbook updation and the like. The city slickers… well college students in Delhi can always volunteer to go for the survey. Spreading awareness through various media would also be a good exercise.
AB: Spread the word and help out in any way you can. NREGA needs as much as support it can get from India’s youthful brigade!