The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is interesting for its breadth of scope and efficacy. The Act has made a huge difference in many places already. Its clauses are specific and many things prevent it from becoming another gratuitous exercise in eradicating social dependency. When Jean Dreze came to St. Stephen’s College to speak about it, it seemed worthwhile to think about its wider tenets. He is someone who carries a demeanor of complicity in the lives of the indigent. His research gives him larger credence. He began with the fundamental principles upon which the Act has been founded. The Act postulates: employment on demand, a legal right to work, universal entitlement, the payment of minimum wages, participatory planning, accountability to the Right to Information apparatus, and, crucially, full transparency. The cornerstones seem adequately well founded. It foregrounds the ability of employable people to find suitable work. The question of suitable work seems disputed, but the general munificence of the Act, in terms of generating more income than hitherto done, seems established.
A large part of the research undertaken is in terms of the ‘person’ and concomitant ‘days of work’ generated. Along this barometer, Rajasthan posits an upper limit of 77, and Kerala contrarily 3. Durgapur in Rajasthan has mainly benefited from the work-generation, which Dreze has endorsed from his own assessment of the place. The degree of participation of the Act was gauged in all the states. The proportion of participatory workers categorized in the SC/ST ambit is 62%. The proportion of women, likewise, is 40% as national average, which is a redoubtable claim, given that the statutes make mandatory at least a 33% rate of participation of women everywhere. There are certain differences along this parameter in different states. Tamil Nadu has the highest proportion of women’s involvement, slated at 81%, which is formidable, whereas Bihar has 17% and Jammu & Kashmir a low of 4%. An interesting clause in the Act is a proviso enabling child-care facilities in the work-sites. This effectively means that when more than five children, in total, are brought along by mothers, crèches will be facilitated, and a woman deployed to look after the children collectively.
The wages given to the workers are more or less in close proximity. The average wage-cost per person in Kerala is Rs. 121, Rs. 104 in Maharashtra, and Rs. 51 in Rajasthan, which is ostensibly the lowest, given that a large number of people work under the Act there. The national average wage-rate is Rs. 64. In Tamil Nadu, women who hitherto earned Rs. 35 as agricultural workers have started earning Rs. 80 from work through the Act. The state governments set the rates, and the wages are paid by the central government. The mode of payment, as well, is set by the state government, as the Act does not decree any one agency. Nevertheless, keeping political exigencies in the fray, the central government can supersede the state government and establish a statutory rate of its own accord.
Jean Dreze, among other surveys, worked in one conducted in May-June last year, which looked at two districts – Ranchi and Surguja. In his talk, he focused on the latter and cited the findings therein. In an inimical, positive way, he started off on the trajectory with the apparent gains. Firstly, this legislation has achieved more progress than others. Corruption has largely subsided and even the eviction of middle-men and contractors has changed things in this regard. Most of the work is productive, except in certain cases, where tortuous roads leading nowhere were being constructed, which certain students in the discussion pointedly mentioned, having seen instances like these in the course of the survey. Most families have a job-card, which enables them to come into employ, and most of these enumerate their entitlements on the back. This, of course, is part of a larger effort to make aware the workers of what their work entails and what it counts for remuneratively. Some very pertinent questions came up in this part. Some students pointed out that the people did not necessarily know what they would be paid, or if the work is commensurate with the payment. The definition of the ‘household’ in the Act isn’t exacting either.
The other deficiencies include the fact that the work entailed is not ‘demand-driven,’ deferred payment impedes incentive, and a shortage of staff at various levels hinders general efficacy. Mr. Dreze mentioned certain other, more subterranean, problems. He said, and students who worked in the survey corroborated, that one thing afflicting the ‘bureaucracy’ of the Act is the discrepancies in records. There is an official record and a more clandestine ‘real’ record. The official record usually shows a high level of attendance, whereas the other tells another tale. The records are often countermanded in times of payment. However, the Right to Information Act enables people to procure both anyway. In October, 2006 Garhwah had an attendance of 85%, whereas Ranchi a measly 33%. As far as the budgetary concerns go, the proportion of wage to material has been fixed at 60 to 40.
The talk literally drove home the importance of the Act and its modus operandi. It is, hopefully, a sustainable achievement, aided largely by antecedents already put in place by post-independence governments many years ago.
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