Monday, September 13, 2010

MNREGA overhaul for better action

Rakesh K Singh

The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MNREG) Act is all set to undergo a major renovation with proposals being considered to up the budgetary outlay from `40,000 crore to `68,000 crore, decentralise implementation with re-engineering in management and administrative systems, putting in place national-level ombudsman to suo moto inquire into complaints, hand-held devices for work measurement and rural ATMs for timely payment to the beneficiaries of the flagship scheme.

Proposals to enlarge the scope of works under the scheme are also being considered with a view to graduating from unskilled to skilled works — including masonry, brick-making and book-keeping jobs — for the beneficiaries. If the proposals are accepted, the MNREGA workers will also be entitled to travel allowance and provident fund scheme.

These far-reaching recommendations have been made by the six working groups, created for improving and strengthening implementation of MNREGA. The recommendations aim at institutionalising the scheme with enhanced allocation, improved management and administrative systems, enlargement of the scope of works, skill development and sustainability of the benefits to MNREGA workers.

The working groups have recommended to substantially enhance the budget outlay from the existing `40,000 crore to `68,000 crore with a wage-material ratio of 60:40 and increasing the administrative cost of implementation of the flagship employment guarantee scheme from 6 per cent of the budget outlay to 8 per cent, of which 6 per cent is utilised below the block level.

The wide-ranging recommendations, among other things, include strengthening policy research and evaluation systems, re-engineering management and administrative systems, separation of implementing agency from social auditing, according to the synthesis report of the working group recommendations, a copy of which is with The Pioneer.

Besides decentralisation of the flagship scheme, the working groups have recommended placing real-time online muster roll, work attendance and measurement through hand-held devices at field level and setting up low-cost rural ATMs and SMS-based fund transfer and payment of wages to village payment agents for unhindered payment to the beneficiaries.

The groups have also recommended integration of agriculture with MNREGA to improve productivity of land, graduation from unskilled to skilled work and training for self-employment in areas like masonry, brick-making, mobile repairs, book-keeping and maintenance of muster roll in MNREGA so that the beneficiaries are able to continue with their employment on their own on a sustainable basis.

Union Rural Development Minister CP Joshi said, “Though there is no time frame to accept the recommendations, the Government will accept all good measures suggested by the experts. The idea (of setting up the working groups) was to improve implementation of NREGA and all are working towards improving the condition of the beneficiaries and usher in transparency.”

The six working groups were constituted earlier this year on Planning and Execution (chaired by Rangu Rao), Capacity Building (chaired by Prof Ashwani Kumar), Specific Needs of Specific Category of Workers (Renuka Choudhari), Works to be taken up on Individual Land (Dr KS Gopal), Wages (economist Prof Jean Dreze) and Transparency & Accountability (social activist Aruna Roy).

The recommendations also provide for constitution of a directorate of social audit as an apex body for conduct of social audit in the State that is independent of implementing agencies. It is proposed that the directorate be equipped with a technical wing to inquire into MNREGA accounts and other financial records at all levels, besides examining the quality of works. It is also proposed that a district-level technical committee be constituted for strengthening technical system at the district level.

With a view to capacity-building for decentralised implementation, it has been recommended to create village development clusters for every 30 villages or one-third of blocks or 15,000 hectare area with programme facilitation team for MNREGA implementation.

Capacities of the NGOs are also proposed to be harnessed for mobilisation of beneficiaries, micro planning, building Panchayati Raj Institutions, outsourcing the recruitment process for selection of professionals to man MNREGA administrative offices and setting up of Information Communication System/Geographic Information System (GIS)-enabled asset management system through public-private partnership for better payments to the beneficiaries.

While Jean Dreze, the chairman of the working group on wages, has recommended linking wage rates to the Consumer Price Index, a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council has sought enhancement of ex gratia payment of `25,000 to `1 lakh if a person employed under the scheme dies or is permanently disabled during the course of employment.

The working group on planning has recommended GIS-based resource mapping to facilitate better identification and preparation of developmental plans and suggested that watershed-based planning should be adopted for effective rejuvenation of natural resources.

Besides, the experts have sought information dissemination on options in land development and mapping of MNREGA activities for agriculture production cycle. Gender-sensitive works have been proposed to be included and the experts have recommended that women-friendly works — like horticulture and nurseries — may be taken up and preference be given for pregnant, lactating and aged women.

Integration of MNREGA with the district agriculture plan has also been sought and the experts have recommended that labour groups or self-help groups consisting of 15 to 20 beneficiaries should be organised so that employment capability is increased after imparting training. The scope of works to be incorporated includes works in nurseries, vermin compost production, vegetable production and other allied activities of agriculture.

The recommendations also include provident fund scheme for NREGS workers who have participated in the project 30 days a year and travel allowance of 10 per cent of the wage for initial distance of 0.5 km to 5 km and 20 per cent for those traveling above five km.

According to official statistics for 2010-11 (up to July 2010) fiscal year, job cards have been issued to 11.14 crore, employment under the scheme has been demanded by 2.5 crore households and employment has been provided to 2.44 crore households.

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