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' Late payment of wages in NREGA is unfair'

August 25, 2009 17:02 IST
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The purpose of the rural job scheme is being defeated as, in this drought year, focus on providing work and timely wages is lost in other things, economist and activist Jean Dreze tells Sreelatha Menon.

The new government has brought part-II of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). You don't seem happy with it.

There is no question of being happy or unhappy until we know what NREGA-II is. I don't think there is any coherent vision of it at the moment, only a bunch of ideas and proposals.

I am happy that there is a revival of interest in NREGA and so much creative thinking around it. On the other hand, I am concerned at the lack of transparency in the process through which NREGA-II is being promoted.

Also, I feel that it is important to keep focus on the basics: Work for all, minimum wages, timely payment, and so on. This is particularly important when drought is slowly devastating people's livelihoods across the country. NREGA-II should not become a diversion from the basic purpose of protecting people from poverty and hunger. Can you illustrate the problem of lack of transparency in the NREGA-II process?

I was quite disturbed by the announcement, made on August 20, that building of 250,000 Bharat Nirman Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendras would become a "core activity" of NREGA in this financial year. This is a bizarre idea, especially in a drought year.

What is worse is that it was presented as the outcome of wide consultations, a "consensus" emerging from these consultations. That was quite a hat-trick on the part of the rural development minister.

Convergence of NREGP (National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme) with other schemes is being introduced on the premise that useless assets are being created. Is that true?

I think the scope for creating productive assets within the existing list of permissible works is often underestimated. With adequate technical standards, many of these works can be fairly productive. Water harvesting, rural roads, soil conservation, levelling of agricultural land – all these are useful activities.

This is not to say that I oppose an expansion in the list of permissible works. On the contrary, we have been arguing for this from the beginning. Convergence is also a good idea, in principle. In fact, we had advocated a clause on convergence when the Act was being drafted.

The point of that clause was to ensure that convergence proceeds with adequate safeguards. That is precisely what is needed today. For instance, it is essential to ensure that NREGP's transparency norms apply to the "converged" project too.

Are you opposed to hiring people in the mid-day meal scheme and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan under NREGP as part of convergence?

Let's be specific and talk about mid-day meals. I am not in favour of hiring mid-day meal cooks under NREGP for two reasons. One, the cooks are already there and there is no point using NREGP to fund existing employment as the whole point is to create additional employment.

Two, cooking meals in a primary school is not the sort of job that anyone can do at short notice. It requires training and experience, if only to ensure adequate hygiene.

On the other hand, it may be possible to hire helpers for cooks under NREGP. Even that, however, will require some safeguards. For instance, how do you monitor their work? At the moment, most NREGP labourers work on a piece-rate system, so they are largely self-monitored.

A different arrangement will be required for mid-day meal helpers as their work cannot be measured. These are the sort of issues that need to be addressed before we rush to "converge" everything.

You were concerned about the recent notification extending the scope of the  NREGP works on private land to small and marginal farmers. Why is this an issue?

This is another instance of an idea that sounds good but actually requires extensive safeguards. For instance, priority must be given to disadvantaged communities, especially scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

So far, they have been the main beneficiaries of the scheme on private land, but the new notification threatens to marginalise them. Remember that most landowners fall into the category of "small and marginal farmers".

Other safeguards are also required, such as capping the proportion of funds that can be spent on private land, and strict adherence to the existing list of permissible works. Otherwise, NREGP could easily be derailed and turned into a labour subsidy scheme for privileged landowners.

Would it be correct to call the Central Employment Guarantee Council, formed under the Act and of which you are a member, toothless and defunct?

The council is certainly not toothless under the law. In fact, it has extensive responsibilities and powers, especially when it comes to monitoring the scheme. The tragedy is that the council has not done its job and nor has it been enabled to do it.

The way to go is not to pronounce it as "defunct" but to revive it. We have submitted some proposals on this to the Ministry of Rural Development. Hopefully, some of these will see the light of day.

What is your main concern now?

One burning issue is that of delay in wage payments. This is a grave injustice to the workers and defeats the entire purpose of the programme.

In some areas, workers are turning against the scheme because they have not been paid for months. What would you feel like if your crop had been decimated by drought and you were forced to join the NREGP worksites without any guarantee of being paid? This is inhuman.

What is causing these delays? Is it the lack of personnel to do measurement of work, as in Uttar Pradesh?

This is one reason. The answer, in this case, is to decide that if a work is not measured within 15 days, workers will be paid on the basis of attendance. I would even argue that in a drought situation, there is a case for switching from piece-rate to daily-wage payments, at least in areas where the work-measurement system is not in place. This would also liberate gram panchayats from the tyranny of the engineering staff.

What else can be done to reduce the delays?

Much can be done. For instance, gram panchayats should have buffer funds so that wage payments are not held up. Banks and post offices should have clear timelines and norms and be held accountable for them.

Compensation should be paid when wages are paid beyond the mandatory limit of 15 days. Wage payments should be tracked in real time by the monitoring and information system. The first step is to recognise the issue and give it the priority it deserves.

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