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Rs 85,303 crore bust

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Apr 30, 2006 | From the print edition
So much spent on rural employment

The concept of creating employment in public works is not new for the rest of the country, because the Maharashtra model of rural employment has existed since the 1970s. The most critical difference now is that people's entitlement, by law, to employment, is now mandated through nrega for the entire country, which it earlier was only in Maharashtra. Not much has changed in the form and substance of the public work programmes in the past 20-odd years, however. Only names have.

The first set of programmes, the National Rural Employment Programme and the Rural Landless Employment Programme, began in the 1970s as clones of the Maharashtra egs. In 1989, the schemes were revamped by the Rajiv Gandhi government, which took the bold step of integrating the two schemes into one, and decided delivery would occur through the panchayati raj institutions (village-level elected institutions).

This was a heady period of development experimentation in the country. The programme was renamed, for political correctness, the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana (jry); but it was radically different. The bureaucratic machinery was bypassed; funds would be deposited in the accounts of each village institution responsible for planning development activities used to create employment creation, and overseeing implementation. The scheme began but it was never given a chance to succeed. In retrospect, jry was perhaps an idea before its time.

In 1990, when prime minister V P Singh ambushed the Rajiv Gandhi government over the Bofors gun scandal, the election call was a promise to 'guarantee' Maharashtra-type employment for all. Instead the subsequent, Narasimha Rao-led, government diluted what existed. By 1993, jry received little political leadership or attention. It was agreed (from largely anecdotal and some official reports) that the scheme, controlled by people's representatives, was leading to increased corruption and even greater inefficiency in delivery. Therefore, it needed to be re-vamped.

In 1993, the Employment Assurance Scheme (eas) was launched. Now, half the allocated funds for rural employment would be channelised through the bureaucracy, not the panchayati raj institutions. The big brother was back in business, to the tune of roughly Rs 2,000 crore each year.

In April 2002 another re-naming took place. This time the two schemes -- jry and eas -- were merged to create the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yogana (sgry). Its spending, too, was divided between the panchayati raj institutions and the administration. Incidentally, in the National Democratic Alliance period the name of jry had been changed into the Jawahar Gram Samridhi Yogana (jgsy). A component of sgry provided foodgrain to calamity-stricken states for relief work. Now the cost increased to about Rs 4,000 crore per year.

Then came the semi-final reincarnation. In late 2004, the National Food for Work Programme (nfwp)was launched, targeting 150 backward districts. These districts were identified through a task force set up by the ministry of rural development, which used three variables to compute 'backwardness' -- agricultural productivity per worker, agricultural wage rate and the scheduled caste and schedule tribe population in the district. This programme was to be implemented through the district administration and a menu of "labour-intensive projects" would be prepared, to be undertaken over a five-year period. In the 2005-06 budget, the allocation was enhanced. nfwp got Rs 6,000 crore in addition to the sgry's Rs 4,000 crore.

The final change came in December 2004, when the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill was tabled in Parliament. The bill provided a guarantee of 100 days of unskilled manual work in a financial year to every poor household, in rural areas, whose adult members volunteered for work.

The first phase would cover 150 districts. But many believed the bill 'diluted' what the common minimum programme of the government had promised. The bill was referred to a parliamentary standing Committee, which gave its report after two and a half sessions, called the legislation as "path-breaking" but observed that organisations and individuals who deposed before it were "almost unanimous" in objecting to several provisions.

Contentious issues in the bill involved restricting the programme to bpl, or below poverty line, families; a restrictive definition of what constituted a "family"; provisions enabling government to "switch off" the guarantee at its discretion; and, most critically, the failure to give panchayati raj institutions a central role in implementation. In August 2005, the Union Cabinet cleared amendments in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, 2004. Now 100 days work was guaranteed to all (not just below poverty line households); it was extended to 200 districts (not 150 backward ones) and half the scheme was to be implemented through the panchayati raj institutions, much like its predecessor.

The game is now afoot. In the 2006-2007 Union budget the government has allocated Rs11,300 crore for the scheme. But before spending rush begins, dte has taken note of two districts under nfwp, to learn recent lessons in doing development through labour: drought stricken Dungarpur in Rajasthan and Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh.

Click here to Only JRY was truly radical (pdf format).

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