Another ornamental scheme

The proposed National Rural Employment Guarantee Act threatens to become just that

By K S Gopal
Published: Thursday 31 March 2005

Another ornamental scheme

-- The Parliament will soon enact a National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (nrega). Efforts of the national advisory committee on nrega, the left parties and other well-meaning people have borne fruit. The precise shape of the act is still unclear. But the current state of the debate on the scheme foretells an ominous possibility: the act threatens to become a refurbished version of the food for work scheme (ffw). Our policy-makers seem to have forgotten that the rural voter in Andhra Pradesh rejected Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam government even though it unleashed massive ffws on them for three years. They had good reason: the schemes could not address starvation deaths and farmer suicides.

But why do schemes such as the ffw fail? Simply because they do not consider the practical issues at hand. The foodgrains the schemes provide in lieu of labour are meant to alleviate hunger and reduce malnutrition -- so far, so good. But the workers must wait for 15 days after completing the work to receive the largess! Our policy-makers have forgotten the simple fact that food is a necessity whose consumption cannot be postponed. It's not surprising that poor rural households don't have any confidence in the government machinery's ability to give them timely access to food. Indications are that the new act will fail them once again. Why can't we provide food grains to the hungry on credit and then adjust it against the work they do? This author has seen, from close quarters in drought-hit areas in Andhra Pradesh, that a simple rice credit generated enormous enthusiasm and the loan was promptly repaid. However, I also noticed a very disturbing practice: communities who took grains on loans were made to pay back by doing more work then the value of their credit. And then, tardy supplies and poor grain quality always bedeviled the rice-credit scheme. How can the nrega fulfill its aims when we look upon the rural poor with such condescension?

Dignity of labour? And that is not all. Schemes for the rural poor really have no dignity for labour. Of course, they stipulate minimum wages for certain hours of work. But that is almost always on paper. A recent study by students of the Engineering Staff College of India, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh shows that actual wages for many types of manual work are less than a third, and in some most cases a fourth of the prescribed minimum wages!

Why is the minimum wages stipulation rarely implemented? This is because another government rate list -- the Standard of Scheduled Rates (ssr) -- muscles it out. The ssr is based on the actual output per worker. Very often contractors use labour saving devices to negotiate high returns. And, the poor manual worker loses out again.

The debates on the nrega wax eloquent on creating durable assets. But has there been debate on what exactly is a durable asset? Has there been any effort to understand what a durable asset means for the rural poor? For example, a major demand of communities in the drought areas of Andhra Pradesh is for landfills, as cattle and children frequently fall into ditches and moats. But bureaucrats and engineers do not see this necessity as an asset. Similarly, those amenities that can reduce the drudgery of rural women's work or enhance the quality of life of poor communities are not seen as assets. On the other hand, most so-called "assets" waste away.

Livelihoods This is yet another shibboleth that has found its way into the debates on the nrega . But so far, the officialdom has done nothing beyond considering proposals on watersheds or soil and moisture conservation. Can't our planners see the tremendous potential in the programme to develop -- in the long run -- the country's dry lands? Massive tracts of cultivable lands are being left fallow in these so-called dry areas. We really need to move beyond developing watersheds and take scientific steps to develop our agricultural infrastructure. Only when such thinking gains prominence will the programme have any meaning to livelihoods.

Till then, nrega will remain another reason for debaters to score brownie points.

K S Gopal is with the Centre for environment concerns, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

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