The law providing 100 days of wage employment has been heard more for its abuse than its benefits in the five years of its existence. However, we take a look at some positive examples of district authorities experimenting with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). Except in the case of Sikkim, the examples show the law being implemented entirely by the district authorities rather than the local Panchayat. In most cases, the collectors used the law to achieve goals outside the scheme’s mandate.
A district collector in Jalpaiguri in West Bengal used it to revive 10 closed tea gardens there. The district was the second-largest tea producing area in the country, but adversity struck after ownership patterns changed. Individual owners started replacing big companies, which led to the closure of several gardens. Workers in these gardens had been living in poverty for a decade and the government decided to give these gardens to companies on lease. The condition was that they would get possession on lease once they made it viable. Workers on the rolls had to be accommodated but there were far too many of them. The managements said the workforce had to be reduced. The collector then decided to use NREGS to subsidise labour. A worker has to get 280 days of work in a year. The management agreed to accommodate all the workers but would pay them for 189 days while the administration agreed to pay them for the remaining 100 days using Nrega wages.
The work started in September 2009 and within a year, 10 gardens were ready. About 81,000 workers, who had been living in poverty, got jobs in their own environment. Now, the management is busy setting up factories to start tea production, says Vandana Yadav, the district collector in Jalpaiguri.
Yadav says the same formula would be used to revive the remaining two closed gardens. She says the departure of big companies from the area a decade ago had caused the closure of several gardens, leading to dire poverty and deprivation.
The collector of Sant Ravidas Nagar at Badohi in Uttar Pradesh carried out a different experiment. The district has been a carpet industry hub. As many as 35,000 families were working in the carpet industry in Sant Ravidas Nagar. They were exploited and underpaid, because of which there was much distress migration.
NREGS made its entry and the district administration decided to use it as a tool to stop migration. It used propaganda and awareness campaigns – something that is seldom done in most districts – and targeted Dalits and the Musahhar community there.
The result was 14,365 families abandoned the carpet industry and opted for digging canals and roads under NREGS.
Now, is that good or bad? District collector Surendra justifies this, saying NREGS has given competition to the carpet industry which has been forced to raise wages.
A shining example of bureaucratic imagination can be found in Anupur in Madhya Pradesh, where the collector Kavindra Kaiwat tied up with the district cooperative bank and transferred all the NREGS accounts to it. The bank then provided mobile payment of wages at the workers’ doorstep on designated days and within a fortnight of their work. An amount of Rs 54 crore has been disbursed as wages this financial year.
The example is now being adopted by the entire state.
Sikkim, however, took this up as a nation-building activity and to make decentralisation a reality. It devolved 100 per cent of the scheme to the Panchayats. People were assisted in doing their own planning and social audit. NGOs were brought to train people in social audit. Block-level offices were formed to implement the programme to provide accounts and technical support.
Where there is a will there is certainly a way. And in Sikkim, the way points towards decentralisation.