Even as the flagship National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) scheme continues to face problems at the implementation level, Rural Development Minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh, ignoring suggestions by Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia and other economists, has refused to bring any major change in the scheme.
After the NREGA was rolled out in 2002, the Planning Commission had written at least twice to “dovetail” another flagship programme — The Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) — along with the NREGA schemes. According to the Plan panel, since the two programmes have similarity and are aimed at creating employment at the rural arena, clubbing these programmes would help save overlapping of funds to the tune of a few thousand crores.
Singh had rejected the suggestions and prefers to stick to the current status. “At times learned people come out with out-of-the-box ideas. But it is very difficult to implement them at the ground level. In the PMGSY, machinery and other heavy equipments are used extensively to build rural roads. But in the NREGA, it’s all about manual work. How can the two schemes be dovetailed?”
The PMGSY, announced on 15th August 2000, was launched on 25th December, 2000. Till date, 81,082 road projects have been approved with 56,379 new connectivity and 24,700 upgrade projects. Against the total target of making 308,124.39 km of rural roads, 140,046.47 km were completed till September, 2007. Up to September 2007, Rs 29,346.51 crore has been spent on the project. The Primary source of funding for the programme will come from the cess charged on high speed diesel, 50 per cent of which is earmarked for rural roads.
Recently, Rajya Sabha Member and eminent economist Arjun Sengupta had written a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking the removal of the 100-day cap on the NREGA schemes. “In some states the NREGA is doing very well. But in other areas there is underutilisation of resources. I have suggested that the NREGA should be expanded and the cap of maximum 100 days of work should be removed to enable more utilisation of the novel scheme,” Sengupta told Business Standard.
“The cap of 100 days is not the aim of the scheme. The issues of accountability and the monitoring are necessary,” he added.
An unfazed Singh told Business Standard, “Sengupta may be a great scholar but he doesn’t know the ground realities. The scheme is meant for work during the lean period, when there is no agriculture-related work available. If the government allows more work under this scheme, many agricultural workers will stop going to the fields and choose the easier option. It would ruin our agriculture. Does Sengupta understand this problem?”
Political masters have also tried to use the NREGA to push their own agenda. Soon after coming to power, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati had raised the minimum daily wage of the state’s unskilled agriculture labourer from Rs 58 to Rs 100, (an increase of 172.4 per cent). According to Singh, “as the NREGA provides wages according to the state rates, it suits Mayawati to earn credit, while we make the payments.”