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Q&A: Mihir Shah, Planning Commission

'NREGA 2.0 seeks to make work a legal guarantee'

Sreelatha Menon  |  New Delhi 

Mihir Shah

Mihir Shah, member of the Planning Commission and chairman of the committee to redraft rules and guidelines of NREGA, tells Sreelatha Menon that the Act may also cover farm labourers.

The consortium of NGOs that recommended changes in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) was founded by you, but your suggestions have been criticised. You seem to consider it a lack of demand rather than a supply problem.
First, you should recognise that NREGA is a historic break from the past, from the relief programme mode. Earlier, one got work when the government chose to make it available. NREGA seeks to make work a legal guarantee. But, even in the last five years under the Act, it was not demand-driven. It was still top down. The first change that should be brought about is capturing demand. There is no system to record demand. We have suggested multiple channels and agencies (all approved by the gram sabha) who would record demand and give dated receipts to job-seekers.

But why would states agree to this, as they have to pay an unemployment allowance when they don’t have the capacity to provide work?
The committee is redrafting the rules and guidelines under NREGA, so that the entire system gears up to respond to demand. The insistence that states pay an unemployment allowance will also push them to respond.

What if states give a day’s work to escape compensation? How will it help?

The reforms under NREGA 2.0 will enable states to develop an adequate shelf of work, ensuring they respond effectively to demand. I do not fear there will be this kind of tokenism.

How would you help states gear up to demand?
The key to this is the labour budget exercise. At present, there is no predictability in either the timing or the quantum of work available in a village; nor are potential NREGA workers made aware of this. Unless we assure these, it is all futile. No one would come for work and would continue to migrate. We plan to engage the best institutions to do a baseline survey of NREGA households, to find out how much work is need and when. In accordance with this, the shelf of work will be prepared.

The gram panchayat is expected to plan for itself but it has no expertise.
Lack of a participatory planning process has been a key weakness in NREGA. Work has to be done on the basis of decisions taken by the in the gram sabha. It has to be a participatory micro-planning exercise. The power of NREGA lies in the fact that if the gram panchayat makes a plan, then the block cannot decline it. But this is not happening right now. NREGA is about strengthening democracy at the grass roots. We have not devolved functionaries to the grass root level.

So, how will devolution happen now?
We will divide each block into clusters of gram panchayats. There would be a multi-disciplinary team of experts, including a social work graduate to attend to the needs of these clusters and who would be accountable to the gram panchayat. We would focus on the 2,000 most backward blocks of the country, including those with a high proportion of SC/ST and those vulnerable to Maoist violence. The Planning Commission is preparing a list of these blocks. The idea is not to spread the resources too thin and focus on areas where the need is greatest.

But the programme is having problems across the country with respect to delays in wages and lack of manpower.
Delays in payments is another key weakness of NREGA so far. If we don’t fix it, NREGA has only a bleak future. There is a multi-pronged strategy to tackle this. We will prepare a whole army of local barefoot engineers who will measure the work done in time. We will run two-month courses for capacity-building of these para-workers. The Centre will pay for this either through the six per cent administrative cost or deploy additional funds. The second intervention would be through IT infrastructure. We want a transaction-based management information system such as in Andhra Pradesh, which captures delays real-time and helps reduce these.

The focus on water conservation in NREGA does not help water surplus states such as Bihar or Bengal.
In flood-prone areas, the key NREGA intervention is to strengthen local drainage systems and traditional systems such as Ahar-Pyne in Bihar.

The quality of assets has been questioned with respect to their benefit to the main source of livelihood in villages — agriculture. NREGA is totally cut off from agriculture. How does it become relevant?
The main indicator of success of NREGA, in my view, is when it raises the productivity of the lands of small and marginal farmers. I call it the multiplier-accelerator synergy. Not many know that a vast majority of NREGA workers are small and marginal farmers who are forced to seek work because the productivity of their farms has been decimated over the years. As water harvesting structures, wells, farm bunds and composting happens on these farms through NREGA, these people are able to return to farming and explore allied livelihoods.

How is that?
The water infrastructure built under NREGA has made fisheries possible. Dairies became possible because the Act provides water for fodder. Without water infrastructure, you cannot practise value-added agriculture.

But farmers have been asking for more from NREGA. They want it to provide for sowing and harvesting, as well.
We believe activities such as creating assets like compost pits and livestock sheds can be included in the list of works. States have been asked to give a list of works that they want to be introduced. We can consider location-specific flexibility in norms. If work can be defined and the period can be specified, there can be flexibility. But the fundamental principle is NREGA must be an additionality. It can’t eat into existing employment opportunities.

So, there is a possibility in a limited way that NREGA may be used for farm labour?
Only on the terms I just spelt out.

The Planning Commission has been knocking its head with unique identification (UID) scheme on various issues. Why weren’t these issues settled in the beginning?
My major concern on UID, which I conveyed in a recent meeting with Mr Nandan Nilekani and Mr Jairam Ramesh, is it should not become an instrument of exclusion. If my workers under NREGA don’t get UID and we make it mandatory for them, it is tantamount to excluding them. We are telling the UIDAI that it can derive legitimacy from NREGA only if it addresses NREGA workers immediately. If they can, for example, saturate all rural households in our 2,000 blocks, we can consider using UID-enabled bank accounts for transfer of funds to NREGA workers. But if this does not happen, there is no way rural development departments can insist on UID numbers for NREGA workers. If they get excluded, there is a multiplication of exclusion of the poor.

On the poverty line, the Planning Commission has now put the burden on the socio-economic and caste census (SECC). But states like Bihar still oppose it as it counts families and not individuals. They oppose the food Bill on the same account. What do you think?
Individual entitlements and eligibility under government schemes will not any more be linked to the poverty line, and will not be subject to arbitrary caps. This is the first Planning Commission to take such a step, since caps were introduced about two decades ago. The SECC is based on Amartya Sen’s “capabilities-opportunities” framework. The SECC data on indicators of deprivation will help identify beneficiaries for various government programmes.

Do you think there would be a national commission for a BPL census. Or, will it fail to be finalised in January with opposition from other states?
I am confident that with this clarification, all opposition to SECC will cease. But there is a major challenge still ahead of us — of making SECC a success on the ground. SECC is not a magic wand. In a caste- and class-divided society, there is a real danger of this being hijacked by local elites. We need strong partnerships between the Centre and the states, as also civil society organisations, academia and media to make every effort to closely monitor and ensure success of SECC.

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First Published: Sun, October 09 2011. 00:36 IST