By Fabian Lyngdoh
This is a perspective of the MGNREGA as a concept, and the NREGS as the practical application, from a person who daily experiences the practical works, and the official and social activities of the VEC, AEC etc., and the mental activities reflecting in rural debates in tea stalls and the streets. The rural people are happy with the scheme.
Coming to the concept of the MGNREGA, it is generally expressed that one of the major draw backs of the Indian rural economy is the lack of employment for rural people in the lean period of the year, especially the post harvest period. So the concept is to provide guaranteed work for a hundred days of the lean period in a year. Then the concept of converting labour inputs into durable assets of the village community especially those which improve the natural resource base of the economy is highly commendable. The idea of instilling community participation in development initiatives, to build democratic justice through mandated inclusion of women in the VEC and AEC and to enhance capability of individuals, households and the community in economic production as well as social leadership and social consciousness is indeed the need of the hour.
About the practical aspects of the noble concept of the NREGS, it was assumed that all over India there is lack of employment even for menial work. The wage first prescribed by NREGS was Rs 70 per day. In the area where the writer lives the prevailing wages for agricultural labourers and other manual workers was Rs 100 per day, and the local employment providers were struggling to find labourers; sometimes they had to hire labourers from Assam. So the people of a certain village in their Dorbar’s resolution converted the rate to Rs 100 per day for 70 days guaranteed work in a year, but in the muster roll it was recorded as Rs.70 per day for 100 days. That is their wisdom. Even with this new arrangement the people were willing to work because they see a common asset to be built and that they could work leisurely with more time for rest than work.
The village Executive Dorbar came up with a new strategy. In the construction of an internal road, the work was divided into four sections and allotted to four Dong (sections) of the village to execute, as per their discretion and method, with a targeted amount of money involved. In principle, people of a Dong may hire a JCV or allot the work to a single member of a Dong provided that the work is completed. The experiment worked. People worked so hard from 6 am to 6 pm and the whole road was completed in no time. Each worker earned Rs 400 per day. In another village people were unwilling to work at the prescribed wage. So the Executive Dorbar hired a JCV with people’s consent but certain amount of money was paid to job card holders when they signed the muster roll. The idea worked. Roads were constructed, but it became a guarantee of work to the owner of a JCV not to the labourers. But by this, the rural labourers are not discriminated or deprived; they are happy to receive some money by just signing a muster roll without doing any work at all. The present wage prescribed under NREGS is Rs 145 per day, while the prevailing wages in many local communities is Rs 200 per day, and local employment providers still have to compete to obtain labourers. Common economic theory says that an economy is fully employed when resources and population are in balance and that resources are under-employed if the population is far below the optimum level, and over-employed when the population far exceeds the resources and opportunities. Unemployment problem in an economy or even in a simple community would arise when the population far exceeds the capacity of natural resources to sustain. Or when the number of work seekers far exceed the opportunity for employment. Meghalaya with its resources is not overpopulated at a density of 131 people per sq.km (census, 2011), compared to other States. Ri Bhoi District with all its resources and opportunities is indeed under-populated at a density of 79 people per sq.km(2001 census). That is why we can hardly find labourers willing to work at Rs 200 per day at present. Hence people are lethargic because competition for the bare needs of survival does not exist. The concept of unemployment in the context of some areas of Meghalaya is simply the lack of salaried jobs and business opportunities for individuals. But the economic concept of unemployment for a community is the lack of the means of sustainable livelihood, or the existence of a heavy competition for the bare needs of survival, which mostly is not the case here. That is also why there is influx of outsiders from higher density areas because there is a vacuum. It is said that nature abhors vacuum, but the other way round is that natural forces are attracted by vacuum. A certain level of population is required for any community to survive with distinct identity, and to be fully employed considering natural resources and available opportunities. A handful of men claiming territorial right over a certain area on the globe can be recognised only under protection of the law. If left to the free play of social forces and the market such a community would not only have been swallowed, but digested a long time ago. The idea of ‘quality is better than quantity’ is applicable only at higher levels of competition. At the grass-roots where competition is for survival, quantity is always the determining factor.
In Meghalaya, two problems of contradictory nature exist. One is the under-employment of resources and opportunities in areas related to ordinary sustenance of living of the community. The other is the over-exploitation of natural resources to sustain the commercial and trading community. These two problems are inter-related. Over-exploitation of resources reduces the future means of livelihood of the community, and labour vacuum attracts labour from outside to run the wheels of over-exploitation. So there is a trade-off to be considered here between the comfort of a small family for the private individual households, and the need of the tribe to increase in number to an optimum level so that existence as a distinct cultural community would have meaning, not by virtue of special constitutional protection but by virtue of its own strength and dynamism.
Back to the NREGS, we see that permanent assets are created, but a general observation shows that the amount of money invested and value of the assets created are not commensurate. In some villages, drinking wells constructed through assistance from the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council with finance under the 13th Finance Commission are well constructed and fully operational and cost between Rs 30,000-50,000 per unit, while under NREGS the same construction costs more. Some are lying un-operational. But even this is worthwhile if the Government of India has enough funds to invest. Building a durable dwelling house even if expensive, is beneficial in the long run. Then the concept of guarantee of employment in lean periods is not implemented in practice. The NREGS works are implemented the whole year round. In summer when agricultural works are in full swing with handsome wages, no one will work in the NREGS programmes. So there is no alternative for the VEC but to execute the works on the basis of contract. The functionaries of the VEC and AEC are expected to work on voluntary basis, so when such an opportunity arises it is beneficial to their well-being. Corruption charges against members of the VEC’s and AEC’s are many. Some inquiries reveal that the concept of technical convergence in the NREGS is theoretically plausible but in practice the VEC’s have to pay for plan and estimates through private transactions. Due to competition for obtaining Work Orders, the VEC’s and AEC’s are compelled to oil the palms of government officials too. Let us accept this fact. No clarification is required to save anybody’s honour, as long as India is as it is today. At least under NREGS, government officials have to connive with the local village leaders to earn extra income. In the past, when there was no NREGS, corruption ends with the government officials. Corruption is high in the Central Government and the State Governments, which begins and ends with the super rich. Corruption, if any, in the NREGS is for the poor village leaders. At least the means of corruption is distributed to the….
grass-roots. This may be called ‘redistribution of wealth’ to boost the rural economy. Corruption at any level cannot be condoned. But when the whole country is at a loss on how to deal with multi-billion dollar corruption involving top leaders and high officials of the country, corruption in thousands and lakhs of rupees in the villages is only a corollary, not a failure of the NREGS. There is no magic wand to conjure up development, or eradicate corruption.
The good things that the NREGS has brought about besides the construction of durable community assets are: It has paved the way for attitudinal change among the people to accept positive democratic elements in grass-roots governance; it has taught the village leaders to maintain records of various transactions in official procedures of public administration. Recently the VEC’s are instructed to open bank accounts for each job card holder through which payments shall be made. This would initiate the rural people to banking. The scheme has also made rural folks more assertive to demand for their rights and to complain against wrongdoings. Last but not the least, even if corruption cannot be totally prevented, the wealth gained out of it, does not go to the coffers of the super rich but is injected into the rural economy, and this would indirectly create employment too. NREGS should stay for the sake of these good things. If any defect is found in its implementation, it is not the fault of the scheme but because of the general trend of the Indian society. Thanks to Prof Debroy and to Prof B Panda for their enlightening arguments, and thanks also Mr K.N. Kumar for his enthusiasm about the scheme in spite of some defects because without enthusiasm any scheme would have been buried before its birth.
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