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Modi government adds a bureaucratic layer in rural jobs guarantee scheme: Barefoot engineers

By Our Representative
After deciding to slash funds for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), the Government of India (GoI) has come up with an idea to insert a new bureaucratic layer of those seeking to implement the scheme, tom-tommed by the previous Congress-led government as one of its flagship programmes meant to alleviate poverty. The GoI wants to have as many one "barefoot engineers" in 2,500 blocks where the NREGS is being implemented in order to "assess" the work that is given to those employed under the national rural employment scheme.
Senior Gujarat-based activists, who have received a letter from the NGRES secretariat to help identify barefoot engineers, believe the step would further cut into the budgetary funds, already slashed by 9 per cent, for the NREGS. Earlier, the GoI moved to change the ratio of labour to materials to increase the use of machinery and supplies, which in effect would mean every rupee taken from employment to pay for materials would reduce the funds available for employment - and this further cuts the already low level of employment being offered under the programme.
Senior Gujarat activist Pankti Jog, who is with Janpath, a network of state-based NGOs, says that while theoretically the barefoot engineers scheme looks good, it is difficult to say "how this extensive, rigorous training would be" and who would "monitor the performance." She wonders, "What will be the capacity of the barefoot engineer, in the whole system, which is so corrupt and negative as far as NGEGS is concerned?When Narmada canal built under the supervision of so-called engineers is getting ruptured almost every day from here and there, who will guarantee the quality and how?"
Already restricted to a few backward districts -- about 200 -- the "barefoot engineers" scheme is being sought to be implement in backward areas because there is dearth of "technical staff" to assess work carried out and NREGS and payments made for that. "These are intended to be people from NREGS households who need to be formally educated only till 10th class but possess knowledge and expertise on the aspects of work site management and other technical aspects", said a note prepared by the NREGS secretariat.
Counting "advantages" of the new approach, the note says, the barefoot engineers "will receive a training and certification from the National Skills Development Council which will help their further employ-ability" and it will "reduce the shortage of technical staff and help MGNREGS processes in the state".
A GoI order on barefoot engineers says, while the idea was mooted way back October 2013 and reiterated in January 2014, it is now being implemented. The order says, a barefoot engineer should be "an educated person" preferably from the local scheduled caste or tribe households and "specially trained in civil engineering concepts using a customised training module for identification and estimation of works, giving mark out for works in the field and record measurement of the work done in the Measurement Book (MBook) of the NREGS."
The order says, the programme officer of the NREGS would be authorised to identify the area requiring services of a barefoot engineer. The barefoot engineers would undergo three months' training, whose cost would be met by the Central Government at especially designated institutions, to be identified by the authorities.
Coming to the type of work they would have to do, the order says, the barefoot engineers would be "entrusted with the task of identification of proposed works, conduct technical surveys, prepare estimates and assist in the planning process", adding, "They shall be authorised to give lay-out for works as per requirement, supervise execution of work and also record measurement in the MBook of NREGS works. These measurement shall, however, be measured by a regular junior engineer", under whom they would work.
As for the payment, the order says, the barefoot engineers would be paid "as skilled workers from the provision of 1% in the work estimate." The work for appointing the barefoot engineers would be over by March 15, and their training would begin in April 2015, and would continue in phases.

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