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Overcentralization: Reason why MGNREGA may be seen as destined to be a failure

By Debmalya Nandy
Successive governments have almost did everything they could possibly have done to destroy the spirit of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005. MGNREGA is a classic case study of how a well intended programme for the poorest can be converted into a failed dream by the great Indian bureaucracy and the negligence of the political parties at power.
While the Act empowers the rural households to access maximum of 100 days of employment in a financial year through a demand based allocation system, after 12 long years since the Act had come into force the idea of a demand based work allocation is still to be established. Clearly, it is an administrative failure throughout the country and thus a shortcoming of the governments that MGNREGA could never become what it was suppose to deliver.
The highest officials have never honoured the Act and failed to understand the spirit of the programme which was designed to deal with mass unemployment in the rural areas. It was a historic move by the UPA government to deal with extreme poverty, staving off hunger and ensure rural jobs in the under developed areas of the country. Government officials, however, always treated the programme as a “scheme” and ran it with a bureaucratic style which has the ultimate control over rural works.
Furthermore, the Act was supposed to ensure rural decentralization and strengthen the local governance with gram sabhas, gram panchayats and traditional governance systems having significant powers in planning and implementation, but the administrative systems at large never really let the controls shift from their hands to the local governing bodies like gram sabhas and local elected bodies such as Gram panchayats.
The highest bureaucracy constantly wanted to dictate the number of works to be taken, how the money would be spent without understanding that a decentralized system with decentralized planning and monitoring mechanism is the core spirit of the Act which could have ensured better results both in terms of creating jobs and ensuring infrastructure at the grassroots.
The highest bureaucracy at New Delhi from its long experience has learnt that issues of local corruption are out of its control, and putting in place a system of decentralized planning and monitoring is way beyond its competency. Thus, there has been a constant effort to make everything centralized with the excuse of checking corruption at the grassroots.
From the centralized fund allocations, dictating the number and types of schemes to be taken up to the centralized payments system and the very recent real time MIS-based implementation system, top officials wanted to manage and monitor the programme in a top- bottom direction, even though the success of MGNREGA lies in decentralization and empowerment of locals and local bodies.
In today’s scenario, funds are controlled by the top administration, the implementation is controlled by different administrative levels and there is no decentralized monitoring, and only a mere MIS based monitoring system is in place, which holds no value, as due to excessive malpractices in the implementation, MIS hardly reflects any reality.
The flawed MIS-based implementation system might have ensured that computer literates get access to details but workers and actual beneficiaries of the programmes are left disempowered and dependent. MIS operators have become the most important actors in the entire process and the central point of the local nexus.
The MIS-based implementation and centralized payments systems have completely destroyed local accountabilities and at the same time de-politicized the issues. The local implementation continues to be in a shambles, and the local vested interest groups have become more powerful with an MIS-based implementation.
The administrative monitoring as usual is negligible and the locals are left with the least say in planning, implementation and monitoring of the programme that was suppose to be controlled and monitored by them. The technology interface has failed to deal with local issues, which are far too complex and controlled by societal and administrative dynamics, to be resolved by the click of a mouse; the only solution to the issues of implementation is close monitoring by citizens, decentralized actions by  gram panchayats and a robust review system in the administration.
When the highest chairs want to micro-manage but not monitor and the subsequent levels engage in corruption and exercise ultimate power over the citizens, a programme like MGNREGA is destined to be a failure.

What could have been done

The solutions are embedded in the Act itself but the governments never really cared to honour the idea of decentralization to intensify the MGNREGA outcomes. Below are few of the solutions to the core issues:

  1. The government must honour local needs and priorities rather than imposing schemes of their choices through a top-down target based mechanism.T
  2. he government should stop utilizing MGNREGA as a supplementary programme to the already existing asset building schemes. The idea of MGNREGA was to ensure additional 100 days of employment for the rural families so that the creation of jobs increases.M
  3. GNREGA wages should be calculated in accordance with the state’s minimum wages and should never be less than the minimum wages. This will in turn increase the local wages for other rural works.
  4. The implementation of MGNREGA should be completely left to gram panchayats and gram panchayats should be made equipped and empowered to carry out all MGNREGA related transactions including the MIS work at it’s secretariat. 
  5. Gram panchayats should be empowered to have administrative sanctioning authorities up to at least Rs 5 lakh so that schemes of local priorities can be taken up and the accountability structure between gram sabhas and the gram panchayats can be established. 
  6. The implementation of MGNREGA should be de-linked from MIS; however, the website should continue to show the work that is done on the ground. A post-implementation offline entry system should be put in place; more importantly gram panchayats should be having all details and papers regarding the schemes, it should maintain the related registers and then the records can be uploaded on MIS so that the true reflection of work can is shown on MIS and one can also verify them with the locally kept records and registers. It is important that such an MIS arrangement comes with a complete decentralization of planning, sanctioning, implementation and payments. 
  7. The electronic payments system can continue but it should be done in a decentralized manner wherein the gram panchayats receive funds into their accounts so that local issues have a local solution, and accountability mechanisms remain intact. 
  8. MGNREGA has been stagnant since its inception with absolutely no value addition; to add more value to the programme, more power and entitlements should be provided to the people. The person workdays should be increased to at least 200 days. 
  9. Mandatory imposition of aadhaar should be revoked. MGNREGA being a rural job scheme, technically section 7 of the aadhaar Act does not seem to apply on MGNREGA, wherein workers get paid against their work and do not receive a subsidy or benefit. Aadhaar impositions have only created hassles and added nothing to the payments system, nor could they control any corruption. 
  10. The government must establish social audit unit in each state as an independent autonomous organization and carry out annual social audit processes at each and every block.

It will be a wise move to strengthen MGNREGA and run it with the true spirit of employment guarantee to ensure employment and prosperity in villages, and this will also result in solid rural assets and infrastructures which will further strengthen the livelihoods of the locals.
A 200-days employment with a wage rate of Rs 600 would ensure Rs 1,20,000 annual income per household, enhancing livelihood options, even as creating solid rural assets for private and community use. The soil and water conservation measures also can be ensured through MGNREGA.
Rahul Gandhi’s promise of Rs 72,000 as a cash transfer programme may sound exciting but will face similar difficulties which other targeted cash transfer programmes do. Rather, investing on MGNREGA would ensure a comprehensive development of the area.
There are currently about 13 crore job card holding rural households, yet many are left out as they haven’t yet registered. It will be meaningful if the government re-thinks and rejuvenates the programme, which has great potential to transform rural livelihoods, conserve natural resources, establish local governance and strengthen grassroots democracy through pro-poor policies.

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