Bhilwara, Rajasthan: In the village of Meghras, in a field baking fiercely under the afternoon sun, a group of men stands looking at a narrow canal that is still under construction. The canal, which runs from a pond to the fields, measures 2.5ft across and 3ft deep. “In 1994, if you dug a canal of slightly more depth, it would have already filled with groundwater,” says Sumer Chand Mathur glumly. “Now, Bhilwara is a dark zone—its water table is dangerously low.”
In Bhilwara, every conversation can turn easily to the subject of water, or its lack thereof, and Mathur in particular, being the executive engineer for land resources in Bhilwara’s local government, talks about water a lot. He compares individual drops to gold, cites changes in rainfall patterns, and draws quick little sketches on how to manage watersheds. “In the last decade or so,” he says, “the water situation has just deteriorated hugely.”
It is not surprising, then, that in 2008-09, Bhilwara’s first year of experience with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 6,510 out of the 9,586 public works commissioned deal with some form of water management: conservation and harvesting, renovation of water bodies, or irrigation. In all, according to the Bhilwara collector’s office, the NREGA expenditure in that first year approached Rs300 crore, one of the highest in north India.
But even as NREGA, the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) flagship rural development programme, has been applauded for its relative deficit of corruption and its efficient transfer of payments to poor families, doubts have begun to emerge about the quality of the assets being created.
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“There are major question marks about whether these assets are long term, or if they will die out,” says Laveesh Bhandari, an economist at research firm Indicus Analytics. “On the documents, one sees ponds and tanks and so on, and that is fine, but these need to be maintained systematically, for instance. I haven’t seen any studies that have looked at this aspect at all.”
At the heart of this debate is, in a sense, the character of NREGA itself: whether it is intended purely to be an employment generator, or whether it is simultaneously intended to manufacture assets of practical and lasting value. Appropriately, as a valuable lesson in the latter ambition, Rajasthani history offers up a far older version of NREGA. In the early 1920s, a king of Jodhpur started a well-researched construction project to create jobs and income for his subjects during a particularly severe famine; the result was the magnificent Umaid Bhawan Palace.
Thus far, NREGA has provided employment to approximately 45 million rural households, each person working for a minimum of 100 days for guaranteed wages. Many analysts cited the popularity of NREGA as a significant factor in the UPA’s win in the Lok Sabha elections, but Bhandari is not so sure. “If it contributed, it was marginal… All that it managed, I think, is that the UPA’s rural vote share did not go down,” he says. “But it was an important part of the overall package of social safety, and that did strike a chord with the voters.”
On the ground in Bhilwara, opinion is divided. One official in the collectorate, requesting anonymity because he wasn’t allowed to comment on the issue, said that there was “no doubt that the farm loan waiver and the NREGA won the UPA the election. After all, through the NREGA, these people are getting Rs7,000 or Rs8,000 liquid cash in hand. That’s a big thing for them.”
Mathur thinks that the UPA’s victory went beyond just this one scheme. “Even then, in Rajasthan,” he says, “wasn’t it the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government that implemented the scheme well on the ground?” When it is pointed out that, after a year of huge NREGA expenditure in Bhilwara, the constituency broke its decade-long habit of voting BJP and sent the Congress’ C.P. Joshi to Parliament instead, Mathur offers the reminder that Joshi lost (by precisely one vote) in last December’s assembly elections in Rajasthan.
Deteriorating situation:Villagers of Meghras in Bhilwara district of Rajasthan build a channel for water harvesting as part of an NREGA project. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Aptly, in the new Union cabinet, Joshi has taken charge of the rural development ministry, which oversees NREGA, making his constituency Bhilwara a likely test case for the Act’s efficacy. Joshi’s constituents in Meghras, however, seem satisfied with NREGA, although as Ismail Khan, a labourer on the canal, puts it: “This village has always voted Congress anyway.”
In Bhilwara, NREGA is called “narega”, as evinced in the rhyming slogan scrawled on a Meghras wall: “Narega sabka pet bharega,” or “NREGA will fill everyone’s stomach.” Before that slogan arrived in Meghras, Khan would harvest his kharif crop in March and then set off for Maharashtra for the summer, where he would help dig wells for money. “They’d pay well, even Rs3,000 a month or so,” he says. “But doing this means I can stay with my family.”
At another site a few kilometres away, a farmer named Uday Lal is working with a group of others, building a small, low anicut (or dam) to trap water flowing down gently sloping land. “Around 60% of the water will be trapped, and 40% will flow further down,” Lal says. “There’ll be pipes taking the water to fields and to recharge the wells.”
It is here that Mathur draws his sketch of the area’s drainage basin, small rivulets leading to bigger ones that then lead to a main channel, like the veins on a peepal leaf. “In the future, there will be a topographic survey to figure out a watershed management system, and these built structures have to be integrated into that system,” he says. He admits that the process should have happened the other way round. “But now that building has started, it has to happen this way, and we have to improve it from here.”
Apart from the fact that these water management projects have tended to be hyper-local rather than part of a larger plan, Mathur and his fellow engineers also agree that quality control is a problem, not just in Bhilwara but in NREGA projects across the country. “It’s a question of manpower, because we don’t have enough trained people to supervise these large groups of labourers,” says R. K. Sharma, a junior engineer attached to the Bhaneda block panchayat. Mathur adds: “Most projects are of good quality, but the occasional ones are not.”
The question of quality has attracted the attention of the Institute of Development Studies, Jaipur (IDSJ), and one of its associate professors, Purnendu Kavoori, will soon participate in an 11-month study to assess water harvesting structures built under NREGA in eight or nine panchayats in different parts of Rajasthan.
“You do have people with initiatives who think systematically, and some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) advising, but in some cases, there’s no thinking through—whatever is most bureaucratically feasible is getting done,” Kavoori says. “So some tanks are dug too deep, for instance—the whole idea seems to be mechanical. Partly it’s a lack of technical supervision, but also a lack of imagination and genuine concern.”
In its research, IDSJ works with the Foundation for Ecological Security (FES), the only NGO involved in implementing NREGA projects in Rajasthan. This year, FES is working with Rs80 lakh of NREGA money in 225 villages in the district of Bhilwara, on projects that are ecologically sensible. Although Mathur believes otherwise, Sanjay Joshi, FES’ regional team leader in Bhilwara, says: “To be frank, the government-planned projects don’t really have much of an ecological perspective.”
Joshi and his team have, over the last couple of years, seen numerous NREGA structures that are merely “okay”, as Joshi puts it. One of his deputies, S.S. Singh, describes complex soil-water-nutrient dynamics that the NREGA planners are overlooking. Another member of the FES team, Shantanu Sinha Ray, has seen cases where one structure defeats the purpose of another just some distance away. “I think,” Ray says, “that the pressure to provide gainful employment is just too great.”
Independently, Joshi, Kavoori and Indicus’ Bhandari all stress the need to build institutions at village level that could maintain their assets created under NREGA. “A person who is an optimist might say that at least this animal called NREGA has started functioning, and that over the next few years, the institutions will also start functioning to support this,” Bhandari says. “But these kind of top-down programmes tend to weaken the rural communities, not strengthen them.”
Simultaneously, however, Bhandari and others do not dispute the utility of the programme, and the rural development ministry’s recent proposal to expand NREGA beyond the limitations of unskilled manual labour into the realm of social and economic infrastructure may require a new found focus on quality.
“You do want interventions that are financially sound as well as socially beneficial,” Kavoori says. “But somehow, that has not yet entered the NREGA vocabulary.”
This is the third in a five-part series leading up to the budget.
Mint uses the metaphor of the PIN code, as it did in the coverage of the general election, to bring vignettes of the 2009budget to readers.