We have for long said that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) has the potential to turn into one large political and bureaucratic machine. With the changes now being considered in the programme, that may be announced soon, the chances are it will become a vehicle for gigantic expenditures in the name of the poor with very little money actually going to the poor.
From being an employment guarantee programme NREGS is being mutated into a vast official set-up with its own permanent staff and “mini secretariats” at the village assembly level. In addition, the nature of work allowed under NREGS is being changed: From being a public programme where the rural landless poor work on the creation of public assets, the government now plans to permit work on private sites, such as farms of small and marginal farmers as NREGS work.
The original instigators of NREGS, Jean Dreze, Aruna Roy and others, have decried the move. They should have known better: In India “welfare” schemes often meet this fate. But their ignorance is another story.
The ministry of rural development has claimed that so far, Rs60,350 crore has been expended on NREGS. Of this amount, Rs41,000 crore has been spent as wages under the scheme. If a permanent bureaucracy is created, it is certain that spending under wages will come down drastically due to salaries being paid to officials. The plan, at the moment, is to recruit a permanent cadre of local officials called lok sewaks who will “safeguard” NREGS workers. It is anybody’s guess whether these officials will safeguard these workers or ensure that no one gets any work.
More pernicious, however, is the plan to classify work on private sites as NREGS work. There is no economic rationale for that. Work on private site involves private assets: Anyone who owns land or any other asset, however meagre, has no business being on NREGS rolls. Once this is allowed, vote bank politics will kick in like a torrent. Money will only flow to those whom officials, and in turn their political masters, favour. This will ensure that the real rural poor get no work under NREGS.
Corruption in publicly funded programmes in India is inevitable: The wonder is that a flagship employment scheme is being subverted so openly and on a breathtaking scale.
Is this the end of the road for NREGS? Tell us at email@example.com