One criticism against the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is that the scale of the programme defies its effective monitoring. In a country as diverse and large as India, monitoring huge social sector schemes often leads to the creation of an additional layer of bureaucracy. That may be about to change for MGNREGS, with important caveats, however.
As reported in Mint on Friday, the Union rural development ministry has come out with rules for audits to make the scheme effective. It has invited comments on these proposed rules. The rules propose a two-fold audit scheme: a social audit once in six months and an auditing of accounts once a year. Originally, MGNREGS envisaged social audits by local communities. These never took off. The task now is to institutionalize this process and make it effective.
While desirable, there are formidable problems ahead. For one, social audits to be meaningful require the active participation of local communities. There is a great deal of grass roots support for this. The problem is that these communities are woefully ill trained to carry out this task. Imagine a group of illiterate citizens trying to bring some accountability to a complex scheme. The experience of MGNREGS at the local level shows that the bureaucracy is quite hostile to those seeking work. It is hard to believe that the same set of work-seeking persons can bring some order to the local developmental officials. Leaving this task to the bureaucracy, local or specially created for MGNREGS, is bound to subvert the process.
Resultantly, this is not a problem of getting an appropriate “mix” of the two—social and bureaucratic audits. Instead, the problem is much more difficult: how to train citizens to carry out a difficult task? This requires a great deal of effort, much more than the mere framing of rules in New Delhi. It is not clear, at the moment, how much effort has been devoted to that end.
MGNREGS is perhaps the most ambitious and certainly one of the most expensive social sector programmes in the country’s history. So far, its results have been mixed and its drawbacks very visible. If it is to attain even a modicum of efficiency, it is imperative that local level audits be carried out thoroughly to stop corruption that is eating into its vitals.
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