The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has been one of the showpieces of our policymaking in the last decade. In its early days, the act has gained widespread praise as a path-breaking piece of legislation that led to the biggest social security programmes of all time. The employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) however has had a relatively more complicated life-cycle, having to face repeated criticisms of corruption and inefficiencies in the implementation process. There is also the persistent criticism regarding the impact of NGNREGA on rural wages and its resultant impact on agriculture.
These concerns have strengthened calls for a robust monitoring and evaluation process. For a start, the Ministry of Rural Development and the implementing agencies at the state-level should work towards ensuring that the monitoring mechanisms within the scheme such as the use of ICT infrastructure for real-time Management Information System (MIS), transparency through Gram Sabhas and state MGNREGS websites, regular social audits, etc be implemented as designed in the operational guidelines for the scheme. The other key step is to institutionalise a system of monitoring and evaluation – internal (within the government) as well as external (by third parties) – in order to have a system of continuous performance management and process improvement in place.
In my last op-ed, I referred to the problem of lack of convergence in designing a coherent system of monitoring and evaluation for government programmes. One of the biggest challenges with our policymaking and mode of administering development projects is the tendency to jump from one grand announcement to another with little or no responsibility on any agency to see the policy implementation through. Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) for MGNREGS might fall into a similar trap if we are not careful.
While there could be multiple parallel external reviews and evaluations, one expects a synchronised approach to M&E within government. There are also agencies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) which was recently asked to conduct an audit of MGNREGS funds. While there may be overlaps, the CAG is at least an independent body, outside the Government of India. Let’s look at a few divergent channels at already exist within the government.
So we have the Delivery Monitoring Unit at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) whose task is to ‘’to ensure time-bound and effective delivery of identified programmes by Ministries assigned the responsibility’’. Sounds like a clear enough mandate and the PMO even outlines the formats for these DMU reports. When these reports do get released, the Rs. 99,000 crore Ministry of Rural Development and its report on MGNREGS will surely be one that many of us will be watching out for.
Then there is the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO), which is supposed to carry out evaluations - possibly of both process and impact - of the Government of India’s multi-thousand-crore flagship schemes. The IEO seems to be situated conceptually somewhere complementary to the architecture of the DMU, although the body will itself be physically located within the Planning Commission of India. Again, the report on MGNREGS, the Rs33,000 crore (central budget for 2012-13) behemoth is likely to be everyone’s focus. Again, given the lack of clarity and information in the public domain, it is difficult to imagine what one should expect from the IEO.
Now recent news from the reconstituted National Advisory Council (NAC) suggests that the body wants to take charge of monitoring the implementation of the MGNREGS, to ‘’gauge the effectiveness of the scheme and the need for institutional mechanisms for better implementation’’. Having spearheaded the formulation and enactment of the employment guarantee act, the NAC is concerned about the implementation challenges and the poor quality of assets created under the scheme. However, the NAC has been positioned so far as a think-tank advising the government and it remains to be seen what resources are placed at their disposal to organise consultations with state-level implementation agencies and interact with the workers.
There is little clarity on how (or whether) these three agencies will coordinate amongst themselves. What are the resources they will use on the ground? Lack of coordination on top could mean that the ground-level functionaries get trapped in multiple reporting requirements and evaluation exercises such as survey data collection.
Multiple monitoring channels could be a strategic choice. However, the present M&E arrangements suggest confusion, rather than coherence. This incoherence also limits the possibility of civil society participation in strengthening flagship schemes such as the MGNREGS. Unless different arms within the government converge and collaborate, the chances are that these evaluation efforts will be futile and we will miss the opportunity we have to stop the slide of the MGNREGS.
Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a consultant with over six years of experience in the implementation and evaluation of development projects. Suvojit has worked in India, Ghana and UK.