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Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint
Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Using MGNREGA funds to enable a digital future

It is time the government delves deeper into how it can better utilize its workforce budget

The Human Capital Index (HCI) is a measurement tool created by the World Economic Forum (WEF) to find out where each country stands on nurturing talent and capacity for economic growth. According to the latest 2016 HCI numbers, India was ranked 105th out of a list of 130 countries. Sri Lanka (50th), China (71st), Bhutan (91st) and Bangladesh (104th) were ranked higher than India. India, however, beat some of its neighbours; Nepal (108th) and Pakistan (118th).

“The index takes a life-course approach to human capital, evaluating the levels of education, skills and employment available to people in five distinct age groups, starting from under 15 years to over 65 years. The aim is to assess the outcome of past and present investments in human capital and offer insight into what a country’s talent base looks like today and how it is likely to evolve into the future," according to the WEF.

Is India really investing for a better future? Or is it simply investing for a sustainable present? Looking at this list of HCI and the positioning of India, I was wondering how every penny that the government spends in the country—through wages and employment—can make a value-adding, long-lasting and holistic impact.

We have more than 1.4 million government schools in India that are functional and responsible for engaging children in learning and nurturing them to become part of the future workforce and contribute to India’s growth. According to official figures, every teacher of a government school in India is responsible for the education of about 26 students. Despite this, about 40% of the children drop out of school before completing elementary education. This is perhaps an indication of the quality of teachers and their dedication towards their responsibility.

Similarly, we have about 860,000 front-line health workers and 1.8 million anganwadi workers, deputed at village and hamlet level, who are paid to essentially ensure that women in rural India give birth in hospitals, new mothers follow a nutritious diet in the prenatal and post-natal stages; that newborn children receive timely immunization and vaccinations; and children are given a clean and healthy environment to grow in.

However, if we look at India’s maternal mortality rate (174 per 100,000 live births) and infant mortality rate (48 per 1,000 live births), we cannot help but question the values and skills that are imparted to our front-line health workers to overcome the challenges in the society and make a valuable impact in the country.

Let’s take the example of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). There is undoubtedly a great value that MGNREGA has been able to add in the country in terms of providing jobs to those who do not have one but desperately need one. MGNREGA has also been able to curb forced or stressed migration to a considerable extent. However, I am not sure if this money—that essentially gives employment to millions of people in the hinterlands of our country—creates or builds “assets".

Considering most jobs under MGNREGA involve labour-intensive work, the government should think of possible values and assets the labourers can create. Could some days, say 15-50 days, of the total 100 days of work be utilized to skill these workers and build their expertise, which can then be used for the remaining days to create valuable assets?

A more contemporary example would be finding solutions through MGNREGA for the widespread drought situation across India. Can the labour workforce be used to clean, rejuvenate, revive and refill dying and drying ponds, lakes, wells and step-wells using ancient wisdom-based techniques? Reviving the wells and introducing rainwater harvesting techniques in villages could provide answers to a lot of problems in India.

The daily wage workers can also be trained in using computers so that they can be hired to provide services like photocopying, printing and scanning, among others. Fifteen to 30 days are essentially enough to transform an illiterate person into a digitally literate person for any work related to digitization. Considering all the government offices are always in need for digitization of some document or the other, offices at the village and block level can engage local wage earners into a month of rigorous digital training, and then employ them for the remaining 70 days to carry out scanning and digitization tasks.

On a good day, a person can scan or digitize anywhere between 400 to 500 pages. If the government decides to outsource this work, the digitization will not cost less than 1 per page and hence around 500 per day. However, we have a large pool of MGNREGA workers who can do the same amount of work for 200 a day. This way, the government is not just getting the work done at half the cost, but is actually getting it done at no additional cost because these workers are being paid through the MGNREGA budget rather than a digitization budget. Additionally, in such a hypothetical situation, the government has also created a digitally literate Indian, thereby opening better job prospects for him or her at a later point.

It is time the government delves deeper into how it can better utilize its workforce budget and show accountability for the payments it is rolling out in an effort to create value from money and human resources. We have lived long enough in a state of inertia, using the government resources and budget for no return or value addition; it is time we wake up.

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar

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