Time to fix a big scheme

Time to fix a big scheme

If there is one government programme that is beyond scrutiny, it surely is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS). The scheme, which has attracted criticism on economic grounds by commentators and economists alike, has ample political backing. While the intent behind the scheme is beyond reproach, in practice, it’s yet to meet its promise.

This is partly due to problems during implementation. Chief among this is the level of corruption that has crept in the programme. The original charter of MGNREGS had a provision for social audits by the communities that participate in it. This provision has remained a dead letter. As argued by this newspaper before, the local communities are powerless against the implementing bureaucracy. Lack of education, awareness and political equations at the local level are responsible for this adverse situation.

It is heartening to note that the new rural development minister, Jairam Ramesh, plans to take proactive steps to change this state of affairs. Ramesh on Tuesday indicated social audits would be implemented in a meaningful manner. He also hinted at “tough decisions" if states do not usher transparency in MGNREGS. The key to transparency, he said, would be to carefully track the movement of funds. This would go a long way in making social audits successful.

Any successful monitoring of MGNREGS requires a close fit between three elements: the local community—including activists; the monitoring officialdom and a centralized tracking system. Until now, the three are far from being in sync and have shown serious weaknesses. MGNREGS activists have been targeted by powerful locals and there is little official oversight.

This is bound to be a difficult exercise. Sure, centralized tracking of money flows is certainly possible: information technology solutions make that possible. The problems lie at the grass-roots level. It is nearly impossible to keep a check on the programme in real time without incurring very high monitoring costs that can eat up the benefits. In the absence of such monitoring, the scheme is in danger of being subjected to wholesale loot, especially in states such as Uttar Pradesh. Avoiding both extremes is something that is yet to occur. And even if such a system is in place, one cannot rule out corruption as this will have an interface between officials—those who implement the programme and those who monitor it. The big challenge will be to sort this out. It will be interesting to observe how the minister does this.

Can MGNREGS be rendered corruption-free? Tell us at views@livemint.com