New Delhi: The United Progressive Alliance government is planning to expand the scope of its flagship social security programme and make its functioning more effective.

Fulfilling promises? Villagers from Dilwara district in Rajasthan build a water channel and a wall for water harvesting under NREGA. Madhu Kapparath/Mint

Twenty-seven new types of work are to be covered by the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), which promises 100 days of employment a year to rural households. The scheme was launched in 200 districts in 2006, was later extended to all districts in the country and touched 45 million households in 2008-09. Political analysts have said this scheme is one reason why the ruling alliance won a surprisingly convincing victory in the 2009 general election.

Nandan Nilekani, chief of the unique identification database (UID) project, is also likely on Thursday to announce that job cards issued to workers on NREGA projects and cards for below poverty line families will be made by the UID team. Nilekani confirmed a partnership between the two projects, but refused to divulge any details.

Conservation and preservation of ancient monuments, earth excavation at protected heritage sites, artificial drying yards, plots where fish is unloaded, toilet pit construction, providing mid-day meals and operating creches for children below three years are some of the new activities that will be funded by the government under NREGA.

The immediate priority is water management. “Keeping in mind the drought situation in the country, the emphasis will, however, be given to conservation of water bodies," a top official in the ministry of rural development said.

President Pratibha Patil, in her address to the joint session of Parliament after the 15th Lok Sabha met for the first time on 4 June, said the government would “enlarge the scope of works permitted under the NREGA, presently limited to unskilled manual work". She said the opportunity to improve land productivity through NREGA would be maximized by better convergence with other projects.

Some experts doubt the wisdom of expanding the rural jobs programme.

“The very purpose of NREGA was to create rural assets, of which water and soil conversation projects, especially minor irrigation, was a major component. With 60% of population still dependent on monsoon, there is enough scope within NREGA to further minor irrigation projects," said S.L. Rao, a former director general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research. He added that too many objectives may dilute the programme.

Rao pointed out that mid-day meals and anganwadis (shelters where hot, cooked meals are served to children) are already funded through other government schemes. “Is the government trying to save money by clubbing these projects?" he asked.

The rural development ministry also wants to make NREGA more effective. An internal note circulated by the the ministry, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint, suggests it is keen to better monitor NREGA projects. Among the options being considered is appointing a district ombudsman, issuing detailed instructions to states on social audits, engaging professional institutes to appraise NREGA projects and an independent survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation. Also, the permissible limit for administrative expenses has been increased from 4% to 6% of the total NREGA outlay.

The programme has been criticized by experts and the Comptroller and Auditor General of India for not fully living up to its promise.

An internal report by the rural development ministry says the average employment per household has been only 34 days a year so far.

Meanwhile, there is also a proposal to include social services such as health and welfare activities and open up NREGA works on up to 10ha of rainfed areas. Currently, agricultural land holdings of small and marginal farmers up to 2ha have been included in NREGA.

But the ministry has said in its note that the core original goals of the programme shall not be disturbed. Specifically, labour intensive projects that can employ the unskilled rural poor will be preferred to projects with high material and capital costs, unless money for the latter is provided from existing schemes of other departments and ministries.

Keeping the drought in mind, some states have asked for an extension of the number of workdays under NREGA.

Liz Mathew contributed to this story.