New Delhi: Almost three months into his first stint with the federal government as minister for rural development and panchayati raj, Congress leader C.P. Joshi has ambitious plans to expand the scope and reach of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, or NREGA, the flagship programme of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Balancing act: Congress leader and minister for rural development and panchayati raj C.P. Joshi at his office. Rajkumar / Mint

Ahead of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary on 20 August, when the government is expected to announce a bigger and better NREGA, Joshi spoke to Mint about his plans, the need to bring in greater transparency and accountability into the employee guarantee scheme, and the controversial land acquisition Bill. Edited excerpts:

What plans do you have for NREGA? Are you planning any major restructuring? There are reports that you plan to make certain announcements on 20 August (former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s birthday).

These are just media reports about phase I or phase II. I am not concerned about that. Basically, in the President’s address it was categorically mentioned that one, we will expand the scope of activities under NREGA; two, there would be convergence; and three, we would have transparency. So we have to address these three issues.

We need a system where there is accountability and transparency. We are holding discussions with different stakeholders.

So, transparency is a key focus area?

It is one of the most important things. People should know where the money is spent. The poor person who is working under this Act should get his wages. Instead, people are extracting money from the poor. We want to deliberate all this on 20 August, after holding discussions with the stakeholders.

On the last day of Parliament (7 August, the last day of the budget session of Parliament), I said that I would invite all political leaders to discuss this.

Do you think the positioning of NREGA is going wrong? Has it lost sight of its purpose as a safety net and become more of an employment generating scheme?

This is just the perception of those who don’t live in villages and don’t understand people’s problems. The Act categorically states that it guarantees 100 days of work to the poor who cannot do skilled or semi-skilled labour, but only manual work. But people now say why not create (assets) for development. Development is a different aspect and catering to this need is a different aspect.

So basically, this Act targets the poor, vulnerable sections, who do not have any skills. We have to gradually shift to semi-skilled and then to skilled. We are thinking of how to move from this stage to that.

Another criticism of NREGA is that the need and scope for asset creation under it is limited. How do you propose to overcome that?

Asset creation is one part. We have already allowed SCs (people from scheduled castes) and STs (scheduled tribes) to work on their own farms, now we are enlarging this scope for small and marginal farmers.

Gradually, we are trying to address this area—where we can provide manual labour and simultaneously enhance agricultural productivity.

Do you plan to include large farmers also?

I am just saying these are the areas (where we plan to do something).

Will you expand NREGA to cover services too?

All these things will be there. We are addressing all this gradually.

Is having a wage rate of Rs100, which is above the minimum wages of most states, causing a diversion of labour to NREGA? Recently, farmers in Punjab complained that they couldn’t find any labour for their fields since they could not pay as much.

If you look at people who are working in NREGA and the number of agricultural labourers residing in the states, you will see it is only a small section of people working under NREGA. Unfortunately, the big farmers were underpaying these people and which is why they are complaining. If you want more labour, pay them more money and they will come to you.

Do unfriendly state governments create problems for you in the implementation of NREGA, say, in states such as Uttar Pradesh?

The spirit of the Act is not practised at the lower levels. Unfortunately, the provisions are not followed in the right spirit. Once the Act is there, you have to faithfully follow its provisions. You can’t distort it.

What is happening with the land acquisition Bill? It seems to have become a bone of contention between the Congress and some of its allies.

I will not react on this since the matter is with the cabinet. But we have a coalition government and we have to take care of the feelings of our allies also... Last time also this Bill was passed in the Lower House but could not be passed in the Rajya Sabha.

Is it possible for you to address the four demands your ally Mamata Banerjee (the Trinamool Congress chief) is making? [a) The government should not have a role in acquiring land for private purpose, b) there should be no forced acquisition, c) agricultural land should not be acquired, d) farmers can buy back land if it isn’t used within a stipulated time.]

One has to be very clear. Are we interested in catering to the needs of the farmer? Then we have to see how much space we can give to resettlement and rehabilitation.

At this moment, when there is no amendment moved by the UPA government, facts say there is 100% acquisition. One has to address this. If the same thing continues, whose interest will be protected? I do agree that as a political party you can have your own version... We will take care of the feelings of our coalition partner.

Are you hoping to reach a consensus on it before the assembly elections in West Bengal in 2011?

This is an issue to be addressed at the highest level.

Hasn’t Sonia Gandhi (Congress president) herself been saying that agricultural land should not be acquired?

That is the point. Nobody has gone through the Act. We have categorically said that we would go for non-agricultural land. There has to be a pragmatic approach. However, political parties have their own compulsions but being a coalition government, we have to take their feelings into consideration.

Personally, what do you think about Banerjee’s suggestion that there should be a provision in which farmers can buy back land if the particular industry/private player does not use it within the stipulated time?

That provision is already there.

Then what is Mamata Banerjee’s core issue with the Bill?

She is saying don’t acquire any government land. How will industry come up then?

So the Congress position is that the state should play a role?

It is not about the Congress... This is across party lines, the standing committee has also recommended this. It has been passed in Parliament.

Keeping the drought in mind, are you planning to expand the number of employment days under NREGA?

Rains are still due in August. But if there is a problem, the issue will be addressed at the highest level.

There is a concern in the government that social sector spending might get affected because of the burden imposed by the drought. Is it likely to affect funds for NREGA as well?

We have a provision of CRF (Calamity Relief Fund), where the Union government gives 75% of the funds and state government gives 25%.

Drought is not a new situation. That money they (states) already have. NREGA is in addition to CRF. In addition, we have NCCF (National Calamity Contingency Fund). States should first exhaust the money available with them under CRF and NCCF and then if they require more, naturally we will come to their rescue.