Dreze and Roy upset at tinkering in NREGS

Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy boycott NREGS' function to protest changes made in the scheme

GN Bureau | February 3, 2010



Two key architects of the NREGS, Jean Dreze and Aruna Roy, boycotted the fourth anniversary celebration of the scheme held here on Tuesday to protest against its apparent dilution.

In a letter to the Rural Development Minister C P Joshi, they said his move to allow construction of panchayat buildings under the name of Rajiv Gandhi was a "dangerous step" as it would allow "a new entry point for corrupt contractors", apart from displacing the labour-intensive NREGS works to a material-intensive one.

Dreze and Roy also took exception to the fact the government is yet to activate the Central Employment Guarantee Council, of which they are both members. They said this was not only violation of the law but also deprived NREGS the necessary accountability safeguard.

Their letter is also critical of the arbitrary manner in which the minimum wages are fixed and sought that it be linked to the price index.

We reproduce the text of the letter here, along with another one both had written to Joshi earlier pointing out their 10 concerns:


(2 February 2010)                                                                                            
Dr. C.P. Joshi
Minister of Rural Development
Government of India

Dear Dr. Joshi,

Much as we appreciate your invitation to the “NREGA Sammelan” being held today, we are unable to attend it. It so happens that both of us have other commitments. But in any case, we see little point in attending ceremonial functions as members of the Central Employment Guarantee Council even as the Council’s substantive work is at a virtual standstill.

We have already shared with you our concerns about the Council’s inertia, in an earlier letter dated 18 August 2009 (copy enclosed). In that letter, we had raised ten essential concerns, starting with the need for the Council to function in accordance with the law. We are sorry to note that, in spite of your assurances of a prompt response to these concerns, none of them have been addressed so far. It is difficult to avoid the impression that the Council is being deliberately kept in this dysfunctional state.

As you know, NREGA is a law and not a scheme. This places legally binding obligations on the government, including facilitation of the Council’s work. Failure to activate the Council is a violation of the law. It also deprives NREGA of an essential accountability safeguard.

It is partly due to this accountability gap that ill-considered policy decisions on NREGA have often been taken in the recent past. To illustrate, NREGA wages were “frozen” state-wise in December 2008, against the advice of the Council. Later, they were raised to Rs 100/day, but price increases are rapidly eroding the real value of workers’ wages. NREGA wages must be urgently indexed to the price level, as promised in the Congress Party manifesto.

Another example is the recent amendment of Schedule I of NREGA, whereby “construction of Bharat Nirman Rajiv Gandhi Sewa Kendra” has been added to the list of permissible works. This is a dangerous step towards displacement of labour-intensive NREGA works by material-intensive works. This top-down construction programme is also likely to be a new entry point for exploitative and corrupt contractors. This is not to say that we oppose the provision of adequate infrastructural facilities to Gram Panchayats – quite the contrary. But we feel that wherever construction of such buildings is required, it is best undertaken under other schemes (such as the Backward Regions Grant Fund), with the labour component only being dovetailed with NREGA. As with the freezing of wages, this amendment was made in a non-transparent manner, without adequate consultation.

We remain hopeful that the Council can fulfill its responsibilities under the law, and that more effective steering of NREGA can be achieved. This, however, requires urgent initiatives on your part – we are at a loss to do more than we have already done to convey our concerns.

With regards,

 
Jean Drèze                Aruna Roy
(members, Central Employment Guarantee Council)
 
(18 August 2009)

Shri C.P. Joshi
Hon’ble Minister of Rural Development
Government of India


Dear Mr. Joshi,

                                                      Central Employment Guarantee Council

We welcome the fact that the Central Employment Guarantee Council is being reconstituted, after a gap of nearly one year. This is a great opportunity to reactivate the Council and enable it to discharge its responsibilities under the law. As you know, the mandate and powers of the Council under NREGA are very wide. Unfortunately, this mandate remains, by and large, unfulfilled (for instance, the Council has not – as far as we know - submitted annual reports to Parliament, as is its duty under the law). There is, thus, an urgent need for major improvements in the functioning of the Council. We have some observations, suggestions and requests in this regard:

1.    Need to follow the law: The functioning of the Council should, first and foremost, respect the law. It is illegal for the Council to be held in abeyance for a whole year, or for meetings to be held without any non-official members, or for meetings to be called without the mandatory notice of 15 days, or for the Council to be deprived of a functional Executive Committee – as has happened during the last few months. It is imperative to ensure that the Council functions, from now on, within the framework of the law.

2.    Need for an active Council: At the very first meeting of the Council, almost four years ago, it was unanimously felt that it was important for the Council to play an active role in monitoring NREGA. Unfortunately, this has not happened. While there have been useful activities, such as Council visits to selected states, the overall level of activity of the Council has been very low. Here again, a radical departure from the past is required.

3.    Transparency: The functioning and deliberations of the Council should be a model of transparency. At the very least, a special section on the Council should be added on the NREGA website (www.nrega.nic.in), and all the relevant material should be posted there including Rules of the Council, list of members (with contact details), minutes of all the Council meetings, background documents circulated at these meetings, accounts, etc.

4.    Accountability: We feel that Council members should also set high standards of accountability, e.g. by preparing annual reports of their individual activities as Council members and placing them in the public domain.

5.    Communication: It is essential to put in place an efficient system of communication between Council members, as well as between Council members and the Ministry, so that the Council members’ work is not confined to occasional meetings.

6.    Regular meetings: So far, only 8 meetings of the Council have been held, over nearly four years. This is not adequate – we would suggest more frequent as well as longer meetings, include whole-day meetings whenever required (the issues presented to the Council are often complex and call for detailed discussion).

7.    Executive Committee and Technical Secretariat: The Council needs an active Executive Committee and a full-fledged Technical Secretariat, with staff dedicated to facilitating the Council’s work rather than the general NREGA work.

8.    Council visits: The visits of Council teams as well as individual Council members to specific states (so far there have been visits to Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Orissa and Chhattisgarh) have been very useful and should be resumed on a regular basis, with a clear protocol including time-bound reports and follow-up action.

9.    Representation of workers:  It is very important for workers’ organizations, including organizations of NREGA workers, to be represented in the Council.

10.    Independent evaluations of NREGA: The Council should initiate independent evaluations of NREGA. This is one of its main responsibilities under the Act. Independent evaluations are urgently required – no programme of this scale and complexity can succeed without authentic feedback. We are aware that there have already been some initiatives in this regard, but more are needed.

Many of these suggestions have been made earlier, and have even been agreed in principle. However, they are yet to be implemented. We urge you to ensure that this happens as soon as possible. This is all the more important in the light of the impending drought situation in the country, which NREGA is uniquely placed to address.

We would be grateful if these observations and suggestions could be discussed at the Council meeting today, and placed on record as part of the minutes of this meeting. Thank you.

Yours sincerely,

Jean Drèze            Aruna Roy
 

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