Use MGNREGS to create a digital society

Rural employment and livelihood schemes should start providing computer and information technology training to the rural youth

Ashis Sanyal | August 14, 2014




The Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGS) guarantees at least 100 days of wage employment in a financial year to every household whose adult members volunteer to do unskilled manual work. Being implemented in phases since February 2006, MGNREGS covered all districts by April 2008.

One of the largest public welfare schemes initiated by any national government, the MGNREGS develops the infrastructure base of a locality, rejuvenates natural resource base and creates a productive asset base in rural areas. All these help stimulate the local economy.

‘MGNREGA 2.0’, as it is mentioned in the MGNREGA Sameeksha 2012 document of the ministry of rural development, has a new set of guidelines to ensure a demand-based character of MGNREGS. These include effective planning, strict time schedule and reduction in delays in wage payments by using robust ICT-based solutions.

The guidelines suggest use of electronic fund management system (e-FMS), Aadhaar-inspired electronic muster rolls (MR), business correspondent model, electronic transfer of data files and strengthening of management information system (MIS) by capturing all transactions on real-time basis.

It also calls for equal opportunity for vulnerable groups, greater role for civil society organisations, better social audits and vigilance for transparency and accountability. The scheme also has an enhanced list of the works, providing for a greater connect with other efforts for sustainable rural livelihoods and economic development. It includes works related to watershed management in plain and mountainous terrain, various agriculture extensions, livestock and fisheries, rural drinking and sanitation and irrigation and flood management.

This enhanced list, however, is still limited to creating durable assets and outcomes only in the agriculture sector. What this means is that there is ample scope and potential for yearly allocation of MGNREGS funds to be utilised in a collaborative manner with other flagship schemes and institutions running similar rural livelihood generation programmes. In this context basic computer and IT training may be a good addition.

Creating digital (rural) society
Among the information and communications technology (ICT) projects specifically targeted at rural India, the Akhshay project in Kerala, which aims at imparting computer training to at least one member of the family, is quite successful. Basic computer training is the number one revenue generator for the common services centres (CSC) scheme of department of electronics and information technology (DeitY) across the country, with 1,22,000 ICT-enabled operational kiosks.

Contrary to popular belief, rural citizens are by and large ready to spend on computer training as a means to a better life. It is also important to appreciate that there is an opportunity to utilise a part of MGNREGS funds in computer and IT training, which would place the rural youth in more employable position than before. Livelihood training in various wings of agriculture sector is already included in the list and computer training will be a good addition.

However, to achieve this, there is a need to modify the list a little and shift it partially from the agriculture sector to IT sector, to include computer and IT training. Such training may include skills to generate localised digital content. This could include, for example, local language content on heritage, culture, tourism, handicraft and medicinal knowledge bank that would have commercial importance for a village. The prime point in this proposition is to gradually earmark a portion of the MGNREGS funds for certain semi-skilled and intellectual components of activities also, which would focus on generating income for the rural youth while paving the way to create a digital society in the vast hinterland within a reasonable period.

But how does one create the institutional mechanism to make it happen? The national skill development corporation (NSDC) can be very handy in this regard. The NSDC, which works on the public-private partnership (PPP) model with support from the government-owned national skill developed fund (NSDF), is mandated to support skill development advocacy and training programmes in 20 priority and unorganised sectors.

For rural areas, the NSDC supports khadi and village industries commission (KVIC) for conducting and facilitating training in numerous types of courses. It also supports the ministry of tribal affairs in providing professional coaching to scheduled tribe students for competitive examinations. Further, it facilitates assistance to families above the poverty line by ensuring an appreciable sustained level of income over a period of time under the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana (SGSY) scheme. Notably, the NSDC supports the DeitY to ensure availability of trained human resources for the manufacturing and services sectors of the electronics and IT industry.

There is, therefore, a strong case to expand the ambit of rural employment into computer and IT training. Keeping in line with its demand-based character, the centres of NSDC, DeitY-administered National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT, which was earlier known as DoEACC) centres and CSCs in panchayat villages can be empowered to receive applications for training from rural youth, which can be acted upon through a structured process.

In its latest version, the designers of MGNREGS have brought in some livelihood training components in the agricultural sector leading to income generating activities. For example, training on sericulture is included in the approved list of livelihood training because it is practised in around 26 states. This is a welcome step in the right direction. It is, in a similar way, proposed to include selective training in IT sector under the scheme.
Information society ought to take a vast number of rural population into its fold. It is very important that we take adequate steps now to accelerate this process and create durable assets in the human resources sector in readiness towards that objective. In advanced societies, information workers are rising to a majority within the labour forces. In the US, according to Marc Porat, as early as in 1967, half of the working class was engaged in the information sector. So far, our 800-million strong rural society has not really entered the digital age, except for mobile penetration.

For a digital savvy India, time has come to unleash the real power of ICT for this huge mass of human resources in rural areas. We have provided fish to rural Indians. It is now time that we provided them with the fishing rod.

Sanyal is former senior director of the department of electronics & IT (DeitY).

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