Killing Two Birds with One Stone: Expand NREGA

Last month, we posted about the expansion of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to all districts in India starting on April 1. Even though the government chose to expand this program, the scheme has its share of pros and cons. A recent article in The Economist highlights the strengths of NREGA as its ability to allow participants to self-select themselves, the fact that the majority of participants are from lower castes, and the impact of the scheme in mitigating migration to urban areas.

On the flip side, there are a number of problems that exist with the NREGA, such as corruption, as Prerna previously highlighted. The Centre for Science and Environment put forth a more detailed policy paper on NREGA, as well as a series of suggestions for improving on the program. CSE suggests not only viewing the Act as a means for employment generation, but also thinking about how this can be linked with local development and creating assets for communities. This is an interesting approach, as it recognizes that while the rural population needs employment, there are also a whole host of other issues that the population itself can help in addressing. NREGA can be expanded not just in numbers, but also in terms of what the program can achieve for the rural population of India.

Another problem that CSE brings attention to is the fact that while 769,582 projects are under progress, only 158,277, or about 21%, are actually completed. Read on for CSE’s recommendations.

CSE’s recommendations include:

  1. Measure not just the wage provided but also the asset created and its effectiveness. This will make village development, through productive assets creation, the primary objective.
  2. Make wage payment people and development friendly, Provide a premium wage for development programmes, which will ensure that work done is completed and is useful.
  3. Continue to emphasise water conservation works under NREGA by providing additional incentives
  4. Make the completion and maintenance of works under NREGA mandatory.
  5. Give importance to afforestation under NREGA by linking it to other forestry programmes – Joint Forest Management or watersheds.
  6. Do more to strengthen village-level planning and decision making by revamping the current operational structures.
  7. Equip panchayats with the necessary personnel and funds for effective implementation of the programme.

CSE’s approach of viewing public works as a potentially productive asset, along with creating a more decentralized structure, could make the NREGA more successful – both for the beneficiaries, and for the actual completion of the projects. Is this approach realistic?

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